Not being there

Last word 11,200km from his polling station in the US, John Gravois considers the cost of witnessing history from afar.

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11,200km from his polling station in the US, John Gravois considers the cost of witnessing history from afar.
Seven years ago on a hot summer evening, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. I was a cub reporter at an English-language newspaper in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and I lived in a large villa with about a dozen other journalists from work - Americans mainly, like me. At the door was one of my co-workers. "You probably want to come see the TV," he said. "A small plane just crashed into the World Trade Center."

In the villa's common room, we gathered around the TV and watched as the event clarified. (The plane, of course, hadn't been small.) Aside from the damp Cambodian night outside, our gathering probably wasn't all that different from the shell-shocked domestic scene that was playing out in millions of living rooms across America. That's because television has a way of rendering all of its viewers equidistant from the events on the screen. When the first tower collapsed, a few of us leapt up from our seats as if we were witnessing the catastrophe at close range.

That illusion evaporated once the television was off and we walked outside. Experiencing September 11 in Phnom Penh was meaningful in its own right. We received condolences from countless Cambodians - and felt humbled each time to accept comfort from people who had so recently suffered war, nationwide poverty and genocide. But as time went on, we felt increasingly unmoored from America. Our distance from home had been bearable when home was a fixed point, but now America was in motion - perhaps sliding from its foundations. And we weren't there.

I've been thinking of that night a lot over the past week, because now again I find myself far from home at a historic moment - a moment that I am inclined to believe signals a correction in America's course, much as September 11 marked the beginning of a tragic deviation. The two events stand out as bookends on the Bush era, but also as two moments when I dearly wished I was closer to home. Ever since the advent of broadcast communication, it has become common to talk about major events by asking "Do you remember where you were when such-and-such happened?" Americans of my grandparents' generation remember where they were when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor; I remember where I was when I watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explode (in an appliance store with my mother).

You remember where you were at such moments because doing so establishes a set of co-ordinates: this is where History intersected with your tiny, personal life. But the matrix that connects us to those historic events is often made of nothing but airwaves, broadcast signals and screens. It is a context, sure, but an ethereal one. Sometimes the real answer to the question is "I wasn't there." My wife and I own a house in Washington DC where we spent our first year of marriage, in a neighbourhood heavily populated by African-American retirees. Our neighbours there are men and women old enough to remember when American businesses and schools were segregated according to race, old enough to remember Martin Luther King Jr's legendary march on Washington and old enough to remember the riots that swept the US capital on the night of his assassination.

I can still picture those neighbours waiting for the bus in the mornings. And I can picture my local polling station, a rundown brick high school built in the colonial style. I can picture walking into the school's gymnasium, with its pale hardwood floors, seeing the row of voting booths and making small talk with the election workers. But I cannot quite picture - not to my satisfaction - what it would have been like to stand among my elderly neighbours as they cast their votes for a black man.

Thanks to the internet, which has absorbed far too much of my attention lately, I have an inkling: during a day of early voting in Evansville, Indiana, a medical student reported online that he saw a 90-year-old African-American woman break down in tears after she voted. "She had not truly believed, until she left the booth, that she would ever live long enough to cast a vote for an African-American for president," the student wrote.

I wish I could have been there among my neighbours on Tuesday. Instead, a few days ago, I filled out an absentee write-in ballot while sitting at my coffee table here in Abu Dhabi, and then my wife carted the ballot off to the post office while I was at work. Of course, witnessing Obama's election from Abu Dhabi has been meaningful in its own right. The night before voting began, I was chatting with my barber, a Keralite guest worker here. As he cut my hair, a news report in Malayalam came over the radio, and the name "Obama" seemed to pop up every 20 words or so. "Indian people want Obama," my barber told me in jagged English. Then, explaining the broadcast, he said that many Indians are hoping Obama will resolve the dispute over Kashmir - suggesting that the weight of impossible expectations bears down on the president-elect from all corners of the world.

And it strikes me: the days after the terror attacks of September 11 were probably the last time when America enjoyed this much of the world's faith and goodwill. This week, on Wednesday at four o'clock in the morning, my alarm went off and I got up from bed, leaving my wife and three-month-old daughter to sleep a little longer, and I joined a few friends in my living room to watch the election returns come in on CNN. After daybreak, my wife and I took turns holding our daughter and watching the screen.

One of my dearest friends back in America - we were roommates in college - lives in Chicago, where Barack Obama began his political career. This friend of mine worked on Obama's long-shot campaign for the US Senate in 2004, and it was from him that I first learnt about the young candidate in February of that year. Six months ago my friend had a son. And on Tuesday night, he brought his boy to Chicago's Grant Park, where Obama delivered his acceptance speech before a crowd of 200,000. "He will not remember any of this," my friend says of his son, "but he will grow up knowing that he was there."

In more ways than one, parenthood teaches you that presence is irreducible. In the years ahead, if someone asks me where I was when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, I will reply that I was with my wife, my daughter and my friends in my living room in Abu Dhabi, where it was 9am when Obama took the stage in Grant Park on CNN. But I know that part of me will simply feel like saying "It broke my heart to miss it, but I wasn't there."