Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What Is the Best Culture in the world ?



As a student I found very funny the antagonistic idiomatic expressions: filer à l’anglaise and to make French leave (Brit), both meaning to run off/away. If there’s no smoke without fire, as the proverb goes, then this suggests that in the sight of the French there’s something wrong with the English, and vice versa. For one who has a certain knowledge of European history, it is somewhat easy to understand such antagonism. 

The French refer to themselves as the French; that is, they are different from the English, different from Germans, etc. That’s why French history books would laud French victories over the English, over Germans, etc. Idem for the English. The fact is, Germans (the Germanic people) are, in a way, the forefathers of many European peoples, including the French, the English, the Spanish, etc. The French and the Spanish, for example, adopted Latin-based languages. Even English is more Latinized than Germanized. So does this mean that there’s something wrong with the German language? Or it is just a normal process that each people has to distinguish itself from other peoples by its own language, its own culture, etc. ? Does a people knowingly and deliberately change its language and culture to look different from other peoples ? Or is it part of human nature –kind of natural, historical development that occurs spontaneously over time? The Koran, for example, suggests that this change is part of God’s work: 

49.13. O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.

30.22. And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours. Lo! herein indeed are portents for men of knowledge.

How does this change occur, historically speaking? The Germanic people, from whom derived so many other ‘sub-peoples’ in Europe, did not sprout or spring up from the land called Prussia, Germania or Germany. They came from Asia. Other people who, at one time, shared with them that part of Central Asia, moved southwards to populate present-day India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan… You understand I’m talking of migration. This migration phenomenon has always been caused by famine, war, military expansion… We Arabs and, before us, Berbers came to this part of North Africa, for quite the same reasons, from the Arabian Peninsula. The United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Latin & Central America are all obvious examples of how migration makes peoples what they are. Americans and Australians, for example, don’t speak with the same accent and they have different constitutions, etc., although they originally came from the same places. Many peoples have the same origins and yet you will hear talk of Moroccan culture, American culture, Australian culture, Belgian culture…. Is there anything wrong with that? Shouldn’t an American boast his culture is much more important than Moroccan culture, for example? How can a Moroccan convince an American that, no, it’s Moroccan culture that is more important? I don’t know, honestly. Even before agreeing on what culture means, it goes without saying that many more Moroccan youths would love to live in the U.S.A. than Americans would love to live in Morocco? Statistics speak for themselves. There are tens of thousands of Moroccans who became naturalized American citizens and thousands more of Moroccan immigrants in the US. The total number of legal immigrants in Morocco (according to a 2014 census) is about 96,000 and the number of illegal immigrants is between 20,000 and 40,000 –in a population of 34,000 000. How can one explain this? Why do Moroccans go to America? Do they go for bread and honey or for American culture?

Now we ask, what is culture? I once asked an American student in Morocco: “What’s life for you?” He said: “Sex and food”. What should someone like me, who has never been to America, understand from such a statement? What could this tell me about American culture? Surely, Moroccans don’t go to America only for sex and food. Many Moroccans who have been to America talk about American democracy, American sense of organisation, American sense of initiative and enterprise, American sense of risk-taking… In my home city, Mohammedia, there’s a big MacDonald’s and several pizza huts. 25 miles away, in Casablanca, there’s a (white) American woman, married with a Moroccan man, who writes a famous blog on Moroccan food. I have had among my tutors Americans who spoke Moroccan Arabic fluently. If many Moroccans in the USA went there for money, what Americans (whatever their number) come to Morocco for?   Yes, some of them come for work (in American schools, etc.), but do they all come for money? I don’t know.

