Compassion Fatigue

The first time it happened was over Christmas dinner. She does not remember exactly when, yet it must have been sometime between the caviar baskets and the pâté de canard sandwiches—as her mother was a strong believer of amuse-bouche not fusing together. She segregated them to single takes; one after another, and strictly within the boundaries of their food category. No two could ever be on the table at the same time, and had to be enjoyed in an almost ascetic tasting style. First of all, there were antipasti of sun-dried tomatoes, then feta cheese stuffed olives, and then mozzarella balls. There was smoked cod fillet in jelly, caviar baskets, pâté de canard, jambon, and several types of saucissons.

Though fascist-like, it was only because of her mother’s idiosyncratic serving style that she could roughly track the course of the evening. She’s sure it happened sometime between caviar baskets and pâté de canard sandwiches. Pâté always came next. It was the designated transition food. This was due to its ambiguous texture, Mom said. She believed pâté to be just as intermediate as other great transitions of history—having an unsatisfying origin story and confusing finality, yet a great potential, considering how much labor and ingenuity went into the process.

It must have been between the caviar baskets and the pâté. Even now she could remember the salty fish taste in the back of her mouth. She absolutely hated the taste, but ate them, perhaps out of politeness. Maybe out of contrasting curiosities and to satisfy the repulsion she felt. It’s the same taste, now deeply ingrained with the sight of their amiable smiles and eyes, failing to conceal their looks of fear and terror.

She followed up the conversation about pregnancy-taboo foods that her two older sisters were having at the Christmas table.

“Oh, I hear you. When I was pregnant with my first one, I had to combat morning sickness every time I was having my morning coffee. Was pushing it down like a hero. Caffeine addiction—one, the baby—zero. Coffee always wins. I wonder whether it has something to do with him being a bit hyper at times.”

The eldest had two absolutely adorable if spoiled preteens, the second was pregnant with her first one. Eldest, remembered craving for, while at the same time being absolutely disgusted by, smoked herring. The younger always felt sick after having a mango lassi, her all-time favorite.

As soon as she told her pregnancy story, she quickly rose and left the table for the bathroom to fix her headscarf. She picked up a habit of wearing one during her first assignment in Afghanistan almost seven years ago. She was preparing a photo story on female opium producers. Apart from the headscarf being obligatory in many parts of the country, it gave her an opportunity to bond with the women she was spending her days with. Her Pashto was even more broken than it was today.

So quick amicable lessons on how to put a headscarf gave the women a chance to giggle and loosen up. She knew she was an alien there, so decided to go with it, instead of pretending her way into understanding.

Ever since, she sometimes wears one in an African Somali style. A turban held high opening up her beautiful neckline. A columnist friend once told her she was flirting with cultural appropriation by wearing all those turbans and orientalist jewelry. She, after loudly admitting the fault, never considered changing anything.

Neither was she sure which culture was hers, nor which one she was appropriating. She was too loose in the world for too long to have any clear reference points or fixed cultural origin story. Truth is, she secretly did not believe in “culture”. For her, there were just people, and then some groups of people sharing stories and symbols, occasionally breaking away from them.

The red shamina wool one she was wearing today was a gift from Marco, the last serious guy she dated. He gave it to her together with a bracelet with a neem tree — a symbol of Hazrat Babajan, Pashtun Muslim saint, mystic and guru.

“ Hazrat Babajan was standing equally against Muslim  ulamas,  orthodox  Zoroastrians  and  British  authorities. She travelled across the Middle East on pilgrimages, including Mecca, dressed as a man. She used to sit under the neem tree where she received her devotees. What a profoundly true woman! Crossing all boundaries, destroying limitations, giving so much to the world and requiring so little, just the shade of a tree. She reminds me so much of you”

Marco was clearly a fan; she wasn’t. She hated the bracelet. Never wore it. She required more than a darn tree. She knew he meant it as a compliment, yet every time she heard it, it made her quiver. “Sweet little Babajan, you fucked it up for us all”, she thought. “You put yourself through a life of hell, and when the time comes to claim a duly deserved respect, gratitude and recognition, you chose just to sit in the shade. No wonder these men can suck out our livelihood or praise our strength one day, and then wander away whistling the other. They think all we need are stupid trees.”


