Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ill Communication

I recently had the misfortune of helping a Libyan University student of English with an assignment on something called Contrastive Analysis. The Contrastive Analysts were a school of linguists who emerged in the 1950s, buoyed with a familiar, depressingly quixotic idealistic belief that they were going to change the world. The Contrastive Analysts claimed that learning a language could be done by simply identifying the differences between the learner's native language (L1) and the language being learnt (L2) and subtracting them, thus leaving the "differences" as the only thing that needed to be learnt. Thus, if Icelandic was your native tongue, and you wished to learn, say, Ancient Aramaic, then all you needed to do was identify the differences between these two languages, subtract them and thus you would be left with the sum total of all that you needed to learn. I often find myself returning to George Orwell's quote that "only an intellectual could believe that because no-one else could be such a fool" when I come across these sorts of things but to cut a long story short, the days of Contrastive Analysis were heady ones, but they did not last. Indeed, Contrastive Analysis is a complete load of wrong-headed nonsense that was kicked into what must be an overflowing global academic waste-paper bin over fifty years ago. However, that apparently does not seem to merit its exclusion from the English syllabus at Al-Fateh University, the land's highest institution of learning. An institution where it is not uncommon to send your father in to thrash things out when a dispute with a lecturer arises. To avoid such an eventuality, I had a tricky tight-rope to cross in helping someone make an assignment factual, while simultaneously not upsetting whatever time-warped premises the lecturer concerned anchored himself to when he presumably did his PhD many decades ago. Maybe he hasn't stayed abreast, maybe he can't be bothered and maybe he just doesn't know about the fate of the Contrastive Analysts, academically buried alive as they were by newer, more streamlined schools, with the great Noam Chomsky administering the final karate chop of death. Evidently though, Chomsky has not been able to eliminate perhaps the final, clinging outpost at Al-Fateh University, where the last Contrastive Analyst clings to his creed, like a Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War on some Pacific island while his compatriots are inventing the walkman. Although long since discredited, Contrastive Analysis did identify (and I use identify in the sense that social scientists and other such academics mean it, to give a fancy term to something which everyone already knew existed) the linguistic phenomenon of interference. Interference is the term given to the practice of incorrectly using a linguistic structure in your native language in the language that you are learning. It accounts for an Italian learner of English saying "I have hunger", translating directly from the Italian "Ho fame" and for the English speaker interpreting "Ho Fame" as "I am famous" I don't know if interference may in some part explain a Libyan taxi driver yesterday telling me that "Elton John is no man", adding "And George Michael, no man. Yes? Elton John and George Michael together. Yes? (accompanied by hand gesture). Both no man." Though the language is garbled and broken, you strain your brian and somehow, against all the odds, the message comes through. And an important message it was in this instance.
I have often found this the case even though I think that my main problem with speaking Arabic is not interference. I have no difficulty with the concept of subtracting the differences between the two languages. It is just learning the differences that I have a problem with. Not that I haven't improved. Gone are the tentative attempts of the early days when 'Can you drive me to a vet's?' came out as "Please, you take me to the doctor of the cat and of the dog?' and 'It's raining' was 'The water it comes down from the sky.' An even more desperate attempt went something along the lines of, "The man, the black man, not black man but his clothes it is black, oh or maybe yellow now, maybe even green. This man, the boss, he is not good." Which was my way of trying to say, "The referee was crap." Although many Libyans speak surprisingly good English, these days I find myself able to conduct semi-coherent conversations in Arabic, although about what can sometimes be a problem. The lack of cultural references can be as big a barrier to communication as the language itself. Despite the taxi driver's impressive knowledge of homosexual English pop stars, very few have heard of Elvis, the Beatles and even the name David Beckham will receive blank faces from women. Noel Edmonds is definitely a non-starter.
Religion can be a bore to speak about and indeed, proselytizing is an important tenet of the Muslim faith. Politics is best avoided, although I did once find myself tricked into speaking about it by my friend Bashir, who casually asked if I had seen Saddam Hussein arraigned in court on TV the previous day. I told him that I had and he asked what I thought of him, to which I answered with what I thought was the diplomatic, yet truthful, "I think that he is not a good man." Bashir replied, with some measure of anger, "But what about Sharon? Is he a good man? Why isn't he arrested?" Unwittingly, I had found myself in at the deep end of a heated, unwanted contrastive analysis of the relative merits of Saddam Hussein and Ariel Sharon. Luckily, I had no moral problem with stating that I thought that Sharon was also a bad man, so I managed to find an exit strategy out of the discussion. Often it is not wise to pursue a debate analytically as depth of feeling usually outweighs intellectual discourse. The belief that Ariel Sharon is the devil incarnate is accepted as fact and should not normally be challenged. As the same Bashir put it, in a rather un-Muslim fashion on the eve of Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, "Eid is here and Sharon is dying. It is a great day!"
