“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” ― Pema Chödrön
I was invited by an American friend to visit him in Johannesburg. I found a cheap fare online with Saudi Arabian airlines, and booked my trip. I had a layover of six hours in Jeddah airport on the way over, and am now in the middle of my nine hours’ stint for the return leg.
Being here is more than a few hours of discomfort; it’s stirred up my prejudices. I lived in the Middle East for ten years from the age of four. I attended an international English school in Kuwait that had students from almost every country that existed at that time. However, because the teachers were white British, notions of white superiority often pervaded the classrooms, though their partiality was not often conspicuous.
This was not the case outside the school walls where the prejudice was defiantly overt. The hierarchy in Kuwait was: Kuwaitis, other Arabs, whites, mixed race (provided half was either white or Arab) and at the bottom were the black and brown folks. This meant that if there was a car accident – and when I lived there, Kuwait had one of the highest car accident rates in the world – between a Kuwaiti and a foreigner, the foreigner would be held responsible.
For a publicly devout country, there was zero brotherhood shown towards their fellow Muslims from poorer nations. The local Kuwaiti boys would shout, “Hind!” and spit when a brown person walked past. (Colouring of both Arabs and Asians run from the lightest cream to the darkest brown, but facial features, dress, or perhaps just attitude allowed us to distinguish one from the other at ten paces.)
Our gardener from Dhaka had a brother who came to Kuwait to work in the restaurant trade, as so many do to escape the poverty at home. He told us of the time his Arab employers poured hot oil down his back, burning his skin, and kept him locked in a dark room for three days without food – because he hadn’t washed a spoon properly.
We would hear of stories of abused Filipino and Sri Lankan maids jumping from their balconies to their deaths, though these were never discussed openly in the local papers.
This was the high period of human trafficking of Bangladeshi and Afghani babies to countries like Qatar and the UAE for camel racing – having young crying children strapped to the camels made them run faster.
It felt like an us-versus-them society, even when I was too young to articulate it. The Arabs had the power to do whatever they liked, because they were the puppet masters controlling the show.
The attitude shown to Palestinians living in Kuwait was the only grey area I could remember: while they didn’t put pressure (using clout that the big regional powers collectively had and still have) for a Palestinian homeland, they did extend a surface gesture of inclusivity. This effort was not made for anyone else.
The bluntly derisive attitude of Kuwaitis towards us made it easy for me to reject them too. As they steadily imported greenery to plant around their gleaming new highways, the trees would inevitably wither in the desert heat. I thought it a perfect metaphor for living there: stay here long enough and you too will shrivel up and die.
My father, an actuary, was always treated with respect at his office, and often invited to his Arab colleagues’ weddings where he joined them in eating camel meat and drinking from the same cup. A co-worker told my father in private that he was a lucky man to come from Bangladesh, a democratic country that allowed voices of dissent. My father’s colleague had much wealth and comfort, but he could never protest against his government.
Unlike the US or UK where immigration means that cultures merge, communities overlap as traits, language and food heritages are exchanged, Kuwait did not allow for this. We were expats, there to study or work. We moved away with our identities intact, and left no footprint behind.
Anywhere but here
I’ve always said I can live anywhere in the world, unless it’s a country in war, a place that demands women cover their heads, or the Middle East.
This is not only because of my own experiences in Kuwait, but the way major Arab states exert their power over other nations. How their blatant human rights violations and lack of democracy (justifications for starting wars in other situations) are conveniently ignored for the sake of Petrodollars.
I witness the proliferation of madrasas, increasing use of headscarves, and changing the parting salutation to “Allah Hafiz” from “Khoda Hafiz” (a Farsi term used for centuries in South Asia, but increasingly unacceptable with Iran being both non-Arab and Shia).
Is the current global move towards more religious adherence happening in a collective unconscious way or is it being cultivated by something more powerful? Where the puppets dance while the puppet masters call us “Hind” and spit when we walk past.
While my stay in South Africa was altogether too brief, both with my friend and with visiting only a tiny pocket of this tremendous continent, there was no denying the curiosity of being in a country that in my lifetime confronted itself over its epic prejudices.
I visited Gandhi House, Mandela House, and what used to be the Old Fort Prison (now Constitution Hill), whose political prisoners included Mandela and Gandhi, the latter imprisoned for refusing to carry a pass required by Indians.
One of the many appalling qualities of apartheid was the absurd lengths the authorities went to classify people by the colour of the skin, not least of all by the pencil test, whereby a pencil would be slid into the hair: if the pencil fell down, the person was classified as white; if it stayed, the person would be classified as “coloured” – the term still used in South Africa for mixed race persons.
What terrifies me is our continued need to classify, in one form or another – as if by doing so, it gives us permission to treat others differently to how we wish to be treated ourselves.
