Category: hearing

On suicide bombers and cultural suicide

By , 4 January 2008 5:55 pm

Over the last year or so, I have found myself wondering about my hearing. Conversation in crowded places and restaurants has seemed difficult and I have, on odd occasions, misheard students in class. Anyway I got my ears tested this morning and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my hearing was perfectly normal. The sensitivity of the left ear was very slightly down but it was still within normal parameters.

As I thought about the results, two related (trust me) thoughts came together. The first was sitting at my desk, eating lunch in Beirut one Monday in April 1983. In a paroxysm of sound somehow incarnated as brute force, I was picked up off my chair and thrown to the floor. As I staggered to my feet I could see through the door to left of where I had been sitting, shattered windows. Beyond them, a billowing black and grey cloud was angrily boiling rising up from the American Embassy, barely a hundred yards away. It soon transpired that a truck had driven in with what was later determined to be nearly 1,000 kg of high explosive. As stood amid the broken glass, my ears ringing, I heard the surprise in the voices of my Lebanese colleagues as they passed on the rumour that it had been a suicide bomber. Despite nine years of civil war it was an novel concept; it is now generally held that this was first suicide bombing of its kind.

I also remember going up to the American University Hospital shortly afterwards for some reason I cannot now remember. As walked up I saw a young couple – evidently Americans – walking away from the hospital, holding each other for comfort, their once smart clothes, their hair and their grief-stricken faces covered in a fine pale dust that made them look like as if they had returned from the grave. When I saw their kind again on 9/11, I shuddered. So I do wonder whether my slightly weaker left ear is a tiny scar of that blast. In which case I got off lightly: sixty-three people died.

The second thought was this: if it isn’t my hearing, is it my students? Actually I think there is something in this. My students – bless them – as a whole no longer read and they no longer read to people. Many of them have lost the art of clear speaking or any sort of verbal clarity. Their music shouts at them and they mutter at each other and mumble back. With exceptions, they do not express themselves with either clarity or coherence. I’m probably oversimplifying and I’m not blaming them. But I do think we have lost the art of speaking properly and what that portends seems to me far more worrying than any number of suicide bombers.

On a more cheery note; our younger son, Mark has just announced his engagement to a splendid lass, Alice. We heartily approve and the wedding is set for 15 November in the rather tasteful (and more importantly) very evangelical London church of St James Clerkenwell. Hurrah!

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