The Arab trait of replying to a question in the affirmative with the fatalistic "Inshallah" (if God wills it) often incurs the wrath of Westerners, suspicious that it indicates individual willingness to assume personal responsibility. Although I think that is perhaps a slightly paranoid, unfair reading it is not that surprising that the inability to extract the word yes from someone can be frustrating. As I experienced myself when asking a Libyan if next Thursday, Jamahariya Day, was a public holiday.
"Is next Thursday a public holiday?"
"Is it definitely a day off?"
"OK so, God willing, if HE wills it, next Thursday, we do not have to come into work then?"
You just can't win sometimes. Libyan Arabic has many charming traits in its lexicon, such as the common, greeting 'Shini gew?' literally "How is your weather?" You can reply to this by using the pan-Arabic 'miya miya' (one hundred one hundred, or 100 per cent fine). If you wish to go for an extended greeting (and often greetings in Arabic seem to extend from the simple 'How are you?' and 'How's your family?' to the extremities of 'How's you cat?' and 'How's your toaster?') then you can reply to 'Shini gew?' with 'Behhi'(Good), at which point your interlocutor may feel obliged to add 'Gul behhi, jigik is-shehi' (If you are good, your tea will come), which I think is something along the lines of everything comes to he who waits.
If you don't have a car, it is colloquial to say that you have a Renault 11, with the two 1s representing your legs. There is often recourse to some more flowery, purple in expressions like "The sun has melted the butter of the stars" and Arabic is also rich in idioms. 'In the eyes of the monkey's mother, it is a gazelle', a testament to the unwavering power of maternal love, is one of my favourites. In its universality presumably it applies even to Ariel Sharon's mother.
Even Saddam Hussein's.
Even Elton John's.
Even the mother of the Contrastive Analyst at Al-Fateh University.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Game of Two Halves

I was walking down the Girgarish Road and on the palm-tree lined grassy knoll, perhaps the only one on this fine road, some kids were playing football with a ball that was so flaccid that they may as well have been kicking a plastic carrier bag. When life gives you a crap football you play a crap game of football, I suppose. Football was indeed in the air and it puzzled me what the boys were doing outside when at that very moment the final of the African Nations Cup was being played out between Egypt and the Ivory Coast. Perhaps the boys just lost interest after Libya so predictably and ignominiously departed the competition in the first round. As Farag said, apparently irony-free, "The national team needs more funding!" 'Hmm,' I thought 'I wonder where they might be able to get that from.' There is no lack of enthusiasm for the game. There is even a football pitch on one of Tripoli's busiest roundabouts. Ball control is to be exercised carefully and Chris Waddle style penalties evidenced in the semi-final of the World Cup are not to be encouraged. But if the kids with the superannuated condom for a ball weren't interested, the rest of Tripoli was gripped. For once the roads were almost empty and as I walked past the strip of take-aways and cheap restaurants where they sell tabunas, schwarmas and folded Libyan pizzas, a horde of Libyan waiters, cooks and chefs who had dubiously switched allegiance to Egypt emerged to taunt the predominantly black African servers in the pizza bar next door. Egypt had scored. Calm was restored until slowly the familiar agonizing realization set in amongst the Libyans via the template of the action replay. The Africans burst out waving their hands above their heads in glee. The goal had been disallowed. In the gloating stakes it was one-one and there was everything to play for.
Of course, not all Libyans had switched their support to Egypt. I think that in their heart of hearts Libyans are first Muslims, then Arabs, then Libyans and finally, reluctantly, Africans. But when it comes to football, they are not always in their heart of hearts and the Libyan identity shoves its way to the top rung. There is some mild bitterness in relations which goes a little deeper than the last three football encounters in recent memory (Egypt won twice and Libya once). Along with sub-Saharan Africans, Egyptians make up the largest part of Libya's migrant grey economy. Egyptians are particularly visible in the construction industry. Last summer, when I remarked to a colleague that I was amazed that the Egyptian workers were toiling away on the construction of a new office block under a 43 degree midday sun, he replied "Well, they built the pyramids, didn't they?" with a chuckle. More recently, a friend Hasan was telling me that violent crime was almost non-existent. I agreed that that seemed to be the case, but pointed out that our driver, Aymen, had that very week been stabbed in the stomach by four evidently drug-crazed youths trying to steal his dilapidated old Roadstar car stereo. "Yes", Hasan replied "But I would bet you that they were Egyptians. There is no way of knowing if this tabloid-without-the-tabloid anti-immigrant knee-jerk reaction is in fact an accurate one as it happened so quickly. Suffice to say that Aymen has made a full recovery and still listens to the Koran on the radio.
