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Western Modernity and Arab Tradition: A Comparison - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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I was drawn, while in my seat on the aeroplane watching the passengers on their way to board, to a child and his mother each reading a book and glancing every now and then to measure the distance separating them from the aeroplane staircase. They only turned the book aside when they climbed the first step of the staircase while they re-attached their eyes to it while their feet were feeling the next steps. The child and his mother were not alone in having their eyes glued to their books. The man in front of me was completely absorbed by a thick book throughout the journey, so was the man to my right and so were most of the passengers, whether moving or sitting, holding to their books.

My imagination took me back to the summer which our children spend in lazing around, swimming, travelling or playing computer games. I thought of the reading deficiency which has become a feature of the age thanks to the internet and television. But the man who invented the internet still holds fast to the habit of reading which means a great deal as does the lack of it. I found that the lack of reading has become a characteristic only of Arab society. Can it be believed that in a nation of almost four hundred million people a mere two thousand copies are printed of any book, and even these are hardly sold. Why is this reluctance among our children and youth to make friends with books and reading?

In Western schools, classes are stopped 15 minutes every day for pupils to read their favourite book. This means that every pupil has to look for a favourite book and read for a quarter of an hour every day at school. This will soon grow to hours and then to a wonderful habit which is nurtured in children so that they experience the pleasure of reading, and discovering the world.

In some European capitals in which they noticed a drop in reading rates, bookshops and coffee shops started setting up special reading corners and providing services which attract readers.

The difference between a nation that reads and a nation that does not is like the difference between light and darkness; for the reading habit develops into a habit of thinking, analysis and production. Nations which do not read are just satisfied with receiving the view and ideas of others without realizing the objective or the impact these ideas have on their life and future.

Reading is not the only habit which, we claim, was destroyed by modernity. In fact, it is only our modernity which has turned computers into playing things for children and adolescents while for people who read computers are used to acquire more knowledge. There are other phenomena which reveal the difference between our understanding of Western modernity and the West’s understanding and practice of modernity.

Wherever you go in Western cities which have old buildings and neighbourhoods, you will see the constant efforts made to restore an old building, or even its façade or any trace which shows the greatness of the achievement of their ancestors. These buildings wear new apparel only in terms of cleanliness and resistance to weather conditions. In many Arab cities which are hundreds if not thousands of years old, you see bulldozers demolishing buildings which have unparalleled originality and authenticity to be replaced by buildings which have nothing in common with our society, history or environment. We replace traditional houses, which were warm in winter and cool in summer and in which people were comfortable moving in their different parts, with buildings which are strange to us and to our life-style, and even to family relations which have developed through hundreds of years.

The comparison might be extended to include concern for traditional industries and handicraft and even culture, tradition, dress, singing and music. All aspects of our culture show a laxity with regard to all things original and authentic coupled with blind acquiescence to whatever is Western. They also show a wholesale importation not only of goods but of everything which might introduce a different lifestyle at the expense of our lifestyle, values, tradition and culture.

It might be difficult to separate, in this sense, between what is cultural, political and economic. As we voluntarily give up our language, tradition and heritage, we also neglect promoting our products on the international arena and do not hold fast to our values and views in the face of persistent campaigns which target our existence, values and the future of our nation.

We see the difference every instant in the way we behave and the way others behave towards us. Israel committed the most heinous crimes in Lebanon and Gaza, and is committing everyday all sorts of crimes against prisoners, against the Palestinian people and against our people in the occupied Golan and southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, the Arab, and by extension the international, reaction is timid to say the least in compared with the crime. Those who do not respect their own language and culture are not usually respected by others.

When a high ranking British officer (Robert Tornello) was killed in Helmand, Afghanistan, his obituary in British and Western newspapers ran into pages acclaiming his military and personal achievements, with photographs of him and his family, so that he does not become a mere figure in the number of casualties. We, on the other hand, talk about over a million martyrs in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, etc. as mere figures. We quote what the Western media writes about us even when they turn our countries to mere maps measured by the extent and significance of their victories, without mentioning their victims consisting of Arab women, children and the devastation they mete out on our cities and the threat they pose to our security and our future generations. The question is: why don’t we stand up and be counted and make the world listen to our voice in defending our prisoners in Israeli jails, those who are the most honourable men, women and children and the staunchest believers in this nation and its future? When we take measures to become active through producing knowledge rather than receiving and digesting it we will be better equipped to preserve our culture and defend our land, people and their integrity.

Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban

Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban

Prof. Bouthaina Shaaban is political and media advisor to the Syrian presidency, and the former minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer, and has been a professor at Damascus University since 1985. She received her PhD in English Literature from Warwick University, London. She was the spokesperson for Syria. She was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

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