The East. Impossible Explanations

Oct 7, 2013

The evening call of the muezzin

The deepest night, pierced by asymmetrical patterns of light and shadow that filter through the latticework of the walls’ Mashrabiya. A night of half-sleep that accepts without resistance the electronic chant of the Muezzin, broadcast across the city’s loudspeakers: Allah akbar, Allah akbar. Ash-hadu an la ilaha illa’llah. Already we find Allah even in smartphones and on the Internet.

There is nothing natural about the dawn, which follows soon after the nocturnal Adhan Al Subh; it is found at the culmination of an intellectual process that writes a prologue to the day.

The advantages are nonetheless significant. Called to the morning light and its clarity. The lit flame on the nightstand is moved with a few painful strokes.

Indispensable Americans

Here emerges the story of an American, Andrew Pochter, who opened himself to life and exploration; who found himself teaching English to the poor children of Alexandria in Egypt.

“Right now I am in Alexandria, Egypt teaching English to young students who are around your age. They all speak Arabic so learning English as a second language is quite difficult. But they are all really intelligent, just like you! Egypt is hazardous right now because the country is feeling the consequences of an enormous political revolution. I lose electricity and water all of the time but that’s okay because I have many Egyptian friends to help take care of me. When I am in trouble, they take care of me and when they are in trouble, I always take care of them. Good friends do not come easily but as a rule, I always appreciate the good deeds people do for me even if I don’t know them well. What is most important is that I am trying to do my best for others. I want to surround myself with good people!”

But Andrew was mistaken for an infidel, for an infiltrator who could cause damage. He was murdered at the age of 21 by a young man who wanted to purify the city of any obstacles to salvation. This episode was followed by that of another American who’s story has stayed with me because he, like Pochter, followed the intellectual path promoted, encouraged and brought to Arabia by Thomas Lawrence. The story is that of Christopher Stevens, young and open-minded American Ambassador to Libya. From his diplomatic career he had created a mission and a cultural setting. Stevens was also an expert on Arab culture and, like Andrew, he had begun as an English teacher to Arab youth; yet this was not enough to keep him from being assassinated (sic) on September 11, 2012; perhaps in retaliation for the film « Innocence of Muslims» or perhaps in an attack that was planned after the death of an important figure in Al Qaeda, Abu Yahya al-Libi.

I spoke with the Italian Ambassador In Qatar, Guido De Sanctis, about his friend Chris: “I think of Chris Stevens with sadness and nostalgia. For several months during the first phase of the Revolution, we all lived side by side in the same Benghazi hotel, Chris [and myself] along with other colleagues sent from various countries to Libya’s [now] dissolved National Transitional Council, the ‘government’ established by the Libyan rebels in the east of the country. We were all in daily contact with each other due to the fact that, when our respective workdays were over, we could easily meet in an informal way and exchange ideas. From his extensive knowledge of the local situation, Stevens understood quite well that the Libyan youth were, and still are, hungry for knowledge of the outside world, above and beyond the ‘virtual contact’ offered by the Internet. [Stevens] had returned to visit Benghazi as Ambassador in September of 2012 in order to inaugurate the first structure for real contact dedicated to young people. He had also correctly intuited the need for this process to move forward gradually, while at the same time he was aware that one of the essential elements in Libyan society’s profound change was centered on the development of education and recognizing the value of national culture.”

The ‘elsewhere’ of our lives

How much of our experience is conditioned by what happens outside of Italy? Where is our ‘elsewhere’? To what degree are the conflicts and armed struggles in the Mediterranean countries not beyond our cultural reach?

We find ourselves faced with a map where our point of reference (the “You are Here”) doesn’t coincide with where things are happening. The map is too broad, too far-sighted, infinitely open because we are able to exclude something.

Alessandro Valignano and Matteo Ricci’s East is one of the historic locations on this map, sadly, five centuries later it is evident that the East exists more as an image than as a venture and a goal for bold exploration. Valignano’s East has been renounced by a lack of international exploration that deals, on multiple levels, with various cultural and commercial sectors. Genuine exploration is lacking despite physical journeys, so-called meetings, or implicit and explicit economic opportunities.