The out-sourcing of hard manual labour to people from poorer countries is a global phenomenon. In London there are Czech scaffolders and in the Czech Republic there are Ukranians scaffolders. For all I know, there are Phillipinos and Indians (who are sometimes not too fond of each other) doing the same work in the Ukraine, although I doubt it. It does beg the question, although it isn't one which will need to be answered any time soon, 'What will we do when there are no people poor enough to do our dirty work for us?'
In Tripoli, the Wadi, a dry valley below the Gurgi and Girgarish Road is the de facto job centre for migrant workers. They sit on the pavements in their droves with the tools of their semi-skilled labour at their feet. Some have spades, hoes, jack-hammers, sledge-hammers, screwdrivers, sometimes just a coil of wire and often nothing at all. The Wadi is the place to go if you want some manpower to help with building your house. In Libya, no-one buys a house when they get married - everyone builds one, as it's cheaper. A German friend told me that she knew a man who had confided in her that he was desperate to lose his virginity and was actually married but his father-in-law would not allow them to sleep together until he had finished building his house. I think a Wadi worker gets about ten dinars (about 7 US dollars) for a day's work, when you get a day's work. Living ten to a house on a diet of bread, tuna and couscous, it is a hard life and you can see it on their faces. I asked an Egyptian if he didn't mind the lack of personal space that comes sharing a room with four other people, and he came back with the standard "No, we are all brothers!" reply. A noble sentiment but, personally, I don't particularly want to sleep on top of my brothers.
There will have been some Egyptian smiles (along with a few African grimaces) on Saturday morning though. In the end Egypt won, miraculously rescuing a penalty shoot-out from the jaws of defeat. Despite its unfairness, there is something about the penalty shoot-out which everyone, even those who despise football and refuse to countenance the passion, faith and hope that it gives people, can understand. Everyone has to watch, even the girls with painted faces who wouldn't know the offside rule if it hit them over the head with a corner flag. Everyone has to watch, except for those who just can't bear to.
The Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, on a reported salary at Chelsea of 5,000,000 euros a year, perhaps Africa's greatest player, had his penalty saved. And how many of the game's most technically gifted players have we seen failing to score in penalty shoot-outs, to complete what is technically the simplest of tasks? Platini, Maradona, Beckham, Baggio; the list is endless. There is something there, something about fallibility, that everyone can understand.

Monday, February 06, 2006


I would not be surprised if some Libyan father is putting their foot through their son's Lego multi-storey car park right now. Mozarella sales have collapsed. Despite the promixity to Italy, that is where it is imported from apparently. On the other hand, I imagine that exports of that other great Danish export, bacon, have not been so poorly effected.
The newsreader on the BBC said that there have been protests from Lahore to Lebanon about the publication of the cartoons in the Danish newspaper The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and their subsequent publication in other European countries. Well, I can think another place beginning with L where there have also been organised protests, although not as violent. The businesses in the centre of town closed up early today in anticipation of the gathering crowds.
Sometimes, people seem to forget how wide a swathe Islam cuts across the middle of the planet. Despite the protests, my feeling is that here people are pretty stoical and a little embarrassed by the rabid, hysterically violent over-reactions that have taken place in Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Riding in a taxi yesterday, the driver pointed to a pile-up at the side of the road and said, "This is the problem here, not cartoons," although he did add "What advantage did they want to get from publishing them?" I had no clue how to answer him.
While the word over-reaction is definitely not misplaced, there have been the same colossal breakdowns in communication that always surround these things. It has to be said first of all, that Jyllands-Posten did not publish any cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed as a pig, although some such cartoons seem to have made their way onto the internet. My boss put a computer print out mock-up of this crude cartoon mock-up on the notice board in the corridor, with Mohammed's head replaced with the head of Jyllands-Posten editor Carsten Juste. Having seen theactual 12 cartoons that were published, I would not even say that the cartoon which has caused the most hysterical ruptures actually portrays Mohammed as a terrorist. My take on the cartoon of Mohammed wearing a bomb with a lit fuse coming out a turban is to suggest that the teachings of the prophet have been interpreted as a pretext for terrorism.
