JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 11.8.07
ON STAGE AT THE TRAVERSE THEATRE, in David Greig’s new play Damascus, a Scotsman and a Syrian woman sit at a small cafe table, exploring the depths of their mutual incomprehension. He is trying to sell his new English language teaching course to the Syrian ministry of education; she is explaining some of the problems there might be with the vision he presents of ordinary British life. He, for example, wants to show the wife of a Muslim local councillor wearing a veil; she explains that the Ba’athist government of Syria will not subject its girls to images which encourage such backward-looking behaviour. And around them stretch other great quagmires of possible conflict, as the English language itself repeatedly betrays our hero into all the old man-traps of casual racism and colonialism.
Nor is Damascus the only play on this year’s Fringe to deal obsessively with the fraught relationship between the west and the rest of the world. All across Edinburgh, there are shows about poverty and wealth, the chronic global mismatch of power, and the plight of those who set off westward in search of a better life. Not all of the plays are good, of course. But in this city, at this time, it’s our privilege to be able to watch the power of culture in action, offering a safe arena for the naming, exploring and playing-out of the conflicts that may kill us all if we do not learn how to understand and defuse them. In Damascus, David Greig names misperception, and a whole range of false and ill-informed assumptions, as the defining characteristic of western attitudes to the Islamic world; and in that, his play is both deadly accurate, and deeply disturbing.
For if there is one word that best sums up the conduct of western policy towards the Islamic world over the last two decades, then perhaps “misunderstanding” comes closest to the mark. A strange tone-deafness to the likely outcome of our actions has dogged western policy, from Afghanistan – where, during the Soviet occupation, we deliberately encouraged and equipped the Taliban as a counterweight to communism – to Iraq, Iran, Turkey and now Pakistan, where we have nailed our colours to the mast of a military dictator now simultaneously detested both by the nation’s middle-class human rights campaigners, and by Pakistan’s growing legions of Islamic fundamentalists. Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the west should have been developing intelligent approaches to the new and more militant forms of Islam emerging in reaction to globalisation; above all, we should have been seeking to drive a wedge between murderous, reactionary militant groups, and the peaceful majority of Muslims worldwide.
But instead, we have been blundering about like a prize bull in a Baghdad teashop, our heads full of disgraceful racist stereotypes, our ability to distinguish the various competing strands of Arab and Islamic politics reduced to a crude dichotomy between “pro-western” and “anti-western” forces. In the grip of our own ideological backlash against the old left, we have forgotten the whole tradition of Arab socialism, which once offered the people of the Arab world a powerful mix of modernising, secular values and hope for economic justice. Above all, we have failed to believe in, and to act on, the obvious truth that across the Islamic world, the vast majority of people simply want what all the rest of us want – a peaceful, prosperous life, and hope for the future of their children. Small wonder that when the 9/11 attacks came, in 2001, we were ready to play straight into the arms of militants like Osama Bin Laden, by echoing their malignant talk of “war”, and of an unavoidable clash of civilisations.
So it’s interesting, in the light of this dangerous series of misjudgments, to note the change of approach to relations with the Islamic world that our new Prime Minister seems to have been signalling since he came to office. Essentially, he has stopped using the concept of “war on terror”, and likening the situation to the Second World War. Instead, he has started to refer to the Cold War, and to the cultural battle for hearts and minds through which that strange 45-year stand-off was eventually won. He seems to see that the lazy-minded stereotyping and demonisation of the whole Islamic world can lead only to further conflict and horror; he hints at the obvious truth that dialogue and cultural exchange between ordinary citizens, combined with a vigorous approach to terrorism as criminal behaviour, will produce better results.
Now I don’t know, of course, whether the Prime Minister will have time to visit Edinburgh over the next few weeks, or to see any of the work here which begins, however tentatively, to suggest a better, more respectful dialogue between cultures. But if he does truly care about that process of cultural exchange, he should perhaps give some thought to all the hard-working insitutions which make it possible, from schools, universities and the BBC World Service, through the British Council which first funded David Greig to work with young playwrights in the Middle East, to the Edinburgh Festival itself, and all the other international festivals where people hear one another’s stories, and begin to understand a little better. He should think about the chronic underfunding many of those organisations have suffered in recent years, as military spending has soared. And then he should perhaps begin to put his money where his mouth is; knowing that in a world where resources are scarce, and conflict never far away, human creativity is the one infinitely renewable resource we have – and one that, at its best, draws us together in the same great human song of mutual recognition and hope, rather than driving us apart, in greed, violence and lies.
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