Provincialism seems to be the most universal characteristic among human beings; it even seems to supplant greed for the number one spot. It isn’t that we each think ours is the best way of life; we usually believe that ours is the only way of life. We might think that Indians and Arabs wear funny bed sheets for clothing. But it never occurs to us that if we lived in such a hot climate we would find it rewarding to wear loose-fitting white “dresses” rather than uncomfortable trousers. Modern Japanese businessmen wear western-style suits and ties, but they often change into traditional, loose kimonos upon arriving home. They feel more comfortable in the latter and wear the former only for show. Daily costume depends upon geography and climate. Nomadic Mongolian people wear the same heavy outer clothes year-round. In cold weather it keeps out the chill, and during warm summers, it protects the body from the outer heat. Those who live in extreme tropical climes keep windows closed as much as possible to keep hot air out. Each culture learns to adapt to its environment. So why are some Americans amused by how Arabs appear when we see them on television? We compare their garments with our ridiculous way of dressing (in hot, humid weather women wear almost nothing while conforming men wear suits and choking neckties). And since we are the judge and jury, we find their practical adaptation amusing.
We tend to judge people in the same way, estimating how much they differ from the provincial standard set up in our localities. Actually, each one of us is part of a minority; everyone is outnumbered. No one ever thinks the other fellow is the good guy; it’s taken for granted that we’re the good guys.
If we live in the suburbs, we try to conform to the group ideal in every way – lest our neighbors think we don’t belong. Of course, if we have a feeling for all people (not merely ourselves) and have some peace and inner security (a spiritual base), we don’t give a fig for such judgments. Then we are considered eccentric – unless we are wealthy and can set our own standards. What a narrow life we tend to live in our suburban communities, where we have huddled together with others who have (or pretend to have) the same means and are devoted to the same mores. “She has very good taste,” we say, meaning her likes and dislikes conform to our own. This is natural since she has been shaped in the same aseptic crucible as we. Even protest meetings such as anti-war gatherings are peopled with others who have the same viewpoint as we.
We actually don’t want dissent. We want to assume that everyone in the group votes the same way, reads the same books (if they read at all), and stands for the same things. This, despite the fact that the only way such protest meetings could expand our horizons would be if we heard all opinions together (both contrary and agreeable). Voltaire’s statement, “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it,” is not the statement of a provincial man. We may agree in principle with his words, but we do not practice what those words say.
The usual thought is, “My little group is the center of the universe and all others are judged by how they compare to us.” An Asian boy once walked away from me in disgust when I tried to describe that trains to New York City enter the city underground. He had asked a perfectly reasonable question about how railroad stations in large cities of the world compared with his own small town. But he thought I didn’t take his question seriously and that I was offending him by spouting some nonsense. This simply couldn’t be possible from his point of view; it was not within the ballpark of any norm he knew.
One time in Hong Kong, some travelers and I rented a car and driver to tour the extensive new territories. These extended to the Chinese border and were leased to Hong Kong for a long period in order to supply food to gourmet restaurants and popular street stalls. Near the loosely guarded border we were surprised to come upon a walled village. Only Chinese lived there; people shared shelters with animals in the mild, California-like Canton climate. Adults were busy with work, and children were having a hilarious time. Little ones, wearing only tops and no bottoms, were chasing chickens and running about the countryside in what seemed to be riotous and gleeful good health.
An older German woman in our party clucked sympathetically. “Those poor children,” she exclaimed with a warm and misguided heart. “They’ll never have a chance to get anywhere, to amount to anything.”
I was astounded, having never seen healthier children in my life. “Exactly where would you like them to get?” I asked sardonically. But of course she meant they would never have the opportunity to enter the European status struggle, which was the criterion by which she judged. That these young ones seemed happier and healthier, with fewer discernible hang-ups, than the children she sees at home did not occur to her. Since they would never lead her life, they were naturally to be pitied.
Another time at Clarke’s Hotel in Benares (now Varanasi) in India, I met a staid English couple traveling for the first time. He had just retired from business, and they were beginning to see the world. Thinking to help, I arranged for a young student friend of mine at the famed Sanskrit university to guide them through a kasbah-like neighborhood. It was filled with dark streets, thieves and pickpockets, beggars and holy men, camels and goats, temples with ringing gongs and chanting priests, and the accumulated filth of thousands of years. It was a fascinating place in the holiest and most interesting of Indian cities.
When the English couple returned from their extended tour, they were tight-lipped and grim, not looking at all as if they had enjoyed themselves. “Those poor starving people,” exclaimed the English woman. “So hopeless, so pitiful. . .” She had noticed none of the interesting sights, only the beggars and mendicants.
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Did you notice the faces on those ‘starving’ people?” She said she had.
“Did they seem any more miserable than the faces you see in London every morning?”
She thought for a moment and perceptibly brightened. “You know,” she said, “I was astonished that the filthy beggars seemed so cheerful. After all, what have they to be cheerful about?”
This made me laugh. “Are all your London friends that cheerful?” I pressed on.
They looked at each other and then slowly shook their heads. Incomprehensibly, starving people were cheerful, and the “fortunate” ones back home often wore dour expressions.
“To be helpless is often to be cheerful,” I explained, but they looked dubious. “When there is nothing to strive for, we relax and let our destiny take its course. The workings of karma, each man’s self-made fate, are well understood in India. Why should we resent what we have brought on ourselves?”
This was too much for them to handle, so they retired to their room to speculate about the things they had seen.