Marco was okay. Fine. Having had the privilege of hindsight, nothing too remarkable.  They met in Kabul a few years ago when she was on assignment for The Times. He was a postdoctoral fellow at a research institute in Rome. She was there to report on the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. He was there to research clandestine female poetry practices. The irony of this bizarre gender situation was often the topic during their romantic pillow talks, usually just generating a pleasant nighttime laugh, occasionally some advice one way or another.

They kept dating after he finished his fieldwork in Kabul. She briefly moved in with him in Rome. It all ended when she left for a long assignment in Syria. News reports on the use of chemical weapons had just emerged. As always in these situations, she felt an emotional mixture of responsibility and adrenaline rising. She left. He broke it off with an email. A long one, to his credit. Months later she learned he had moved in with an Italian food stylist. She didn’t know it was a thing until then. Fresh out of university. Just after an internship. Three years in, she heard that they are expecting their second child. She was left with a tree.


She thinks she knew she was making it up the moment she said it. That thing at the Christmas table. She never had kids. Or a pregnancy for that matter. She said it on purpose, a little bit to tease them, a little bit to shock them. At least, so she thinks. All the baby conversations were becoming repetitive and elaborate. She started thinking they were provoking her intentionally. When she came back to the table, they had switched the conversation to the bargain hunting, a topic too banal to be bedeviled with a flair of madness.

A few days after the dinner she left for an assignment with an NGO to South Sudan. She was commissioned to do a photo essay on a children’s hospital associated with the refugee camp. She always took NGO assignments when she needed a boost. Photos for NGOs tended to be more positive: to humanize not to scandalize, as per their mantra.

“The photos that you will take, they need to reflect their shared humanity” said the communications officer. “We do not want any tinges of orientalism. No othering, no exotifying, no stereotyping. What we want is for the pictures to reflect the beauty of their childhood”

Yet this idea of  a shared humanity bothered her to the bone,  as the humanity in question was that of a middle-aged western housewife, the primary pool of contributors. She was putting these kids through the smoothing process of photography in order to produce elegant packages of relatability. All that just to reinforce the legitimacy of NGO intervention and the benevolent idea of development.

Big smiles, footballs, colorful T-shirts, holding hands. Romantic beliefs of childhood as innocent, naive and passive.

The way she saw it, these children were far too complex for her to accurately depict. The kids were tough, smart, cunning, sometimes violent, often sad, almost always angry. That was not as relatable as footballs or coloring books. And she was kindly advised to stick to those.

She still preferred working with NGOs most of the time. She tried to pick up NGO assignments as often as she could, even if they paid less. Not for the sake of shared humanity but for herself.

Truth is, NGO jobs tended to be a slow cooking stew. Stories had to be tenderized, investigated, approached and tamed. And most of all, they needed to reflect happiness. Happiness had to be manufactured. Manufacturing needed time. Time gave her freedom.

Media, on the other hand, was quick and dirty. Pictures had to be raw and painful. Not that they were any more accurate. It’s just that they reflected the other kind of reality. The one where the most naked emotions had to be demonstrated. Benn used to call her “the queen of emotions”.

Benn was chief of the Baghdad bureau for Reuters, and the last serious man she truly loved. Although Benn happened before Marco, it was the relationship she mourned to this day. Apart from appreciating her, Benn really appreciated her craft. He used to send her on assignments at the most crucial times. Especially when he felt the conflict was falling out of news cycles. She would manage to get faces when others brought blood. Blood would sell, but only in the beginning.

Then people had seen enough. Audiences would inevitably hit compassion fatigue. Then you had to change the frame. And none was better at grief than she was. He thought it was because she was woman, more empathetic. She thought it was because she was often in grief. It was recognizable to her even when she was merely approaching it.

He once said, claiming he was quoting an anthropologist he heard on the radio. “It used to be that audiences needed Crucifixion, now it’s the decade of the Pieta. Everyone watches suffering”

He was wrong. It was photojournalism. Overweening intellectual authority was one of the most annoying of Benn’s habits.

She and Benn hit it off quite nicely. It was the relationship that began with professionalism and then grew into love. He was completely smitten by her photographic talent and swiftly turned her into the photography star of the Iraq desk. He started inviting her for drinks after discussing assignments. Things became romantic.

They were spending more time together. They moved in together. It was easy with Benn. He was older than her. Then in his forties, he cherished her talent as a young photographer and was much more encouraging than limiting.

She owed him no explanations for her abrupt departures and he sincerely enjoyed seeing her work, loving the human connection which was combined with his professional admiration. He, secure in his social position, was without competitiveness or envy. He often hired her for assignments and discussed what he called the shifting newsworthiness of certain styles, topics and places.

It seemed to last forever, until it didn’t.

He was offered an editor’s position in New York—a massive career jump. She hoped he would ask her to go with him. He didn’t.

When she finally brought it up, he said she belonged in the field. Sedentary life in New York would kill her, dull her sharpness and taint her insights. She needed to be among the people for whom she worked. Although employed by one of the biggest western news agencies, he always thought that journalists worked for the communities they were reporting on. That was admittedly one of Benn’s best qualities.

And yet she was not convinced. Partly because hearing her well being explained to her was really not her cup of tea, partly because she really wanted to try to be with him. When she confronted him about it, he just distractedly confessed that “It was a nice chapter in our lives, but it was time to move on”.

It was the last time she heard from him.


Ever since Benn she tried to spend more time with her family. Not because of a newly discovered appreciation of them, but because it was the only place she could still find social comfort. Like all families they were wonderful in some ways and terrible in others. They were united and loyal to one another, however chronically indirect and secretive.

All commentaries and expectations were vocalized in the form of tease and joke and said out loud at the table, initiating a spectacle of defensive sarcasm firing in all directions. Passive-aggressive undertones kept the verbal matches going on slightly too long, so that emotional damage could be avoided, as no-one was willing to concede. She, admittedly the weirdest family member of them all, was most often the target. Her forthcoming promising family life was the most common topic.

Now, in her late thirties, she and her settling down was being brought up less and less. They had finally recognized the reality and lowered their expectations.

It used to be that their tease was delivered with laughter and the most benevolent form of racism: “No worries, we will accept whomever you bring: a black man, an Arab, a Jew”, customizing their assumed tolerance to whatever place she was going next. They thought promising tolerance was keeping their side of the deal, now it was hers to bring a man home. But in the last few years even this topic did not come up. At first, she felt relieved. Now she felt they had given up on her.


The second time it happened, it was after the moths attacked her apartment. After the trip to South Sudan she found her place completely overtaken by the invaders. Her Moroccan silk rug was falling apart. Two of her three winter coats had massive holes around the neckline. She must have brought them with one of the antique woolen shawls from her vacation in Iran. After discovering this disaster, she called her elder sister for help.

After finishing up with the closet they started clearing out an old dresser. She realized something was up when she saw her sister gasping for air and staring at the opened bottom drawer.

She must have forgotten the contents. Otherwise she would not have let her sister open it.

The drawer was full of baby clothes. All cute, expensive and with the price tags still intact.

At first, she thought of lying her way out, saying she bought them for their other sister. But it was evident her collection predated her sister’s pregnancy. That sister had given birth almost two months ago. There was no justifications for these  clothes still hanging around in her apartment, in the secret drawer.

That was the first time they had a conversation. Trapped in silence and awkwardness, there was no way of pulling back.

“I just thought you didn’t want it”

“Didn’t want what?”

“All these things we do”


“You know we all are incredibly proud of you, right? Even if we tease you at times. You are there. In the world. Doing all those amazing things. Living your truths”.

“It’s not so simple”,

“But you were the one who always said that you wouldn’t let conventional things define you. That you could find happiness by doing your thing and not copying others. I thought you said you would live a feminist life” .

“Yes, and I still think so. And I do. But I was brought up here. In this society, where wishes and desires that a woman should have are loud and clear and assumed  by  everyone.  And believe me, I try my darn best not to have them. And after these thirty plus years of living this feminist life, I still sometimes find myself in attitudes that are not that, and assuming those things about myself. It’s a process. Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. I have desires…ones I wish I wouldn’t have…”

“What are those? Those bad desires that you have?”

