During the last football World Cup, my wife and I were invited to attend a small gathering hosted by some friends in their home. Although we knew them to be Shia Muslims (Shi’atu Ali), we quite gladly accepted their invitation so as not to break their hearts. So it was that we found ourselves in their living room, kneeling upon the floor, listening to their imam deliver a speech on a particular aspect of Islam. I have to admit that I found his talk all quite normal and acceptable; there was nothing unorthodox about it at all.
Yet when the talk ended, it was followed by almost half an hour of hysterical tears and sobbing. At this point my wife got up from the back of the room and disappeared into the kitchen to wait for it to end, but as I had taken my place close to the imam I was unable to move without causing disruption. So I just buried my eyes in the carpet and tried to work up some sympathy for their distress, wondering if my more muted reaction to terrible events centuries earlier betrayed my insensitivity to the suffering of mankind.
I began, I regret, to start wondering if the wailing around me would ever end. Grown men on my left and right were choking on their tears, the ladies at the back of the room the same. Of course I began asking myself if there was something wrong with me; if my heart had turned to stone and turned cold. But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all. All of a sudden, just as abruptly as the weeping had started, the great lament ceased.
Before me, the recently tearful imam rose to his feet and asked for the massive flat-panel television to be switched on for the match. Within thirty seconds of the sobbing ceasing, their great distress had seemingly been forgotten. As the screen brightened, all of the eyes already glued to the screen, the scene had completely changed. I offered my seat—the best in the house for TV viewing—to the imam, apologising that I wasn’t really into football. I can’t even remember which team we were supporting, only that it was playing Denmark.
I remembered this experience last week when I encountered a young man wailing about the injustices suffered by the people of Gaza at the hands of the Israelis. I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with him. It was just that I watched as his mourning suddenly gave way to a lengthy discussion about the merits of one football team over an other in the upcoming World Cup. It seemed sort of symptomatic of our state these days.
A kind of amnesia has overcome us, our attention-span severely stunted. One moment we are on a knife-edge, poised in anger and rage. The next moment we have forgotten, wandering on obliviously, until the next crisis strikes.