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Fatema Mernissi and Susan Sontag

Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2003

Fatema Mernissi

The Cowboy or Sinbad?
Who will win the race towards globalisation?

1 - Why are we afraid of foreigners? Because we fear they might attack and harm us. We are all afraid of Cowboys because if some poor stranger approaches their borders they automatically go for their guns. Yet we are not afraid of Sinbad the Sailor, because in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights the public story-tellers "the Ouccac" in ninth century Baghdad used to recount how being fortunate enough to visit distant lands and communicate with foreigners provided him with gratifications and benefits. In the Cowboys´ civilization, the stranger is always the enemy because power and control stem from controlling borders; with Sinbad, in contrast, dialogue with the foreigner was enriching.

1.1. Sinbad is the opposite of an immigrant. He always returns to his point of departure, Baghdad. He sets off from Baghdad in all seven of his journeys, sailing down the Tigris to the port of Basra, and setting sail when the monsoon blows from west to east, on ships laden with Arab and Persian merchants, sailing the Indian Ocean to the ports of the islands of Malaysia, Indonesia and China. Sinbad and any merchants who had managed to come through the shipwrecks tied up at Asian ports for seven or eight months at a time, waiting for the season when favourable monsoon winds would blow from east to west. Yet Sinbad was not a mere fictional character; he stood for a class of Baghdad merchant who gained wealth and pleasure from their travels and from speaking to foreigners.

1.1.1. If you look up the word "monsoon" in a French or English dictionary, you will see it comes from the Arabic word mawassim (seasons), which proves my point.

1.1.2. Sinbad represented a whole civilization of travellers-communicators, which also proves the point, as does the fact that the conversion of Malaysia, Indonesia, and part of China was not achieved by armies but basically by Sufi merchants who would speak of their new religion: an Islam in which the foreigner is the best of allies, a Sufi-based Islam, crystallized in the three cards which I have distributed amongst you:
Card 1. Verse 34 of Surat 41: "respond to aggression with kindness".
Card 2. Ibn´Arabi: "the eye is like a mirror; there is only one mirror, but in the eye of the person looking into it, there are many reflections".
Card 3. Ibn´Arabi: "my religion is love", which means that if my superior tells me that Islam is violence, then he is talking about a different religion, not mine.

2. However, beware! Do not automatically equate the Cowboy with American civilization and Sinbad with Arabic civilization. What I am referring to here is the blueprint of the foreigner. Who has the amazing power to control our mindset and have us look upon the foreigner either as an evil person (the Cowboy model) or a kindly person (the Sinbad model)? I would like to put forward the hypothesis that our blueprint of the foreigner is inculcated by the interests of the elite who control the state and its bureaucratic machinery. If Sinbad is a hero in ninth century Baghdad, in the kingdom of the Caliph Harun er-Rachid, to be precise it is down to the fact that the State was still fledgling then, and the ruling elite could accumulate wealth and power thanks to a type of Islam that in essence was a communication strategy.

3) But a century later a Cowboy Caliph came on the scene during the same Abasida dynasty that still reigned in Baghdad: al-Mu´tadid declared war on Sinbad, prohibited Muslims from going to the specialists who taught the art of dialogue, and censored books on communication skills Why? Because our Cowboy Caliph had a formidable State with imperial bureaucracy, set up by Persian advisors. The Arab Caliphs, of nomadic background and traditions, and oblivious to the centralised state, had found champions of engineering and imperial bureaucracy in the Persians. Mu´tadid, our Cowboy Caliph, boasted a formidable police organization backed up by spies, to keep an eye on the population of Baghdad, as well as a fearful military force to defeat the foreigner. Let us now read the Cowboy Caliph´s declaration of war on Sinbad together, to understand something of extreme importance on a planet doomed to globalisation: the will to terrify foreigners is never the wish of the people but rather the will of the mafias who manufacture arms and put them in the hands of spies and police.

(The declaration of war reads as follows):
«During the year 279 of the hegira (the tenth century on the Christian calendar) nudia was declared in the streets of Baghdad by the Sultan of Islam alMu´tadid, whereby public speakers (quccac), preachers of the sects (turuqiya) and astrologers were banned from working in the streets and speaking in the mosques. Booksellers were also banned from selling books on rhetoric (kalam), philosophy (falsafa) and communication skills (Jadal)».

