Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Middle Eastern Man is a Rational(izing) Creature

Average citizens in the civilized West must be baffled by current and not so current political events in the Middle East.  These include Egypt’s election and post-election chaos, Syria’s non-election chaos, and Israeli’s confusing election results.  They must think that we are either crazy, masochistic, or both.

I have recently read two books, a biography of Nasser, the Egyptian leader, and an analysis of (Arab) Palestinian history in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  My conclusion from these books is that this apparent insanity is neither new nor accidental.  In the words, it is perfectly rational, if not rather tragic and destructive.

My view is as follows:  Towards the end of the 19th century, the spirit of nationalism created and sponsored by the French revolution and physically propagated by Napoleon reached the Jews and the Arabs.  This desire for independence, both political and cultural, was translated into an ideology, a somewhat far-fetched ideal.  In the case of the Jews, it was Herzel and dream of a national homeland in Israel while the Arabs aspired to the glory of the independence and dominance of Islam centuries before.  Each of these long term goals ignored several aspects of inconvenient reality, not the least of which were the European interest and the annoying existence of each other.  Nevertheless, the target populations were receptive to the idea and eventually bought it hook, line, and sinker.

It took a while, but the French and British eventually left the Middle East (tail between the legs and all), but the annoying fact that Jews and Arabs shared the same territory would not go away.  The options were simple: change the ideologies and preach tolerance and multiculturalism or maintain it and behave schizophrenically by alternating between denial (i.e. Arab distinction between “Jews” as compared to” Israelis” and Golda Meir's “there are no Palestinians”) and violence (let us count the wars).  For many reasons, changing an ideology is quite difficult (ask the U.S. Republican Party).  It is also dangerous to political and physical life, i.e. Rabin and Sadat.  So, the more convenient and popular option was to fight reality and each other. 

The results are quite tragic: death, poverty, anger, refugees, and misery.  Still, for most politicians of all stripes in the area, the greatest disaster would be peace.   It would render their ideology and raison d’être irrelevant.  As a final note, in England,  Cromwell was not despised because he was a dictator, but because he was tolerant.  The fact that, as Pascal said, man is thinking reed does not make leadership any easier.  Leaders cannot go too far from the conceptions of their people.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Names Matter

To take Hannah Arendt slightly out of context, language not only expresses what feel but determines what we feel.  A prime example is food.  Especially in the modern age when most people don’t raise their one food or often don’t even see a live animal aside the zoo, the source animal and the food on the plate are completely distinct in the people’s mind.  Theoretically and, for some people, practically, the thought of eating that cute rabbit or lamb takes the appetite away.

The culinary solution is to linguistically avoid connection.  The first way is to more accidental and historical than intentional.  Due to class and language issue in Norman English, where the French-speaking Normans enjoyed the “fruit” of the labor of the Anglo-Saxon speaking locals, the animal and derived meat had different names.  Cows, lambs, and pigs produced beef, mutton, and pork, respectively.  To be fair, saying out loud that you would like half of a pound of cow sound today a bit crude.

A more purposeful vocabulary shift is the purposeful development of alternative vocabulary to make certain foods more palatable.  Some examples include venison, sweetbread, tripe, and sausage / hot dog.  In animal terms, that means eating wild meat, generally deer, brain, intestines, and garbage meat in an edible bag, respectively.  As for the latter, how many kids would enjoy a hot dog if they knew what really was in it?

Modern culinary literature, i.e. the art of making it almost it impossible to understand what you are going to order, emphasizes foreign words because they sound exotic and induce no image in diners’ minds  concerning what is the source of their protein.  It sound so adventurous (and accordingly expensive) to eat les fruits de mer, escargots, canard, or calamari, to name a few.  To those who are afraid to ask, those lucky people are about to eat shellfish, snails, duck, and squid.  How delicious!  (Actually, they are in my opinion, but, as they say in French and most languages, chacun á son gout or to each his own).

So, when you go to that fancy restaurant and struggle to understand what exactly you should order (and are afraid to ask, as Woody Allen would say), remember, it is sometimes better to bluff your way and confidently order that mysterious item.  You might discover that brains are really tasty, or maybe not.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What you don't know does not always hurt you - Gender distinction

The Middle East is a sexist place, socially and linguistically.   Gender definitely matters.  The exact form depends on the specific ethnic and religious subgroup.  For example, in many subcultures in Israel, women and men sit separately, sometimes even in different rooms.

It also affects language.  English and Russian have the unisex they and они [oni], respectively;  French has the flexible on, which can refer to any grammatical gender or person.  By contrast, in Hebrew, the second and third person pronouns and all verb forms must reflect gender.  There is no escape in ambiguity.

For example, a typical American teenager can make the following statement:  They (the friends) invited me to a party.  The parents have the privilege of pretending that the invitation came from friends of the same sex.  Ignorance is bliss.  Hebrew parents can have no illusion.   הם [hem] and הן [hen]  are both gender specific, male and female in this case. 
This clarity also affects the world of entertainment.  For example, in English, Frank Sinatra’s signature song I did it my way can be sung by both male and female singers.  That is true for most love songs also.  Unfortunately, that does not work in Hebrew.   The verb form for the female “did” and “love” will have a different number of syllables, making it difficult to convert for a singer of the opposite sex.  If the singer chooses not to change the words, it creates a disjunction between the gender of the singer and verb form. 

This sharp distinction also creates daily decisions for Hebrew speakers.  Imagine the head nurse speaking to the hospital nursing staff: 18 female nurses and one male nurse.  Which form should the head nurse use, the male or female form?  Traditionally, the male form was and is used, although today it seems a bit awkward, even if most Israeli females do not make an open fuss about it.

So, as the French and diplomats know very well, there is nothing wrong with ambiguity sometimes, especially if you want to hide information or keep the peace.