Ayesha Ahmad: “Stories are all we have”- reflecting on ‘An Imperfect Offering’ by James Orbinski

In ‘An Imperfect Offering’, a memoir written by James Orbinski on his travelling tales as a doctor working and bearing witness in some of the world’s most death-ridden and hostile regions, he writes of a man he met in Afghanistan who once said to him:

No scars, no story, no life. Sometimes, the best story is the space between the words – a space that is a window onto a different way of seeing. And when there are no easy answers, stories are all we have”.

Dr Orbinski, also a former elected President of Médecins Sans Frontiéres, practices medicine with an ideology; a view to obtaining justice. He says that the “first act of justice is recognising the victim” in the bodies of these extreme lands of wars and crises.

This is the light of Dr Orbinski’s work – he reminds us that the person’s eyes are where we find a life or a death – we see the “last remnant of a fuller life”. Dr Orbinski captures this final moment; and reflects to us how we are to find a person’s story.

Could there be a story without scars? Could there be a life without a story?

Dr Orbinski describes that “it is into this silent place that the humanitarian acts, and in speaking from this place, the voice of outrage is raised. It is a voice that bears witness to the plight of the victim”.

And Dr Orbinski does not look the other way – he stares into suffering and chooses to enter, wandering through the annals of a suffered life.

Some stories merely suffer. They are words of a life flailing, feeling the ground but finding flight, taken from the graves of their birth. A story that cannot be contained, held in arms that remain closer to the death than the life.

Why do stories matter? Because suffering survives whilst shrouded in silence.

In speaking, one recognises, “I am and I am not alone”.

So, the nomadic words of the Afghan, are indeed the roots of our humane-ness.

In our medicine, we can perceive, we can embrace the hurt, the sick, the dying; the elements of the human heart lost in our bleeding world, and we can hear the mind of the suffered.

We speak stories.

Dr James Orbinski will be speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, November 24th 2011.

An Imperfect Offering’ is published by Rider, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, UK, 2008.