Notes From Berlin (Part II)

The protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, is a young Pakistani in America, a Princeton graduate and rising star at the fictitious financial firm Underwood Samson. In Manila on an assignment, he reflects on the prosperity of Manila relative to Lahore and is disturbed by his response:

I tried not to dwell on the comparison; it was one thing to accept that New York was more wealthy than Lahore, but quite another to swallow the fact that Manila was as well. I felt like a long distance runner who thinks he is not doing too badly until he glances over his shoulder and sees that the fellow who is lapping him is not the leader of the pack, but one of the laggards. Perhaps it was for this reason that I did something in Manila that I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American. The Filipinos we worked with seemed to look up to my American colleagues, accepting them almost instinctively as members of the officer class of global business – and I wanted my share of that respect as well.

So I learned to tell executives my father’s age, “I need it now”; I learned to cut to the front of lines with an extraterritorial smile; and I learned to answer, when asked where I was from, what I was from New York.

Later Changez visits his family in Lahore:

I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter when war was in the offing…I was saddened to find [our house] in such a state – no, more than saddened, I was shamed. This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of lowliness.

But as I reacclimatized and my surroundings once again became familair, it occured to me taht the house had not changed in my absence, I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of [that] country’s elite.

On my final night in Berlin, a few of the symposium attendees accompanied our guide Özlem to a party in Kreuzberg. We spent the night socializing with a diverse, fun group of young, international artists from all over the world. I heard about Ballhaus and Label Noir and other small theaters in Berlin that were wrestling with cultural democracy and representation. I thought about multiculturalism in Europe and America, about race, class, privilege and economics, about Culturebot’s Brooklyn Commune Project and what it might take to create actual change in the world. What is it really like and what does it really take to see things from inside another’s experience of the world?

Looking at an issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn’t go away…

The party was winding down and a small group was heading off for a late night dance party at a legendary Berlin gay bar. I was exhausted and was flying the next day, so I shared a cab back to the hotel with Sinan from Baghdad. We had the kind of conversations that you can only have when you have a had a few drinks, when it is 3AM in a foreign country and you don’t know if you’ll ever see each other again. I won’t recount it in detail here, because I don’t know who will read this and I can’t possibly know the political implications of our conversation either in Iraq or here in America. But I learned a lot about what it looks like from the inside when America wages war on your country.

We sat on the terrace before retiring for the evening and our conversation wound down. Before we parted ways Sinan pointedly asked me, “Is it true? Is it freedom in America?” “It is,” I said, “But it’s complicated.”

When people refer to The End of History, I ask, “Whose history?”

We look at the world through a set of experiences and history and that informs both how and what we see. The West particularly has long conflated the material for the permanent. The materialist worldview presumes that as geopolitical dominance wanes, so too does political power. It presumes that industrial, mercantile dominance precludes and conquers ideological dominance. But ideas transcend space and time and endure long past the time when all physical evidence has gone to dust.

Greece hasn’t been a global power for millennia, but Homer’s tales are still told, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle still inform our philosophy, Athenian ideals of democracy persist to this day. The philosophy of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutra are alive and well in India and it is said that during the ancient period of Hellenic expansion the Greek and Indian schools of thought were in frequent dialogue. Islamic science and mathematics were once the envy of the world, Islamic scholars invented the decimal system and, in dialogue with the Greeks, refined geometry and algebra.

The world may continually be transformed through commerce, conflict and politics, but humankind’s greatest advances have been through the free exchange of knowledge and ideas, independent of the marketplace. Our greatest accomplishments are cultural and intellectual and resist mere materiality.

Looking back at the Rise of the West we can see a great wheel of progress powered by a never-ending river of blood. And all of us in the West – Europe, The United States and the rest – must recover at long last from the delirium of this long 20th century, this bloody era of exploit that began with 19th century Imperialism and ended with 9/11/2001.

Because all of us are accountable in our own way, and we can continue on a brutal path of indifference and exploitation or work towards understanding and interdependence. We can embrace the rising world and imbue the future with durable, timeless ideas or we can violently fight the demise of a world that we have only imagined as permanent. Because, per Heraclitus, “Everything changes and nothing remains still. You cannot step twice into the same stream.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: