Lunch at Al Hamra, the infinitely reliable Pakistani place across the road: lamb korma (it was halal meat, Salome, so humanely killed… yeah, yeah) with garlic naan and masala chai. They’ve just started giving out masala chai free with any meal, and it’s the real thing, strong black tea boiled in milk with sugar and potent spices. Oh, mmm.
As good a place as any to read Bernard Lewis on The Middle East and to think, and think, and think. Lewis went to Istanbul in 1950 and fell hard for Turkey and the Kemalist legacy. Fifty-odd years later I have done the same thing, aided in no small part by an extremely intelligent and persuasive tour guide very aptly named Mustafa Kemal.
Subtly, pervasively, Lewis makes the Turks the hero-saviours of the Middle East, and the Arabs its backward peasants. “Between the fourth and the sixth centuries, Arabia seems to have sunk back into a sort of dark age, a time of impoverishment and a bedouinization; that is to say, a decline in such cultivation as existed, of such sedentary centres as had been established, and a consequent establishment of camel nomadism.”
Look how innocuously those value judgments creep in: impoverishment, decline. Look how cultivation -implicitly, of thoughts as well as crops – is equated with sedentary centres, nomadism with ignorance. Look at that horrible neologism ‘bedouinization’. You wouldn’t think the bedouin were, you know, people, with problems and love affairs and kids to raise. No, if they’re not contributing towards the great evolution of human culture that climaxed in Bernard Lewis, they’re degenerate.
I’m not pushing a pro-Arab line here; I’m just beginning to appreciate the complexity of elsewhere and its history and culture, and am being reminded again of the limitations of my monoglottal research and my white imagination. Lewis, you see, is the standard Western brief history of over there. I’m trying to filter out his prejudice and argument and see beyond it to whatever actually is. But all I can perceive are shadow-people and their camel trains, moving slow thighs across an unknowable desert of the mind.
This is what it is to be a Westerner.