what i lost / terror

here’s a post that i’ve been half-meaning to write for awhile. for some time, i thought i had said all i needed to say in writing some words for her memorial.


if the enormity of our – my – loss truly ever hits me, it will be through the small shared moments that can no longer be accumulated, even though skype tells me elif is only offline for now and gmail suggests that I may have meant to include her on my emails. with every absurd statement or mannerism over which we can’t exchange glances and snarky giggles or looks of outright disgust; with every annoyance or potentiality that can no longer be re-enacted and analysed over tea or wine; for every internet chat that no longer comes through filled with “hey lady”s “:-)”s and “;-)”s and exclamation marks at precisely the needed moment and in precisely the needed amount; and with every glass of wine i order at grafton’s knowing that she won’t be pedaling up soon in 4-inch heels to join me. maybe in this succession of elif-shaped voids I will begin to grasp what has stolen from me and from the world — through intolerance, the antithesis of all that elif believed.


she was fearless in her approach to life, fiercely loyal in her friendships, focused in her work and infectious when she laughed. she *is* a fiercely loyal friend, appreciative and incisively honest, a yogi with a sharp tongue but a sharper wit, short-tempered but with a heart big enough to always make it OK, a perfectionist wrapped up in layers of clashing-but-considered clothes and scarves and flowers and hats. she is one of the finest partners-in-crime anyone could ask for.


it’s been two years. but from time to time i still find myself etching a sentence or two in my mind. two 21st septembers have passed since the westgate mall shooting and i only managed to take a few sentences from my head and put them in a draft blog. i spilled little red wine out in remembrance on the appropriate dates and at a recent wedding that i know would have pleased her. a few weeks ago an (academic) article made me cry, resulting in some of the writing below.


but i didn’t press ‘publish’ until watching the horrors of beirut and paris unfold across social media while sitting alone in a hotel in abuja, too connected and too separated and possibly with one too many heinekens. more dates. 9-11 and and 9-21 and 12/11 and 13/11 and 26/11. too many dates. ‘a calendar’ as the noun of accumulation of ‘terror.


which i guess is when it hit me. it isn’t about the dates or the symbols or even really the cities. it’s about what is lost every day, for all of us, because of acts of terror. i don’t walk into a mall anywhere in the world without thinking about elif and wanting to walk out immediately. every time i hear someone use one of the words or phrases elif and i deemed as terrible, like “leaf peeping” (which people in new england insist on saying when they are going on a perfectly good outing to admire the autumn foliage) and “nibble” and “sequelae” (which particularly alarmed elif and she sketched once as a fearsome and carnivorous caterpillar-being) i want to write her immediately. i cannotfor the very specific reason of someone else’s hate and retribution. or statement.


wikipedia tells me there is no agreed upon definition of terrorism but that pre-french revolution usages relate to a spreading mind-set of terror or dread, before questions about being state-sponsored or not cluttered up contemporary efforts at pinning down the idea. i’m actually not sure whether a visceral, sensory definition lies in the subtle sense of dread and suspicion of people that results from such acts or the small dead space in your brain, like an amputation, that still tries to light up when you think of someone you can no longer write. a hyper-sensitivity and a numbness.


the best i can do now, or ever, is to remind the world what has been taken from them.


elif and i bonded over the sort of humor that does not amuse everyone and downright offends some people. our first day of class together, in foundations of global health, the professor announced that some percentage of the world’s children would not enjoy their 5th birthdays. this is a euphemistic way of describing inequitable and horrifying under-5 mortality rates around the world, mostly from infectious disease, unhygienic surroundings, and poorly attended births. elif and i would not have been in a school of public health if we thought the underlying subject matter humorous. but the phrasing still tickled us. the birthdays wouldn’t be enjoyed because of insufficiently grand party hats? not enough party guests? somehow the subject of the joke became timmy and timmy and his failed birthday party were a recurring touchstone that got us through the two years till qualifying exams and three more years of school after that. and, hell, through elif (and ross) being on the verge of having their own child, traveling to nairobi from dar for just that purpose


and so it was a few weeks ago, on a random day, that i found myself sobbing when reading lant pritchett’s blog on the end of kinky development, in which he declares that “no one has ever held an ‘i am over $1.25 a day’ party.” which seems liked just the sort of party i would want to plan for timmy with elif.


which, again, i guess, is the point, if there is one, which i am never sure there is. my grief isn’t eiffel-tower shaped or cedar-tree shaped or red or white or green or blue. it’s pink and teal and elif-shaped. it doesn’t come on a particular date. it comes any time of the day or night when i want to write “elif, you won’t believe…” and can only think ‘fuck you’ to people i have never met.


4 thoughts on “what i lost / terror

  1. Janet Krueger says:

    So I just got home from the movie “Suffragette”. Women gave their lives for the vote. And me? I’m stressing over my Thanksgiving menus instead of working for the greater good.

    The hate that destroyed your friend Elif and her family is destroying us too. Several U. S. states have just announced they will not accept Syrian refugees. As far as I know, the Syrian people are not our enemy.


  2. Colin Bangay says:

    Heather, its Colin from DFID – I lost your email address and was wondering whether the paper you shared had been published and if you could share the final version – and came across your blog. Wasn’t expecting such a moving piece – not least because of its honesty and anger. Chimes with conversations I am having with my 11 year old daughter – who keeps asking why and I can’t find the right answer. There is something about complexity, and context and relativity in research – but in life there are somethings that are just right and wrong – which poses big questions for social tolerance.


    • dear colin — thanks so much for writing. i wasn’t exactly planning on posting this piece, either, but realized i was angry and sad enough to finally do so. i can barely explain these things to myself, so i certainly cannot imagine having to try on behalf of another (younger) person. anyway, i do promise that the rest of my blog is more research — or occasionally travel — oriented.


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