Neither better nor worse;Talkback

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Isn't it time we just accepted differences for what they are -differences, asks Faysal Mikdadi

The recent television coverage of King Hussein's funeral showed a woman beating her chest and moaning intelligibly in Arabic. I felt a tide of irritation rising when someone asked: "Is that the way they do it out there?" This irritation increased as correspondents uttered dumbed-down and patronising inanities about the "plucky little king". The reporting was so Eurocentric and offensive that I switched off and paid my respects silently.

But let me start from a positive point of view. Perceptions of equal opportunities have changed dramatically in multicultural Britain. The plucky little people have always made it work well. Thankfully.

Where the perception has not improved is in that difficult area of individual responses to the global village. You'd have thought that, with instant universal communications, we'd have learned a thing or two about differences. Perhaps we have, although we haven't learned the civilised ability to look at differences as being just what they are: differences.Neither better nor worse. The question "Is this how they do it out there?" is offensive because it implies that the questioner is surprised by behaviour which does not tally with what he or she considers to be appropriate.

Watching the news with the woman expressing her grief in a most un-British way was rather like visiting a zoo and laughing at monkeys. They are almost human. Not quite, of course, because they are not like us. But they bear a passing resemblance, which makes one want to wonder innocently. Bless us!

I remember working in an Ipswich school where a senior manager made my life difficult by constantly reminding me that I was different from him. I tried to become what he wanted me to be. I don't know why.

One day we were standing in the corridor. It was evening school; many students were away. A passing colleague asked where everyone was. "Football," replied my senior manager. That was my chance to show I belonged. Although I despise sport, I knew that England was in the game. So I asked, "How is it going?" Mr Senior responded that it was half-time and that the score was 1-0 to England. "Ah!" said I conspiratorially, "we're winning then?" "No lad," said he. "We are winning."

With three words I was disenfranchised from everything that I held dear to me. England, my England, became England, his England. I walked off to take my English literature class.

I did worse there. To illustrate the art of writing and appreciating poetry I used some of my own published works. Two of my students objected to the school management, citing that my poetry, being Palestinian, was political and inappropriate in a school. Never mind that my students were adults. Mr Senior, who presided over community education, moved them to another class and told me "to tone it down". But the local education authority decided I had done nothing wrong and wrote me a letter saying I was a good boy really. I'd had enough, so I resigned. Mr Senior was terribly hurt.

"You are black. Be proud of it," said the representative of my local Commission for Racial Equality. I looked to see if there was someone black behind me. She got angry. I said, "A plague on both your houses. I am not any colour. I am me. Universal man."

Whence this unnecessary sensitivity? I suppose it comes from the brown skin, which, in turn, appears to tell everyone that the flesh, soul and mind encompassed within it must be different.

It is tiring to explain constantly that I do not eat meat because I do not like it - and not for an esoteric religious reason. That I do not criticise others because it is rude and not because my religion forbids it. That I do not drink alcohol because I think its consumption in large quantities is pernicious. That I love Welsh culture because I have fond memories of holidays there and not because, being Palestinian, I sympathise with the downtrodden Welsh people. That I speak three languages because my parents taught them to me, not because every Arab has a predilection for linguistics.

The list is endless. So are the idiotic answers to equally idiotic assumptions.

Faysal Mikdadi is adviser for secondary education for Wiltshire County Council

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