What I know is that the thousands of sub-Saharan boat people who make it into Europe, each year, risking their lives, do not do it for European culture. I know that the few thousands of sub-Saharan people (men, women and children) living in my home city for less than 15 years now did not come here for Moroccan culture, and they are not all students who came here for study. I’ve seen some of them beg in the streets. I’ve seen a few Syrian beggars too. Questions on culture lead us to questions on us, as human beings. What makes (German) PEGIDA demonstrators take to the streets and what makes (German) anti-PEGIDA people take to the streets too? What makes me write in English and French and what makes some English and French people learn Arabic? Why should a Russian come onto this blog? Aren’t there good Russian writers who write in Russian? Aren’t there good German writers who write in German? Why shouldn’t I write in Arabic? A famous American revert and religious scholar (that I don’t want to name) once said in an interview that an Arab Muslim writer should not write in a foreign language because he can’t help being influenced by the culture of the language he is writing in.

There are apparently two kinds of writers. Some writers are more important than their writings. Sometimes writings are more important than the authors. Some people (readers) are interested in gags, so they’ll buy and read work with lots of gags in it, whoever the author. For similar reasons, other people will prefer suspense, romance, avant-garde, thrillers, historical, juvenile, adventure, spiritual, inspirational… Other people will rather focus on the person of the author; they will look on him/her as a virtual teacher or friend. They want to be inspired by him/her. That’s why literary translation is very important. When someone reads a piece of work in translation or written by a writer from another place, it’s not because he feels that his country’s literature or culture is inferior to others, but simply because he is looking for something with which he can feel at home. I have experienced unemployment, and when I write about unemployment I know what it’s like. But would visitors be interested in my writings only if they are unemployed? Recently in Germany 5,000 employees at recruitment agencies lost their jobs because there were so many job opportunities in Germany that everybody else had found work, leaving those (poor) recruitment agencies with little work to do! And yet several Germans continue to visit my blog  regularly. A Russian/German/Moroccan person would be seen buying and listening to a piece of American music, for example, because everybody is doing so. But privately this same person would feel more at home, when left alone, with a piece of music from his own country or region.

Basketball is good, and I would enjoy watching a basketball game. But I would enjoy more a show of Fantasia. (Go to Youtube to see what it is.) Not because Fantasia is more beautiful than basketball, but it’s something closer to me as a moroccan. Here come in all sorts of customs and traditions that make us feel at home, as belonging to where we are or where we came from. Maybe I don’t like some aspects of our traditions, but whether I like it or not, these traditions speak to me more than something I’m not accustomed to. I am an Arab, not a Berber; but a Berber wedding (with all that goes into it: the music, the dancing, the food, the clothes, the colours, the décor…) would appeal to me more than a Kurdish wedding. There are not Kurds in my country. But  I have always seen Berbers everyday everywhere. At least a third of Morocco’s population is Berber. They have been in this land for thousands of years. We Arabs came here some 1,380 years ago. So Berber things are part of my identity. But this identity thing is a personal thing. If Arab and Berber Moroccans make up an essential part of my identity, this does not mean that I will feel at home with just any Moroccan, Arab or Berber. I love Morocco, I love Moroccan people, but I am not obliged to have Moroccan friends, for example, or to marry a Moroccan woman. In other words, my identity is more of a psychological than social necessity. I need my way of thinking when I have a problem. I need the feeling of belonging somewhere, to something, even when I don’t have a problem. If I don’t feel that I belong where I am, that’s a big problem. That’s when I will need my way of thinking to help me overcome this problem. These identity aspects are all parts of my culture, or rather my general culture that I share with millions of people in my country. But there’s a more specific part of my culture (say, my individual culture) which I share with far less people in my country and with far more elsewhere. 
     appeal to me more than a Kurdish dding (with all that goes into it: the music, the dancing, the food, the clothes, the c
Personally, I eat with my hand and would never be comfortable with a knife and fork. But I would not impose my way of eating on people used to the knife-and-fork way of eating. I have to make this concession. Being a modern person is not necessarily eating in a certain way or dressing according to fashion or speaking this way or that, but rather being able to make mutual concessions when necessary. I accept that, even if my way is the best, others are free to have their own way within a general legal framework accepted by all for the sake of a peaceful society. As long as I can go to mosque, wear a beard or go out in a jellaba, without being threatened or harassed, you are free to go wherever you like and do whatever you like that is not against the Law. The Law does not belong to you or to me. It’s made for us all. If you or I don’t like it, there should be legal ways to change it. This is what I meant by mutual concessions. I eat what I want as I want when I am alone or with people like myself. I wear what I want as I want without provoking or hurting anybody. I speak as best I can without aping anybody or pretending what I am not. This is my culture. My way of life is a conspicuous representation of my culture. If I liked a piece of American music, that would be part of my culture. If I liked a French radio station or magazine, that would be  part of my culture. I am a Moroccan and I like a lot of Moroccan things. But I also like a lot of things that are not Moroccan. I like Americans’ sense of duty. I like Germans’ love for reading. I like nineteenth-century French literature. I like pre-1990 Egyptian music. I like Italian suits and shoes. And I am absolutely comfortable with what I like.

