by Zad El Bacha
There have been hundreds of years of rich, positive exchanges between cultures. When a European meets an Arab, they ask them about the patterns on their clothes, the words in their books, the instruments in their songs. The Arab asks them the same. They listen and learn, they answer in turn. Both are intrigued, they are equals and they are interested. They find the things that draw them together, they observe the differences, how their grandmothers wear their veils differently, how their string instruments have different shapes; but they are both veiled grandmothers, they both have strings. They learn, and they take what they have learnt to their respective homes. They grow something new and complex in the awareness of their cultures’ value. They thank each other. They grow each other’s wealth in the process of exchange. They are equals and they are willingly sharing and growing.
Grim, grim reality
There have been hundreds of years of violent destruction of some cultures by others. One part of the world has an immense amount of power over the Other. When a European meets an Arab, they see only differences to be despised and destroyed.
(My mother was banned from speaking Arabic in school. My grandma wasn’t allowed in court with her handmade abaya. My cousin only speaks French, despises the Koran, and will never touch the chord of an ‘oud.)
They see something lesser and duller. They do not ask. They talk and they shout. Sometimes something pretty catches their eye, a colourful abaya, a flavourful dish. They do not ask. It is a pretty Other, no depth or history to it other than that which they can give it. They take the pretty abaya away from the Arab and force them into jeans. They wear their abaya as a novelty, careless and violent. They mock and destroy and take.
There have been hundreds of years of violent destruction of some cultures by some others. A European knows this. When they meet an Arab they see the Other and they think, “ah! I see this person and think of the Other, although they are a person.” They do not ignore this. They see colour and they face it. They approach with humility, they do not ask too much. They smile and they chat. They know and they see, and they both see healing ahead. They ask cautiously at first, they learn, they listen. Wherever they go they listen, they read, watch and look at everything. They see more and more complexity, they understand the anger, the Other becomes just another, different (but not that different) human. Variety and meaning materialise before the learner. They ask and they give thanks for what they can take. They treat it delicately, they grow, and now they have prettier clothes (and maybe they are the work of a grandma who has found her abaya again, and now it is bought and not stolen from her). Growth and healing come on both sides, they both know that they are unequal, that their inequality is rooted in years of violence that reverberates still today. They know they have to work for it not to be that way, so they are sensitive and loving, learning instead of grabbing. They’re careful, they’re hopeful.