My intention was to start the process of filming my next documentary and I was there in search of a story, but no one wanted to talk to me with my camera because they were too afraid, the threat that someone will get hold of the footage and find them or their loved ones still trapped inside Syria was just too risky for them. The intense fear, being forced to take a side, the desperation, I simply cannot describe to you the incredible grief and suffering so many innocent people are experiencing right now.
When I put my camera away, so many people wanted to tell me their story. They wanted someone to listen, someone to give them a sense of hope. All that violence told them that they were not wanted, that they were hated, that they were at fault, and that their lives did not matter, and they needed someone to tell them that this was not true.
I met scores of people with mutilated faces and bodies after being shot, giving birth to children with deformities because women and men were exposed to chemical weaponry, people without limbs, whose family members were brutally murdered, orphans, children with cancer, young boys who have fled because men are forced to fight or take a side either for or against the regime, and there were so many widows who are living without any form of protection and therefore vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
How horrible, for both women and men. I know so many men who are bookworms, men who just want to study or play music, and yet in Syria, they are forced to become killers because that is what makes them masculine, it is what men are supposed to do. People have nothing left, no home, no stability, and no sense of safety.
There was one girl, a beautiful Syrian woman who was at home when her house was bombed and where she and her brother both ended up with burns all over their bodies. When I went to visit them, they had nothing on their wounds, sleeping on the floor on a dirty mattress in a damp house with no ventilation. She was so deeply distressed, in absolute pain physically and emotionally, and she gently pulled against her hair and her hand was filled with it, because it was falling out from the stress.
She cried as said to me that she had nothing left, because in a patriarchal culture that tells women that their only destiny or goal in life is to be a wife and to be beautiful, a culture that does not permit her study or make a career for herself, she felt that her burns made her ugly and therefore never attract a husband, so in her eyes she had nothing left, no future, no way of moving forward. I cried with her and kissed her hand, letting her know that she was still beautiful to me.
I was overwhelmed with sadness and a sense of hopelessness just thinking about millions and millions of refugees around this border area, with millions more displaced internally, so many killed and their families could not even bury them, and I realised how wrong the world was.
A few weeks after I returned back to Australia, I visited a local hairdressing salon, and I stood at the door, completely shocked, when everyone in there all looked like Kim Kardashian. The same hair, the same style of clothing, the same face. As someone who had witnessed all this horror of war and patriarchy on one end of the spectrum, there I was right at the other end where women are changing their faces and bodies, injecting things into their lips to make it puffy, even their behaviour and responses and manners or the tone of their voice all trying to match the image of a celebrity, it is just as pathologically alarming.
Men are under the same pressure. Men are told to be ‘masculine’ and so they take steroids and act all aggressive and yet 800,000 people commit suicide every year and most of them are men. Isn’t that the same sort of pressure and violence that I witnessed in Syria, but just done differently?
Why is it that, by living in a secular society, concepts like virtues and vices are not talked about, that people tolerate the sheer insanity behind things like cosmetic surgery claiming that it somehow improves self-esteem without thinking about why people are having problems with their self-esteem in the first place? I am not religious, but I think vanity is morally wrong, that spending billions of dollars on makeup when hundreds of millions of people are starving is something to be frowned upon, and I am so confused as to why everyone around me seems so lukewarm and tolerant about it.
The allegory of the cave is a thought experiment by Plato who talks about a group of prisoners who are chained in a cave, and all they can see are the shadows of objects and animals on the cave wall caused by a fire sitting behind them. They all look at the shadows and start to give them names, have conversations with one another and begin to form beliefs about what they are.
One day, one of the prisoners is freed and he leaves the cave to experience actual reality, his curiosity takes him outside and there he sees the animals and plants surrounding the cave. He comes to realise that his former beliefs were not real, and so when he returned into the cave to tell the prisoners what he had seen, they did not believe him neither were they willing enough to change how they perceived reality. Actually, quite the reverse, they thought he was insane and plotted to kill him instead.
Children are now growing up with phones and are watching, learning, absorbing and no longer connecting or forming those human bonds, growing up to believe in a virtual reality where they are a commodity and where relationships are transactional, being taught to worship those shadows on the cave wall.
The Moral Traveller podcast is travelling out of that cave, breaking out from those rigid, closed ideas and traversing through the moral domain of reality. When I visit another country, another culture, I am given an opportunity to open my perspective, to see something new and different and that I can mirror to my own experiences. It is the same when you listen to the stories of people, to give people like those in Syria a voice to be heard, and for those women in the hairdressing salon to hear it.
When we listen to people’s stories, we gain insight into another person’s experiences and feelings and that opens the door to our conscience, to empathy, to learning about something within ourselves and in others. It is about love, about having those conversations, learning about human rights, about real people and real stories. It is about finding authenticity, and rather than working hard trying to get attention from a world that doesn’t listen, it is finding the courage to be the one who listens.