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The big conversation

In the book Restless Anne K. Bang writes about her restless travels, where she gets on the trail of conversations about the world going on without us in the West understanding what is being said. In this edited excerpt from the book, she explains in more detail the unknown conversation.


Sometimes I listen to conversations when I travel. They take place all over the world, on street corners, around TV screens in Arab countries, over low cafe tables in Hanoi, at railway stations in China where thousands of people are apparently waiting for the same train. What I hear are fragments of The Great Conversation – the one that takes place when the world talks together. Opinions are exchanged, the world is formulated, time is explained. In our time, there is an important characteristic of this conversation: In the Great Conversation, the world is talked about, while neither Europe nor the United States is present.

Not as interlocutor. Not as an observer. Not with a single reporter broadcast. Not even as eavesdropping or potentially interested, but still completely and utterly present.

The big conversation continues between the Philippine dispatchers at the Gucci stores in the Gulf, not to mention taxi drivers and passengers everywhere. The great conversation takes place in daily life, but also at political meetings and even in parliaments and gatherings of venerable elderly men just before sunset. The big talk does not take place at the UN General Assembly. It does not take place in the White House or in Downing Street and not even in the Norwegian Parliament. It takes place far beyond CNN's reach.

It was precisely this conversation that the Indian writer and anthropologist Amitav Ghosh discussed in the essay "The Imam and the Indian" from 1986. Here he presented an excerpt from The Great Conversation, a fragment that took place sometime in the early 1980s. During a fieldwork in a village in Egypt, Amitav ended up in discussion with the village's old imam. At that time, the Imam was stripped of religious leadership, by right-wing, young believers who had come to the village wearing perfectly clean clothes and a gleaming Islam that dazzled immortality. These young men went at that time went by many names, but in the West we have later come to know them under the common name "Islamists".

In the discussion with Amitav Ghosh, the Imam claimed that India had poor prospects. From reliable sources, the Imam had learned that Indians – infidels, to the point of incomprehensibility – were in the habit of burning their dead and scattering the ashes of the Ganges. How, asked the Imam, can India achieve civilization as long as such barbaric customs are allowed to continue? How can India achieve: science, weapons, power – as long as you burn the dead? Are they burning? On fire! Science, weapons and power. Western science, Western weapons, Western power. How can you achieve this as long as you burn your dead?

What Amitav Ghosh points out here is how the standard in the 1980s had become general and beyond doubt. Of course, it was nothing new for an Egyptian and an Indian to meet. They met constantly 400-500 years ago as well – in India, in Egypt, in port cities along the entire Indian Ocean and in the metropolises between Morocco and China. There is nothing unusual in the meeting between Amitav and the Imam. There is also nothing new in the disagreement between them. The traveling Moroccan Ibn Battutah expressed the same thing when he stayed in India in the 1300th century; Hindu customs were systematically condemned by Ibn Battutah as wrongdoing, but without reference to either science, weapons or power. Ibn Battutah condemned with reference to God.

Now, Amitav writes after his conversation with the Imam, there is only one argument that applies: one cannot achieve civilization that way. Civilization – defined as science, weapons, power. The scale has changed fundamentally – even for ancient imams, and even for Indian anthropologists in the field. For what does Amitav Ghosh answer? He says: You are wrong, old imam. In India we burn the dead, but we have Nevertheless civilization. We have rockets and atomic bombs and weapons and tanks and computers as well. We have civilization. So – ha! He refers to the same standard, the only universal one. In other words: in discussions between civilizations, the West is not present – except as a yardstick.

This also applies to another strange rule that Amitav Ghosh points out: The only one you do not initiate such a discussion with is the West itself. How to discuss with the scale itself? Westernity is itself a shield, a barrier to discussion, to real conversation. Because, the scale is firm and no one discusses or doubts it, and how can you say anything? It is like saying to the meter stick that one has a better meter, a more complete or more useful meter. It becomes impossible. In other words: The West is never a participant in the conversation where it is itself the yardstick. The West announces nothing but what is visible: a meter is a meter is a meter and science, weapons and power are clear to everyone.

In the 1980s, when Amitav Ghosh did his field work, The Great Conversation was at full length. Indians met Chinese, Thais met Arabs, Malays spoke Nepalese and so on and so forth. Indian anthropologists met dismissed imams, discussed and agreed or disagreed with reference to a common yardstick.

