Monday, May 11, 2015

Understanding yourself through other cultures

Understanding yourself through other cultures

by Sean Jobst

April 1, 2015 (updated May 11, 2015)

"Unless you know yourself you cannot know God." This is a spiritual truth of profundity, but also a humbling reality that can be experienced through interacting with other people. One prophetic narration describes the relation of two people to a mirror that reflects a mirror image of yourself.

Applying this to the cultural realm, clearly we can know our own culture to understand others and know their culture to understand ourselves. When we know our own culture, we can understand our unique frame of reference - the how's and why's of our culture - and be more cognizant of how those cannot be projected upon others. It leads to a leveling process where we lose sight of ourselves, so we don't have respect and understanding of others.

We were made into tribes and nations so that we may come to know one another, as cited in the Qur'an (49:13). We often take this simple reality for granted, or otherwise neglect to understand its full implications. What we do with our own cultural identity can either be a cause for separation from those of other cultures, a barrier that could lead to more tensions, or a bridge built on the firm foundations of mutual respect and honor.

Through the uniqueness of our own cultures, we can truly come to know one another - and mutual respect is paved over that bridge. For example, I have been enriched through my own interaction and friendship with those from other cultures - whether it was from interacting with Zulu culture in South Africa, the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge, or the Turks, Bosniaks and other Balkan people I count among my close friends after my time in Turkey last summer.

There are many colonial-based narratives and I'm sensitive to cultural appropriation. What Edward Said mentioned about Orientalism in relation to Western perceptions about the Arabs and peoples of the Middle East, can also be extrapolated to refer to the experience of other peoples. For example, the student of history in me also challenges the false assumptions many make about regions they don't understand, thinking that violence or "backwardness" is somehow inherent to them. This is very apparent even with perceptions about the Balkans, for example.

The Bulgarian-American historian and philosopher, Maria Todorova, coined the term "Balkanism" to refer to the fact that "as in the case of the Orient, the Balkans have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the 'European' and the 'West' has been constructed." (Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 188). Crucial to this misunderstanding has been the role of outdated information, particularly specific books that have fed to more ignorance about the Balkan region among many policy-makers.

This only speaks further to the crucial importance of outreach, of putting yourself out there as one who can say proudly that you are a living bridge between two cultures - without losing your identity in the process. You will know from this that you come from a rich and proud heritage, that you should not allow yourself to be defined by a refugee experience alone but that you are the living lineage of a people with a very long historical experience. And being aware of your history will allow you to pave a bright future.


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