Language: the food of understanding

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Learning Arabic is tough but it can open you up to a whole new world of cultural experiences and opportunities, not to mention build understanding.

Arabic opens up a varied and diverse culture to the learner. ©Image copyright: Khaled Diab

Arabic opens up a varied and diverse culture to the learner. ©Image copyright: Khaled Diab

13 November 2009

“Why are you interested in learning Arabic?” the teacher probed. It was a question intended to get us talking, to introduce ourselves and explain why we had chosen to give up two hours of our lives twice a week to sit in a drab high school classroom in Palma de Mallorca.

For travel, said some of my classmates; an interest in Arabic culture and music, answered others. A few wanted to learn the mother tongue of a husband or wife. The first two of those reasons were also in part my own. But I also had other motives: “Because of the world we live in,” I said.

As a journalist writing about Spanish and European politics and social issues for the last decade, I have borne witness to the growing importance of what goes on along the Mediterranean’s southern and eastern shores to the politics, economics and social attitudes in the countries north of that sea.

The lands of North Africa and the Middle East have sent millions of immigrants to work in Europe’s cities, factories and fields – breadbasket nations such as Morocco keep European supermarket shelves stocked with peppers, tomatoes and chickens, while Algerian and Libyan gas and oil keep the heat on in European homes and cars on the streets.

And European companies have invested heavily in North Africa, attracted by cheap labour, geographic proximity and an increasingly educated workforce with a seemingly innate aptitude for foreign languages. French IT firms now operate call centres out of Tunisia and Morocco, British ones favour Egypt, while European manufacturers have shifted large swathes of production to the region.

Meanwhile, millions of European tourists visit North African and Middle Eastern beaches, cities and souqs each year. Back in Europe, interest in Arabic culture, music, literature and art has spawned multicultural festivals from Barcelona to Berlin.

Trade, investment, tourism, cultural curiosity and political co-operation in the myriad summits, conferences and forums that have sprung up in recent years are one thing. But, as anyone who has not been living under a rock will recognise, on the ground – both in Europe and in the Middle East and North Africa region – this blending of civilisations has often been far less sanguine.

Islamist terrorism has spilled blood and spawned anger from Casablanca to Baghdad and from Madrid to London. The spread of militant Islam among increasingly politically assertive Muslim communities in European cities has led to scare-mongering about “Eurabia” and the “Islamisation” of Western culture. And economic immigration has sparked its own backlash, particularly among lower income sectors of society where competition between European natives and foreign workers for jobs and social services is fiercest.

It takes two to integrate

With uninspired monotony, many European politicians talk of integration as the key to solving the social tensions that have arisen in European cities. In their view, the friction caused by immigration can be reduced or eliminated by providing (or imposing) language classes for immigrants, telling them to study and abide by local cultural customs and ensuring a carefully managed ethnic blend in public schools. However, such a top-down approach, with the onus on the immigrant to do all the work can only go so far.

An immigrant made to feel unwelcome by the native population is hardly likely to have the desire – or even the chance – to cross cultural barriers, build relationships and integrate into that society. Discrimination in the labour market compounds the problem. Regardless of what EU and national anti-discrimination laws dictate, it is undeniable that in much, if not all of Europe, someone called Mohammed or Hassan usually has a harder time getting a job in the same conditions as someone named John, Manuel or Hans.

It is, therefore, understandable that the North African and Middle Eastern immigrants who come to Europe tend to cluster among themselves.  Many never move out of usually low-income neighbourhoods where they feel comfortable surrounded by their compatriots and co-religionists. Hence the Kreuzberg district of Berlin is known as ‘Little Turkey’, Brussels’ Molenbeek area boasts 21 mosques for a population of less than 80,000 and Lavapiés in Madrid has become synonymous with kebabs, Arab cafes and Halal butchers.

Even smaller cities have given rise to Muslim neighbourhoods. In Palma, about a half hour walk from the language school and far from the brash seaside resorts for which much of the Spanish Mediterranean is known, are a cluster of streets where the atmosphere is more Marrakesh than Magalluf, more Tripoli than Torremolinos, more Beirut than Benidorm.

Few native Mallorcans do more than pass through here. Few linger to hear the call to prayer from the small local mosque, smell the fresh mint and spices in the stores or peruse the meat at a Halal butchers. And while some of them may visit Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia or Egypt on holiday next year, few will take the time to observe, let alone absorb, the enriching cultural diversity that now lies on their doorstep.

