Exiles: This did not have to happen

Tim Farrand
Photo by Bernat Armangue

This did not have to happen.
No part of this had to happen.

Edward Said referred to the 20th century as "the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration."[1] Dwight Garner, in his article "Again and Again, Literature Provides an Outlet for the Upended Lives of Refugees" for the New York Times, states that this sentiment, unfortunately, did not end when we turned the corner into the 21st century.

At this moment, over 2 million refugees have fled Ukraine—nearly half of which are children—and are currently seeking safety from the crisis that is terrorizing their country. Millions more are becoming trapped in their cities as Russian forces box them in and, as has been seen in the last few days, are reckless in keeping a path clear for innocent civilians—of an innocent country—from being able to leave safely.

In his article, Dwight Garner highlights how literature reminds us "how often mass exodus has occurred in history. . .a reminder that history itself is, as Clive James perceived, 'the story of everything that needn’t have been like that.' " [2]

This did not have to happen.
No part of this had to happen.

Garner quotes the following line from Crime and Punishment: "Do you understand what it means when you have absolutely nowhere to turn?" He adds:

The unrelentingly grim news is a reminder of how much of literature is fueled by crises of migration and its aftermaths, and how writers have tried to capture the texture of upended lives. [3]

The humanitarian crisis happening both inside and now on the outskirts of Ukraine is only adding to the refugee crisis that has been occurring in Europe mainly caused by the already decade-old civil war happening in Syria which has now produced nearly 7 million refugees fleeing the country and another 7 million people displaced from their homes within the borders of their country.

The invasion into Ukraine has sent 2 million people exiled from their homes with tens of thousands of people currently suffering in cities where they are trapped amid increasing threats of being cut off from food, water, and power making the possibility for this humanitarian crisis to bloom into an unimaginable catastrophe. The graphic image below, of a family attempting to flee Russian shelling but getting caught within it, has captured the hearts of the world:

Photo by Lynsey Addario for the New York Times

At the time I am writing this, nearly 500 civilians have lost their lives (at least 40 of which are children) and photos like these allow the world to keep from getting desensitized by the growing numbers. 2 million refugees, tens of thousands of people trapped, yet a picture of four victims gives an emotional center to those statistics. Four victims in a place where a photographer happened to be standing nearby. Hundreds more not captured by the lens but no less horrific.

The image above brings to mind the photo from 2015 that took the world by storm of a three-year-old boy named Alan Kurdi, his body laying on the shore, face in the water, the tragic end of his family's attempt to get to safety when their overfilled raft capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. His mother and brother also perished, Syrian refugees, attempting to make it to Europe from Turkey.

Photo by Nilüfer Demir

This did not have to happen.
No part of this had to happen.

Watching the suffering that is happening during this crisis—seeing the pictures of refugees and those trapped, unable to leave and connecting those images with those of the recent past, considering the thousands of past exoduses that have occurred due to the unfathomable amount of unnecessary violence this earth has seen—brings to mind the lines:

If the unbearable were not weightless we
might yet buckle under the grief
of what hasn't changed yet.

The above, in addition to those words refrained throughout, is from a poem by Jane Hirshfield, titled "Day Beginning with Seeing the International Space Station and a Full Moon Over the Gulf of Mexico and All Its Invisible Fishes," which begins with the line: "None of this had to happen."

Jane Hirshfield, in a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y for her newest collection, Ledger: Poems, gives a beautiful description of the essence of this timely and poignant collection. She says that the Ledger "is attempting to take account of an absolutely unaccountable time," words that are perhaps more poignant at this turbulent, confusing, and heartbreaking moment than they were when she spoke them almost two years ago in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. After giving an introduction to the collection, Hirshfield reads the first poem, "Let them not say," a poem about how history will remember us and a call to wake up to our own time, opening a collection that urges us to come to terms with, as Hirshfield states, the "incomprehensible human blindness to the fact that we live with one another on a small fragile planet amid shared fates with all beings":

Before reading "Day Beginning with Seeing the International Space Station and a Full Moon Over the Gulf of Mexico and All Its Invisible Fishes" Hirshfield gives a brief description of its vast contents, a truly essential poem for us to consider at this moment:

None of this had to happen.
Not Florida. Not the ibis’s beak. Not water.
Not the horseshoe crab’s empty body and not the living starfish.
Evolution might have turned left at the corner and gone down another street entirely.
The asteroid might have missed.
The seams of limestone need not have been susceptible to sand and mangroves.
The radio might have found a different music.
The hips of one man and the hips of another might have stood beside
each other on a bus in Aleppo and recognized themselves as long-lost brothers.
The key could have broken off in the lock and the nail-can refused its lid.
I might have been the fish the brown pelican swallowed.
You might have been the way the moon kept not setting long after we thought it would,
long after the sun was catching inside the low wave curls coming in
at a certain angle. The light might not have been eaten again by its moving.
If the unbearable were not weightless we might yet buckle under the grief
of what hasn’t changed yet. Across the world a man pulls a woman from the water
from which the leapt-from overfilled boat has entirely vanished.
From the water pulls one child, another. Both are living and both will continue to live.
This did not have to happen. No part of this had to happen.

