Runaways is a touching gesture to the power of empathy

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Runaways by Shelley Davidow and Shaimaa Khalil

MEMORY
Runaways
Shelley Davidow and Shaimaa Khalil
Ultimo press, $34.99

Two decades ago, Shelley Davidow and Shaimaa Khalil met in Doha, where Davidow was a teacher and Khalil his student. Both women were displaced from their cultures – the first was an Ashkenazi Jew from South Africa, the second a Muslim Arab from Egypt. In their search for meaning and security in the world, they found refuge in each other, despite the cultural and religious chasms that separated them.

Runaways is the women’s mutual love letter as they recount both their lives and upbringings, both separately and in the places where they cross paths. Davidow and Khalil – now an author and broadcast journalist, respectively – address each other in alternate chapters, often responding to each other’s major life events with admiration, respect and gratitude.

Both women feel a sense of disconnect as they move through the world, never really belonging anywhere. Especially coming from conservative cultures, they yearn for freedom – “I would rather miss home than be suffocated by it,” writes Khalil. There are freedoms they take for granted, such as the ability to write – one particularly poignant anecdote follows a creative teenage student who was banned from writing poetry by her family.

It’s only halfway through the book that Davidow concedes, “I’m beginning to think the Middle East is the perfect scapegoat for the West when it comes to silencing and destroying women.” . So far, there has really been only condemnation of sexism and misogyny in Doha; although it is never said explicitly, there is an implication that the culture there is backward, as opposed to the more open societies of the West. But the women discover, as they move from Qatar to the US, UK and Australia, that the “big bad patriarch” is inescapable, and that in the West it is more insidious.

It’s here that Davidow recognizes her privilege as a white transient when a police officer lets her go for driving on the wrong side of the road: “the dissonance between my desperate geographically dislocated self and the quiet English speaker who politely apologized to the cop and was not hit with fines for four motive offenses”. It’s an improvement from the beginning of the book, when she wonders, “How do you function when you’re the color of the oppressor but you’re not the oppressor?”

Both women write as one would speak, which would work better if it were a stage play.

Although the writers acknowledge Australia’s problem with violence against women, the women touch on many other issues with the country, with Khalil touting it as the place where Davidow could achieve his American dream. Given that this nation continues to mistreat its First Nations people and regularly turn back and torture refugees, this seems abnormal.

There’s a lot of ground covered here, from early memories of sexual harassment (resulting in the rise of the #MeToo movement) to women’s experiences of 9/11, the Australian bushfires and the pandemic and challenges in the workplace. . They are windows into the shared frustrations of many women around the world, although of course there are privileges that allow Davidow and Khalil to succeed where others cannot.

Testimony of the power of empathy and connection between women, Runaways is a touching gesture. Writing to a friend, training alongside another person, is a beautiful act that testifies to the importance of the community in the life and development of the individual. Literally, however, the form is superficial. Both women write as one would speak, which would work better if it were a staged play – as a written work, the language often sounds flat.

As a document of social justice, Runaways only provides a surface-level examination. Her observations may be a good starting point for those new to the complexities of feminism and race, but will give little new insight to those who are already deeply immersed.

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