An ode to minorities

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than distrusted, marginalised or persecuted, minorities must be celebrated for the role they play in strengthening society and bridging chasms.

A Syrian refugee performs 'Ode to Joy' Photo: © Jure Eržen

A Syrian refugee performs Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. Photo: © Jure Eržen

Monday 28 December 2015

Globalisation was meant to move us beyond our narrow tribalism and make us all members of one big happy human family. While at its best, globalisation has succeeded in making people thrive on diversity, at its worst, our globalised world has led to a rising fear of difference and a huge surge in identity politics.

And as a growing number of states falter or collapse, economic inequality widens and poverty deepens, minorities are regaining their traditional status as targets of hatred and scapegoats. The active persecution in places like Syria, Iraq and Myanmar, as well as the mainstreaming of a neo-fascist discourse among the no-longer-far right in America and Europe, compels me to dedicate this ode to minorities.

As an Egyptian who has divided his life between the Middle East and Europe, I have been part of one minority or another for the greater part of my life. Unlike many Arab intellectuals who lament their “estrangement” or “exile”, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a member of a minority, one can interact with and belong to more than one culture simultaneously. We have our home culture, which is mundane to us but exotic to our surrounding society. And just beyond our doorsteps lie the exoticness, for us, of the everyday of mainstream society.

I still remember the day I moved to live in England. I looked out of the window at a rain-speckled London playground where a group of strangely coloured children were playing in ways that were eerily familiar to me.

That sense of familiar foreignness would accompany me on my first day at school, during my entire education and when I visited friends. The fact that we spoke different languages at home, often ate different food, had parents with very different cultural reference points and celebrated different religious festivals – even though my parents also allowed us occasionally to mark Christmas – made us mutually exotic.

But I evolved to slip relatively effortlessly between both cultural spaces, to belong, at least in my mind and heart, to both societies and traditions. And the bafflement my otherness sometimes caused was offset by genuine curiosity and interest, while the racism of strangers was counterbalanced by the love and sympathy of friends.

After many years, moving back to Egypt didn’t remove the foreignness. If anything, it accentuated it. Although I’d been led to believe that this was a homecoming, it felt to my teenage self like a move to a foreign and exotic land.

And society felt my foreignness too. Although I was accepted as essentially an Egyptian, I was also “el-Inglezi” (the English guy) or even a “khawaga” (foreigner, usually Western). Though I’d spoken Arabic at home with my parents, it was woefully inadequate for dealing with Egyptian society and the English with which I communicated with my siblings became the new exotic.

With time, my Arabic became convincingly natural, but some of my lifestyle choices elicited curiosity and sometimes raised eyebrows. Likewise, no matter how acclimatised I became to Egypt, certain elements remained foreign, especially the culture of profuse flattery and the verbosity of interpersonal exchanges.

Of course, belonging to more than one society is not always complementary, especially when significant cultural and political differences exist. Squaring the circle of contradicting cultural demands is, admittedly, a challenge. It leads some in pursuit of an elusive and usually false “authenticity,” while others go to the other extreme and attempt to assimilate so completely into the mainstream that they adopt not only its ways, but also its prejudices towards and misconceptions of their minority.

Personally, I’ve chosen the path of individualism, to hold the stick where I feel comfortable, to mix and match a blend that suits my tastes – and to hell with those who don’t accept me on my terms.

With my Arabist-Belgian wife, we have taken this potpourri approach to assemble a domestic cultural collage. Our six-year-old son has two religious heritages, and the secular convictions of his parents, can already speak four languages fluently and embraces the unfamiliar, the exotic. He feels comfortable everywhere, but I fear this may change as he gets older.

Even though Iskander is blond and looks totally European, if Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump represent an enduring trend in the West, he may come under immense pressure to jettison his Arab side. Similarly, the fact that he has not been raised as a Muslim and instead has grown up in a religiously sceptical household may cause him trouble in the Arab world, if its conservatism is not overcome.

History is replete with examples of how minorities make a society stronger and more humane, and getting rid of them costs everyone dearly. As outsider-insiders, minorities bring creative energy, ambition, drive to achieve, and often hold up a mirror to the excesses and transgressions of mainstream society.

This makes defending minorities in everyone’s interest, if only because societies that persecute or eliminate a minority don’t stop there – they exhibit an ugly tendency to identify sub-groups of the majority to scapegoat and target.

Being a well-fitting misfit everywhere has facilitated my evolution toward a more inclusive and embracing humanism – a mash, not a clash, of civilisations. In these troubled times of widening chasms, the world needs the bridging role of minorities more than ever.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 15 December 2015.

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