Saturday, 30 January 2010

"Ajami": an Israeli/Arab film

I used to think that "Cultural relativity" and "Cultural equivalence" were the same.  They're not.  Relativity relates to an understanding and appreciation of other cultures.  A good attitude.  Equivalence means saying that all cultures are equal, equally valid, equally deserving of respect, and so on.  Not a good attitude.  Yet it's almost a given in certain multicultural circles and in many educational jurisdictions.

In the film "Ajami", the Jewish co-director Yaron Shani says:
"People live in bubbles unaware of each other.  Each side has its narrative, each side has its dreams and sees the other as threatening those dreams. But if you enter the other's bubble, you see his dreams, his inner world and his values.  Our idea was to make the audience experience what it meant to be the other."
That's fair enough.  It's also what we do -- experience what it means to be the other -- when we see "A Prophet", the new French flic, which I saw at its launch here last Thursday.
But to deduce from this, that because we all have our dreams, our inner lives, that they're all the same, that they're all equally valid and deserving of respect -- as alluring and intuitively "right" as that might be -- is just not correct.  We just need to do a simple thought experiment, a reductio ad absurdum: would we consider a culture that sacrifices children to a pagan god, rips out and eats their hearts as homage to their god, would we consider that equally deserving of our respect?   Of course not.  So, we draw lines; it's just where we draw them that causes problems and debates these days.
There was another Arab-Israeli co-production some years back, which I've seen, but can't track down.  I think it was UK's Channel 4 TV.  It was called something like "Moses and Mohammad".  The concept was this: two directors, one Israeli and one Palestinian were asked to do a documentary of their primary school system.  Each had to do this without seeing what the other was doing. They then edited and signed off on their piece.  Each side had, as I recall, about 45 minutes to make their part of the doco.  It was put together by Channel 4 TV people on a disinterested basis: that is, giving each side exactly the same time and format as the other.  C4 intercut the two so that over the 90 minutes we got to see how primary students are taught in each place, one Israel one Gaza.
The contrast was startling.  In the Israeli school kids were learning maths, language, English, science, history and so forth.  In the Palestinian one, they were being taught about how awful jews and christians were, jews in particular, how they were responsible for all their woes, how it was their duty when they grew up to carry on the battle against them.
We can empathise with each, we can culturally relate to the palestinian way of teaching their kids.  But to say they're "equal" and equally deserving of "respect", that's where you leave me.
After the revolution of 1949, millions of Chinese were kicked out of China -- unfairly, just like 700,000 Palestinians escaped from the new Israel in 1948 (though, had they stayed, they would not have been slaughtered, as were millions of "class enemies" in post-revolutionary China who did not manage to escape to Hong Kong, Taiwan or the west).  Just like the Palestinians, those Chinese lucky enough not to be executed on the spot, were kicked out, their property, all their wealth, confiscated.  They set up Hong Kong.  What if they'd been taught that Communists were hateful and deserved to be killed?  What if they were told that the only way to keep the battle going was to lob rockets at Canton?  What if they were told that they should target those awful communists on the mainland, forever, that they should be the target of their enmity "forever"?  Would we now have Hong Kong?   No, we would have just another Gaza in the east.  Just another hate-filled destructive place; instead of a place putting "unfairness" behind it, getting on with building.  Building, not destroying.
Gaza could have been the Hong Kong of the middle east.  Instead of the wasteland it is now.  That was the lesson of "Moses and Mohammad".  It's a choice.  It starts in education.  And not all educations, just as not all cultures and religions, are created or become equal.  Not all are deserving of equal respect.  The  doctrine of "Cultural non-equivalence".