Expert Witnesses

Ismail: “Look at all the people in Chefchaouen; they’re all happy, no cars, no problems…”

Me: “Ismail, we were only in the city for two hours. It’s a little too early to judge them. Let’s wait until we get back home and talk to people who’ve never been to Morocco. Then we can be experts and then we can judge them.”

Being a tourist gives a person automatic certification as an ethnographer. By spending extended time in one country in North Africa, anyone can become a Middle East expert.

After all, how many people have ever even heard of Chefchaouen? I could say it’s a desert village with skyscrapers towering over ancient clay houses and the royal mounted guard still carry scimitars and police patrol on camelback, like Canadian mounties police on horseback. I could say it’s in Egypt and many people would still believe me. I may be an ignorant tourist who knows almost nothing about the city, but people back home know even less than I do.

A month ago, a co-worker asked me if I’d ever been to Italy. After replying yes, he asked me if the people there were sex-crazed. Right as I was about to say, “I was really only in Italy for a few days and I didn’t have too many sexy conversations with the locals nor did I see too many people having sex while I was in the buses/restaurants/museums/middle of the street,” I began to say, “Well actually….” With a feeling of proud indignation that I saw a little glimpse of sex in the culture while in Italy combined with everything I knew about sex in Italy from “La Dolce Vita” and part of a PBS documentary, I found myself ready to give a commentary about Italian culture. I now find myself chronicling a country I visited for two weeks on a blog at 3 am. It’s just that easy.

But more importantly, by spending a few days in one city in another country–despite not speaking the language, despite panicking when trying to figure out how to poop in their toilets, having never driven between three cars on a two-lane street since no one uses the painted dotted lines on the street, despite not having any urge to break out into song and riot when the national team wins a World Cup match, despite not even knowing the rules of soccer/cricket/rugby because what percentage of Americans watch soccer/cricket/rugby (yes, there’s also a World Cup of cricket and rugby), despite having never worked a day in a local market/local firm/local school where no one speaks English–a person can come back mentally with dual citizenship.

It’s like that person who goes to London for a week and comes back pronouncing basil as “baaahzil” and going out of his way to squeeze words like “flat” and “mobile” into every sentence possible, glancing around at everyone in the room, practically giggling, hoping that at least one person will comment on his new usage of the word, to which he’ll respond, “Oh, sorry, it just kinda slips out. I’ve gotten so used to saying it since I went to LONDON!”

It seems naive to go to another country and expect to completely blend in with the locals. I don’t think it would be called travel if you did. The flight over might be travel, but other than that it would just be visiting your second home. Isn’t the confusion, the loss of full control, the humility in being the foreigner a part of travel?

Travel can broaden our horizons and teach us things we can implement in our lives when we get back to where ever home is or when we takeoff to where ever the next journey is. But it can also have the exact opposite effect, where it narrows our image of other people into the limited glimpse we took in while abroad. Instead of enlightening us, it can delude us into thinking we know something that we indeed are clueless about.

I fear that arrogance is proudly presenting one’s ignorance as knowledge.

2 Responses to Expert Witnesses

  1. John says:

    I'm glad I read this. Do you mind, Mohamed, if I live my live vicariously through you? Traveling is one of those things I wish I were a Highlander so I could accomplish. I made a conscious choice years ago that I wanted a family more than I wanted to explore, and I feel I made the right choice for me. However, if I lived long enough, I would certainly do my fair share of exploring. That said, considering my own mortality, and the infamous short Appod life span, I will live my travel aspirations through you. As long as you are ok with that. Do you mind?

    In direct response to the post, I agree with what you are saying. The only place I've been outside of the continental United States is Germany, and people always assume I know something about the culture. In a sense, I feel like I learned more about the culture than most tourists, since I worked with German civilians for the three weeks I was there. I learned some German, I learned a little about their way of life, and their perspectives on politics, love and sex. However, I only had a small sample of about 10 German men, and only in one town. I would not claim to know anything about Germany as a country or Germans as a people. I do, however, know that Peter from Kaiserslautern who works on Humvee engines likes to hire prostitutes for three ways with his wife. I'm glad I know that much.

    I suppose that it falls on the traveler to understand that a small sample, like a few days or a few people, is not nearly enough to make anyone an expert on culture. However, I also think that if approached properly, even a few days in a different culture can teach us a lot about humanity and how varied it can be. Also, I think arrogance is the highest form of sin (or whichever term you prefer), and one of the very worst aspects of human nature. I think everyone would be a lot happier if they would just admit when they didn't know something. “I don't know” is honesty, not idiocy.

  2. @John (not like there's anyone else on this thing to respond to):

    A Muslim scholar was once asked the sign of a true scholar. His reply was the one who frequently replies “God knows best (i.e. I don't know)” when asked a question.

    We all make quick judgments; everyone has opinions and a lot of times, as you said, a few days can teach you a lot about someone. But whether it's a person or an entire nation of people you've only known for a few days, or whether it's someone you've known your whole life, I don't see any benefit in rushing back home to tell people what horrible human beings they are. Another Muslim scholar said, “If your eye ever reveals to you the faults of others, say to it, 'Other people have eyes too.'”

    Hopefully we can use travel as a tool to teach us rather than a tool to gossip about Others.

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