The issue of East and West has always interested me. As both Canadian and Lebanese, I was born into it: it’s the story of my family, and then became my lifelong work as a diplomat and mediator.
I was born in Lebanon, a country that, in the 1960s, was a lively forum for the meeting of East and West. Beirut, with its St. Georges and Phoenicia hotels, was an emblem of intercontinental travel and cosmopolitanism. The Lebanese are Easterners, but as polyglots and cultural chameleons, they are also an intimate blending of East and West.
My first eight years were spent in Tripoli, Lebanon, an Arab city whose prominent monument is the Crusader castle of St. Gilles – the battles between East and West run deep. However, I was mostly raised in Canada, I could switch-hit between being Lebanese and Canadian, and it was always interesting to see which one people decided I was.
I became a Canadian diplomat whose career, in various forms, spanned a quarter century of working in the Middle East. I lived in Cairo, Jerusalem and Beirut, and worked on the full array of the Arab world, from Casablanca to the relatively unknown region of Mahra, in Yemen.
Cultural differences are woven into a diplomat’s work and exhibited in varying negotiation techniques (Easterners like to maximize their position before sitting down, including through conflict; while for Westerners, war is the last resort, after talks fail), or in communication styles. As I was once told, Omanis don’t hear anything unless someone is whispering, and Americans don’t listen unless, metaphorically, someone is screaming.
Although diplomats are trained and experienced in reading other cultures, many also suffer from an unconscious cultural autism, which I have seen in action, and many meetings devolve into a ‘miss’, mere ships passing in the night.
However, those of us from both worlds have an advantage: we are ‘bifocal’ and lucky to see the world through two lenses, though not always in perfect harmony. As a result of this, I also always had a sense that East and West were profoundly and positively linked. So, it was quite a revelation for me when I read Idries Shah’s The Sufis and discovered his explanations of the many interesting linkages between the two.
Shah goes beyond the well-known idea that Islamic civilization preserved Greek philosophy and science for later transfer to Europe. He sheds light on an organic and living process of knowledge from the East influencing key Western figures such as Chaucer, Dante, St. Francis, and even, some believe, Shakespeare. The points of contact included The School of Translators in Toledo, the Order of the Garter, the Normans of Sicily and the Templars. Even the tale of William Tell originated in Fariduddin Attar’s Parliament of the Birds.
As a great fan of the form of Arabic music called ‘tarab’ (sung by stars such as Egyptian Umm Kalthoum and Syrian Sabah Fakhri) it was with pleasure that I learned that the term Troubadours, and the development of chivalry and romantic love in Europe, was rooted in that Arab word, with its multiple meanings. The list that Shah elucidates is long, without mentioning the multitude of more invisible connections, now forgotten.
Idries Shah was also himself from East and West, a child of an Afghan-Indian father and British mother, and his body of work is the very embodiment of the linkage between the two. It can be described as a massive transferral of deeper patterns from East to the West, an action premised on the idea that the West was potentially fertile ground for such knowledge to blossom.
Today, extreme political positions, fixations often fed by resentment of past defeats or imaginings of a glorious future, are on the rise. Many of our political leaders play us like marionettes, instinctively using cultural conditioning and untamed emotional states in the pursuit of grand schemes that promise reward, but deliver destruction. Violent extremists tap into disenchanted youth by promising meaning in the pursuit of a grand cause. Yet, as much as we can see others being manipulated, we are often oblivious when it happens to us.
Such problems are beyond East and West; they are part of our inheritance, an old mind that we have never fully tamed, nor are even fully aware of. Diplomats and mediators are hard at work at the coal-face trying to create a semblance of order amidst this chaos, but our methods are old, the assumptions untested, and our knowledge of human nature, weak. International politics can teeter on such unsound foundations, and the Middle East is the place where this plays out most acutely today. We need a degree of greater knowledge about ourselves to manage the upcoming international crises, and Shah’s work is an antidote to the knot of habits, instincts and conditioning that are the building blocks of fanaticism and cultural misunderstanding.
The relay between East and West has gone on for millenia, one rising, while the other slides, each taking advantage of the other’s weakness. Through trade, war, and culture, the two have also cross-fertilized each other. Today, it is Apple products and Hollywood films that pervade our world. During an earlier era, the idea of law came from Hammurabi, banking and interest from Mesopotomia, and astronomical discoveries from Egypt, all helping to create the origins of the West. Indeed, progress for both East and West is a result of a constructive friction between them, including through competition. It will be tough to abolish that – as long as matters don’t get too much out of hand, it is likely simply our lot.
Today, the West is frequently viewed as the culprit, the ascendant dominant culture, and it has certainly wreaked its share of havoc as it spread across continents. However, as some may be perceiving, the East is now rising again, especially China, and it may well be that the West is today already in decline. The upcoming problem may be less what the West has done in the past, than how it reacts to this decline in the future.
This core tension between nations and cultures derives from a sense of tribalism that has evolved in us over millions of years. If an excessive sense of supremacy and exclusivity infuses it, it can be the cause of unncessary conflict and suffering. This can be tempered by a sense of greater perspective, and a view of a larger context. And, this is where Shah’s work, with its provision of larger patterns, can help. Reading the books can lead over time to a greater ability to zoom in and out of context, and to see how details fit into a larger picture. This greater flexibility of mind may be a hallmark for developing better international relations in the future.
Furthermore, cultures have hidden complexities that can be the barrier to understanding between peoples unless better understood. Comparative studies becomes essential, and the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf applied this principle in his book The Crusades through Arab Eyes, which helps Westerners see the other side of the story. Of course, there is no comparative study as effective as direct exposure, meeting ‘the Other’, just as the Crusaders did in my hometown, Tripoli, and becoming appreciative of the East that they once fought in the process.
Through a sincere and persistent exposure and dialogue, I have seen bitter enemies in the Middle East grudgingly see the vulnerability in the other side, as well as their basic humanity with its attendant needs – and the rawness of being unable to meet them.
‘Never the twain shall meet’, suggested Rudyard Kipling about East and West. Indeed, they may never have full understanding, as the various cultures within me do not coexist in some seamless harmony: the socially more eager Easterner often gets in the way of the more reserved Westerner, and vice versa. But with a shared larger pattern, the misunderstandings and frictions may be more constructive than confrontational.
Indeed, the story may no longer be about just East and West. If the upcoming clash between civilizations is not too severe, and we are not smothered by other onerous developments of our own making, we may be entering an era that is not only multipolar, as the political term goes, but also “multi-civilizational”. If we get beyond a certain fixation about our own culture, we may see how cultures, plural, may form part of a common, larger design. As anthopologist Edward Hall has said, the experience of other cultures helps us gain greater understanding of our own; to survive, all cultures need each other.
In high school, someone told me that to be the “same” means to have a difference that doesn’t make a difference. And, the same may apply to our cultures: they are different, but at some point that may not make a difference, especially if our understanding is grounded in a larger reality. As is written in the Qur’an (24.25) more elegantly, “God’s… light… is lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor of the West – its very oil would be luminous though fire touched it not.”
John Bell is Director of The Conciliators Guild, an organization dedicated to highlighting the role of underlying motivations in world politics, and to creating a network of diplomats committed to excellence in their craft. For The Conciliators Guild: https://www.