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On the Ganges in Benares, I took a pre-dawn boat trip, drifting past ghats where newly dead bodies were burning. The other predominant sight – of so many pilgrims bathing in the sacred waters (seeking absolution) – was overpowering. During the boat trip, I met a young Sanskrit university student and an older European woman, and upon debarking, we watched the rising sun stream across the sacred river and listened to the chanting of the Gayatri Mantra and other traditional hymns – all directed towards the sun’s divinity. We then walked up some narrow alleyways to a Nepalese temple seldom noticed by foreigners. The student wanted to show us a sculpture on the outside of the temple.
Many Indian statues are graphic enough to bring blushes to a hardened Parisian’s cheeks. If one does not realize that explicitly sexual sights really represent two sides of reality – Shiva (the imperturbable destroyer) and his consort Shakti (the power that brings the world into play) – the voluptuous sights may be surprising. We walked around inspecting fourteen statues showing the progression of a man with one wife choosing a second wife and their subsequent intimate connubial bliss – until the European woman refused to continue. She was shocked by such a graphic portrayal at such a “holy” place. It certainly didn’t fit her concept of spirituality, and she asked to leave. There was nothing she could relate to.
The student later gave me fourteen photos he had surreptitiously taken, pictures that were, of course, forbidden. And I subsequently carried them out of the country. Although they could certainly double as naughty postcards, they do have deep meaning to Indian people. I have often wondered what the effect would be if I included these photos in one of my books.
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By incredible coincidence, I later met the European woman at the port of Djibouti in Africa. I was in a shop trying to understand the intricacies of old French francs, new French francs, and Djibouti francs when she spotted me. We exchanged warm hellos and she told me that she and her three female friends wanted to shop in the city’s Arab section. Would I like to come along?
I looked at my watch dubiously. It was almost noon, and I knew that after lunch, locals liked to take a siesta until the heat of the day waned, sometimes as late as 5 p.m. “How about this evening after dinner?” I suggested tentatively. She shook her head; they had to be back on the dock by 4 p.m. or they’d miss the launch taking them to their boat. They were determined to shop in the Arab quarter.
I asked them to meet me in an hour, and I would see what could be done. Against my better judgment I made some inquiries and finally found an official who thought he could persuade a particular trader to open for a little while after lunch. He told us to meet him on the corner of Place Pigalle by the Ritz at 1:30 p.m., when practically everybody else would be taking a siesta.
It was really hot and getting hotter when we followed the official through the deserted, white-walled streets of the Arab quarter. Two men were dozing on some steps, shielded from the sun, and they were evidently waiting for us. Neither of them showed any enthusiasm about opening, and they spoke not a word, although I am sure they anticipated several big sales.
The stock was not overly interesting, but there were some good bolts of material and odds-and-ends. Silently the owner and his assistant showed the women whatever they requested. Thirty minutes, forty-five minutes passed in this way; sixty minutes went by uneventfully. I could see the owner (accustomed to napping at this hour) fidgeting. Suddenly it occurred to me that these women were only looking and had no intention of buying. At that moment I wanted to be anywhere else but there.
Almost two hours after we arrived, we exited into the broiling sun. The women were graciously thanking the two traders, and the latter was brooding with thoughts too obvious to read. I was sure there was no danger, but I did not want to be in that quarter of the city again during my stay.
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Inexplicably, the European woman decided to miss the launch that afternoon and stay in town. She asked if I would accompany her to a camel auction. (We were in French Somaliland.) This sounded interesting so I agreed, although I knew it would be rather difficult to find a taxi at that hour.
Entering the huge grounds of the camel auction, we were almost blinded by the morning sun. There was great activity, even at that hour of the day, and it seemed as though every camel in Africa was there, waiting to be sold. Camels have a probably-justified grieved and complaining look. Although they are asked to carry huge loads, they are really delicate-looking animals. Most of those at the auction grounds were kneeling in the hot sun, their front two legs carefully hobbled, waiting until it was their master’s turn to offer them to an assembled crowd of buyers and onlookers. The stench was particularly strong.
One handsome young man smiled brightly at us (as though he recognized us) and walked swiftly in our direction, hand outstretched and uttering greetings. My companion did not understand French, and she shrank back in alarm.
“He just wants to be friends,” I explained in English. The young man looked hurt. I joked with him a moment and then he smiled. Finally he was able to ceremoniously shake hands with both of us.
We were near the auctioneer when we saw a little drama unfold. One camel owner brought his animal to the auctioneer before being ready. The owner had been daydreaming, and suddenly, made aware that it was his turn, shouted at the animal and began beating it with a stick. Resting on the knees of its hobbled front legs, the animal tried to lunge onto its feet but could not. The owner beat the poor beast furiously, and it made piteous grunting noises as it tried to get off its knees. But the owner had forgotten to loosen the hobbles. I was afraid the camel would break both of its thin legs during its desperate effort to rise.
My companion stood open-mouthed and began crying. She turned to me. “Make him stop beating that poor animal,” she pleaded in her broken English.
“Who, me?” I thought incredulously. Five thousand Somali camel drivers on those grounds, and she wanted me to interfere? Still, I felt for the camel and all the animals and owners in that hot sun. Instead of saying anything, however, I put my arm around her to comfort her. Fortunately, the animal then successfully lurched to its feet, the owner noticed the hobbles, released them, and the drama was concluded.
Later, the spell of a starry sky over the harbor’s placid waters, the sound of distant music, and the light from an incredibly large moon filled me with the wonder of Africa. Arab shopkeepers, raucous camel drivers, and dusky women were all mixed into my thoughts. And underneath my thinking mind something buzzed, revolved, and told me I was alive.