"I'm sorry, you'll have to speak up please. My wife and I were attacked last year; I can't hear properly now."
The simple lines are not referred to, they are not even a conversation-stopper, but they are like a punch to the guts for me. For I have heard similar before, and each time the shock is like a little bomb-blast of somone else's reality. The man speaking is a Zimbabwean we have just met, and the weight of his words hang heavy. There is no need to ask him about the attack, or even, actually, to feign horror. I know what he is talking about. The vicious and unprovoked attacks on large-scale farmers in Zimbabwe has been an item on the news for so long now that we have almost become inured to it. But you cannot be impassive when it's sitting next to you over a cup of coffee, when the speaker speaks of trying to rebuild a new life in Zambia, when so many decades and centuries of livelihood in another country have been wiped out in one blow. Or many blows, raining down, leading to hearing impairment and who knows what else. Which isn't to say that large-scale farmers are the only ones in pain - all sectors of Zimbabwean society are currently being made homeless and subjected to violence.
Shocking words, spoken in a matter-of-fact manner, can jolt the listener from the hum-drum. You are at once moved to question your own existence, what you take for granted, the things you never give a thought to, your easy dismissal of people you don't know because you never take the time to ask. I guess, though, this does depend on being a listener, rather than a hearer. Or non-hearer (no deafness implied).
I knew what the Zimbabwean man was talking about, but I wasn't always so quick. In a previous incarnation I was an EFL teacher. Some of my students were refugees of the war in Bosnia. In an elementary class I taught was a young man named Ali. Like many of his compatriots, his eyes were haunted. He couldn't sit still for very long; against all rules he would leave class every ten minutes to smoke a cigarette. One day I started a dictation exercise with the class. Ali became very agitated, and with what little English he had, stammered over and over again that he couldn't do it. I tried to jolly him along, telling him it was just a listening exercise, and to simply jot down any words at all that he heard, that it didn't matter if he couldn't write sentences. In due course I came to realise that Ali was in fact illiterate. It wasn't the English that was bothering him, but the paper and pen. It hadn't even occurred to me that somone might not know how to read and write. Ali was learning those skills from scratch in a foreign language. I thought I would learn from that lesson. I didn't. In a later class we did some frivolous exercise on using the phone – how English speakers speak on the telephone and so on. The exercise included questions on how often the students used the phone, how much it cost them, which countries they telephoned. Round the class we went, the students calling out their answers. Ali's seemed a bit odd. He was spending an inordinate amount of money and calling many different countries across Europe and I thought he had misunderstood the questions. I gently probed him about his answers.
"I calling everywhere Germany France Italy Switzerland UK. All friends family moved everywhere after war. No-one here. My girlfriend, she in hospital Italy." He proudly showed me a tattered passport photo of a young woman. Stupid dumbass teacher.
It didn't stop there though. In an advanced class was Ivo. Ivo was a phenomenally goodlooking man, a rock star back in Bosnia. The level of English in the advanced class was impeccable, some days I really didn't know why they were there. We mostly spent the time having philosophical debates. On a particular day I chose to discuss 'Euthanasia – Right or Wrong?'. I had used it before, and as euthanasia at that time was not legal anywhere it seemed a fairly abstract topic. We had barely even begun when Ivo spoke up. And subjected us all to a story about him fighting in the war and finding his best friend practically slashed in half by a bomb. Ivo wept as he told us that despite his friend's obvious agony he just couldn't 'put him out of his misery' and kill him, as it is always wrong to take someone else's life. We fell silent and I sent everyone out for a break. It's never really just a philosophical debate is it, if it's someone else's reality? And it's never ever just some old story on the evening news, because ordinary people's lives are always affected.