A meeting with the author Ali Shakir about his book “A Muslim on the Bridge: On Being an Iraqi-Arab Muslim in the Twenty-First Century”

Yesterday, I had the luck of participating for the first time in my life in a book club. The name of this book club is “JCI Book Club – Amman” (You can read more details about the club and my experience in this post: Are there English Book Clubs in Amman? There is the JCI Amman Book Club and here is my Experience!). At my first participation, I had the luck that the club had a Mr. Ali Shakir to talk briefly about a book that he had recently published.

It was my first time ever to know of Mr. Shakir. Mr. Shakir is a New Zealander-Iraqi author. He recently published a book called: “A Muslim on the Bridge: On Being an Iraqi-Arab Muslim in the Twenty-First Century”. This book is the first book ever written by Mr. Shakir and the JCI Amman Book Club hosted him to talk about his book.

Book's Front Cover - A Muslim on the Bridge: On Being an Iraqi-Arab Muslim in the Twenty-First Century

Book’s Front Cover. Source: Book’s page at amazon.com.

Who is Ali Shakir and what is his book about? These questions are answered concisely and precisely at the back cover of the book:

The Book's Backcover - A Muslim on the Bridge: On Being an Iraqi-Arab Muslim in the Twenty-First Century

The Book’s Backcover. Source: Book’s page at amazon.com.

From the book’s back cover, I just want to highlight that Mr. Shakir lived most of his life in Iraq until 2006 when he moved to New Zealand.

During the entire event of JCI Book Club Amman, Mr. Shakir was very quiet. He spoke in a low voice, which he said he could not “increase”. Mr. Shakir introduced himself very briefly and talked in less than 10 minutes about his book. This was certainly not enough. I liked very much the “etymology” of his book’s title.

He told us that the main landmark in Baghdad is the Tigris river نهر دجلة. He explained that there are many bridges crossing this river to connect the parts of Baghdad at its both sides. When he used to live Iraq, he liked a lot to go above these bridges and watch the city of Baghdad. In his opinion, this gave him a very good view of the city of Baghdad at both sides of the river. He thinks that he could not have got this view were he not to stand on these bridges! In a similar fashion, I understood that he is now lost between his Muslim and Arab identity and western point of views. Therefore, he wrote this book to give a better view of the difficulties that he, along with other Iraqis and Muslims in general, are having (N.B. I am not sure how precise I remember his words).

Tigris River, Baghdad, Iraq.

Tigris River, Baghdad, Iraq. Source: A flickr account of James Gordon.

I do not know a lot of information about the author or about the book. Nonetheless, I sensed a tone of sadness in the voice of Mr. Shakir.  I sensed that he had a lot inside of him and he wanted to express it but could not. Could it be that this book was enough? Is there a story of suffering somewhere in the life of Mr. Shakir? This is why I quickly became very interested to read the book.

The floor was opened for discussion. One person asked about the source of Mr. Shakir’s information in the book and whether he depended on certain resources. Then a person asked a question that diverted the conversation to the situation of Iraq and Baghdad nowadays. Finally, I asked the last question 🙂 and gave my opinion regarding what Mr. Shakir had begun his brief talk by. Mr. Shakir had said that “he is against a writer speaking about his/her book” and that “a good book will speak about itself.” I told Mr. Shakir that I would have most probably not known about his book if he had not come to that event. I then told him that although communication skills are important, but that strong ideas can convey the greatest bulk of a person’s opinion. I finished my comment by saying, “If I were you and were invited into an event to discuss my book, I will go.”

Questions ended. Then, a young woman of JCI’s administrative people asked a very interesting question:

“If Mr. Ali Shakir’s book was available today at Book Readers, who will buy it?”

I raised my hand. It was not though a very high rise. The reason is not that I did not want to buy the book. I found the book very interesting. The reason is that I would have bought it not as paperback but as an e-version. I no longer prefer reading paperback books. I then thought very frightened, what if they told us that the book is available and they wanted to make it a surprise? I do not have enough money to buy it. Yes, I did not have more than JD 10 in my pocket. My salary as an intern in the ministry of health is only JD 96.5 ($136.26). “I want 10 people to raise their hands.” The young woman said again and then started counting those who had raised their hands. My hand was not lowered enough and I was counted among those “lucky” people who will have the chance to buy the book that night. However, not for very long: “Mr. Ali,” The young woman said. “We would like to inform you that a secret person has told us that he will buy 10 copies of your book and donate them.” Mr. Ali then immediately asked, again in low voice, “Who is this person?” The young woman refused to answer. Then the beautiful surprise came:

“We want to give these ten books to the ten people who raised their hands.”

I was very happy. This meant that I would have a free copy of Mr. Shakir’s book. What a very good surprise! I think it is the most expensive prize (if I can say) that I have ever won in my life! The paperback version of this book costs $15.19. I have never won a prize that is worth more than 15.19$. The person who decided to donate the books. I really respect him/her. It certainly shows that Mr. Shakir’s book had touched this person’s mind and/or heart!

