Why is English revered, while Arabic is looked down upon? Why do we fear Muslim men in beards but celebrate the hipster kind? Maybe because we're now profiling against our own cultural, traditional and religious norms, argues Anam Sufi.
Today I went to the Cairo Book Fair and had a whale of a time sifting through dust-caked books. Perhaps I owe it to my background in literature, but I found it remarkably symbolic how such books – books in French, German, English, Arabic, Russian, and Latin – seemed to tell the tale of history; their current state of corrosion being the most prominent characteristic of the hypothesis. Here I was faced with the musky pages of forgotten stories, debunked proofs, a cocktail of languages, both gone and existing, ironically being cajoled into making a purchase by illiterate or unconcerned merchants.
A lover of history and language, I was quick to pile on a mountain of books that tickled my interest. However, when it came time to haggle (oh yes, even with my broken Arabic skills), no matter how hard I insisted, the salesman set aside a pile and contended I pay more for them. Finding this a bit odd, especially since there seemed to be no “code” or “system” for the pricing, I decided to ask him why the particular pile was more expensive since they were all used books. He responded in a very matter-of-fact manner: “Because those books are in English.” It took me a moment to digest the meaning of his response.
While to most, this occurrence might be excused as an act of the everyday, where a foreigner gets hustled by an astute local, I couldn’t help but reflect on the matter in hindsight. After all, there’s something to be said about an Egyptian merchant in a book fair in Cairo who sells books in English at a higher price than those in Arabic. Why the preference for one language over the other? Why the preference for the foreign language? As I continued to pull on the proverbial thread of my thoughts, I began to question the widely adulated phenomena of globalisation. Accredited for playing an instrumental role in forging the face of the new world order, globalisation has often been considered a market where all nationalities and peoples share equal opportunities in terms of purchasing power parity; an extension of the barter system, in global terms. However, to what extent has this proven true? Barring material goods and services, what are the implications of ideological globalisation?
I believe the most crucial implications of ideological globalisation have taken place in the cultural sphere. If we were to view the phenomena through a Darwinian lens of survival of the fittest, where survival is exchanged with the act of acquiring the optimum standard of liberty and happiness (again, two very difficult things to measure), one could accept that not all exchanges of cultural norms are to be rebuked. However, what has taken place is a slow manipulation of the collective Eastern consciousness, under the banner of “globalization.” There is nothing global about an entire community or peoples abandoning their traditional, religious, and cultural norms in order to adhere to the Western mannerisms that are glorified and pushed through media and what have you.
The events of 9/11 marked a fundamental shift in the trajectory of world politics and international mobility. As the years passed, us non-Westerners, us Mohammads and Karims and Bilals discovered the true meaning of security, especially when entering “Western” territory. Racial profiling was thinly veiled beneath the advent of “standard and randomised security checks,” and the flagrant disregard for cultural diversity and sensitivity became a hot topic amongst us Arabs and Easterners. The post-9/11 years have marked a period of intellectual backtracking. In simple terms, it was as though the Alexandrian Libraries of our species’ minds were set ablaze, catapulting us back to a time where ignorance and stupidity reigned. After all, years of “progressive civilisation”… and what? We resort to anachronistic mechanisms of physiognomy to determine friend from foe? Never judge a book by it’s cover? Fuck that, I’ll take whatever bears Oprah’s seal of approval.
But before I lose you by going off on a tangent, what made me choose the particular example of 9/11 and the successive boost in physical profiling, was something that took place only a few days ago. A friend of mine is an owner of a cultural centre, and he had booked a foreign DJ from the United States to come play at his venue. In standard “artist liaison” fashion, he went to the airport to receive the DJ (a certain, DJ Huerco –white, born in Southern United States, physically bearing no inclination of having Eastern ancestors), but what should have been a quick meet and greet, ended up becoming a lengthy process of interrogation and drilling. The reason? DJ Huerco was hosting a new hipster style that included a heavy beard, alongside those skinny jeans that roll up at the ankles.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to match the affiliation the guards at the airport made. White + man + beard+ short pants = MUST BE IKHWAN! I had the pleasure of meeting with the DJ after his exhausting process of interrogation was complete. Not only was he repeatedly harassed and questioned for his “look”, but he was scrutinised to an unjustified extent. Saying this, in a country that increasingly seems to sideline the necessity for justification preceding action, I suppose anything is acceptable.
It sounds funny initially; watching the tables turn on the white man, but if you think about it… were the tables actually turned on the white man? Or have we reached a point where we ourselves have become the blind perpetrators of racial, facial, and stylistic profiling against our own cultural, traditional and religious norms?
It’s funny how the same rhetoric used by the West to describe the extreme Islamists of the East has become the pillow talk of the Egyptian people in describing each other. It’s funny how our airport and street-side security checks have assumed the same appearance based approach that targets Muslims bearing beards as the West. It’s funny how Egyptian university-level students at AUC struggle to read and write Arabic. It’s funny how the common merchant considers English texts to be of more value than those written in his own tongue. It’s funny how blissfully ignorant and voluntarily blind we are to the fact that all of these things are not the product of globalisation and a move towards progression, rather a usurpation of Western hegemony over our cultural narratives; one that we continue to welcome with open arms.
It is necessary that we learn to appreciate our cultural and traditional roots; embrace them for their independence from Western norms, admire and extol our histories, and take action to preserve our respective unique collective identities. I fear if we choose to further ignore the decay of our cultural characteristics, our reality will reflect the musky pages bearing forgotten stories, debunked proofs, and obsolescent languages; and our collective personalities will amount to nothing more than a commodity that gathers dust on the stalls of unconcerned merchants.