When I first saw the picture of little Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the sand, I thought for a moment he was sleeping. A friend had shared it on Facebook and the accompanying caption was in Greek, so I did not grasp the gravity of the image straight away. I went back to work – the tedious but necessary job of editing the footnotes of my dissertation – and forgot for a few hours about the little boy lying on the wet sand of a Turkish beach.
In the evening, relaxing after a gym session, I opened the Independent website for my daily dose of news and saw the photograph again. Before I could make out the words in the headline, the images hit me with full force: several shots of the tiny body in wet clothes lying lifeless on the beach, the grim-faced Turkish official standing by, then carrying the body away. I don’t remember how long I sat there, tears welling up in my eyes. Nothing broke the silence of my currently solitary room – I might have sat in that state, motionless, for two minutes or twenty. The photographs did something to me that I still cannot understand; it feels as if the great world that surrounds me lost its relevance and meaning in one instant. Having seen many heart-rending images due to the nature of my research, I believed I had developed a kind of immunity against any representation of violence. Aylan Kurdi’s last photographs showed how wrong I had been.
The tiny body has haunted me ever since. I can’t work. I can’t read. To clear my head, I went for a walk but the smiling faces I encountered on the street turned my sadness into irritation: How can they not care? In the Heffers, my favourite bookshop, I hid behind pillars and tables with books to make sure the newspaper stand stayed well out of my view. For every time I saw that Independent front page my heart skipped a beat. Aylan Kurdi was in every song on my iPod, in every thing that I saw on the street. When my wife complained on the phone that our little boy did not finish his food, I thought about Aylan Kurdi. Did he also leave his food unfinished? Was he hungry at the time? Did he choose his red T-shirt himself that day, just like my children do? And the thought that horrifies me: Did he understand, the poor little boy, where he was going and why he had to die in the sea?
What was it that gripped me so tightly? Why wouldn’t it leave me alone? Why would it make me write this now, two weeks before I submit my doctoral dissertation I spent four years writing?
Is it his appearance, I thought. I don’t have to look at the picture again to remember his tiny, pale, upturned palms and curled fingers. His little brown shoes that his mother probably put on him in a hurry. The way that he lies on his little tummy, just as if he were sleeping and would wake up any time now. Is it the perspectives the photographer chose? The one who took the photo apparently had enough time to take several shots before the official removed the tiny corpse to the mortuary. Did the photographer ask the official to wait for a while? What did he feel when he trained his sophisticated lenses on Aylan’s body – that it would be a nice photo essay?
Well past midnight, I had to distract myself with a book before I could fall asleep. I tried to assure myself that the child was not my responsibility, that I couldn’t have prevented his death even if I had to. I thought, rightly, that I would probably never find out about him if I hadn’t seen these images (therefore I cannot blame the photographer too much; in fact, I should probably thank him/her). But the feeling would not leave me alone.
The image was right there before my eyes well until I somehow fell asleep, tired, distraught, angry. And in the morning, there was no way to escape it – it was all over the internet, on every newspaper frontpage, on Facebook and Twitter.
Then, looking once again at the Independent webpage, I understood it all, although I still cannot feel it well enough for it to let go. The Independent story was titled ‘Somebody’s child.’ There is a saying in Uzbek: No child is somebody’s child. It means that all children are my children. Every child is my child and I am responsible for it. This is what makes me human – the quality which I am by no means proud of these days, when being part of humanity brings one shame on a regular basis. But it is my humanity, for better or worse, that has troubled me since I saw the tiny pale fingers of little Aylan’s lifeless hands. It is the humanity that hit the shores, as the viral Twitter hashtag #Kiyiyavuraninsanlik suggested.
Aylan is my child, and I am grieving for him. He is everyone’s child. His tiny body that the sea softly released on the sand is the image of our humanity that has washed up on the shore. The humanity that has failed him and many other innocent angels like him. The humanity that is dying in front of our eyes every day, whose dying we could only notice when Aylan’s pictures made the headlines. No man is an island, entire of itself, and no child is somebody’s child. Yet in our humanity, we do not feel this. We continue to divide the world into us and them, my child and your child. Into Christians and Muslims, like the immigration offices of some European countries that welcomed Christian migrants and refused the Muslim ones.
What a pity, horrible pity it is then that little Aylan had to die and be photographed in this way for us to realise this. To realise, I understand, for one more time, before we forget. Partly for this reason, I am not sharing his image here, the image that has haunted me since yesterday and made me write this piece. While I understand its importance in preventing the many future deaths of migrant children, I am not happy with the idea. I am worried that it will be forgotten in a few days’ time, just like the images of the tiny victims of Holocaust, Hiroshima and Dresden. I am frightened of the idea that little Aylan’s tiny body will become another banal fetish for the cruel media, an instrument for lobby groups and activists. I don’t want to think about him in that way. For me, he’s not somebody’s child. For no child is somebody’s child.