Friday, 25 October 2013

A terror of hamburgers

My latest bit of interview pastiche reminded me of a previous one, at the start of the "War on Terror":

A terror of hamburgers


Al-Ahram Weekly - 27 Sep 2001


Hani Shukrallah wonders whether he is a cultural misfit

Being a journalist myself, I'm fully aware that I make a very poor interview subject. I have an irritating habit of thinking while speaking, hem and haw a lot, and have never seemed to develop the knack of speaking in bites -- all in all, I'm just not very quotable. All of which is a foreign journalist's scourge.
The dissatisfaction, in my experience, has been mutual. A journalist likes to conduct interviews, not give them, and with a weekly column, I often feel that my interviewer would have been served best by taking an appropriate quote from it, thereby saving us both a lot of bother. Moreover, on the few occasions when my interviewer has courteously sent me a copy of the published story, my two-line contribution more often than not appears stunted, abrupt and banal.
Foreign correspondents and I, therefore, have tended to avoid each other on the whole. But since the free and civilised world's declaration of war on evil, it was statistically inevitable that at least a few of the droves of foreign correspondents and TV crews descending on the country these days would find their way to my cell, home or office phone. The referral is almost always through a third person, and almost never a response to my own writing. Who has time to read, with deadlines to meet?
So while I have no idea who it was that referred the crew from a big US TV network to me and my cell phone, the poor jet lagged journalist who called was destined, in a few short minutes, to discover that she'd been sorely misdirected. "We would like to interview you on camera." "OK, but not today," I replied with resignation (it was my day off and I had yet to recover from our last issue). That was OK with her too.
The purpose of the interview, I was told, was to question me about my feelings regarding the proliferation of American culture in Egypt. Aha, I thought to myself: we are to dig at the roots of Islamic terrorism, speak of cultural invasion and pontificate about the threat to our cultural, religious and national identity. This, after all, is why we produce the Ayman Zawahris and Mohamed Attas of the world. In the best traditions of objective journalism, we are about to explain the "seas of people in which the terrorist fish swim."
But then I happen to believe that this whole cultural invasion/cultural identity ruckus is so much stuff and nonsense. I didn't put it that way; the woman was exceedingly polite and friendly, and I felt I had to be as well. It more or less came out in our 10-15 minute phone conversation, however. I like blue jeans, hamburgers (although I'm fully aware that they're bad for you) and Woody Allen films. I honestly don't know what "authentic" Egyptian, Arab or Islamic culture is supposed to be. Nevertheless, I don't for a moment think of myself as alienated from my society or hopelessly Westernised, consider speaking a second language a privilege rather than a curse and am envious of those who fluently gab away in three and four (sadly, my attempts at French and Spanish were hopelessly inadequate).
I also happen to believe that cultural identity is a dynamic composite creature that is constantly being recreated -- and that, like everything else, it is subject to political choice. The diverse cultural components that make up my psyche sit, by and large, very happily together (my self-torment being of an existential rather than a cultural variety), and I'm constantly amazed at how fundamentally similar we all are. There is bad, i.e. dehumanising culture, and there is good culture that brings out the best in us; that helps liberate us, I tried to explain to my prospective interviewer.
She found what I said "very interesting," complimented me by telling me that I seemed "very moderate" -- which is probably the worst insult anybody can direct at me -- and went on to explain, rather awkwardly, that she'd have to check with her editor. "Umm, we're actually doing background right now..."
Thankfully for both of us, I haven't heard from her since.