One of my cherished insights in the thinking of fellow westerners in disaster countries like Iraq is that they are only seeing what they are NOT seeing. They will say that Iraq is still not a country with the rule of law and not a real democracy and that many schools outside the Kurdistan Region lack running water and clean toilets. They complain about the lack of professionalism of Iraqi journalists and about the still bad mobile phone networks. They mention that only three percent of Iraqi homes has internet and that women are not getting their most basic rights. They endlessly reiterate the things Iraq does NOT have and therefore call it in the good old language of the international aid organizations a “developing country”.
Now, from a normal human being’s point of view this is actually a weird way to describe a place full of fellow human beings living their lives. Suppose these people would walk through Paris and mention all the time what is NOT there: “Paris is a city without generators at every street corner. One doesn’t see any American tanks. Few people speak Arabic. The water level in the Seine river is not cut by Turkish dams. Politicians don’t have their own militias. It is impossible to find fresh dates and ripe watermelons those days. People never die in car bombs.”
It would not tell you much about Paris.
It would probably suggest to the reader that the visitor is a traumatized Iraqi. In a way such remarks say more about the person who is noticing the things than about the place he is describing.
The challenge for westerners in Iraq is to see, describe and understand what exists here. Talking in terms of “developing country”, “state in transition” or “Third World country” is just a ruse to cover up an inability to see what is there, by talking about what will be or should be there in the future.
It would be easy also to talk about the earth-destroying West in terms of future goals such as having a beautiful animal friendly and non-polluting economy, an honest banking system, a society that cares for the poor and one that has buried imperialist tendencies forever. The realities are quite different and as hard a nut to crack for idealists as Iraqi realities.
Of course words abound to describe the not yet perfect Iraq. If the westerners have read some sociological books, they will describe the social system as “tribal” and the political system as “sultanic” or “sectarian”. Invariably the system is “corrupt”, a haven for “crony capitalism” and worse. Society is of course “islamic” and “patriarchal”. Although all such terms have a certain element of truth in them, they don’t describe realities.
Even worse, if you strip them from the images of certain nations that are linked with such terms, they are immediately applicable to for example the United States. Former president Bill Clinton has been described as having “a Byzantine court”, American political parties have been called associations of “family clans” (the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Daleys). American white Christian conservatives are often described as fanatic if not “fascist” sectarians. These People of the Book have falsified surveys to prove that American society is “Christian” and undisturbed by dozens of millions of nonbelievers. In matters of corruption and crony capitalism, the United States has broken every record recently.
So, what is here? What does exist? How do we describe it? Where it comes from? Where is it going?
Yesterday we were watching a television program and the sound and images from an Iraqi singer performing a song on Iraqi television in the seventies came up. It was – for Iraqis, not for me – an uncomplicated, small situation, with an orchestra that had many musicians with eye glasses, a singer in a white suit with a lute, in front of a television camera. The images provoked a remark from an Iraqi about what happened later to such singers and musicians.
The small scene would however be able to provoke in an Iraqi elderly’s brain a whole world of facts, events, public and personal memories. This is real knowledge about fashions of the time (clothes, eye glasses, haircuts, television décor), about the use Iraqis make of centuries-old music instruments, about words in the songs with subtle meanings from the Iraqi dialect and Arabic, about poetic references, the musical heritage embodied in certain Iraqi families, etcetera. All such aspects of life are immediately available in the brains and active memories of many Iraqis – but no one else’s. To glue one single western word on it, would produce the opposite of understanding.
I don’t know how any non-Iraqi stranger could deeply understand and describe such a small scene, what happened there, where it came from, where it eventually went and why. If Iraqis cannot remember or understand such aspects of their lives, they are considered mentally disturbed, like an Egyptian who doesn’t know who is their famous singer Um Kalthoum or for that matter, an American who doesn’t know a thing about Oprah Winfrey and similar talk shows.
In 2005 my favorite German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk together with an artist designed an inflatable parliament building, that can be thrown from an airplane after an American or European liberation of some underdeveloped country. Within 24 hours the parliament stands, complete with lights, heating, chairs for the public and a speaker’s corner. Sloterdijk wrote a witty essay about his tent while architect Gesa Muller built the real thing that was shown in exhibitions in Europe. The philosopher and his friends believed at the time that some one hundred “failed states” would be forced in the coming years to accept democracy from the air.
It is a perfect example of seeing what is not there – and fill the space instantly.
In personal relations, if one looks at another person and only sees what that person is lacking, it is a sure sign of a lack of respect (says Spinoza).
(First published on 5/17/2009)