Let’s not talk about Ayaan Hirsh Ali

I got on a train yesterday, for a short break from the work of helping my Dad move out of his home of 65 years, with the prospect of at last getting to read some more of Ayaan Hirsh Ali’s “Nomad” on my kindle.  But then the seat next to me was taken by a young woman wearing a headscarf, and reading Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, with tabs on various pages in the way of a someone studying a text.  I could read “Nomad” later, I thought, and it would be more interesting to talk to my neighbour, so in an inversion of my conversation in Birmingham Museum, this time I was the one to start up a conversation with a complete stranger.

From the reprinting date of my copy, it would have been in 2003 that I tried reading “Orientalism”, but I failed to finish it.  Since then I’ve become more aware of the controversy surrounding it, and put off by the description of it as arguing, summarised here on Wikipedia, that

Western scholarship about the Eastern World, was and remains inextricably tied to the imperialist societies who produced it, which makes much Orientalist work inherently political and servile to power, and thus intellectually suspect.

I’m put off here because the same could be said about any attempt to understand other cultures, so it would be reasonable to expect an intellectually balanced account to look also at how corresponding attempts to understand the modern Western society are suspect for being tied by other societies’ power structures.  Even so balanced, it would still seem disappointing, because, although it may be true of much Orientalist work, it would be more interesting to learn something about when this is not the case.  In other words, about how people do assimilate elements of other cultures, and critique their own, in a way that enhances a common humanity, and is not intellectually suspect for the conditions under which such assimilation takes place.

Rather than ask my neighbour if she’d read Ayaan Hirsh Ali, I thought it would be more interesting to ask if she’d heard of Edward Atiyah, whose autobiography, “An Arab tells his story: a study in loyaltiesI read – successfully – more recently.  There’s an interesting parallel between these two Edwards – both born into Christian Arab families, both attending the same Imperial era Victoria College, Alexandria, and both going on to become intellectual spokespersons for Arab views to the West.  It’s a while now since I read the Atiyah autobiography, but I remember being struck by his coming to Oxford to study modern history, and an account of how he responded to what he encountered which made sense; in other words, it was history, both personal and public, rather than “a critical application of post-structuralism”.

She’d not heard of Atiyah, which is hardly a surprise – I only know of him thanks to someone who was meant to be teaching me maths, but allowed himself to be distracted into wonderful discussions about anything under the sun.  One day I mentioned another boy at the school, and asked whether his father wasn’t a quite famous mathematician.  He confirmed this, but also mentioned the grandfather, Edward, and something of his story.  So, years later, when the internet had made sourcing obscure books possible, I bought a copy.

My neighbour turned out to be American, her family originally from Kashmir, but now studying for a year in Oxford as part of her undergraduate course.  I told her of my reservations about Said – that his approach, as I understood it – risks undermining any attempt to understand others’ cultures, to which she reasonably enough responded that I should perhaps persevere with his argument.  Of course, but with already 65 years of accumulated books to deal with, life may be too short.

British attitudes to the US often annoy me – we look for comfort in aspects of US society against which we can measure ourselves, and feel superior. I said something along these lines, how we see the awfulness of Trump as ‘only in America’ and overlook that somehow Obama won two elections in a row.  I asked her if she felt threatened by Trump – apparently not – but she was bothered that so many of her fellow Americans approved of him.  I then found myself arguing, just like one of those self satisfied Brits, that there were significant differences between the two countries with respect to race – which given the history of the US, is hardly surprising.  I mentioned having been to see ’12 Years a Slave’, then reading the original memoirs, and this leading me on to various other readings, including some William Faulkner, but the most interesting I thought was the classic “Mind of the South” by W J Cash.

I also tried, and failed, to remember the name and author of a deeply disturbing poem, written by a leading US literary figure, and contemporary of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden“, which I read around the same time, and, compared to Kipling, illustrated a different quality to UK & US racism – the US version was noticeably more nativist, so looking for a world in which different races occupy their own space, while Kipling’s Imperialists would be going out to spread the benefits of civilisation.  Now I can find it – Unguarded Gates by Thomas Bailey Aldrich.  Perhaps even more astonishing than “O Liberty, white Goddess!” is seeing the space behind the gates he wants to guard as where “if a slave’s foot press it sets him free” – a reference to Lord Mansfield’s judgement in Somersett’s case, which would now be seen as a key stage in the early legal development of human rights.

I asked how she was enjoying Oxford, which she was.  That’s hardly surprising either, since the place at first encounter seems almost magical, and the opportunity to expand intellectual horizons in a year out from your main course is a sort of heaven.  Without the course requirement of regular undergraduates, she and others in the same position could live in an ex-pat bubble, which reminded me of visiting a school friend who had a year out in France, and seeing the ex-pat bubble in which he had lived.  I also mentioned the organisation my parents had been involved with for so many years,

run by volunteers, whose aim is to help the newly-arrived wives, husbands or partners of visiting scholars, of graduate students and of newly appointed academic members of the University to settle in and to give them the opportunity to meet people in Oxford.

which would not be focused on people like her, but she would get the point.  Through it, our family Christmases would normally include some overseas student, and would lead eventually to generations of Japanese visiting, and friendships which are still going strong.  As she said, what a lovely idea, as indeed it is.

Returning to Said, she asked who else I’d suggest on the subject, to which I had no better immediate response other than a facetious reference to Dead White Europen Males  – such as Voltaire.  I meant the broad Enlightenment movement, within which ideas of human rights have developed, although not forgetting here links to religious teachings as well, but for me Voltaire stands as a proxy.  This is because, on first reading Candide, I was taken short by this

When we work at the sugar-canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.

 How was it, I wondered then, and still do, that someone writing in 1759 can transcend his society enough to speak in language which is still arresting today, and will, at the time, have been part of the process where attitudes changed, so showing they are not wholly culturally determined.

And so we chatted on, she, I’d say, a tribute to the self confidence and intellectual openness which America can give to immigrants and their children, while allowing them to celebrate aspects of their cultural diversity.

It’s good to be able to talk to complete strangers, and there will be other opportunities to talk about Ayaan Hirsh Ali.

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