Of course, no one said, "We will become Western – we want to be ex-Christian, secular, capitalist Western people. " What they said was rather something along the lines of: Through our excellent culture (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Asian values ​​- anything) we can / should achieve all things: Science, weapons, power (and: it should be added, an essential element not mentioned by Amitav Ghosh: an endless, inexhaustible consumption). Because we have such an excellent foundation for it, because we are good, God-fearing, because we stick together, because we work hard (and so on: the arguments for one's own excellent culture can be infinitely stated), we should score high on the scale. On the scale that we agree with after all.

After Amitav Ghosh met the Imam, a lot has happened. The most important thing that has happened is that The Great Conversation has largely become aware of exactly what Ghosh pointed out – namely that the premises have been set. It has to a greater extent begun to revolve around the scale itself. Does a meter really show a meter? Is it correct? Is that the best possible scale? Should this be the way we measure our own society?

No, some say. No, it certainly is not. And since the West itself is impossible to get into speech (in speech here understood as a participant in the conversation – no one wants a conversation partner who sits at the end of the cafe table and reads aloud from the facsimile), it was required for some to act.

The attacks of 11 September 2001 were just such a case – two hits right on the scale of science, weapons, power.

The people inside the houses in this perspective became regarded as sawdust at the glance, immaterial, as long as you hit the yardstick you want to hit. With all kinds of weight.

In The Great Conversation (which still, even after several hits, takes place mainly without the West participating – really participating, and not dictating it and setting the terms for it), there are several views. A widespread attitude is that such attacks are simply forbidden. God and the laws of the land have forbidden us to attack another man's life and property, and thus the discussion is over. Others will defend the scale, saying that it is, after all, also valid for non-Western people, and then they will fall into discussions about adapting the scale to local conditions. A third view is that such attacks are inappropriate because they create an unfortunate and erroneous image of the ideology and religion behind the attack.

A fourth view would be that the shots were without a target and that they even missed their own lack of goals. In fact, they did no real damage to the units they were looking for. Science, weapons and power exist unspoiled in the western world, they say, and soon there will also be new towers where the old ones stood. However, they did a great deal of damage to the real yardstick, the only real unit of measurement available, namely the people inside the houses. These voices will claim that every single person not is sawdust on the flash, but on the other hand the only device that is worth being the basic premise of any conversation.

They will say that the humans is the goal for society, for life (both this and possibly next), and for all other units of measurement.

I think it is necessary to say that these words are said, between people and groups that talk and talk to each other all the time. In our time, I think it is necessary to tell, over and over again, that the voices exist and that they are many and that they actually talk all the time whether we are listening or not. More importantly, understand that in this conversation there is room for more participants. Here even western people can sit down and take part in the table. In this conversation, the shield is down, and the scale is the smallest possible, and the very largest possible. It potentially incorporates everyone. Here you really talk to other targets. No one wants to join this conversation?

"Why do they hate us?" ask the Americans, and do not listen when the answers come. Instead, they refer to the same scale that was shot on September 11th. They refer to the dead people as well, but not as the units of measurement themselves. In a paradoxical parallel shift, the Bush administration also refers to the 2800 dead as sawdust that got in the way – collateral damage – for an attack which, according to them, was so vicious that it was not even aimed at people, but at an entire "civilization".

As if civilizations are easier prey than humans and therefore more unacceptable as targets of attack. Conversely, in what they call the "war of defense", it naturally becomes acceptable to inflict the same type of damage during operations in Iraq for attacking a scale that one does not accept, and unfortunately it is also the case here that people are in the firing line .

Since much of the big talk takes place near a television set, it is inevitable that it will be about the images from Iraq. Here, too, there will be different views – everything from condemnation to more or less wholehearted defense of established goals for science, weapons, power. But: there will also be voices pointing out that both the US Marines and the various rebel forces are missing out. In fact, the American force does not affect the "evil values" they are aiming for, that is, dictatorial and oppressive tendencies in society. They meet people. The rebels do not seize Western military and capital power. They meet people. They both hit, again and again, the only premise that could actually have been the basis for a real expansion of The Great Conversation. For each hit, the chances of it happening are reduced.

Anne K. Bang is a historian with a doctorate in Arabic history and a fiction writer. The original version of this text can be found in the book Restless (Spartacus 2005). Reproduced with permission from author and publisher.

Anne K. Bang

"Restless. An essay on traveling »

Spartacus 2005

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