An ode in praise of minorities

By Khaled Diab

Rather than distrusted, marginalised or persecuted, 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

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 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 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 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.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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7 thoughts on “An ode in praise of minorities

  • Or just live and feel and “be in the moment” – corny phrase, but not all people are built for so much examination of lifestyle and identity. I think my ancestors and relatives have been fairly spontaneous about tradition, identity, ethnicity….if that makes sense.

    Reply
  • “You are at home everywhere and nowhere”. Hey, that’s what I always say!

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  • An interesting comment, Khaled. I, too, share your passion for the multicultural mash. I grew up as an English-speaking Jew in French Quebec at the very time it was riling against domination from Anglo-Canada and the power of its internal Anglo financial elite.In other words, I was surrounded without by telescopic minoritization, and within, the picture was not much different. The Jewish community of Montreal was itself a patchwork, with the minority born in Canada, and the majority consisting of refugees from various European countries. Later, during decolonization, the French-speaking mizrachi Jews would join them. I myself lived for extended periods in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. So what is the impact of these cultural mash-ups?
    Difference becomes home. It is unsettling to suddenly find oneself in a culturally monolithic society: when I went to Switzerland, I lived in a town that was so self-enclosed that to my eyes, everybody looked the same! Absorbing difference, making it your own becomes a way of enhancing your capacity to experience reality, to extend the horizons of your own cultural vision. I’ve always seen it as making me more profoundly human, and able to appreciate more profoundly what is human, in the best and worst senses of the term.
    At the same time, a certain deracination takes place. You are at home everywhere and nowhere: it becomes easy to embed yourself in new surroundings, but when you go “home” again, stowed away in your mental baggage are experiences and perspectives that will always constitute and signal your note of difference to your “home” society.
    I’ve always thought that minorities are the canaries of the social coal mine. Where the society is healthy, the minorities flourish. Where the society is unstable or pathological, the minorities will be the first to register the changes. I’ve been a minority my whole life, sometimes even occupying several minority niches simultaneously. It’s not easy, but it is thought-provoking. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Reply
  • Yes, it’s important that minorities are given the space to maintain their unique identities. At the same time, that identity must not become tyrannical. The individual should choose whether to maintain tradition, assimilate into the mainstream or blend the two.

    Reply
  • diversity and cultural pluralism is the strength of societies when they are allowed to keep their own identities alive…mistrust arises when they are threatened to be dominating by mainstream culture….

    Reply
  • Exactly what I have always believed. Celebrate the best from every culture.

    Reply
  • Amazing article. On a very personal level it strikes a bittersweet chord. On a global level, it describes the most positive and constructive attitude towards diversity.

    Reply

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