The Right Word by Imtiaz Dharker

‘Are words no more / than waving, wavering flags?’

Imtiaz Dharker explores how words create our understanding rather than objectively reflect reality – and the effect this has on our relationships with people unlike ourselves.

‘The Right Word’ by Imtiaz Dharker

Outside the door,
lurking in the shadows,
is a terrorist.

Is that the wrong description?
Outside that door,
taking shelter in the shadows,
is a freedom fighter.

I haven’t got this right.
Outside, waiting in the shadows,
is a hostile militant.

Are words no more
than waving, wavering flags?
Outside your door,
watchful in the shadows,
is a guerrilla warrior.

God help me.
Outside, defying every shadow,
stands a martyr.
I saw his face.

No words can help me now.
Just outside the door,
lost in shadows,
is a child who looks like mine.

One word for you.
Outside my door,
his hand too steady,
his eyes too hard
is a boy who looks like your son, too.

I open the door.
Come in, I say.
Come in and eat with us.

The child steps in
and carefully, at my door,
takes off his shoes.

Analysis of ‘The Right Word’

The word ‘terrorist’ creates a complex set of expectations. We believe that we understand how this person will act; we may even think we know who they are, what they represent, their motives, even their appearance, just from this one word. ‘Lurking in the shadows’ further suggests that they are a hidden threat waiting for the moment to attack. Dharker creates tension and mood in just these three opening lines.

However, Dharker deflates these expectations when in the next stanza she asks ‘Is that the wrong description?’.

The ‘terrorist’ is recast as a ‘freedom fighter’ which immediately sets up a whole other range of expectations. In contrast, Dharker now describes the person as ‘taking shelter in the shadows’, seeking safety against an oppressive enemy. Even a subtle change in word choice significantly alters our interpretation.

Dharker continues to highlight that there are many ways to frame and reframe a situation. This same person also becomes a ‘hostile militant’, a ‘guerrilla warrior’ and a ‘martyr’. The speaker demonstrates uncertainty as they struggle to find the right words, asking ‘Is that the wrong description?’ and worrying that they ‘haven’t got this right’. Unable to settle on a satisfying description, the speaker asks: ‘Are words no more / than waving, wavering flags?’. Like flags, the meaning of words can waver, become partial or obscure. Words aren’t concrete and stable, objectively capturing the essential truth.

This means that the same person can be called a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on the views of the speaker and – crucially – the response they wish to invoke in others. Is this person brave or merely violent? Should we respect them or fear them? Each term provokes a different reaction.

However, the lurking figure is finally recast as simply a ‘child’. He is a ‘boy who looks like your son’, suggesting for the first time a familiarity, a fundamental sameness. In the penultimate stanza, the speaker even ‘open[s] the door’ and invites the child into the intimate family space to ‘Come in and eat with us’. Only once the figure on the outside is recognised as a child, rather than being described in alarming language, can the door open to them.

The image of the door returns throughout the poem. A wall simply divides two sides. Yet a door can open, providing an opportunity for the two sides to connect. One side must take the risk and reach out, opening the door to the other and welcoming them in.

Dharker argues that words can create an artificial barrier between people, hiding our similarities and emphasising – or imagining – fundamental differences. But the right words, like a door, can open up new spaces for friendship and understanding.

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