Archive for February, 2009

Travel : A bridge across cultures.

14 February 2009

Travel writers marvel at nature’s beauty, bring history to life with nostalgia, savour local culinary fares, crisscross the country in search of exotic & rare, and finally prepare a guide for less gifted to choose from & visit their dream destination. A few get under the skin of host culture to know how it ticks, how is it different & more importantly, why is it similar to “us” beneath its obvious “them-ness”. Scarcely does one come across another like Rick Steves, whom I accidentally found, who shows very rare qualities of insightful thinking intertwined with palpable empathy, yet staying humorous & astute. Gender segregation of prayer halls in a mosque is often viewed on Christian TV as barbaric & anti-women. Kneeling on the ground while forehead rubs on the prayer mat and the butt sticks out in the air is an unvarying prayer format in Islam. Rick muses, “Whether god would be on his mind if he had all those pretty butts strewn in front of him”. We’re taking this plane to Tehran” – had somebody crackled over the loud speaker from the cockpit; nobody would have been alarmed observes Rick on a flight from Istanbul for his 10 days TV shoot in Teheran, Isfahan & Persepolis. He was after all visiting a country that was described by his the then president as “Axis of evil”. Even now it is probably highest on US’s danger list alongside Afghanistan. Once in a chaotic traffic jam, apparently there are no traffic lights (yes, they were never installed) even on busy intersections of 4 lanes-thoroughfares, his cab driver yelled “death to traffic!” Curious, he probed & found that “death to something” is a cultural expression to voice anger & frustration at an intractable problem. Like an American would say “Fuck you” to express annoyance or “fuck you buddy” to voice grudging admiration. When Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s “death to America” is viewed in this cultural context it loses all its menace. You would find such warm & quirky observations in his “Rick’s Iran Travel Journal’ post on his website. Those who have a weakness for audio-visual format may listen & view him talk at Commonwealth club in Silicon Valley. His passion seems to understand & be understood.

At the height of Sikh militancy in Punjab, I had an occasion to visit a Hindu family in Delhi along with a Sikh friend. Family had a baby daughter. Nine month old started crying when my Sikh friend, a gentle soul, picked her up. “Beti ghabaraa gai” someone exclaimed. The girl is frightened because she senses a terrorist’s hug. It was said in good jest and my friend laughed too. Only the way Sikhs can laugh at themselves. Yet it stank of inchoate bias. Later we returned to my home & he gingerly picked up my daughter, he was fond of kids, and to his great relief she chirped happily. Then he gushed with joyful enlightenment, ‘No wonder she took to me because her dad is an ‘aadhaa’ (half) Sikh too!’ I sported a wild unkempt beard in those days that I stubbornly refused to shorn despite warnings from my relations & friends of my safety during the 1984 Anti-Sikh pogrom run by Congress politicians in Delhi. Coming back to the story, a Sikh infant, habituated to seeing turbaned & bearded males all the time, may scream out in fear of a clean shaven male face. Cultural biases may transgress even childhood innocence.

Rick is not a political commentator. He is a travel writer. His style is at once easy going & percipient. It smacks one in the face with its candour. He doesn’t take positions, but he has a humane position. His travel observations are engaging and are imbued with politics. Yes! If politics is about one’s values, about what one does, doesn’t do, or choose not do, then one is political. In that sense all of us are political. Even those that take pride in saying that politics doesn’t concern them. Politics will concern them when they are shorn of their privileges, are deprived of their entitlements. During the filming at Tehran’s largest mosque Rick’s thoughts wander,

“…………..Watching all the worshippers bow and stand, and chant in unison, at first seemed menacing to me. Then I caught the eye of a worshipper having a tough time focusing. He winked. Another man’s cell phone rang. He answered in a frustrated whisper as if saying, “Dang, I should have turned that thing off.” The mosaics above — Turkish blue and darker Persian blue — added a harmony and calmness to the atmosphere (just as our guide had explained earlier).

I realized that the Muslims I’d seen worshipping on TV may have been edited by film teams with an agenda to make the fervent worship of non-Christians look threatening. I made a point to see it as if it were my own church just north of Seattle.”

Returning after witnessing that Friday prayer & later watching the rushes he comments,

“…….we considered the clips we just shot and pondered how they could be cut and edited to appear either menacing or heartwarming — depending on our agenda. We considered how what we had just shot could be edited with guerrillas leaping over barbed wire and so on to be frightening, and how our film crew would instead focus on the men with warm, cute faces praying with their sons at their sides, and the children outside scrambling for mulberries.

One should mind these lines when thinking about the coverage of Mumbai terror attacks brought to us by channel after channel in fiercely competitive jingoism with ranting in the background by anchors and commentators about USA & Israeli style “pre-emptive doctrine”, “hot pursuit” & “surgical strikes”. Imagine then the same live coverage interspersed with footage of terror attacks in Pakistan. Wouldn’t it have a diametrically opposite impact?, on us & more importantly even on Pakistanis. Sections of Pakistani state (parts of ruling elite, ISI & army) have undoubtedly abetted & even materially supported the terrorist activities on Indian soil. They have done so even on Afghan soil with active American collusion in 80s. Are we therefore to hold all Pakistanis responsible for the terror attacks in India? ‘Jingoism breeds jingoism’, as a Pakistani journalist, Ejaz Haider, observes in his column, “Breaking out of the same old”, in today’s Indian Express. We better be aware of our desi war mongers, self proclaimed defenders of Hinduism, our parochial politicians & sundry other “patriots” amongst us, who would vilify anyone who seeks the truth from being cowardly to a traitor, and many things in between. That wouldn’t deter us if we were like Rick Steves. We are not, but we can try.

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PS : Please check out these two cartoon films at the web-links provided. Both are highly educative & eminently enjoyable. If you like them spread the word.

1. Pirates & Emperors.

Story of stuff.