These subtleties predictably, though understandably did not take long to fly out of the window as the air became thick with paroxysms of anger and indignation. Added to that, of course, is the irony that the offices of a newspaper which suggested that Islam was breeding violent fundamentalist intolerance is now being ear-marked on websites for, er, violent Islamic intolerance. 'How dare you say that Mohammed is the cause of terrorism? We will firebomb you for saying that!' There is no doubt about it - many Muslims, living as they do in overtly religious dictatorships of one sort or another, are not so much the brooding nemesis of free speech as they are sometimes portrayed, but are not quite certain about what it is. When you are conditioned by a media which does not tolerate true freedom of expression, you do not necessarily develop the critical faculties to observe the subtleties of pluralism. Against that background, it is not such an unpardonable crime to assume that other places are the same; that if a Danish newspaper publishes an offensive cartoon, then this reflects the views of all of the Danish people, with a little cloud of suspicion cast over the rest of the western world. It is about as logical as boycotting Maltese goods because you have choked on a Malteser. As a Muslim once put it to me after his football team was thrashed in the World Cup Finals: "The referee was a Christian!" The background noise of persecution mania hums constantly in the Arab world. I secretly think that some actually relish the opportunity to indulge and confirm their paranoia about the west.
Some more fair-minded people here have described the west as hypocritical. "Isn't it in the west that girls aren't allowed to wear hijabs to school? You don't allow us the freedom to express ourselves, but you can?” Mahmoud said. I think it is an engaging counter-argument to pursue, and not completely without substance but, finally, untenable. It seems convenient to overlook the fact that the French ban is also on kippahs and crucifixes.But as much as I disagree that there is some secret Western conspiracy to offend and undermine Islam and, as much as this reaction has brought out the worst, paranoiac instincts that some Arabs harbour, I can not agree that the cartoons should have been published. There are so very many things that are ripe for satire and lampooning in the Arab world, but the image of Mohammed is hardly one of them. Although it must be said, I do not think the cartoons actually set out to portray Mohammed in a truly unsympathetic light. One has him as a lonely shephard against the backdrop of a red sun. I imagine that Mohammed probably did look something like that.
Analogies have been made about the negative, sometimes brutally obscene portrayal of Jews in the Arab media. As condemnable as it may be, I have never heard of a cartoon in a Muslim newspaper actually attacking the articles of the Jewish faith and would find it very hard to believe that there has ever been one. Others have pointed out that Jesus Christ has regularly been at the hands of treatment far more extreme than the picture of Mohammed with a bomb on his head without violent repercussions from Christians. But this is to miss the point. The 12 cartoon layout which the Danish newspaper so deliberately and intentionally chose to detonate on the world was a direct challenge to the deeply held Islamic belief that the representation of Mohammed in pictorial form is blasphemous. The Danish newspaper's question was, 'Are we entitled to free speech?' It is a question that does need to be asked, but what about the question, 'Are they entitled to that belief?' ?
As irrational and illogical as the belief seems coming from my world view, I think that they are entitled to it. It is a belief which could be violated by any child with a crayon at any time. It seems unenforceable, inscrutable, downright bizarre and perplexing. But it is theirs and I believe that they do have a right to it. I fail to see what freedoms are mine they are curtailing through this belief, except in a case where I should calculatedly pursue a course to offend it, which is what has just been done.
The thing with free speech is that it sometimes seems a lofty, high-minded concept when discussed in ivory-tower intellectual circles but loses some of its ethical currency on a street level when it is done without sensitivity. The protesters who marched through London this week with placards proclaiming "7/7 is on its way" were also excercising free speech. To say that 7/7 is coming again could , after all, be construed not an incitement to hatred or violence, but an opinion. But if someone proposed to, say, deliberately march past the house of the relatives of one of the victims of 7/7 with one of those placards then I would defend their rights with as little conviction as I would those who wield free speech as an instrument to ridicule people's most deeply held beliefs and convictions in the name of some kind of intellectual exercise. Free speech was curbed all over the western world after September 11, with scyscrapers being edited out of films and off CD covers. An ironic over-reaction of course, but the underlying notion of sensitivity was not misplaced. The right to express yourself does not necessarily carry with it an incumbent obligation to be sensitive but without it, the scenes we have seen this week are inevitable.
I do understand that Jyllands-Posten's editor Carsten Juste's intention, although it may not have been his only intention, was to explore the boundaries of free speech in Denmark but the image of Mohammed crosses Denmark's borders. In this era of globalization, where the cyberspacial butterfly effect of a cartoon in Scandinavia can be transmitted across the globe in a matter of seconds, it is no use pretending anything else. It is not for the west to try and ram free speech down Islam's throat.
If Juste sincerely did not anticipate the uproar that has been unleashed then he was astonishingly naive. The five dead bodies so far are not his fault, but at least I hope he now has the answers he was looking for and does not feel the need to conduct the same test again any time soon. It's a shame he couldn't have just done a survey or something like that.