Source: the historian Ibn Katir in his book The beginning of the End (Al bidayawa nihaya), volume II, year 279, Ibn Katir in the year 774 of the Hegira, (fourteenth century).


Conclusion: If one takes Sinbad as the blueprint, one can imagine a type of globalisation in which the role of the state would consist of providing its citizens with communication skills and the art of navigation and travel; for Sinbad, as I have already said, is the opposite of the immigrant. He always returns to Baghdad. However, where does the money come from to teach communication skills to the public at large? It would suffice to transfer some of the money the cowboys invest in manufacturing arms for spies, police and soldiers, to institutes that teach communication techniques. Who will lose out with a change like this? Certainly not the public at large.

"Respond with kindness towards your aggressor, and you will see how your worst enemy becomes your intimate friend".
The Koran, verse 34 of the 41 Surat.

The dazzling splendour of Islam since 622, the first year of the Muslim calendar that coincides with the Hegira, the departure of the prophet from Mecca (his native city) to seek allies in Medina, is explained more by the development of Jadal, the art of dialogue with your adversary, than by military conquest. Between the seventh and tenth centuries, spiritual leaders - imanes - and sages wrote hundreds of treatises on Jadal to teach Muslims communication skills. According to the Moroccan philosopher, Taha Abderahman, this explains why Arabic has eighteen words for "dialogue" (fi-ucul al hiwar). The defeat of the Arabs in Spain, according to Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1406), whose family was driven out of Spain after the fall of Seville in 1248, was because they had stopped teaching the art of dialogue to their descendents.
Will the 140 TV channels that broadcast in Arabic return Jadal to its former glory? We might think so, judging by the popularity of Faycal al Qacam, the star of Al Jazeera, who has structured her talk show "al-Itijah al Mu´akiss" (The Opposite Opinion) around it.

Ibn´Arabi´s mirror

"There is one mirror, but in the observer´s eye there are many reflections".
Ibn´Arabi, from his book, "The Jewels of Wisdom" (Fucuc al hikam).

According to Ibn´Arabi, the diversity of mankind reflects the essence of divinity itself (the mirror), thereby explaining the need for the journey - safar - recommended by Sufis as a way of acquiring self-knowledge. We only know who we are when we come face to face with the difference.

Ibn´Arabi is a great Sufi (a Muslim mystic) from Andalusia. He was born in Murcia in 1185 (560 on the Muslim calendar) and died in Damascus in 1240.

A Poem by Ibn'Arabi

"I believe in the religion of love, wherever its caravans might travel. For love is my religion and my faith".

(from the Interpreter of Desires (torjomano al achwaki), written in 1202 in Mecca)

Ibn'Arabi's dream of a world governed by love, which stimulates the desire to communicate and reduces the potential for violence, is acquiring ever greater importance because of the spate of Arabic TV channels broadcasting via satellite, of which there are now 140.

Susan Sontag

"Sans un idéal inaccessible, point de vocation authentique".
Marcel Bénabou

"The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one's;s own home". T.W. Adorno

The conferring of a prize creates an unusual situation. Those who award the prize must believe that they have made an optimal choice. Those who accept the prize must believe that they deserve it. Both beliefs can, in a particular instance, be challenged.

These questionable beliefs become even more subject to doubt when the prize being conferred is not for activities where merit can be measured more or less objectively, as in sport and science, but in the domains of culture, of the arts and of thought.

There, merit seems to resist objective measurement. Indeed, it seems that, in the arts, the only sure judgment is the judgment of posterity, by which I mean the judgment made two or three generations after the work is completed and its maker gone.

It is humbling to realize that, out of all the acclaimed books, books thought to be genuinely part of literature, that have been published in, say, a given decade --never more than five or ten percent of the novels and poetry and serious essays published in that period-- surely no more than one percent of that work will actually survive; that is, will be of enduring interest, seem valuable, continue to give pleasure to future generations, will be worth reading and rereading.

No one can predict the judgment of posterity --- which is, finally, the only judgment that counts --- on a specific body of work in literature and the arts. So in that sense all prize-giving in the domain of culture can only express a conditional approbation --- which waits future confirmation or disconfirmation. But such prizes seem less problematic if we think of them as doing something more than expressing faith in or approval of the achievement of a given writer or artist. They express faith in the activity itself.

Thus, an important literary prize seems to me best regarded as an affirmation of the importance, the glory (if I may be permitted so grandiose a word) of literature itself. At least, those are the thoughts which occur to me on this distinguished occasion, in which I have been chosen to be one of the two recipients of the Prince of Asturias Prize in Literature.

When I think of literature, of this infinitely varied adventure of working with language to tell stories and convey deep knowledge to which I have been pledged, anchored, for the whole of my life as a conscious, moral being, I think of a wide set of values that are really goals or standards by which I judge my own activity as a writer and as a person.
In one sense, the empiric or factual sense, literature is simply the sum of everything that has been written and is considered to be literature. In another sense, the ideal sense, literature is the sum of everything that improves and exalts and makes more necessary the activity of literature.

In this second, to me more valuable understanding, literature honors --- and embodies --- goals which are, in the strict sense, ideal. That is, they are never fully realized. But they are all the more compelling and authoritative, as ideals, because they are so difficult to maintain.

What I am proposing to praise here may be dismissed, by some, as an endearing form of folly. This is not my view at all. These moral standards, these ideals, are not an illusion.

Let us imagine literature as a utopia ... a place where exalted, largely inaccessible standards reign. From a certain reading of literature --- from the literature that matters, that continues to matter, over decades, generations, in a few instances, centuries --- a number of standards can be deduced.

Here is my utopia. That is, here are the standards I infer from, or find supported by, the enterprise of literature.

One. That the activities of literature (writing, reading, teaching) are an ideal vocation, a privilege, rather than simply a career, a profession, subject to the usual ideas of "success" and financial reward. Literature is, first of all, an essential form of nourishment to consciousness. It plays a vital role in the creation of inwardness and the enlarging and deepening of our sympathies and our sensitivities --- to other human beings, and to language.

Two. That literature is an arena of individual achievement, of individual merit. This means not awarding prizes and honors because of what the writer represents --- for example, weak or marginalized communities. This means not using of literature or literary prizes to support extra-literary goals: for example, feminism. (I speak as a feminist). This means not apportioning rewards to writers as a way of serially paying tribute to the diversity of national identities. (Thus, if all the three best writers in the world are all, say, Hungarian, then, ideally, the juries of literary prizes should not worry that Hungarians are receiving too many prizes.)

Three. That literature is a fundamentally cosmopolitan enterprise. The great writers are part of world literature. We should be reading across national and tribal boundaries: great literature should transport us. Writers are citizens of a world community, in which we all read and learn from one another. Considering each major literary achievement as, finally, part of world literature is to make us more open to the foreign, to what is not "us." The distinctive power of literature is to inspire in us a feeling of strangeness. Of wonder. Of disorientation. Of being somewhere else.

Four. That the variety of kinds of literary excellence, within literatures in any given language and across the spectrum of world literature, is a primary lesson in the reality and desirableness of a world which remains irreducibly plural, diverse, varied. Such a pluralistic world today depends upon the prevalence of secular values.

What are called standards can, of course, be phrased more vigorously (and perhaps more controversially) as antipathies, as refusals. So, to rephrase what I have just said:

One. Contempt for mercenary values.

Two. Aversion to making a principally instrumental use of writers --- for example, celebrating writers primarily as the representatives of communities felt to be marginalized, in order to express solidarity with those communities.

Three. Vigilance against cultural philistinism masking as the application of democratic values in matters of literature. Permanent suspicion of nationalist affirmations and tribal loyalties.

Four. Eternal antagonism toward the forces of repression, censorship.

These are indeed utopian values. They have not been realized. But literature, literature as a whole, continues to embody them. Writers continue to be goaded by them. Readers, real readers, continue to be nourished by them. And they are what every important literary prize also celebrates.

On behalf of these values, I am honored to have been singled out by the Prince of Asturias Foundation as a recipient of this distinguished prize.

Susan Sontag ©

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