. . . for my kids. . . and good friends

Across the great divide

Some of my very best friends are Arabs. Seriously. And several of them are muslims too. Decent, caring, thoughtful people to whom I would entrust my life; and on one or two occasions have done. 

It would indeed be strange if it wasn't true, as I've chosen to spend most of the last twenty years in the Middle East, initially working and now living there for much of the time. Nevertheless I can still feel uncomfortable; shocked even.  And also disturbed by the naivety and wishful-thinking that colours many of our attitudes here towards the region and the people. There are two touchstone issues; women and drink!

I'm not being frivolous when I suggest that you can judge where you stand with a muslim over a glass of wine. The first time it happened I was genuinely virtually speechless.

Picture the scene, the opulent al fresco dining tables of a five star hotel in Dohar, the capital of Qatar. We were there in 2001 (in advance of 9/11) to work with Al Jazeera TV, training and developing their presenters, picture-editors, correspondents and other journalists. It went well. Not least because of the help and enthusiasm of a young local journalist, Khaled, who helped us decode what was happening around us and was professionally voracious and appreciative.

We liked young Khaled and enjoyed learning from him too, so it was only natural to invite him for dinner. He arrived slightly late, and by way of an inconsequential ice-breaker, I said, almost word for word: "Great, glad you could join us Khaled, now obviously [he was in a long white robe] you won't be having any alcohol but you don't mind if we do!" Er, sorry, yes I do, said the 27 year old! whom we had invited to have dinner with us.

The scene is still vivid. He explained it was no problem at all if he just left us then and there, but the Qur'an forbade him from sharing a table with people drinking alcohol. Rather pathetically, I asked how far apart the tables had to be, if he was sitting next to us; but no, we would still be dining together so that wouldn't work. We had a nice, rather short meal, drank water and left for the bar soon afterwards.

This is not about alcohol as such, it's about a group of people who, for some reason, believe they have the right to tell others what they can do in their presence. And think this is normal and acceptable. Beyond that it's about the massively socially-divisive effects of this certainty.

I've used this 'test' many times since. The implications are disturbing. Twice this year, on flights between Amsterdam and Gatwick, it's happened while I've been chatting to my northern-accented British neighbour about their successful businesses. Interesting, articulate young men with great stories to tell.

Early on in both cases, to their surprise, I suggested I might invite them to my house for dinner. Then they understood. We would of course have a bottle of wine on the table; would that be a problem for you? It would, they would have to decline, but thank you for letting us know in advance. So, what happens after work, when your colleagues and business contacts nip down the pub for a quick pint, can't you join them and have a tonic water? Not a chance.

As I say, this is no minor matter. It's a fundamental divide between peoples. And worse, (for reasons I do understand), it's often accompanied from the muslim side, by a low-key air of condescension, superiority. A bit of a problem in a society, where alcohol is an intrinsic (probably essential) part of everyday social life. This one can't just be wished away.

As I said, some of my best friends are muslims and many of them are very happy having a beer or a glass of wine with me; and many others have no problem joining me in a bar and drinking something non-alcoholic. But for some this is not possible; and for this rather self-righteous group the opportunities to bond with and become part of mainstream European/Western society are pretty well-non-existent. We should not pretend otherwise.

There's a great little footnote to this, when we were living in Jordan. We were working with a local production company on the pilot of a kids TV-news programme. We talked with Tarek, the boss, a good muslim about inviting him for dinner. My partner's parents were around, and her father liked a drink with dinner.

So what was more important, Arab respect for parents or Tarek's problems with alcohol? And the issue was even bigger, as he felt uncomfortable if there was even a bottle of wine in the house, so where would we have to put it? In our car in the street, while he was with us?

Inevitably the dinner party never happened. Comfortingly, the conversations were light-hearted and genuinely interesting. And within Jordan I think that's fine; but to face such reactions here in the UK or Amsterdam is, I think, unacceptable.

The other similarly schismatic issue is the role of women. More on this another time, but early on in our media training and development work in the Middle East (in1996) we ran a round table on 'Images of Islam in the West". It was a powerful and important event for those who took part, and we still have the transcript!

I remember concluding that this was the first time in my life where intelligent, well-meaning human beings, seeking greater mutual understanding were actually increasing the distance between themselves the more they talked. Calm, rational debate was not closing the gap but making it unbridgeable.

As an issue of identity the role of women is much more complex than alcohol but in day to day dealings it can have a very similar, isolating and separating impact on muslim and non-muslim communities.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 December 2012 11:03  

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