Sunday, 8 August 2010

Dark men in Kiev

Given my current travel schedule I am not providing as many internal links as usual in this post. 

Dubai is a city in the news these days because it is having (via its federal parent the UAE) a bit of a spat with the folks at Research in Motion (the parent of the BlackBerry). The city where I reside is also one of the world's most intriguing hubs. In the last three weeks, I have taken separate trips to Lebanon, Pakistan and Ukraine; all quite normal, and within an acceptable distance of my adopted home. In the close confines of Dubai, if you open your eyes, you quickly normalize yourself to difference. It is a microcosm of our global society.

A woman in a niqab (the head-to-toe ninja style black robe worn by some women in the Gulf) sits next to a young British couple, while they are both eating frozen yogurt from Pinkberry, before watching a Bollywood film. Such close encounters can often lead to situations of discomfort, but cultural friction is the norm when disparate traditions are hastily grouped together. However, they also take you to another understanding of the world, beyond your own context and background. Such cultural literacy, which is not unique to Dubai, is the key to understanding our nuanced world, by opening a door that forces us to escape the narcissistic myopia that we immerse ourselves in naturally as human beings.

When my three friends and I ventured into Kiev, and to its various hotspots, including Independence Square (pictured here), we were a puddle of brown in a sea of white, demonstrating immediately a real and perceived separation.

Over time, we have developed a number of barriers to understanding one another. Language. Religion. Culture. Nationality. Race of course is a trait that encapsulates and often makes explicit a difference, real or perceived. The network of paradigms that help us classify people can preclude us from understanding one another. Firstly, when we see difference, we assume that there is something innately distinct about another individual. 'They' think/act differently than us because of who they are. We see motivations - as does classic Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis - that are to be rooted in culture, religion etc. The 'sameness' of values and humanity gets lost. Yet, paradoxically, when gauging the actions of others, if we do not take into account their contexts and multiple paradigms, maybe we will not understand their motivations.

Take the example of the Palestinian for the first point of disregarding our common humanity. From afar, it may seem that a mother who praises her son's death as a militant has no regard for his life. She is cloaked in the language of Islamic martyrdom and glorifies fatalism. Yet perhaps, like any mother anywhere, she is simply trying to find meaning in her son's death, so that in fact his life had value and was not wasted, akin to any mother anywhere.

On the second point, where we need to "take into account...contexts and multiple paradigms [such as religion, history, culture etc]" we can look to the Israeli. With such superior firepower and a formidable army, why would some Israelis demonstrate a somewhat irrational fear of Palestinians and neighboring Arabs? It is not difficult, however, to understand a history not too far removed of a Holocaust that killed millions of Jews and displaced them from their home countries. Or of the constant Jewish position as a historically persecuted minority, without a home to escape to today but Israel in the world. Without seeing the very real impact of that history, tradition, and even of religion (in which Hannukah for example codifies the survivalist instinct within the Jewish tradition), you can fail to understand the 'other.'

The reality is that we are not going to converge to a single race or community in the near future. In the flat world that we live in, however, we are going to need to understand the 'other' with more frequency, and more depth. I raised the racial starkness of separation earlier, because it is the easiest way to draw a boundary and take succor in ignorance. A Muslim that is bearded and of foreign origin comforts, but a white Westernized cultural figure such as Cat Stevens embracing the faith confounds. It is far easier to avoid understanding. It is easier to caricature the Emirati local in Dubai as out-of-touch than to understand why he fears cultural encroachment. It is easier to ridicule a Tea Party as a racist high-school dropout, then to grasp that he or she may in fact feel disempowered in a country he or she no longer recognizes or feels a part of.

I am not and would not advocate relativism to make every viewpoint palatable nor do I believe that sameness is our underlying meeting-ground. We do not all need to agree. Yet, we do need to find the ability to have informed conversation with one another, understand one another, persuade one another, and ultimately find the ways to coexist peacefully and happily. This means forcing ourselves to escape our oft-too pervasive cultural illiteracy.

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