The Price of Ignorance

Mark Perry

Bitterlemons, June 3, 2004

Returning from living for nine months in Bethlehem at the height of this intifada, my son--a journalist--stood in the driveway of my suburban home talking with the woman next door. He described the everyday life of Palestinians in great detail: the barricades and checkpoints, the constant Israeli patrols, detentions, and arrests. He finished his monologue by focusing on what it was like to live under weeks-long curfews. The woman--an otherwise intelligent, successful and articulate professional--was left nearly speechless. "You mean they can't go to the theatre?" she asked.

There is nothing inherently unknowable about the Middle East--or Arabs, or Islam. Even the most startling barriers of language and religion are easily hurdled. Nor are the cultural differences that telling: at the height of the Abu Ghreib scandal a television announcer voiced-over one particularly graphic picture by noting that "in Islam it is considered quite embarrassing for a father to appear naked before his son"--as if this were an everyday event in America. For us in "the West" (whatever that is) the Middle East is an exotic land of pyramids, camels, belly dancers, and calls-to-prayer that is there to be discovered, studied, and--aha!--changed.

Other differences are imposed: author V.S. Naipaul says that Islam is "enraged" and offers "only the Prophet," while Bernard Lewis (called to the White House to educate George Bush), says that Islam is "an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage." Of course, neither Naipaul nor Lewis is prepared to say why Islam is "enraged", much less a "rival"--and what heritage, precisely, are they talking about? The heritage of Brahms and Beethoven, or of Bormann and Bergen-Belsen? We in America are suckers for such trivialities--myself included. I find myself telling people that the Middle East cannot be truly known without understanding "colonialism", "the Crusades," "the Ottomans," and "the competition for the land of Palestine." These are abstractions: do a lifetime of work and get back to me.

Recently, realizing that no such syllabus is necessary, I have found myself rejecting the idea of inherent differences--and turning aside the slavering mindlessness of hobbyists by issuing handholding inanities. "You've actually been to the Middle East? Ooo, how exciting. What are the people there like?" To which I now answer: "they're not a whole lot different than us." The answer has the elegance of providing immediate relief and being sharply concrete: it ends the conversation (because it is simply not believed) and it just happens to be true.

America is now engaged in breaking what I call "the epistemological loop"--the belief that a place like the Middle East is foreign and different, that somehow the people there are quite unlike the people here, and that it is perfectly acceptable to publish books with titles like The Arab Mind. We Americans have done this many times, too many times: we find out about the world not by actually going there, but by sending our troops there. These troops then come back (minus 50,000 or so of their comrades) with their Vietnamese (or in this case Arab) wives, husbands and children and tell us "what it is really like." Then and only then--relieved and reassured and many years too late--do the rest of us go there to actually learn about it.

And what do we discover? We discover that the beginning of knowledge is the rejection of the question: there isn't anything about the Middle East that we don't--or can't--understand if we would simply transfer our beliefs about others (that they're "different," "foreign," "exotic" or "enraged") to ourselves. We discover that what we didn't understand about the Middle East is that the people there eat different food, practice a different religion, have different traditions, and a different history. Mostly. We also discover that the fundamental daily reassertions of living (of making those hard-packed connections with the world that give life meaning) are the same in Baghdad as they are in Boston. And the price of understanding this--of trying to figure out "why the Middle East is so hard for outsiders to understand" is still being paid.

This article first appeared in bitterlemons-international.