Monday, 2 September 2013

The new year

I am on my way back from Washington, on the plane from Paris to Lisbon. I am in the middle seat, so I ask the young man sitting in the corridor seat to let me pass. I don´t take a proper look at him; a dark man, he could be Portuguese.

I start reading my book. Some time later, I feel that the man next to me is a bit nervous. I look at his hands: he´s got a cap, his mobile and a few rolled pages of a text in english. I try to, discreetly, have a better look at him. He´s not Portuguese, he´s of Arab origin. I look again at his hands. His mobile is on and he keeps checking it. The text in the rolled pages is scientific, I can´t understand which area exactly.

The air hostesses pass and offer drinks. He refuses. “Ramadan”, I think to myself. He keeps checking his phone and he makes me nervous too. I look at him again, his eyes are closed and his lips are moving. Is he praying? I am getting even more nervous. I am trying to tell myself that he looks like a perfectly normal man, but there´s another inner voice telling me “Don´t they all look normal?”.

I place my book on the table in front of me, it´s by an Arab author (am I trying to send a message?). Many thoughts are passing through my mind. One of them is to get up and go tell the cabin crew that I have a nervous Arab sitting next to me and that his mobile is on... I´m forcing myself to stay where I am, feeling ridiculous. And then he says:

-          What are you reading?
-          It´s a Moroccan writer.
-          I thought so.
-          Are you Moroccan too?
-          Yes, I am.

He aks if he can have a look. He picks my book up and reads the summary. We then start discussing politics. Religion too. He asks me about Greece, we talk extensively about Egypt and then about Morocco too. He´s on his way to Portugal for a conference on applied mathematics. I´m enjoying the conversation, he has a calm voice and he seems to be a sweet man, but I can´t stop feeling nervous. Whenever there´s a moment of silence, he checks his mobile. “Don´t they all look normal?”, the inner voice insists.

As soon as we land in Lisbon, he tells me: “Do you know that the chances of a plane crashing are much smaller than of two trains colliding?”. He´s not nervous, I am not nervous. I feel relieved. And I feel ashamed.


There are two entrances to the exhibition of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, one with the sign “Prejudiced”, the other “Not prejudiced”. Those who try to enter through the second door, find it closed, they can´t open it. The incident on the plane kept haunting my thoughts. I did feel ashamed. If the man next to me didn´t look Arab, I would have felt different about his nervousness.

Organizations and people working in the fields of racism and discrimination keep reminding us that we are not born racists, we become. And after we become, it seems that we really have to fight hard, consciously and with determination, to avoid discriminating others. After discussing the incident on the plane with some people, I realised how difficult this fight is. Because, in order to fight, we first need to be conscious of our discriminating actions, we need to be aware of our own attitudes. Quite often we are not. We never think of ourselves as racists and a number of excuses are good enough for us to justify our thoughts and actions: the need to be safe, the need to protect the people we love and our communities, the need to preserve our culture and traditions, the need to defend our territory, the need to guarantee our survival... So, if necessary and ‘just in case’, the Other might have to pay the price for it. And “that´s OK, it´s understandable, we´re good people caring for our own”...

This ‘just in case’ has served as an excuse for many simple people in their everyday decisions, as well as for major political decisions. Post-9/11 America inevitably comes to mind. But even there - as I realized by reading Leila Ahmed´s insightful book A Quiet Revolution – The Veil´s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America -, in the middle of the destruction, the pain, the fear, the anger, the violence, people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds were able to take a good look at themselves and to be solidarious to others, determined to preserve their multicultural communities, to maintain ans protect their relatinionships with friends and neighbours, to continue being and feeling human. It´s such a thin line between the civilized and the barbarian; it requires such an effort to be the former and not the latter.

September is more of a ‘new year’ to me than January; it comes from school times. It is the moment where I look ahead and think “Now what?” or “What next?”. At this precise moment, having the ‘new year’ ahead of me, my head is full of questions. I think again of my time at the Kennedy Center, there where Egyptians talk with Israelis; Pakistanis and Indians exchange jokes about their countries; a Serb, a Croat and a Bosnian take photos together; a Greek and a Turk enjoy a meal together. Is this some kind of a ‘safe’ or ‘civilized’ environment? Would it be different if the context was different? Are there places where people are civilized and other places where those same people turn into barbarians? Can culture really play a role in keeping us civilized or are its ‘effects’ easily neutralized by other forces and factors? Can it help create some common ground, where people can co-exist in good terms, not simply tolerating each other, but getting to know each other better; willing to talk, to understand, to accept? Wasn't it Fouad Laroui´s book that helped start a conversation on that plane, that helped control the fear? My ‘new year’ resolutions lie somewhere among all these questions.

Read also
Can Culture make it?


Glenn Ingersoll said...

It seems to me we are born prejudiced. Supposedly once they've learned to crawl babies won't precipitously crawl over a cliff - even if a fall has been safely protected against with a glass covering.

What bothers me about racism isn't the prejudice, it's its imperviousness to evidence. To the racist there is no evidence you can provide that will dissuade them from their beliefs.

It seems to me if a Middle Eastern man who is nervous on a plane makes you nervous, it's not racism unless no matter what he does or says you still are convinced he is up to no good. In that case his not being nervous would probably be evidence to the racist for the man being a terrorist.

There's nothing wrong with being ashamed either. Baby's aren't born with shame though. That has to be learned.

Maria Vlachou said...

Thank you for this, Glenn. You´ve clarified with your comment something I was not clear about in my post, that there are "two layers of racism": the first is discrimination, and this is what I did on that plane; the second is really racism, and it is discrimination when one also has the power, and this is probably what would have happened if I had shared my fears with the crew.

Most of us are not racists, but we do discriminate, easily, all the time. What worries me is how easily also the balance can turn towards more radical behaviours, once we feel threatened and have some power.