Who we are
Some years back, I was denied an apartment in Bombay because the building’s association prohibited Muslim tenants. A few years before that, I had my London East End flat vandalised by local Muslims because I had a white husband.
These two examples highlight what troubles me most about being categorised: I am disliked not because of who I am, but because of the perception of what I represent.
It’s offensive because it’s as if I don’t count; I am qualified with external qualities that I may not even associate myself with. I am not judged as me inside.
I’ve seen profiling play out in one form or another in every country I’ve lived in. Even a liberal-minded Indian will often say that those from Gujarat are stingy and money-obsessed. Americans on either coast will refer to Midwesterners as boring, slow or conservative. Northern Italians view those from the south as indolent and scheming.
Whether it’s said affectionately, glibly or pointedly, this is lazy, hurtful and often damaging (including when the response to a confrontation is, “Can’t you take a joke?”).
It’s corrosive to our humanity and to our individual psychology. Our differences can be awe-inspiring and expansive – it’s why many of us travel to other parts of the world, after all. Splintering ourselves with drawn battlegrounds converts that difference into suspicion and hate.
The long term (albeit partial) solution to bigotry is to merge enough until we’re all ethnically mixed and indistinguishable. A short term (also partial) remedy is more widespread political correctness. While it’s easy to dismiss this as a token gesture, it alters the normalising of bigotry. Every major sea change of equality (women, LGBT, minority) began when it became socially unacceptable to use and hold derogatory terms and views. With time, usually a generation, these public views become internalised.
I’ve rationalised my own prejudice by never applying it, much like my father’s colleagues, on a one-on-one level. I could even say truthfully that some of my closest friends are Arab, if I wasn’t aware of how this line is used disgracefully as a paltry defence by xenophobes everywhere.
I see the hypocrisy of despising being put in a box myself, while doing the same with a large chunk of the world’s population.
The so-called Arab world, after all, comprises of 22 territories, multiple ethnic groups from the Kurds to the Copts, and followers of myriad religions in addition to Islam.
Even if I singled out the most rich and powerful of the region – Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – this is still criminally nonsensical. I am officially represented by the British government, but I didn’t personally vote for the party currently at its helm, nor the one that invaded Iraq. Many Middle Eastern countries are headed by dynastic rulers who don’t allow voting, so are even less representative of their people.
If the way I was treated by some Kuwaiti male youths 30 years ago is my defence, then that doesn’t make any sense either. When people do terrible things, we should criticise the people who are doing them, not their whole group.
Besides which, nobody wins in a tit for tat situation. Instead of fighting fire with fire, I have chosen (at least in other areas of my life) to be more like water. Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr changed stubborn existing social and political infrastructures through dialogue and peaceful resistance.
Clubbing disparate people together is no less hurting than raising my fist. Identifying people – even in a non-negative way – primarily through their race, ethnicity or religion is a limiting way of viewing the world that keeps my heart small. Even a term like “exotic” puts unassailable distance between us. We are more than the boxes we tick.
Back at the airport
Sitting here in Jeddah airport, I realise that I don’t know any Saudis. I don’t believe I ever did, except perhaps from school days. And yet, I’ve railed against them for much of my life. Even if this has been more passive than active, it is nevertheless unacceptable. I feel humiliated.
That’s the thing about prejudice: its sweeping nature is blinding. A few bad personal episodes, or hearing some scare-mongering stories (themselves often constructed with an agenda) and we pull up our drawbridge.
So, I bow my head and admit that my lifelong prejudice against the “Arab world” has been ungrounded, and grossly and shamefully unfair. I will no longer categorise them or anyone else as one uniform mass.
It doesn’t escape me, of course, that so much racism (and other -isms) stems from fear. Fear of losing one’s identity, fear of one’s authority being questioned or usurped, fear of weakness. Show me a bully and I’ll show you his fear.
As always, superiority is the other side of inferiority. The one who yells the loudest is the one who’s most afraid of being wrong, of losing.
When I am upset by someone else’s bigotry, it is my own that I need to first resolve.
“Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might – yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.” — Bruce Lee
Philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s 1961 observations on liberation and decolonisation is utilised to great effect in the new documentary Concerning Violence, directed by Göran Olsson. From the institutionalising of racial segregation, to the pillaging of the colonised countries’ resources, there is no more apt analysis of Africa’s colonisation than the piercing words of Fanon.
Epic in every way, this long and often difficult novel explores the race and class divide from post-9/11 Afghanistan to the financial collapse of 2008, via mathematics, Pakistani intelligence, Ivy League and Oxbridge. Amidst its grander scenes, a small section where the Bangladeshi-born protagonist meets an Italian who insists on seeing him as Indian would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressingly true. Read In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman for an exploration into the ideas we hold.
“I wish you could know/ What it means to be me/ Then you’d see and agree/ That every man should be free.” Listen to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free sung by the peerless Nina Simone.