Thursday evening I joined the public library’s contemporary book discussion group to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Pakistani novelist Hamid Mohsin’s brilliantly unsettling little book about a Pakistani Princeton grad who gives up a promising business career in the U.S. and returns to his family in Lahore. Easy to read in one evening, the book raises uncomfortable questions about East-West relations. Some participants in the book group hated it. They thought it was anti-American.
I didn't agree. Being from another country, the narrator sees things Americans take for granted, and some of the things he sees are not good. He has strong opinions about aspects of American politics and business, and he is critical of certain military decisions. At the same time, however, he loves New York, enjoys his American friends, and appreciates his Ivy League education. This is a book about conflict--not only between East and West, but also within the narrator's soul.
It is difficult to straddle two or more cultures. As the late Senator Paul Simon pointed out in his 1980 book The Tongue-Tied American, literal translations may have unintended hilarious meanings (e.g., it was hard to market the Chevy Nova in Spanish-speaking countries where no va means "it doesn't run"), and unless business people are fluent in their clients' language and at ease with their cultural expectations, they are always at a disadvantage in negotiations.
Isolated from the rest of the world on our big island, we Americans need repeated reminders that other people may have expectations, views, habits, standards, and hopes that differ markedly from our own--and that are perfectly reasonable from their point of view.
I thought I had learned that lesson at age 16, living in France during the Vietnam war when Americans were decidedly unpopular. But I had to relearn it at age 40, working for a successful British publisher that didn't edit or market books the way an American publisher would have done (more than once someone quoted to me George Bernard Shaw's famous wisecrack that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language"). At 60, I'm still learning, mostly through reading books like Mr Mohsin's.
The gap between East and West, of course, is much wider than that between the United States and France (hey, it's D-Day, and today the French adore us!). It is almost inconceivable to most Westerners that a woman might freely choose to wear the hijab, or that a nation might democratically elect a dictator, or that a culture might not want religious freedom. Most of us simply wouldn't know how to speak to people who differ that much from us. Unless, of course, we make an effort to find out what's important to them.
And that brings me, finally, to President Obama's speech Thursday in Cairo. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas, a stepfather from Indonesia, and grandparents in Hawaii, Obama has no illusions that the rest of the world either loves or envies Americans. He is painfully aware that much of the world--rightly or wrongly--sees Americans as arrogant, ignorant, irreligious, materialistic, and militaristic. Which is why, in Cairo, he spoke humbly, intelligently, and respectfully, focusing on our shared values and hope for peace.
"This is a huge break from the past," says Richard Engel, the NBC News chief foreign correspondent, who has lived in the Middle East for 12 years and speaks and reads Arabic fluently. In MSNBC's World Blog, he writes:
Former President George Bush was Al-Jazeera’s bête noire. Yesterday, one of the network’s guests remembered Bush as "a warmonger" who spoke "in a language of blood and killing." Another analyst compared the former president to Osama bin Laden.Engel notes Obama's knowledgeable use of Muslim religious terminology that communicates respect to a Muslim audience. He also mentions phrases Obama used--"the Holy Koran," "peace be upon them"--whose omission would have been perceived as socially incorrect or even blasphemy. His listeners, many of them, came skeptical but left singing his praises.
"I don’t see much of a difference between Bush and Bin Laden," he said. "Both say, ‘You are either with us or against us.’"
In contrast, Al-Jazeera described Obama’s speech as "honest," "historic" and "deeply respectful."
I suspect a main reason Obama was so well received was that he – either by design or coincidence – successfully used the tools of Arabic rhetoric: flattery, history and religion. Simply put, Obama translated well into Arabic.
We Americans have plenty of catching up to do. More of us need to study the history and languages of non-Western countries. We need to encourage our young people to spend time living and working in other cultures. And indeed, we are making progress. Young-adult children of my friends are blogging from Vietnam, Uganda, and India; and I proudly report that my 14-year-old granddaughter just got a 90 in credit-by-exam for first-year high-school Chinese (her public school offers four years of Chinese language).
Americans don't have to be ugly. Most of us, in fact, aren't. The noisy, contentious ones draw a crowd--but the rest of us are quietly, respectfully observing and learning from our neighbors to the East. When we listen to them, we risk discovering that they don't like our country as much as we wish they would. But when enough of us really listen to them, some of them may begin to revise their opinion of us.
As a young Egyptian student said after the President's speech, "All we want as Muslims is for there to be a partnership. And he was seriously humble. Humility is important for us."