I want to know the human being, the beating heart

By Melody Emmett

The 2020 Collective Trauma Summit  explored methods for working with unresolved trauma in individuals, communities, societies, continents.(https://collectivetraumasummit.com/)

 “The effects of collective trauma are happening in our conversations, in our family systems, in our education systems, in our medical systems, in our justice systems, in our political systems…let alone the ecological crisis,” conference pioneer, Thomas Hübl said.   

Scientists, poets, musicians, psychiatrists, ecological and human rights activists, physicians, and mystics shared their views on the impact of individual and collective trauma on our world, and possible avenues for healing, empowerment, and transformation.

Multi-award-winning Norwegian/British documentary filmmaker and human rights activist, Deeyah Khan was one of the speakers at the conference.  Of Punjabi/Pashtun descent, Khan was born in Oslo, Norway.  Growing up, she experienced discrimination, rejection, harassment, and aggression by skinheads, neo-Nazis, and racists. 

Her father thought a career in music would offer her some protection so she devoted her childhood and early adulthood to becoming a musician.  She continued to experience opposition, including from her father’s own Muslim community in Norway, and then in London where she fled at 17.  After a painful period of introspection, she changed the course of her life.  “I felt so lost and broken. I realised that I was getting death threats for something I didn’t even love doing.  It was not even mine. It was decided for me.”

Although she had no background as a filmmaker , Khan was driven to make a film about what brokenness, falling between cultures, and being let down by society does to people. 

Her first film, Banaz A Love Story (2012) documents the life and death of Banaz Mahmod, a young British-Iraqi woman of Kurdish origin who was killed in 2006 in South London on the orders of her family in a so-called honour killing

While researching the film, Khan interviewed the policewoman responsible for the case, Caroline Goode.  Goode extradited the killers who had gone back go Iraq, something that had never happened before in British legal history, and left no stone unturned until everybody involved was behind bars.

“She gave me this very professional, stiff police interview and then I turned off the camera and said:  Look, why did you fight so hard for this girl? You could have taken your medal once you got the first guy or couple of guys, and you could have gone home, case closed. And she murmured, ‘Because I love her.’  It still gives me goosebumps. And I remember leaning in and saying: What do you mean you love her?  How can you love somebody you have never met? And she just looked up at me and she said: ‘Everybody should be loved, and this girl should have been loved. The people who should have loved her didn’t.  So I do, and I still do, and I always will’. At that moment I realised, this is the story I wanted to tell.”

The journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your feet

Khan chooses dark subjects but she is motivated by a determination to find the ‘crack that lets the light in’. If you return harshness, hate, and violence with harshness, hate, and violence, it just makes them stronger she says.

“Having spent most of my life being the other and being othered for different reasons, I know what that feels like.  I have done the shouting and screaming.  When I was 13 and 14 years old, I used to skip school and go to anti-fascist protests in the centre of Oslo. I would throw things at these guys; I would shout at them; I would flip them off. It felt satisfying to be self-righteous.  I have done all of that. But it doesn’t do anything… It doesn’t move us forward and my interest is to move ahead.” 

The only way to facilitate a space for something new to emerge, according to Khan, is for somebody to stand up in a posture of love, patience, and willingness, despite discomfort.  It takes courage she says.  “In my own life and work, I have found that you have to come from a place of love.”

Khan, who has filmed neo-Nazis in the US and Islamic Jihadists, holds deep, courageous conversations with her subjects.  In the process of dehumanising or othering another, no matter how abhorrent you find their politics, you lose your own humanity, she says. “And I am not willing to do that tradeoff anymore.”

I want to know the human being, the beating heart

“I don’t need to know what a Nazi thinks; I already know that. That’s the boring part. I want to know the human being, the beating heart behind it. And if I am unwilling to go to that part of him, then I am doing to him what he does to me.”

Khan’s subject for her film on white supremacists in the US was the leader of the largest and oldest neo-Nazi organisation.  She met him in a motel room in Detroit. He had agreed to meet her for one hour.  While waiting for him, ingrained fears raced through her mind: This is America, what if he has a gun? What if he brings people with him? What if they rob us? What if they beat us? 

The neo-Nazi arrived alone, as agreed, and unarmed. He had committed to an hour-long interview but five hours later, he and Khan were still talking.  She asked him why his attitude towards her changed and he said: “I have never had a conversation like this before. I have never had somebody actually listen.”

“We were both very clear that we hold different worldviews. He said, ‘I have and I will for the rest of my life work actively against the kind of world that you want to live in’. But when we actually started talking about our lives, I started to see something else in him.  I could see it in real-time in his face; it doesn’t compute. He was holding onto his ideology but connecting to some of my experiences and I was connecting to some of his.”

Khan filmed the Nazi leader and his group marching at a rally Charlottesville, where a young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed.

 A year ago, he called Khan to say he had resigned from the movement. Two others in the film also resigned.  “These are Nazis. These are the monsters under our beds. And I am not saying they are all like this, but to me, it shows that the capacity for connection exists. And if that capacity exists, surely we cannot afford to give up on it,” Khan said.

What is it that made me pick up a camera and him pick up a gun?

On her work with Jihads, Khan said, “I remember sitting with them and thinking, oh my goodness I agree with this and I agree with that. So what is it that made me pick up a camera and them pick up a gun? What’s the difference?  Our experiences have been pretty much the same. In fact, I have the additional handicap of being a woman.  So what is the difference? I am not strapping a bomb to myself, so what is the difference?”

The answer she kept returning to was, ” When I was at my most broken and most lost, and when I really needed people who cared about me, people who loved me, people who wished the best for me, they showed up. For him, when he was at his most lost and his most broken, a recruiter from a Jihadi group turned up, or a Nazi turned up outside his school where he was being bullied. So that to me says something about us, about our failure as a society and our failure as his community”. 

If we continue to misunderstand each other, the consequences are deadly

“Without fail, one of the common experiences that both these types of men have is that at their most broken in life; one guy from one of these groups came and took the time to talk to them, to listen to them.” One recruiter or one person online grooms them by taking time to listen to them, to acknowledge their vulnerability to shows that they care, Khan said. 

“The way they recruit these guys so systematically is so profound and so disturbing that they have figured out the method of how to reach somebody’s heart and how to build loyalty, how to build trust, how to build connection, and how to build it to the point where people are willing to die for you.”

“I remember with ISIS, when ISIS was being so effective with their recruitment.  They had recruiters online on Twitter and everywhere and they were spending hundreds of hours on one young person, talking about their problems, talking about what they are going through in life, being there for this person, building this intense connection and bond and trust and loyalty. And what do we do? Nothing.”

How do we deal with the heightened polarisation we see all over the world?

“The only way is to be part of the antidote,” Khan says.  “We have to do everything we can in our own contexts to contribute to making little cracks for light to come through, for connection to become possible… This is not fast food. It has taken us a long time to get to where we are today. We have to have the patience to contribute to people’s hearts opening because right now, all over the world hearts are closing.” 


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