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Seeing, But Only Partially

Seeing, But Only Partially
By Al Ibrahim • Issue #5 • View online
When I woke up that morning, I had difficulty opening my left eye completely. I saw my face in the bathroom mirror, and it seemed that overnight – suddenly and without warning – my eyelid had doubled in size.
I could still see through the swelling, but only partially.

Hidden all the way at the back of the Istrian Health Centre in Pula, is a tiny section consisting of three rooms called The Medical Clinic for Tourists. One room had a nurse, and the other two had one doctor each. One of the doctors was in a wheelchair.
If you’d asked me the night before if I believed that a paraplegic person can be a doctor, I would’ve rolled my still normal-sized eyes and asked why you’re out here asking stupid questions.
“There’s nothing about being paraplegic that makes someone intellectually incapable of getting into and graduating from medical school,” I would’ve told you. “And if there are any impediments at all, they would have to do with the way the world is designed almost exclusively for able-bodied people.”
And yet, here we are.
I’d like to believe that when I saw her, I didn’t have the kind of reaction that would’ve annoyed her. I’d like to believe that I appeared cool, calm, and composed. But thinking back at it now, I doubt that that was the case.
Because, you see, even though I was in a hospital – in a room where doctors were meant to be, no less – and even though I saw the stethoscope hanging around her neck, it still didn’t immediately register in my head that she was in fact a doctor.
There she was, right in front of me, but my vision was obstructed by her wheelchair; I couldn’t see her for what she was.
Recently, a friend told me about a conversation he had with a colleague from his office, a woman who was frustrated over the fact that she was passed over for a promotion.
“She thinks it’s because she’s brown and a woman,” my friend said, “but what if she just doesn’t have the experience?” 
When light enters my eyes, it focuses just in front of, instead of on, my retina. This basically just means I’m short-sighted.
When things are close to me, I see them perfectly. They appear normal. But distant objects – things far and foreign – appear as one big blur of uncertainty, and that makes me tense and on my guard.
Maybe I was born with this myopia. Or maybe it was something that I picked up along the way. What I know is – what I still remember – is precisely the moment I found out I had it. 
It was back in August of 2014, my girlfriend at the time and I were walking down the street to have dinner at a Middle Eastern place that no longer exists, and she casually read out a sign that was nailed to a tree a couple of meters ahead of us. I was shocked because up until that moment, I didn’t know that the human eye could see that far.
I thought the way I saw the world was the way everyone else saw the world. It took being with someone who saw things in a different way for me to realise that my way of seeing was not only not the default, but was in fact limited.
Some time ago, in that mythical land before the pandemic, I was invited to a surprise birthday party. We were all supposed to go to this one karaoke place, hide in a private room, and when the birthday girl was lured in by another friend, we’d all jump out and shout – SURPRISE!
It was only after I got to the karaoke place that it dawned on me that I didn’t actually know which room we were supposed to hide in, and the only person I knew who would know – the person who invited me – was at that very moment with the birthday girl trying to trick her into showing up. So I just sat there in the lobby and waited, hoping that I’d recognize one of the other people when they walked in.
Sure enough, this couple walked in, and I overheard them mention the name of the organiser to the receptionist. So I walked up to them and asked – Are you here for so and so’s birthday?
Except of course I didn’t say “so and so”, I said our mutual friend’s name.
“No, sorry.” They said, barely looking at me, and continued talking to the receptionist.
“My name is Al Ibrahim,“ I said. "And I’m here for the surprise birthday. I think we’re here for the same thing.”
Again, they just shook their heads, barely looking my way. 
I was starting to get frustrated, so I loudly blurted out the name of the person who made the booking, and immediately, one of them was like – "Oh, so you know Davina?”
I think what happened was that they didn’t actually hear what I said the first two times. I think they just looked at me briefly, and when they saw that I don’t look like someone they expected, their brains didn’t even bother parsing what I was saying.
Instead, they just said No. Sorry. Sorry, we can’t help you right now. Clearly, you’re very lost. Clearly, you don’t belong here. Clearly, you need help finding your bearing. But no, we can’t help you because we are a bit occupied right now trying to sort out a surprise birthday party.
