Saturday, 3 September 2011

9 / 11: We Shall Never Forget

It can’t be very easy these days if you were a Muslim living in the West. If you are, say, brown skinned; have a name like, thinking at random, Osama; have a flowing beard; and if you were, say, travelling, wearing a flowing robe with a rucksack on your shoulder, muttering under your breath—if you were, say, a religiously minded individual—whatever it is that religiously minded Muslims mutter under their breath, in a London underground, you shouldn’t at all be surprised if the carriage you are travelling in is less crowded than others.

You would find yourself (if you were a browned skinned Osama) in this situation because in the last decade or so, a stereotype of Islam (and Muslims—the two are not the same, as far as my understanding goes; the former is a religion, the latter denotes the followers) seems to have taken shape in the Western psyche, which goes something along these lines: religious fanatics, misogynists, terrorists, barbarians, not willing to assimilate and adopt Western values (democracy, liberalism etc.), and potential Fifth Element.

Then there are other terms coined such as Islamists—I am not entirely sure the origin of this term; it may have been originated in the West to denote those Muslims who fit into some or more of the above identifiers. (Martin Amis tried to make this distinction in his intemperate outburst against Muslims a few years ago.)

A few weeks ago I saw a Muslim woman on a bus I was travelling on, covered from head to toe in a black chador (the woman, not the bus; the bus was covered in dirt). As I tried to check out whether I could check out her ass, it struck me that it was precisely men like me that Muhammad probably had in mind when he decreed (would ‘suggested’ be a better word?) that women should hide their beauty behind a veil. The veil, Muhammad probably hoped (I hope I am not causing offence to anyone by daring to guess what the prophet hoped), would serve two purposes. The first is obvious. The veil would protect the woman from the dirty gaze of the lecher, although, come to think of it, would it, really? True, the lecher might not be able to check out vital statistics, but surely the woman would notice that she is being gazed at (I am pretty certain that they can see from behind veils, otherwise they would be bumping into lamp-posts all the time). (This assumption further assumes that women heartily disapprove of guys ogling them. A friend of mine recently returned from a weeklong holiday in Rome and declared disappointedly that Italian men of younger generation were nowhere as lewd as their fathers and grandfathers, because no one pawed her on the buses and no one spontaneously exclaimed ‘Carina!’ when she was walking on the streets. I felt it prudent not to point out to her (because I did not want to disappoint her further) that that was probably because she was 36 and they like them younger.)

Secondly (we are discussing, in case you have lost track, why Muhammad thought that a veil was a good idea), if the lecher had any sense in him he would realise the futility of leching and do something useful with his time (such as participating in the philosophical discussion of what is a just punishment for shoplifting: ASBO?, community service?, probation?, hand-chopping?). However, if the lecher happened to be living in the decadent and amoral Western society, there would be no pressure on him to change his infidel ways, as there would be plenty of infidel women displaying their goodies he could feast his eyes on.

Anyway, as it happened, the chador-clad woman and I got off at the same stop, and, funnily enough both entered the local mall (I swear I am not a stalker of chador-clad women). As it happened, I was behind the chador-clad woman, and walking—or should I say rolling along?— towards us in the opposite direction was a woman, pushing a pram in which was a squawking child, and three more children (some of whom, I hoped were hers), ranging in ages from two to six. The woman was not all that old, but the layers of make-up caked on her face were totally inadequate to conceal the toll taken by years of unhealthy living and eating habits, as was the top  (and pink bra) to conceal her mammaries. As she passed us, this fine specimen of British womanhood cleared her throat and shouted, ‘Oi Paki! Fuck off back. We don’t want you here.’ Then she walked on, her gut hanging over her leggings. The mall at that time was fairly crowded, and people walked on as if nothing had happened. This is something we Brits are very good at. We can give a master-class in how to present a poker face to the world. (This is not the only skill we have, it would appear. Last year I read a novel by the 2003 Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. The narrator of this novel remarks at one point: ‘There is a certain English manner that infuriates me, that infuriates many people, where the insults come coated in pretty words, like sugar on a pill.’ So it seems our other talent lies in pissing people off by the way we speak. When we think we are being euphemistic or polite when we criticise, there is a chance that others see us as two-faced faced hypocrites.)

I thought about the incidence when I read an article in the Guardian about a children’s colouring book recently published in America.

What is so special about a children’s colouring book you may wonder.

Well, this book, published by a company called Real Book Coloring Books, purports to tell children, in a graphic form, about the attack on the World Trade Centre and subsequent hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

The book, the company declares, is created with ‘integrity, reverence, respect, and does not shy away from truth’.