The book will arrive at Book Readers in about two weeks. I am looking forward to reading it!

“I just do not understand why they [Arabs] always compare themselves with us [Westerners]?”… As if it stops only here!

I finished medical school last June. Since July, approximately for four months now, I have been studying the German language. Because of looking for language exchange partners, I had the chance to interact with many westerners. Through this great experience, I am not only improving my German or English, but also, getting to discover new ideas and ways of thinking. I will write here about one idea that I got to know.

In one occasion, the topic of the differences between Arab and western societies arose. After few sentences, a westerner told me, almost angrily (I am paraphrasing):

“I just do not understand why [Arabs] always compare themselves with us [Westerners]? Who is better and who is worst? How are they better and how are we worst? In my opinion, if you are not violent with me, then I do not care about what you do”.

After hearing the above, I remained silent for a few seconds. It really shocked me! It did not occur to me in the past. Why did not I notice it? Yes, there is always a comparison going on with the west. I do not know of a way to objectively assess this. But I and you, if you are an Arab or have lived in the Arab world, can really have an idea how many times we hear or read sentences that begin with:

“…نحن أفضل من الغرب”
“We are better than the west…”

Frankly, I think that the above sentence is mostly said by Arab Muslims. I am saying this because I remembered what I usually hear from Arab Christians. Do Arab Christians make comparisons with the west? Yes, after 25 years of living in a Christian community, and watching and reading Arab Christian media, I can confidently say that most Arabs Christians do comparisons with the west. However, in a way 180 degrees from their fellow Muslims:

“…الغرب أفضل منا لأن”
“The west is better than us because…”

Arab Christians make the comparison in a more positive way concentrating mostly on the positives of the west. I am not making generalizations for generalizations are always dangerous. But the majority of the followers of each religion would probably fall in the respective category I described. Are you an Arab or have you lived in the Arab world? Did not you notice the same pattern? If you are an Arab Muslim, do you notice the sexual immorality of the western societies? If you are an Arab Christian, do not you feel proud how advanced is the Christian west?

So, the majority of Arab Muslims and Christians compare “Arabs” with the “west”. However, they differ if they see mostly the positives or the negatives of the west. What is the reason behind this difference? I believe that it is because both groups have a similar reason behind their different points of view: Both view the west as being “Christian”.

Arab Christians think: “The west is developed because it is mostly Christian”.

Arab Muslims think: “The widespread immorality in the west is because they are not Muslims”.

So, Arab Muslims and Christians are fond of comparing themselves with the west. In the past, I despised the above comparisons simply because I know that the west, since a long time ago, separated the religion from Politics. If the west is “advanced” or “immoral” (according to Arab standards), then this is the result of secularism. But how many Arabs are convinced that the west is really secular? How many Arab Christians believe that the scientific advancement of the west has nothing to do with them being, or as statistics show, that they were mostly in the past, Christians?

Europe was once Christian!

Source: “Rising Intolerance For Christians In Europe” http://blog.acton.org/archives/55355-rising-intolerance-for-christians-in-europe.html

On the other hand, how many Muslims do not view all actions of the west, especially on the political level, as all stemming from rooted hatred to Arabs for being Muslims?

The topic is really complicated. But it can be really solved by Arabs stopping to always make comparisons. Why do not you start working on developing your societies? Why not solve the many problems that you have? The poverty, ignorance, and backwardness of Arabs in this part of history certainly affect almost entirely Arabs, both Christians and Muslims, and not the west!

The above might be very important to some. But this is not the big problem. The big problem is that in my society, the comparisons do not stop at the above large level. When I made a look at my life, then I discovered that there are a lot of comparisons going on in front of me other than the above. Let me start from family level:

1) Siblings between each other.

2) Siblings and their cousins.

3) Cousins and their relatives from the sub-tribe

4) Subtribes of the same tribe: In Smakieh, for example, Khorsan and Sla’een!

5) Tribes with each other: In Smakieh, again, Hijazeen and Akasheh. Hijazeen with other Christian tribes, Christian tribes and Muslims tribes, Muslim tribes and Muslim tribes…

6) Dwellers of neighboring governorates: For example, Karakis and Tafaileh.

7) Dwellers of geographical regions of Jordan: Ahl Al-Shamal and Ahl Al-Janoob (north and south).

8) Jordanians and other Arabs: The most common being Jordanians and Palestinians.

9) Arab Muslims and Arab Christians

10) Sunnis and Shiaas, Orthodox and Catholics, Orthodox and Catholics against Protestants…

I am really sick of that! The above incident really opened my mind to how unhealthy the situation is.

Well, some might argue, in order to improve, you need to compare yourself with others. Yes, this would be constructive. But only if this was done objectively; not for the same of proving how we are better than them (Muslims, Christians, Palestinians, Karakis, Hijazeen, etc). Most importantly, less frequently for God’s sake!