Except, of course, I wasn’t lost. I did belong there. I was exactly where I needed to be.
My point is, perhaps the brown woman from the office really did not have the experience and that’s why she didn’t get promoted. It’s possible.
But it’s also possible that the woman is perfectly fine. It’s possible that she’s experienced and capable and is exactly where she needs to be, except that whenever management looks at that fresh new position, their vision is obstructed by her gender and colour, and they don’t see her because they’re partial to someone who looks nothing like her.
The human eye comes with a physiological blindspot built-in. It’s that point on the retina where the optic nerve exits the eye. You can actually find your physiological blind spot if you want to. It’s pretty cool the first time you see it.
The reason we don’t normally see it is because our brain doesn’t want us to. It takes the surrounding detail and information from the other eye to fill up that empty space in our vision.
We have two eyeballs, each with its own blindspot, but working together, they see better than either of them alone could.
How is it that it’s taken me thirty years living on this planet to meet a doctor who’s a wheelchair user? My instinct, as is with most things, is to blame the media and pop culture.
“If there were more doctors in wheelchairs in Film and TV,” I tell myself, “maybe I wouldn’t have been so taken aback.”
But then I wonder: Is there little to no representation in popular culture because there’s little to no representation in real life? Or is there little to no representation in real life because there’s little to no representation in popular culture?
Which one is the chicken, and which one is the egg?
I took the eye drops the doctor gave me and applied them three times a day as per her instructions. A few days later, the swelling left my eye, and I could once again see clearly.
But every now and then I come across something or someone, and I’m reminded that even on my best days – even with my glasses on and without any obvious obstructions in my line of sight – my vision is still very much partial.
Things I Made
Why are breakups so painful?
Why are breakups so painful?
Why does it hurt when a relationship ends? Why do rebounds rarely work? Why is it almost always a bad idea to get back with an ex?
This is my attempt at an analogy to tie all those things together.
NOTEBOOK.MADEBYAL — Today, 15th October, is the birthday of Fela Kuti...
If you like music you can dance to, and you’re not familiar with Afrobeats – the West African (read: Lagos) dance music that’s taking the world by storm – I made this playlist for you.
Things I Like
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
The reason why I get treated the way I do in most of the places I travel to is that the US has exported a manual on how black people ought to be treated wherever they go. Sometimes they do this directly – as with the memos sent to the allied forces during WW2. But most of the time they do it indirectly, through pop culture.
High Maintenance: Season 4 | Official Trailer | HBO
High Maintenance: Season 4 | Official Trailer | HBO
This hasn’t been renewed for a fifth season because we’re obviously living in the worst timeline. But the four seasons that do exist (and the two before that from Vimeo) are all excellent.
If you can only watch one episode, I suggest literally any episode. But if you can only watch one episode and you love podcasts and This American Life, then Season 4 Episode 1 is the one for you.
Is Success Luck or Hard Work?
Is Success Luck or Hard Work?
There’s probably nothing more important when it comes to success than sheer luck. More than talent. More than hard work. More than anything else.
I think on some level, we all know this. But it’s still worth being reminded with cold hard data.
Watch 37 Seconds | Netflix Official Site
What this film does differently – and does really well – is centring the story around a character with a disability; having the disability be significant to the plot, but not central to it, and universalising the struggle of trying to be your own person.
Tell Me I’m Fat - This American Life
Act 2, specifically. Listen and weep, my friends.
Listen and weep.
Stromae - Santé (Official Music Video)
Stromae - Santé (Official Music Video)
Stromae is back. And not only is the new song on theme, it’s also a straight-up banger.
And that’s all from this dispatch.
And if you know anyone who might find this useful, feel free to forward it to them.
Until next time…
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Al Ibrahim

I'm a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and an all-around creative enthusiast based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

On the first Monday of every month (more or less, but more and more less these days), I send out a dispatch of some of the best things I've read, made, watched, learned, and listened to in the previous month.

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Sent with love, from KL.