Jane Hirshfield, "Day Beginning with Seeing the International Space Station and a Full Moon Over the Gulf of Mexico and All Its Invisible Fishes"

The weight of our accumulated pain, whether it be personal darkness or the reality that years of fighting for change can be wiped away in a second or seem to stand still amidst all the effort, would crush us if we took that weightless energy and made it physical. If it were not weightless, we would have no hope but the reality is different. We are able to move despite having to heave around our pains, our grief, our suffering. It is not easy but at least it means we can make progress.

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gathering blossoms.

Kobayashi Issa

Many thought we were past this. Many thought we were developing away from our past, away from tyranny, away from creating needless suffering of fellow human beings. Now, thousands are dead, thousands more are injured, millions are displaced, millions of parents separated from their children, economies crashing, defense budgets rising, progress regressing, all because of one decision made by one tyrant.

Jane Hirshfield's words ring true: we are still faced with the "incomprehensible human blindness to the fact that we live with one another on a small fragile planet amid shared fates with all beings."

This did not have to happen.
No part of this had to happen.


During this crisis, as I hear the stories of the families stuck in lines for days trying to exit their country or traveling, walking, driving, endlessly to find safety, I am reminded of Max Richter's piece, Exiles. This work, a response to the "migrant crisis" created by the Syrian Civil War, gives an account of the arduous journeying of those forced to leave their homes and attempt to find acceptance in a foreign land.

Richter started work on Exiles around the same time that the world was gripped by the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi (pictured above). In the work, Richter explores the feeling of walking, of having to leave everything you have in order to move away from violence. The main motif "goes around and around as it passes through different landscapes," Richter says in the liner notes to the album Exiles, just like refugees constantly moving forward, repeating the same motion amidst slowly changing landscapes.

The piece beings with just the main motif played and builds from there. Here is part 1 of 18:

The work develops slowly giving the listener time to settle into the emotional landscape as well as the tedium inherent in traveling hundreds or thousands of miles towards an uncertain future. The repeated figure walks along, setting a constant pulse, but becomes stripped of its motion by never changing like someone running upon a treadmill, moving their feet but going nowhere. The music that surrounds this motive adds color and slight developments in the landscape surrounding this journey. A few minutes in and the whole sense of time dissolves around you. You are then taken out of your surroundings and able to feel the monotony that refugees feel. For a little over 30 minutes you get a taste, a small glimpse, of a journey that millions have made in this century alone and over two million have made in just the last two weeks.

It is worth giving yourself up completely to this slow evolution. The tedium, by the 15th part of the work, seems to accelerate forward without any changes in tempo or the ostinato figure, rather from the instruments that surround the ostinato motif, leading to a climax. The additions give a sense of reaching something, coming to some destination, perhaps seeing the signs for the city you are journeying towards. The slowness of getting here makes this moment one of immense impact. The first time I heard the work I was walking in the park listening to it on headphones. As I got to this point I had to sit down on a bench because my body was completely taken over and I was stumbling over my feet. Tears streamed down my face as the timpani and lower strings finally reach that incredible moment of harmonic shift which signals the glorious triumph of the progress traveled from the beginning to this point.

But, as is the case for so many, an arrival does not mean acceptance. Refugees often are leaving one place and moving towards another without knowing really what awaits them when they arrive. Brilliantly, Richter portrays this in the work. After this climax, Richter suddenly changes the mood from the affirmation of arrival to the questioning of what the future has in store. Yes, one has arrived but what will happen next? It is a moving end to an incredible work.

Listen to Richter's reflections:

Quiet Protest

In the liner notes to the album, Richter explains his philosophy for bring a work into the world:

“Music has an intrinsic voice in culture,” Richter explains of his decision to put this catastrophe under the spotlight. “It’s part of the conversation about how we should live. That’s what creativity is. When you make something, you’re trying to explore a question, or look at some aspect of our world and comment on it, or elicit thinking or debate. It’s like Nina Simone said: ‘An artist’s duty … is to reflect the times.’ If I’m going to add to the sum total of music in the world, then I’d better make it count. I want there to be a good reason for that music. If I decide to write a string quartet, that’s fine, but there’s no particular reason to put that out into the world unless, even in a tiny way, it’s advancing the sorts of conversations and narratives in which I’m interested.”

When speaking about his earlier collection of music titled The Blue Notebooks, written in response to the threats of the Iraq war and other acts of violence, Richter says that he "didn't want to lecture" but instead " invite the listener in, allowing them space to reflect rather than be beaten into submission. The world is tough enough, and I don’t want to add to the brutality. Over the years, I’ve realised that there’s a balance to strike, and that actually, as our world spins into something quite threatening, increasingly based on loud and vicious rhetoric, I want to talk about quiet protest.”

Bringing one in, allowing them the space for reflection without forcing anything upon them, this form of "quiet protest," is exactly what Richter achieves in Exiles and during this current crisis it is the perfect work we all need in order to truly reflect upon and gain just a little bit more understanding of what those fleeing violence and tyranny are going through.

This did not have to happen.
No part of this had to happen.

March 9, 2022

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1. Dwight Garner, "Again and Again, Literature Provides an Outlet for the Upended Lives of Refugees," New York Times, March 7, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/07/books/refugee-literature.html.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.