Think about this for a moment, where might you see or hear the phrase that is the title of this poem?
Have you used “the right word” there? What is “the right word” to use? There are possibly more to think about. So how does Imthiaz Dharker mean us to use it this time?
The first time I ever came across this poem was hearing the poet on a video recite the poem so I heard the tone as well in her voice and it was the immediate thing I noticed. There was a slight venom in her voice, akin to Agard when he asks us to consider what we mean by the term “half caste.” So I am left with the undying thought that she is trying to get us to consider just how we label people.
For example, she says from the beginning that the person “lurking in the shadows” is none other than a “terrorist,” but there is a saying that goes something like “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” so we are left wondering if she is echoing this thought on purpose.
Verse two begins with the question as to whether she has got that right by using the word “terrorist.” It is a viable term to use if someone is indeed “lurking in the shadows” waiting with intent to cause harm, but she asks if she has it right. Perhaps he could be the “freedom fighter” after all? We see this because of the words “taking shelter in the shadows,” which have an opposite meaning in this context to those in verse one.
But that continues into the next two verses where words like “hostile militant” and guerilla warrior” are used to take us back to the idea of a person of violence lurking in those shadows. But we as readers then ask ourselves what each word means because there is a distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter, guerilla warrior and hostile militant. It is important how we see these people because some of them may be members of our family or circle of friends.
She asks if words “are no more than … wavering flags” which does remind the reader of John Agard’s poem, Flag, making the reader think towards the idea of a nation’s flag and the term we might then use for a person in the darkness of the shadow life. In this sense, the term “freedom fighter” fits better than “terrorist” if the person is a fellow national. If not, then any of the others fits well. It is dependent therefore, on context, as to what terms we use to label each other.
From here in the poem there is a sense of desperation as she seeks the help of God to assist her in defining this something in the darkness. For now it is not a someone of terror, but “a child” who she says “looks like mine.” In this way, the reader sees in their mind their child, if they have one, or the prospect of seeing a child of theirs enter into such a life as this. We hear so much of the young being radicalized and then going off to fight in Jihad that we can easily see that given the wrong context, our family members could easily end up like this, in the shadows.
Tell me, how would you react if your brother or sister, son or daughter, or wider family member, who you trust and love, were to become radicalized? Would you isolate the person and leave them “in the shadows” or would you “open the door” and let them in to give them the help that they need? This is the aspect found in the final two verses of this poem. People who we deem to be terrorists and freedom fighter are actually, other people’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, so how we treat and deal with such people is important.
Dharker uses the words “the child walks in and carefully, at my door, takes off his shoes.” This is a sign of respect to the owner of the house, to do such things. It is a sign that the person outside who is coming in knows something of manners and etiquette. It is a sign that they care, but in this context it has come from someone who someone else would deem a “militant” or worse, a “terrorist.” Clearly, Dharker is trying to make us think about the terms we use to label each other. Labels are negative usually and used to demean people and put them down. But the true human is one that loves and respects, which in this case, is the person in the shadows. And there is the dilemma for the reader!
This is a very clever poem indeed, one that makes you question your relationships with others and especially with people who we consider are ‘different’ to ourselves. It is also something of a polemic on world affairs, subtly making the reader consider just who are the freedom fighters and who are the real terrorists.