I hope that my fellow Arabs will stop, or at least bring to a minimal, all of these comparisons. At the end, in my opinion, a person, or a group of them whether in a family, subtribe, tribe, governorate, country, etc, should want to improve not in order to become better than X. I should try to improve for the SAKE OF IMRPOVEMENT. In a fashion similar to the following:

Sources: - Quote: http://expertfootball.com/quotes/?p=Eric_Cantona - I created this quote photo using the free service by this great website: http://quozio.com/

Sources:
– Quote: http://expertfootball.com/quotes/?p=Eric_Cantona
– I created this quote photo using the free service by this great website: http://quozio.com/

My Arab Brothers and Sisters: It is not shameful to be questioned, monitored, and inspected!

In undeveloped countries, I expect that corruption is something that is widespread. In Arab countries, for example, I think that a good factor that helps this phenomenon to take hold is not only governments… but the people themselves!

A few weeks ago, I took part in collecting some donations for Syrian refugees in Jordan. When a fifth-year friend of mine asked me to help and I agreed, he simply then asked me to go and collect money from the students. “How would you guarantee that I will not steal the money that will be given to me?” I asked. As a result, I refused to collect any penny without giving whoever donated money to me a “Cheque-like” paper indicating the sum of money that he gave to me. Do you think that doing this decreased my respect? Did I cast some doubt on my honesty by giving a physical evidence of what money was given to me?

In another related story. I and a group of my friends are doing a research together. One of my friends was upset by my “obsession” of documenting every decision we made in the research. In particular, he was upset by my asking him to send me emails confirming that I wrote their names correctly before sending them to our supervising doctor. “Isn’t reading the names over phone enough?” My friend must have thought angrily.

One time, I knew of the following opinion that a fellow Arab of mine had:

“We are Arabs and still believe in human honesty.”

Depending on honesty… How beautiful! Is depending on honesty better than documentation and accounting? No matter how time consuming and tedious these processes are?

If Arabs still believe in human honesty, then what about other nations who are not “Arabs”? Can we deduce from the above sentence that they no longer “believe” in human honesty?  As I heard and read about some of the negative views that Arabs have about the west, some Arabs seem to think that honesty is limited to them! Good ethics are only Arab’s and no one else.

How can we explain that western countries are developed although they are “not Arabs” and not “honest”? In one survey I once read about British people, “46% of them only believed in God”. So, how come that most people in the west are either atheists or believe in “wrong” religions, and still are developed? When it comes to sexual morality, I always hear and read Arabs criticizing the west in this aspect. Away from political issues, to describe Americans, the British, or even the Jews, as being “liars” or “thieves”… is something that I have NEVER ever heard or read! In fact, the situation can be summarized by this sentence a driver once told me:

“In the west, it is true that they drink alcohol and commit adultery, but they are honest. Unfortunately, we don’t have this in our society. To me, drink alcohol and commit adultery… But be HONEST”

How can we explain this: Atheists but honest? A university doctor who once taught me had this explanation:

“الكفار في أوروبا وأمريكا أمينين مش لأنهم أحسن منا. بس لأنه الواحد إذا سرق بدفع اللي فوق والي تحتيه… والمعلم بشرح وما بضيع ولا دقيقة، لأنه في كاميرا بالصف بتراقبه!”

“The infidels in Europe and the United States are not honest because they are better than us. They are honest, because if someone stole anything, he will pay everything that he has… The teacher explains and never wastes a minute, because there is a camera in the classroom watching him”

How can we explain this point of view? This Iraqi thinker said the following:

كلّما ازداد الإنسان غباوة .. ازداد يقيناً بأنه أفضل من  غيره في كل شيء - علي الوردي، عالم إجتماع ومؤرخ عراقي

“The more stupid a person becomes… The more he becomes certain that he is better than everyone else in everything”. Ali Al-Wardee, an Iraqi Sociologist and Historian.

For me, to be honest while no one is watching is certainly a beautiful thing. But can you guarantee that all people around you are honest like you are? If only 1 out of every 1,000,000 governmental employees is stealing money, is frequently absent from his job, or is not doing his job properly, how can we find that out? I don’t think that it would be a waste of time or money to try to document and investigate what everyone is doing. After all, not all people fear God and his punishment. As in the study mentioned above, some people don’t believe God exists in the first place. So, in an opinion that “might” be in agreement with that of that of the doctor who taught me, everyone should be watched and no one should be above questioning.

To sum it up, “honesty” is something “unseen” between a human being and his “personal” God. Documentation, accounting, surveillance, or whatever you like to call it, is something “seen” between human beings. And as they say, “seeing is believing”. If we are monitored, inspected, or are asked to document what we are doing, then I strongly believe that this is a stronger guarantee of “honesty” than assuming that all people around us are working to go to heaven!

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