“I don’t know. Stupid things. Like wearing uncomfortable clothes for a girls-night-out, having coffee brought to bed, shopping for groceries for more than one person, picking a vacation from a catalogue, making a batch of pancakes for breakfast, choosing washable wallpapers, knitting blankets, making pictures for a family album, having a kid….”

“But I thought these were all things you hated. Didn’t you say that all these things are merely reinforcing gender stereotypes?”

And still do. And they are. Now you see the problem”


A week later she got an invitation to one of her sister’s events. She met a charming guy there. Out of the whole group of twenty they were the only two single people. The meeting was obviously pre-planned. However, she did not feel uncomfortable. Her sister was good at this.

Tomas had an air of silent confidence and truly benevolent eyes. Recently divorced with two kids, he was a financial consultant for one of the big firms in town. After he hit forty, his wife left him for a more exciting man.

All went well between them. Even very well. Tomas wasn’t the most interesting person she’d ever met. However, he was calm, self-assured, and sharp. He maneuvered seamlessly between light conversation and meaningful silences.

Importantly he did not fetishize her “strength” or craft. Though he appreciated her stoic character, he was very willing to shield and nurture her whenever downers came. It was a novelty in her life. She found it troubling at first, but then slid into this newly discovered comfort easily.

He did not indulge in her war stories. Quite the contrary, he felt quite deterred by them. Instead they practiced their mutually shared hobbies. Read poetry to one another. Shared newly discovered music. Cooked untested recipes. Times were good. She slowly started thinking of giving up war photography. She thought of maybe starting teaching, opening a studio, taking up writing.

One evening, they were spending time with his kids when her editor called for some images from the Syrian war. One of the reporters was writing a book on fighters’ migration across different rebel factions. They were looking for unpublished photos. She went to her computer to quickly skim over her archive. That’s when Tomas’s older daughter sneaked in.

At first, she didn’t notice her as she quietly peeked over her shoulder. However, what started as a curious stare quickly turned into an uncontrollable shriek. She was staring at two beheaded bodies of ISIS fighters. Bodies were soaking in pools of blood, heads carelessly kicked to the far corner of a room, where the image frame barely grasped them.

The image was in high focus, high resolution and very well lit. Making it too gruesome to look at for any time longer than a glimpse, the reason she had never sent it anywhere. Now, what was never meant to be seen by a set of mature eyes, was being devoured by the unsullied eyes of a six-year-old, sending her into shock.

After that event their story flipped. Either driven by fatherly protectionism or just simple curiosity, Tomas suddenly decided he is ought to investigate her past. For a few weeks almost every evening, they talked about her war assignments. She told him of her first front cover, and her first big photography prize. He wanted to know it all. Where she felt most at ease, where she felt most scared. All the times she was near death.

At first, she was ambivalent but also happy in this new life she had started with him. Slowly, after a few stories, she felt relieved. Her past was finally finding the way into her present. She was happy he was finally curious about her whole life. Her history did not seem to intimidate him. She was recounting her life with an almost theatrical excitement. She imagined herself as a modern Scheherazade.

By the end of two weeks it was clear that she felt proud and excited about her past. Tomas seemed quite chill about it. He did not bring it up too much, but sometimes threw in an occasional war joke: “If you outlasted that siege in Aleppo, you can surely endure a cinema session with the kids”.

One morning when they were having late Sunday breakfast, he calmly told her he was breaking up with her. He was a single dad. The comfort of his kids came first. They already had been through enough with one unpredictable woman in their life, their mother. Although she was fascinating, and he was slowly falling in love with her, he couldn’t risk it. He thought it was a good time to end it.  The size of her past did not match the size of his carefully pre-planned future.


She packed her things and left for Yemen two days later. There the war was escalating too incrementally to have been noticed by western audiences. Amnesty International was declaring a cholera breakout in the northern parts of the country. She called her former colleague from The Times and the two of them were commissioned to do a story promptly.