As a classmate of mine noted on a recent Friday evening spent strolling around the area: “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”

As we move inevitably towards a more multicultural society, just a little bit of understanding on the part of native populations, be it a shopping excursion to a North African immigrant neighbourhood for spices, an afternoon in a Moroccan-owned tea room or picking up a few words of the Arabic language, can go a long way toward avoiding misconceptions and bridging cultural divides.

This article is published with the author’s permission. ©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved.

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Integration and its discontents

 
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By Khaled Diab

Are religious immigrants within their rights to boycott an ‘unspeakable’ integration course in Belgium?

February 2009

Experiencing some level of culture shock is part and parcel of moving to a new country. But for a group of recent immigrants to Belgium’s second city, Antwerp, the shock was so severe that they refused to continue their ‘integration’ lessons.

The reason for their outrage was the “unspeakable” nature of some of the content of their introduction to Belgian society: abortion, gay marriage, homosexuality, sex, etc. To top it all off, their horror was completed by the fact that their teacher was a woman.

The group and its religious leaders charge that the authorities are being insensitive to their religious sensibilities, while the government insists that if people are going to make the country their home, they need to learn about its values.

While it is Muslims who are at the centre of the ‘integration’ controversy in Europe, this particular case relates to Hasidic Jews. Following a letter from a group of Hasidic rabbis urging their followers not to move to Belgium until the offending content was removed from the integration courses, their followers already taking the courses have walked out of class.

In no mood to make exceptions, the Flemish minister of integration, Marino Keulen, has threatened to fine those who refuse to return. And the position of these orthodox Jews has caused unease among their secular coreligionists. “I think it’s ridiculous. These guys are living in another world and another time,” a Jew I know from Antwerp said. “They make no effort to get involved in society. They are even against Jews like me who are not conservative. They live in a ghetto.”

And therein lies the rub. How do you go about integrating a counter-cultural movement? Like similar fundamentalist religious sects in Islam and Christianity, the Hasidim were founded on the idea of abandoning mainstream society.

The movement, whose name derives from the Hebrew for ‘piety’, began in the 18th century in Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine – and that is why their dress looks like a fossil from a disappeared eastern European world. In the early 20th century, Hasidism, in the hands of the German Martin Buber, became more popular in western Europe as a ‘Jewish renaissance’. This was a direct reaction to the total assimilation of secular German Jews, and the power exerted on Jews to abandon their traditions and culture.

Of course, this kind of self-imposed ghettoisation is not what enriches a multicultural society, but society is also impoverished by excessive conformist pressures. As a secular liberal with progressive ideas, I find much of the worldview of extremists of any religious persuasion to be outdated, intolerant and reactionary – I also find their self-righteous rejection of the rest of us incredibly irritating. But their ideas will only change through dialogue not ostracisation.

Although I would love to live in a society where everyone was tolerant and enlightened, part of being open-minded is to believe in freedom of belief for everyone – as long as they don’t break the law. Of course, the dilemma is that extremists often do not believe in extending us liberals the same courtesy.

For years, I have had misgivings about this fixation on integration – and the full assimilation demanded by the far right. For instance, the extremist Vlaams Belang party – whose centre of gravity happens to be Antwerp – insists that immigrants must “adapt to our culture, our norms and values” and if they don’t, they should be deported. Aside from the absence of expletives, this echoes the “Oi Paki” brand of thugs who regularly invited the younger me to go back where I came from.

But what “norms and values” precisely? After all, many of the party’s own moral positions have far more in common with the conservative immigrants it vilifies than with the mainstream. For instance, the VB is against abortion and believes that homosexuals should stay out of the public sphere.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that assisting immigrants to adapt to their new homes is necessarily a bad thing. “I think integration courses are positive, as long as they guide newcomers and help them understand the system,” my Jewish friend noted.

I agree. Language and cultural courses can help new arrivals get their bearings more quickly. However, it is when they become an ideological weapon, rather than a practical tool, that problems arise.

For instance, the Netherlands actually demands that would-be immigrants sit an ‘integration test’ before they even set foot in the country, which Human Rights Watch describes as “discriminatory”.

Another challenge with such examinations is what exactly do you test for? In addition to language skills, the Dutch system tests the immigrant’s basic knowledge of Dutch society. But is it fair to expect immigrants to know what much of the indigenous population does not?

Many natives are not aware of, for example, the basic division of powers in a democracy nor the ministers in their governments. One hilarious example of this came from a politician. The former Belgian prime minister, Yves Leterme, was asked to sing the Belgian national anthem and instead launched into a rendition of the more memorable La Marseillaise from neighbouring France.

The true measure of ‘integration’ should be how well people respect their fellow citizens’ freedom, abide by a country’s laws and live as productive and useful members of society. What people believe and do in private, and how they dress is their own business.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 10 February 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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