Sunday, August 5, 2007

Learning to love the banality of the other

I think I understand what you are saying Raouf. A few thoughts in answer to yours: the first answer is easy - learning a language for a few years and even living and studying the same number of years in one or several Arab countries does not make one an Arab expert, in the same way that I wouldn't consider myself an expert on Spain, although I learnt the language and lived, studied and worked there.

That is perhaps because when it comes to a Western country, one allows for greater complexity; how could I imagine that I would 'get' Spain and its people, even if I have Spanish cousins, and I like the food: I might study the history, the Catholic religion, the political system and chart the socio-demographic of the country - I might even live with an 'authentic' Spanish family, and still find myself far from qualified to speak at conferences on the 'Spanish mind' and the best way to deal with Basque Separatists. Then I might spend some months in Damascus or Cairo and find myself answering the following question from my well-meaning father:
What is the difference between Syrian women and Egyptian women?
Answer: The Syrian women wear tighter jeans.

My dad would be unlikely to ask me what the difference is between French and Spanish women, because a) they are not considered to be particularly downtrodden anymore, b) they are far too commonplace, and c) they are European so are likely to be annoyingly complicated, and anyway it depends if they are from Paris or a small Burgundian village, and if they are the doctor or a farmer's wife, and if they go to church regularly or attend private sex-orgies (this is big in Paris - according to Catherine M., but I never got invited). As for the difference between English and Scottish women; who cares?

Now I come to your second point, Raouf: let's entitle my answer: When the Arab lover turns Arab hater. It is about the nature of expectations and disappointment; because I think we must imagine that Bernard Lewis began his career as a young scholar, enamoured of all things Arab, Arabic and Islamic, and ends it embittered and hardened against them - determined to prove that the Arabs are all scoundrels.

It is no good going around saying that Arabs are all terrorists, but nor is it much good going around saying that Islam is a wonderful religion and Arabs are the kindest people on earth, for when you land in Cairo or Riyadh or even the home of the most perfect Arab 'victim', Gaza, you might find yourself confronted not only by the sweet and generous and dignified, but by the foolish, selfish hoards of humanity, lacking perhaps irony and taste and letting you down 'heartlessly' in small but significant ways, and little by little the love turns to resentment and mistrust.

The Westerner should never expect more of those 'others' - who unbeknown to them - we have desperately set aside to tend to our spiritual, cultural, and sexual salvation. Many travellers speak of the kindness they are met and treated with - a kindness that is so selfless and excessive that is can literally OVERWHELM. And yet there is precious little salvation outside of oneself, and where there is degradation and despair and poverty. We must carry with us our own reserves of joy or we will find ourselves yet more alone and bereft in an incomprehensible system that must be, we sadly conclude, stupid and evil.

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