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Fatema Mernissi

The Cowboy or Sindbad - Who Will be the Globalization Winner?
by Fatema Mernissi

(Based on the speech given on the occasion of the ceremony of the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters, October 2003:
Excerpts from the extensive English manuscript, January 2004

Why are we afraid of globalization?

Why are we afraid of globalization, that is the dissolving of the state frontiers monitored by armies of adequately equipped specialized police bodies? We are afraid of globalization because strangers will be constantly trespassing into our neighborhoods and lurking on our street-corners!

The next question then is: Why are we afraid of strangers? I am afraid of strangers because they might harm me. I am afraid to be assaulted and killed by strangers. This is why I feel safer with state-monitored frontiers.

And this leads to the third question: Were foreigners always considered dangerous and the well-guarded frontiers always necessary? Here we stumble on an intriguing diversity of attitudes: not all world civilizations consider strangers dangerous creatures. Where the 1930s Hollywood movie-makers put two pistols in the hands of the cowboy to make sure that the treacherous stranger who appeared at the frontier had no chance to escape death, the ninth century Baghdad story-tellers who crafted the Sindbad tales, made the Iraqi crowds love foreigners, because this hero gathered fabulous wealth by taking risky trips to India and China's faraway islands.

Both Sindbad and the cowboy express, as fictions, our anxieties with strangers: Pleasure or danger?

Who is Sindbad? To judge from his name, since many of the Arabs' names refer to the geographical origin of the person, Sind makes him belong to the province of the same name which is situated in the North of India, part of today's Pakistan. The tales of Sindbad were transmitted to us in the Arabic language as part of "The 1001 Nights" (Alf Lila wa Lila) which the Baghdad story-tellers imported from two distinct folklores: the Persian and the Indian. () The reason many forget the Indian origin of Sindbad, explains Dr. Suhair Qalamawi, an Egyptian expert of the tales, is that the Arabs relied heavily on Persian scholars to get access to the Indian culture: "It was through the Persians that the Arabs discovered Indian folklore." But of course, the clever story-tellers did not simply recite what was translated from Sanskrit, they used the key frame, the trip, to design different scenarios for their Arab audience, which is how Sindbad who came from a Buddhist background becomes a good Moslem whose native city is no longer Sind but Baghdad.

The Sindbad, who lived in Baghdad, left his city by boat to go down the Tigris river to Basra, where he embarked on a fragile ship. The Monsoon winds pushed him eastward from the Persian Gulf to the islands of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea: although the strangers looked fierce and dangerous, he ended up having a wonderful time: "The island's inhabitants came out shouting and brandishing spears. I repeated my story to them. Thereupon they drew near me and spreading the table, ate and invited me to eat. So, I ate with them, after which they took horses and mounting me on one of the mares, set out with me and fared on without ceasing, till we came to the capital city of King Mihrajan. The king favored me and did me all manner of kindness and invested me with costly and splendid robes." ()

The only thing predictable in the seven trips Sindbad undertook, was that to communicate with strangers, be they humans or even birds and sea-monsters, made him richer and happier. Communication with the stranger who manifests God's cosmic capacity to manifest itself in diverse images is a one of the strong messages which runs through Sindbad's tales and explains why, among all the "1001 Nights"stories, only this one became a universal heritage, enchanting European and American children alike.

By contrast, as a film hero, the cowboy expressed the twentieth century Hollywood world economic vision, just as Sindbad reflected that of the ninth century Baghdad, and the difference between the two lies in the very concept of what constitutes wealth: cattle for the first and travel for the second. Often, the cowboy did not own the herds he was tending, yet his job was to protect the fortune already existing on his territory even though it belonged to the ranch master. The cowboy did not have to travel because his wealth was under his very eyes and only one role was left to the stranger to play: that of the cattle thief.

In Sindbad's world, wealth and pleasure do not seem to accumulate in any static form; he constantly needs to capture both by keeping constant contacts with strangers. Survival depends on weaving a symbiotic partnership with them. In this sense, it fits perfectly what Alvin Toffler, the American visionary, predicted in his "Power shift : Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the edge of the 21st century" as the rule of the game for the future: "The new accelerated system for wealth creation is increasingly dependent on the exchange of data, information, and knowledge. No knowledge exchange, no new wealth created". And Sindbad is more pertinent than ever for us as a model today, when the frontiers are vanishing, because he was the hero of a planet where Islam occasioned a cataclysmic break down of the frontiers in ninth century, between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean trade routes.

Yet, the Moslem globalization of that time did not seem to have increased the insecurity we fear now. One reason was that instead of being afraid of the Hindu and Buddhist who dominated the Indian Ocean, the Arabs decided to invest in translations from the Sanskrit to understand their new adversaries' minds and control them via dialogue. Wether to kill the Hindu and Buddhist adversaries or to dialogue with them, that was the eternal dilemma the Abbassid Caliphs had to face and they opted for the second as the most profitable approach. To enter into profitable partnerships with the Indian Ocean strangers, the Arabs had to penetrate their minds and figure out their thoughts and emotions. This brings us to the next question: If both Sindbad and the film cowboy are two models for dealing with globalization and reacting to strangers, how is that we have only one alternative - to be afraid of the terrorists?

Who dictates our vision of strangers: The culture or the ruling elites?

"Why is it," I started asking Rabat Mohamed V University historians, "that in our 2004 globalization, many powerful Western heads of states reduce our choice to this only alternative which implies that we ought to be like film cowboys, fitted with guns and ready to kill? Is the 2004 fight against terrorism a revival of the cowboy killings of strangers in 1930s movies? Why, instead of forcing the entire planet to fight terrorists, the American president, the most powerful man on the planet, is not encouraging everyone to disarm by promoting heroes like Sindbad who finds strangers appealing?"

These were the kind of questions I kept asking my colleagues when Mr. Bush's mostly American armies bombarded Iraq in 2002, a war he justified as the only solution to stop terrorism. I was so shocked when one professor I will call Tijani, a proud descendant of a famous Sufi family, screamed at me that I risked confusing students, in this time of the strong anti-Americanism feeling triggered by the Iraq war, by pushing them to identify the cowboy as a film hero with the Americans and Sindbad with the Arabs:
"Fatema!" he told me. "You have to focus on the essentials when talking about our attitudes towards strangers?"
"And what are the essential?" I asked eager to grasp what he was trying to tell me, because in a time of war, I am supposed to help people see clearer.
"The essential," said Prof. Tijani, "is that we situate both Sindbad and the cowboy in their respective fictional and historical backgrounds to grasp their psychological importance as imagination-nurturing creatures on one hand and as reflecting time-bound specific interests of their respective societies ruling elites on the other. The most disastrous mistake we can make is to confuse Americans with the violent cowboy and the Arabs with the sweet Sindbad."


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