And what is the truth? The truth, as the publisher, one Wayne Bell, eloquently explained on American television, is:

19 terrorist hijackers that came over here under the leadership of a devil worshipper, Osama bin Laden, to murder our people.’

The narrator of J.M. Coetzee’s novel should approve of Wayne Bell. Whatever else Bell may be accused of he can’t be accused of coating his insults in pretty words. He cannot be accused of subtlety or decency either. Nor can he be accused of giving undue importance to logic in his arguments. According to Bell it is an incontrovertible, undeniable truth that Osama was a devil worshipper. How did Bell find out that Osama was a devil worshipper? Did the devil confirm in writing that Osama was his follower?

As the Guardian article shows, one of the pages of this book, entitled, unsurprisingly, ‘We Shall Never Forget’, shows Osama hiding behind a chador clad woman while a US Navy Seal aims his rifle at him. Osama looks as if he is having an acute attack of gastritis. It is not easy to figure out the expression on the face of the woman, who is spreading her arms, giving, in the process, a good impression of a bat, but my guess is that she is not alarmed (or not having gastritis).

What takes the biscuit is the text that runs with it. It goes like this:

‘Being the elusive character that he was, and after hiding out with his terrorist buddies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, American soldiers finally locate the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.’

I don’t know to whom or to what the book, as the publishing company announced, is showing respect, but, if the above text is anything to go by, it is not showing much respect to grammar. The sentence, grammatically, is not just a car-crash, it is a multiple pile-up on a motorway.

In case the American children haven’t cottoned on to the message that Muslims are enemies of the state, the book goes on to inform:

‘Children, the truth is, these terrorist acts were done by freedom-hating radical Islamic Muslim extremists. These crazy people hate the American way of life because we are FREE and our society is FREE.’

Islamic Muslim extremists? Who are they? They are ‘crazy people’ (unlike, I suppose, the publishers of the colouring book who come across as paragons of sense and moderation—oops! I should be careful; it wouldn't do to sugar-coat my insults with figures of speech) who hate freedom and obviously think syllogistically: we hate freedom; Americans are free (or FREE); so we hate Americans.

It goes without saying that what happened in September 2001 at the World Trade Centre was horrible. It is also true that (as a Tibor Fischer character might say) that there is little point in tournamentizing miseries; but the way the American (and frequently British) media go on and on about the 9/11 is enough to turn all healthy stomachs: as if this is the ultimate tragedy—the mother of all tragedies—against which all others pale into insignificance. When I last checked, in the history of humankind, so far, only one country dropped atomic bombs on another country in the full knowledge that tens of thousands of civilians would be vaporised; and that was not any of the countries of ‘Islamic Muslim Extremists’. I do not think any Muslim countries napalmed Vietnam and brought untold miseries to its people. To the best of my knowledge not a single Muslim country has illegally invaded and destroyed another country, as the Americans and British did in Iraq. And, if you go back in time, you will discover that the first ‘concentration camps’ in a war were run by the British in the Boer War.

I am currently reading a memoir entitled Four Girls from Berlin, of a Jewish American woman named Marianne Meyerhoff. The book tells the story of Meyerhoff’s mother, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and came to America (the rest of the family was not so lucky) and her friendship with three other (non-Jewish) German girls which survived the war and the Holocaust. Inevitably the book describes, in unflinching detail, the atmosphere of hatred stoked up by the Nazis against the Jews, which, as the 1930s wore on, affected many Germans, who, until that period, had existed peacefully with the Jews. Meyerhoff’s mother (who, despite living in America for decades, could never master the ‘foreign tongue’ and preferred to speak in her native German) used a German word to describe what was happening in Germany at the time. ‘The Nazis took over,’ she said, ‘and we began to feel, in our bones, Gleichschaltung.’  

Meyerhoff requested her mother to translate Gleichschaltung into English. The mother had to consult her German-English dictionary and discovered that the word, like many other German words, packed in complicated concepts for which there was no equivalent word in English, and could be translated into it only by a long, train-car type, series of words. This was how Gleichschaltung was translated into English:

‘The forced and mindless joining in lockstep with the crowd.’

One hopes that the indecent, disrespectful (and agrammatical) children’s colouring book and its message—despite the protestations of the publishers—full of distortions, crude generalizations, lies and xenophobia, which tries to demonize a section of its society, are not a symptom of an underlying sick society. (There is always the possibility that the Guardian goes out of its way to ferret out fringe happenings and publishes them, which gives an opportunity to people like me to feel outraged about.)