Cholera was a gruesome spectacle to watch. Hospitals were overcrowded with dehydrated children hooked on IVs and pregnant women giving birth to stillborn infants. Vaccinations were promised but were not arriving on time. Finding clean water was hard. The crisis was one horror show of misery.

They spent three weeks there. Her colleague John’s wife was due to give birth to their firstborn in a few weeks. He couldn’t stay longer. Still confused and not knowing where to go, she ending up going back home.

Her mother was having a birthday party. This time the family could not hide their pity. All her previous love stories and break-ups happened far away. They were hidden. This time everything happened in plain sight. In everyone’s eyes she was a sad, lonely woman. No jokes were made.


One day her elder sister got a phone call from the police. “Your sister is accused of kidnapping a child”. An officer delivered the news in a form much too laid back, considering the content. She rushed to the police station to find her sister in a state of confusion. She wasn’t tearful or emotional, not even apologetic.

The police report stated she had taken a child from a playground and walked away with him. First stopping to buy some ice-cream. Then she turned towards the city center. The terrified mother, upon noticing her kid missing, started a chain of panicked phone calls. One of her neighbors noticed the child walking down the street while eating ice cream with a strange woman. She called the police.

She had confused the child with one of Tomas’s  children. They did not look much alike. She noticed him playing alone in the playground, and not seeing either Tomas or his ex-wife around decided to return the kid back to his father.

Her sister convinced the mother, in a state of an shock, not to press charges. She gave a short and pitiful version of her sister’s life story and assured everyone that they will seek psychological help for her.

They didn’t. It was decided to treat the incident as a momentary mistake due to confusion triggered by her recent breakup.


She left for Gaza the next week. The war there was simmering again. Protests were breaking out and there was an exchange of missiles.

She was having her breakfast at the hotel on her fifth day when she heard a rumor that one of the Hamas leaders planned to make an appearance at one of the rallies, re-emerging from hiding after more than a year.

She quickly grabbed her camera, two extra lenses, her headscarf and rushed to the square. Her fixer, Tayer, could not make it there on time. It was her fifth time in Gaza.

She arrived at the square only half an hour after receiving the message. There was no sign of anyone from the leadership. She mingled with the crowd, making her way to the center of it.

In a few minutes she spotted three jeeps with armed men, masked, approaching the square. Others noticed the cars as well. A wave of applause and shouting rippled through the crowd.

She tried to extend her hands upwards to be able to take some pictures. The crowd milled around her. She was squeezed with no way of moving anywhere. Her feet were barely reaching the ground. Blood rushed directly into her head. She started suffocating. She blacked out just for a moment. When she opened her eyes again, she had already completely lost the sense of space around her.



 “Baby! Baby!”

Baby here!” she started screaming in Arabic, pointing to her belly.

The people around her, distressed by her screams and frantic moves, pushed to the sides forming an air pocket around her, making a corridor for her to leave. Two taller men led the way pushing people to the sides and yelling something authoritatively, while two women grabbed her from both sides sprinkling water on her face. She was losing consciousness and then coming to in intervals of a few seconds.

She was rushed down to the nearest hospital. And from there to Tel Aviv. Her family was informed immediately and flew in the following morning.

They found her alone in a hospital room, morphed into an embryo pose pointlessly staring at the wall. She was scaring the other patients. Her dark long hair was wrapped around her face. She seemed heavily drugged.

It was impossible to make out the meanings of the stares she was making. Through the split of her hospital gown one could see freshly made scratch marks all across her spine line, looking like someone who was trying to scrape off her tattoo. A traditional Filipino style tapping tattoo she got when she was covering the war on drugs in Manila a few years ago, it snaked its way elegantly around her spine highlighting her beautifully arched back. Now it seemed like it was spilling out of the ink lines, as the reddish color of the ornament was mixing with the not-yet-healed wounds. Her lips were mumbling something indecipherable, yet were producing no sound.

She was like this ever since she was brought in. Ultrasound testing showed no signs of a fetus. They thought to start treating her for a miscarriage but the test results showed no signs of a pregnancy either. They needed to run more tests.

 Photography Credit: Jason Rice

I.I. Zechariah is a writer from Eastern Europe.