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Facebook safety checks are not for Arabs

We all live in apocalyptic times, but our empathy and solidarity are limited

November 16, 2015 2:00AM ET

In Paris, a place I called home for several years, my friends are all safe. I know they are, because that’s what Facebook tells me. Its Safety Check feature is meant to “connect friends and loved ones during a natural disaster,” according to the company. Safety Check allows users to check in online, letting users know if our friends were in the affected area of a disaster.

Last Thursday in Beirut, when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for yet another one of its signature soft-targeted attacks, I didn’t rush to social media to ascertain the safety of my friends or family. None of them lived in the working-class district of Burj al-Barajneh where the suicide bombings took place. And last year when the Israeli military attacked Gaza, where my father’s family is from and where I have half-brothers and -sisters, cousins and aunts, the idea of their checking in on Facebook regarding their safety is a thought that never would have crossed my mind, much less their minds.

My phone doesn’t beep with messages from my family as it did last year when Gaza was being bombed by Israel. I am the one who has to ping my friends in Paris, who has to text my partner, asking him to check up on our friends whose numbers I don’t have and who live in the neighborhoods the attackers targeted. I scroll my newsfeed reading one status update after another from friends responding to people like me, frantic and checking on loved ones.

“At home. Safe and feeling sick.”

“Safe. À Palerme.”

“Safe?” I texted a friend. “We’re all fine,” she responded. “Just got on TV trying to figure out what the hell happened.”

About an hour after news reports of the attacks broke, Facebook activated its Safety Check, a feature previously applied only to earthquakes and typhoons. By then, I had left my apartment, clutching my phone with a melancholy grip, refreshing my Facebook feed every minute. In a span of two hours, hundreds of my Paris-based friends checked in safely or had been checked in safely by a friend.

Then the next morning came. But I was still outraged and upset from the night before. The feeling of disaster suspends time. It’s a feeling I’m starting to become familiar with, one of being haunted by violence. Not just as a Palestinian and a resident of Paris but as a humanist concerned with all things unjust. By Saturday, I was getting used to the idea that this world, the apocalyptic traditions of this world, will not do justice to our planet. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company will activate the Safety Check feature for ‘other serious and tragic incidents of the future.’ But who will deem what is serious or tragic enough?

Arab apocalypse

In 1980, Etel Adnan, a seminal Lebanese painter and poet, wrote “The Arab Apocalypse,” a series of poems written on her typewriter and surrounded by hieroglyph-like symbols of the sun and mountains or arrows and swirls that resemble the abstract paintings for which she is known. She gave me a copy when I met her last year in Paris, just before I left for Brooklyn in New York. It was a book that she began writing in 1975, two months before the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war. Then the war started, and Tal-el-Zaatar, a Palestinian refugee camp, was under siege for 59 days. As a response, she picked up the book again and added 59 pages filled with doom and destruction.

“It’s the only thing that made sense for me to do,” she told me from her Paris apartment.

I pulled my copy of “The Arab Apocalypse” from my bookshelf and leafed through its pages, thinking about my Paris days. As I write, my Facebook feed is filled with anger over what happened in France, not to mention Lebanon and Baghdad. The death toll rises, and everyone has something to say — a prayer, an analysis, a conspiracy theory. “When Beirut was under attack,” a friend wrote, “we didn’t have a safe button to make sure our loved ones were safe.”

I start to imagine what it would be like to have a “safe” button in 1970s Beirut or during the two intifadas in occupied Palestine. Even now in Palestinian cities, in Haifa and Nazareth, where my friends are afraid to speak Arabic for fear of getting attacked by Israeli extremists, I think of how a “safe” button would give solace to parents whose children attend Israeli universities or daughters whose blue-collar fathers work in West Jerusalem, some of them going as far as disguising themselves as Jewish by wearing a yarmulke. I think, why don’t they get to have a “safe” button? Shouldn’t safety be a universal right?

In response to criticism that Facebook used the safety check feature for Paris but not Beirut, the company’s vice president of growth, Alex Schultz, said, “There has to be a first time for trying something new.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook will activate the feature for “other serious and tragic incidents of the future.” But who will deem what is serious or tragic enough?

Of course, the double standards go beyond questions of a safety check in places where disaster has struck. Facebook, with its profile filter that can instantly apply the French flag over users’ photos, is telling us that solidarity and mourning are selective. And that safety is a privilege not for the Arab world.  

Even though the Beirut and Paris attacks were only one day apart, President Barack Obama issued just one statement. And even though both ISIL-led attacks were against civilians, only one set, according to him, was an “attack against all humanity.” (On Sunday in Turkey he called the Paris assaults an attack “on the civilized world” — because, of course, Beirut is not a civilized place.)

As a Facebook friend in London wrote on her wall, “Those other places are ‘political,’ and their victims cannot be invoked in the supposedly ‘neutral’ milieu of Facebook.” Because our humanity has been amputated by the apocalypse. Because Arabs aren’t traumatized from burying enough of their dead. Because it’s Paris, it hurts more.  

Because the world is telling us that this is an Arab apocalypse. It is supposed to be safe only for some.

Sousan Hammad is a New York-based writer, translator and journalist. She writes for The Boston Review blog and a variety of other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Lebanon, Paris
Facebook, ISIL, ISIS, Terrorism

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