In fact, shall we calculate where the actual hub of the Middle East is today? We can make an approximate attempt at a map, using an improper type of topology, by recalling recent events.

In recent months an important shift has come within one of the most exuberant monarchies, Qatar, which has seen the change from one Emir to another as if it were a television drama; as if it were a film where no one knew the plot in advance. And, at the same time it serves as a brake on the intense activity of the principal economic player, the only politician in the civilized world to date who has served concurrently as: Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the de facto (not de jure) Finance Minister.

Two thousand kilometers from Doha, the war in Syria manifests aspects of irreversibility and the propagation of interethnic conflict as ethnic and religious groups transform the Syrian picture into a perfect hell. Seven thousand kilometers from Doha, in Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said to be on the wane for health reasons in spring of 2013, took down the funerary trappings in August and ushered in a new government, placing his people and allies into new state management positions.

A decade of Modernity

The stratification of Doha, with its Hub open to the transformations in the Middle East, has been a symbol for its first decade of modernity, starting from September 11, 2001.

We are a decade away from the first messages of the Qatar Renaissance. And as Jonathan Powell has noted, in order to tell a story one should incorporate a mode of diary keeping that allows the writing to be authenticated. Here, to point up and annotate this part of the Arabian Gulf, something is written that has never before been told.

If Doha is gradually asserting its intellectual primacy in the Gulf, this is due to the direction marked out by Sheika Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned and her entourage. The cultural growth strategy is succeeding, and Doha is undoubtedly surpassing Dubai in many essential areas including: finance, training, education, and universities. And while Dubai is opening yet another of its ubiquitous “leisure” spots: a tourist beach with an artificial canal, its top achievements – the tallest tower, the impressive volume of real estate construction, amusement parks, acquafan and giant malls – seem like the playthings of a state with little future. In addition, Doha’s cultural strategy is growing and, beyond the University and the Museums already present – Mia, Modern Art, Sheikh Faisal Heritage Museum– there is now the steel structure of the impressive National Museum of Qatar on the Corniche that was built by the Koreans of keiretsu Hyundai.

Industry of a public nature

Business strategies revolve around the desire to close the industrial gap between the various Gulf States and the funding for this development is almost limitless. Qatar is currently completing its first twenty years since breaking free of colonialism, reaching 2 million inhabitants and observing the primacy of the conflict regarding its own welfare, teetering between the unlimited wealth and privilege of its nationals and the infernal conditions of immigrant laborers from Nepal, India, the Philippines and Bangladesh. Just as an illustration, it ranges from the monthly per capita income of €30,000 for the privileged native of Qatar to the €300 a month earned by the “workers” recruited from Asia’s poor.

Jonathan Powell was a strategist in the Blair years and author of The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World. An application of this modern Machiavelli is the stuff of British international political strategies. Its point is exactly in Qatar where the acute, far-sighted and avid British machine brings disproportionate investments to London in a partnership of financial, cultural, architectural and construction exchanges. However, it’s a one-way street. Qatari capital takes the streets of London. With disproportionate effects relative to that which Italian businesses should and could aspire to considering their history and geographical position in the Middle East.

The question still remains

Were we to explain the East, we should simultaneously have to explain the genesis of water or of wind. Our map is an intellectual one and assumes certain information without making it a question of position or semantics. It maps literature along with economic and financial elements. Indispensible, however, in the implementation of initiatives that are not tied to a single sector or a single direction.

Today, Machiavelli tries his hand in the complex arc that curves from the Middle East to North Africa and Europe. An arc where conflicts are not only pretexts but also exercises in cowardice and violence. From intolerant nationalism to the continual representation of the Other as enemy, western, or infidel, it is a place where peace is temporary and achieved by way of unexpected force. This is a place where special initiatives are necessary to operate. There is nothing to explain. Understand, act and interlayer both languages and projects.

Alberto Cavicchiolo
(translated by Bonnie Mcclellan Broussard)

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