If I can afford what I like, that’s great. If not, no problem. I needn’t have a car or even a laptop to be a modern person. I can very well work in cybercafés and travel in a taxi or take a bus. No problem. If other people think I’m not a modern person or that I’ve failed socially or professionally, that’s not a big problem to me. But I can’t be a modern person if I don’t speak French or English. Not because they are the best languages of the world, but because my culture would be very limited without them. I wish I could speak German, Russian and Spanish too! To be modern I need to know and understand what’s going on in the world. I need to understand History to see what was possible in past times that is no longer today and what can yet change in the future for the better or for the worst. I need to understand other people’s ways of thinking. I need to learn about other peoples’ traditions and ways of life. I can’t know all that if I spoke only one language. If I know how other people think and behave I will improve my own way of thinking.              

Many people from Europe, America, South-East Asia, Russia… visited in the past such nice places as Yemen, 
Libya, Iraq and Syria. They took pictures of themselves in nice historical monuments, etc. Those nice sites and sights are gone. War destroyed them. Yet, such nice sites can be considered as part of one’s culture –just as music, food, clothes, history, language, religion, customs and traditions, etc… But if all this does not help the people who produced them in the first place, how can they help me ? The Tour Eiffel is nice. But should I go to France just to see it? Should I go to France only to see what French people are like? No, I can do it without leaving my home city. What’s more important to me is to know how French people became what they are, how they think, how they solve their problems, what their dreams and aspirations are... I can know that at school, by reading, through the media. When I know much about that, I push the borders of my culture a bit further. French authors will become my authors, my teachers, and so will American authors, Egyptian journalists, Arab poets… My culture will be as large as my knowledge. This is what I meant by ‘specific culture’ or ‘individual culture’. I will not then make a difference between culture and civilisation. But I will make a difference between my culture as an Arab and Western culture, for example. They are not the same. And that’s very normal. And I will not start comparing which is best. My culture is good as long as it suits me well, as long as I feel comfortable with it. I would not expect a German or anybody else to dress the way I do, or to eat the way I do (even if he were a Muslim)… I would only expect him to understand me –not even to accept me as I am. We are all human beings; we have more or less the same problems and different ways of dealing with those problems. When I write in English or in French I am exposing my way of thinking, my way of solving my problems –based on my own culture, which is neither worse nor better than any other culture. It might be confusing if I said that what I write translates my religion rather than my ‘culture’. But, as I said above, religion is part of culture. My novels are set in Morocco, but the ideas expressed in the novels refer more to my religion than to my country or to the people I belong to. Religion (being finite) is more reliable than culture (which can be updated). In other words, religion (being shared by so many people) is more objective than culture (which may differ from one person to another). However, my reading of my religion can only be subjective.


I am not a philosopher and Muhammad, the main character in my novel THE PHILOSOPHER, is not a philosopher, either. He and I only try as best we can to philosophize about life in order to make our problems seem easier to us as a first step towards solving them. In a way, my writings have been kind of self-coaching to me. That worked for me: so far at least, I have managed to keep my dream alive against all odds. I imagine my thoughts can inspire others as well.

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER

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