That Slippery Euphemism We Call 'Cultural Differences'
The attacks in Paris last week put us face-to-face with the fact that our neighbors may live their lives in ways that make no sense to us. How do we keep this from spiraling toward hatred?
PARIS — It had been fabulous, but it had been long, and we were very tired, thirsty and hungry. Essaouira, the magical Moroccan port city, had exhausted us yet another day. The rowdy, squirming boys (aged 3 and 5) sitting next to us were our own, though at that moment we didn't wish to be associated with them. The restaurant owner had reluctantly but understandingly agreed to serve us, though his staff was not ready, and he probably knew that dusty little feet would be all over the rich, kilim cushions.
Then the call to prayer began to sound, and we must have been sitting right across from the mosque because it was piercing. The children stopped wiggling, looked up and then immediately began howling with laughter. Then they started loudly imitating the call. My husband and I looked at each other in wide-eyed horror. Make them stop! After using all our parental tricks, we finally were able to distract them and calm them down.
In truth, we found the kids' impressions of the call very amusing, but we didn't want to offend the restaurant owner who was bringing us tea. We knew — not through any explicit means but through instinct and traveler's osmosis — that dissing the religion is simply not done in a Muslim country. We weren't afraid that we would be decapitated or shot for it, but we knew it was bad form and we genuinely didn't want to offend anyone.
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Essaouira — Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki/GFDL
This was four years ago, and we've been traveling to different Muslim countries ever since. Rather than a T.E. Lawrence type of quest to be one with the desert, we simply travel to sunny destinations to escape our lightless, Parisian winter — blatant opportunism about as difficult as hopping on a plane to Florida. Finding a nice package deal to Libya, Iran and Syria is obviously a little tough right now. It devastates us that the treasures of these countries are eroding and may soon be lost to us all.
Apart from the marvels of human civilization, we love the towns, the markets and the people who have brought them to life. Though it's not an absolute, there tends to be a warmth, humor and spontaneity among people in Muslim countries that is delightful, particularly after the stress and formality that pervades the Parisian mindset.
A culture shocked
Just 48 hours after we returned from Jordan, Charlie Hebdo was attacked. Still in between cultures, we found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to deliberately ridicule Islam, which has given us so many treasures. And why would they do it with such embarrassing, unsophisticated humor? Sure, Charlie Hebdo delighted in taking everyone down — Christians, Jews, politicians. Even Charles de Gaulle, France's 20th century savior, wasn't safe. Dogmatically rejecting dogmas, they pursued everyone with fanatical fervor. Lawsuits were filed against them — not unlike the anti-Semitic, standup comedian Dieudonné — but Charlie was, until last week, safe from harm.
In my years living in France, I have noted that the country's secularism often feels like religion. This hard-bought belief has roots going back many centuries. Such events as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572) were so violent one can only marvel at the rapid and comprehensive shedding of blood that can be accomplished without a Kalashnikov. And of course, when ridiculing religion and supporting freedom of the press, one must rally around the memory of Voltaire. But that's going on nearly three centuries ago. Voltaire primarily aimed his quiver at his own culture. Above all, he targeted abusers of religion, fat-cat popes and sadistic inquisitors, rather than the structure of any given belief.
And coming out fighting mad, on the other side of the ring, Islam forbids any representation of the prophet, which gives us the peaceful geometry and calligraphy so emblematic of its art.
I don't really get it any more than I understand why a woman would wear a black veil in the middle of a sweltering desert or why some dudes wear Jane Austen ringlets. But there are a lot of things I don't get about a lot of different cultures. My (French) mother-in-law never ceases to be incensed by the fact that teetotaler George Bush didn't drink the glass of Chateau Margaux that Jacques Chirac poured for him at some state visit a million years ago.
We wouldn't have the expression "cultural differences" if there weren't real misunderstanding and anger at the core. A cultural misunderstanding tends to hit us when we least expect it. We are enraged. We want to cry and stamp our feet. How can these people be such idiots? After more fury, reflection and hopefully understanding, that misunderstanding is graciously euphemized into a "cultural difference." And then they become interesting to ponder, and sometimes we even start to see things from the other side.
And so at Sunday's demonstration, I admired the many Muslims I saw. They probably hate Charlie Hebdo"s representations of their beliefs. And they swallowed their anger for the good of us all and maybe because they understand that the French have their own sacred cultural beliefs — or blind spots — sometimes invoked as freedom of the press, which our Gallic allies feel a particular need to uphold even if it borders on harassment.
Ultimately, the seeds of this new reign of terror have little to do with press freedom or caricatures. They began elsewhere some time ago in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Poland, etc. Generations of war do not make for a positive and stable set of young folk.
Ideas — good, bad and ugly — will spread. Some very ugly ones are found in France. Among its many foyers was an orphanage not far from Paris where two French brothers of Algerian descent could not have been raised in the happiest of conditions. And now French Jews and Arabs and cops and even squirmy little boys talk of things like missile launchers and automatic weapons. Perhaps it's the wiggliest generation who are the most marked by such events. They certainly don't miss a trick.
In times of turbulence many of us victims of a Liberal Arts Education gather "round The Good Book — the Shakespeare Folios — for solace. Please open now to Act IV, Scene I of The Merchant of Venice. "Therefore, Jew … though justice be thy plea, consider this: That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation."
And tears well in the starry eyes of students and poetry lovers everywhere as they are forced to face the possibility that our prophet was an anti-Semite. Even "the quality of mercy" can be strain'd. Everybody has blind spots. So, let tolerance ring.
*Moira Molly Chambers is a Paris-based writer.
*Correction: an earlier version of this essay referred to the Charlie Hebdo attackers as Algerian. They were in fact French, of Algerian descent.