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The Tight Moments That Humanize Foreign Policy

Raimy Khalife-Hamdan April 27, 2023

“It’s the tight moments
Where language separates from meaning,
Form separates from content,
The body separates from the soul,
Night from day,
Lover from the beloved.

It’s the tight moments
where time separates from space,
time from Time,
Space from its limits.

It’s the moment of absolute.
The moment of nothingness.”

Samir Sayegh

The first time I read Samir Sayegh’s poem, translated from Arabic, was in August 2021. I was walking through a small store that sold art, books, photographs, and calligraphy when I saw his words centered in a beautiful frame. It was one year after the devastating — and completely preventable — Beirut port explosion that continues to haunt Lebanon. Though Sayegh wrote this poem a few years before the explosion, I immediately thought of the tragedy while reading his words. The blast shook the country with force yet also represented, for me, a defining disaster in which, as Sayegh describes, language lost its meaning, form from content, body from the soul, creating a “tight moment”… There are a number of these intense moments beyond our day-to-day life, moments of simultaneous absolute and nothingness, of love and pain, of complete separation from daily rhythms. That day in August 2021, reading Sayegh’s words, I thought of those who died because of the blast, and those who continue to suffer from wounds, displacement, and trauma. Of the children whose lives were stolen and whose mothers and fathers continue to mourn. Of the neighborhoods shattered, the damaged homes (including my aunt’s). Of the unaddressed corruption that led to this disaster, the criminals masquerading as sectarian politicians. The Beirut blast indeed made many feel a specific tightness, opening a dimension of anguish, sorrow, and devastation surpassing the spoken word.

A picture at the Beirut shop where Raimy first saw Sayegh's poem, which is shown in Arabic on top, translation at the bottom in English.
A picture at the Beirut shop where Raimy first saw Sayegh’s poem, which is shown in Arabic on top, translation at the bottom in English.

I understand Sayegh’s “tight moments” to refer to the moments that weigh soberly in the heart, moments that cannot quite be contained or articulated in human language, moments that sometimes feel like a deeper truth. Moments that are so naked, so human. These tight moments can be teachers. They can remind us of what matters. In my experience, these tight moments have pushed me to tune into my mortality and my heart — the human reality of death and love. A contradiction, at first, in the way that a moment can feel both “absolute” and “of nothingness.” But really, they are deeply connected. As I live and create, I feel both mortality and my heart at the tips of my fingers. Grounding me, reminding me, and urging me toward a more peaceful world.

Over the summer before the Scoville Peace Fellowship, I worked at a women’s refugee center in Athens, Greece, where I often served as an interpreter during psychosocial support sessions. I met dozens of different women from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Morocco, and many other countries. Each shared extremely powerful stories that showcased their resiliency, trauma, and hope for their futures. These sessions were filled with memories of “tight moments,” of ground-shaking realities that somehow brought them to Athens. Amid this human-centered work, I saw how exclusionary asylum and refugee policies impacted lives in a way that tends to be overlooked.

A self portrait painted by a refugee at Melissa, the refugee center Raimy worked at before the Scoville Fellowship.

Today, as I read, research, and write about foreign policy on an almost-daily basis at Win Without War Education Fund, I often taste, or fully submerge into, these tight moments. They continue to reveal what is essential. While interviewing refugees for a written piece in Inkstick about the Iranian government’s persecution of the Afghan refugee population, I decided to speak with one of my dearest friends, a young woman from the Afghan Hazara community who fled Iran due to the state’s violent policies. In her own words, she described tight moments during her journey that pulled her into deep realizations. In Turkey after having fled from Iran while facing the intense cold, in Germany as she tried to learn a new language with very few resources, in so many other spaces, my friend described the tightness of these revelatory moments. In another piece for Al Jazeera, tuning into my grief, love, and desire to see justice, I wrote about the Beirut explosion. During the writing and editing process, I remembered the tight moment the explosion represented to me. Feeling the truth and clarity of that moment, I focused the piece on the human beings who deserved justice.

Representative Barbara Lee at the Win Without War 20th anniversary.

These tight moments continue every day and anchor us into a very human reality. They shake us awake from our daily dreams, whether with pain or joy – though admittedly, the painful moments may bite deeper. I allow these tight moments to carry me and inspire my work. I research and write about U.S. foreign policy not only as an American citizen working at a policy organization in DC but also as a young Middle Eastern woman whose life and ancestors’ lives have been shaped by the actions of imperial powers and the severe consequences of unaccountability. Because of this lived duality, in which I understand and operate from both the institutional and grassroots levels, I am aware of the direct human impact of our decisions. I think about the countless tight moments — such as those during my work at the Greek refugee center — filling the lives of people impacted by our policies in ways we may never fully understand. These moments remind me of what truly matters. Whether concerning immigration policy, security alliances, or international climate finance, we have to think about the communities bearing the consequences of our leaders’ actions. Through this lens, I have come to realize that our foreign policy decision-making is absurdly un-human, lacking a crucial dimension that considers the human impact of policies and programs. This simplification or disregard for human life, often fueling negligence, can result in another disaster, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere.

The more I feel into my mortality and my heart during the tight moments Sayegh describes, the deeper my conviction that we deserve a more just, equitable, and peaceful foreign policy that centers human lives. But this vision must begin with prioritizing human voices and human agency in the decisions we make.

Raimy Khalife-Hamdan is a Fall 2022 Scoville Fellow at Win Without War Education Fund.