Thursday, May 29, 2008

Claire Berlinski on Zadie Smith's White Teeth: An Anecdote

Claire Berlinski

I've been reading Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe for a couple of days and am about halfway through, and while it's not as weighty as Bawer's book, While Europe Slept, it has some interesting insights drawn from Berlinski's own life.

Like Bawer, she faults the Europeans with having made little effort to integrate its immigrant populations, but also like Bawer, she notes the resistance of some Muslim groups to integration.

First, a little background.

In one section of her book, Berlinski describes her romantic entanglement with Zia Haider Rahman, a Bengali-Briton born in a Bangladesh village but brought with his immigrant parents at a very young age to Britain, where he grew up and, thanks to his intellectual brilliance, eventually entered Oxford for his education. Berlinski met him there and first introduces us to him through the fictional character Magid Iqbal in Zadie Smith's novel White Teeth. According to Berlinski, Zia Haider Rahman was the real-life inspiration for the fictional Magid, just as Magid's twin brother, the fictional Millat was inspired by the real-life Jimmi Rahman, Zia's younger brother:
This is not speculation. I know this. I know this because I too was once in love with a Rahman -- Jimmi's brother, Zia. Zia is Magid. (Menace in Europe, page 50)
Berlinski sounds pretty persuasive about this, though she notes that the author, Zadie Smith, denies having based the novel on their lives. Be that as it may, the real-life Zia has some interesting things to say about the resistance of his Bengali community to integration:
They aren't equipped to deal with modernity. They come from villages -- I come from a village, I'm a villager, I was born in a village, I lived in a village, I spent several formative years in a village -- and there's very little in a village that will equip you with the necessary skills. (Menace in Europe, pages 60-61)
Zia continues in that vein, which leads into an insightful passage about the Bengali villagers' views on educating their children:
Many of these children are taken off to Bangladesh by their parents for months, even years at a time, interrupting their education. I help out in a reading program run by my firm at another school. The kids are wonderful, they still have brightness in their eyes, but they read the storybooks like drones. They can read the symbols, but ask them to explain what they've read and you can see that they've barely taken in a word, and this at an age when their comprehension should be much better. How can that be? Well, after school, these kids are taken off to local madrassas by their parents, where they recite pages and pages from the Koran without understanding a single word -- Arabic is a foreign language. For these kids, recitation is reading. This is how their parents are educating them. (Menace in Europe, page 61)
Children raised in this way are missing out on one of the best things that the West can offer, an education in critical thinking. Some individuals, such as Zia himself, succeed in escaping through this intellectual Berlin wall that keeps the majority hemmed in. When I was living in Tübingen, Germany, I was friends with a British Muslim woman whose parents had been expelled from Idi Amin's Uganda. Her family was one of those brought from India to Uganda by the British during Britain's imperial period, long before India had been partitioned, so I suppose that she considered herself to be of Indian Muslim origin, ultimately.

I once asked her if she had a Qur'an, which she did, so I implored her to read a passage to me. She complied, and as she read, chanted really, I noticed that her reading was accompanied by ritual motions with her right hand -- touching her lips, her forehead, the Qur'an itself. After she had recited a passage, I asked her what it meant:
"I don't know," she replied, laughing ironically. "I wasn't taught to understand it, just to recite the words."
She herself had, like Zia, escaped the confines of such a limited view of education -- for she was quite bright -- and was enjoying the fruits of modern Western learning. I think that she considered herself European, and she seemed well-integrated, but she noted that Germans generally didn't accept her very readily. I don't recall her making a similar remark about the British, but given some of Zia's anecdotes, I can imagine that problems also exist there.

Anyway, the usefulness of Berlinski's book, compared to Bawer's, is that it provides an occasional, empathetic glimpse into the inner life of Europe's Muslim minorities, whereas Bawer saw these groups almost entirely from the outside.

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At 11:30 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Interesting picture.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, it is, but in another photo at her site, she looks utterly different.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:23 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

I was thinking about the immigration/assimilation thingy last night and your post gives encouragement that my direction of thought was correct.

Many immigrants (including illegals...especially illegals...but NOT exclusively illegals by any means)come to the US to experience the freedoms it offers. Yet, when they get here, they still bring their own cultural behaviors and inhibitions with them.

This seems to be resulting in incidents such as the guy in Wisconsin a couple of years ago who murdered the deer-hunting party and the guy who threw his kids off the bridge a few months ago.

Immigrants originating from cultures that do not value human life and individual liberties should NOT be trusted to behave like Americans/Westerners.

Because they are NOT Americans/westerners!

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daddio, some cultural practices can definitely pose serious barriers to integration. Honor killings and female genital mutilation are a couple of examples -- and both are mainly directed against women, who often stand to gain the most from assimilating to Western cultures.

That's why I oppose a radical multiculturalism grounded in radical cultural relativism while supporting a moderate multiculturalism grounded in human rights.

The Ozarks, for instance, has its own culture and need not trade it in for Cajun culture, but I like both of these cultures.

Europe itself is a moderately multicultural area that has let itself accept a radical form of multiculturalism and is left without an intellectual defense against cultural practices that violate human rights.

America is better than Europe at assimilating immigrants because they usually come to America as individuals but to Europe as communities. And America has never really adopted radical multiculturalism.

I could go on and on, but you probably get the point...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:30 PM, Blogger John B said...

"they usually come to America as individuals but to Europe as communities"

I would be skeptical of that. There is a sense of community among the US immigrant population, most strongly (but not exclusively) in the family ties in "chain immigration", where recent immigrants use their resources to help family members come.

Perhaps it is more that America views its immigrants as individuals, while Europe views its immigrants as a mass?

At 2:50 PM, Blogger John B said...

Framing the immigrant Bengali, reductively, as only villagers and unable to adapt to life in the big, scary city is one of the most offensive things I've read in a long time. That's just picking a fight. You can't say that in the US, at least, unless you're going to back that up with a lot of statistics to support yourself, and a lot of specifics to show that you're making a constructive point and not just being a dick.

I mean, she's talking about 1.5 generation kids.

More specifically, the children of immigrant families often needs special instruction, for a lot of reasons. That's not specific to Muslim immigrants. I would read that as more of an indictment of the British education system's policies.

I know that the British education system has its share of problems. I've heard it described as a system where the top students do very well and the bottom-rung students are neglected (and the majority in the middle just get by). There have also been two major education reform movements in the past two decades, with mixed results. (It's touched on in the Open University textbook TEACHING ENGLISH by Susan Brindley)

On the flip side of that, the madrassas don't seem at all prepared for the unique problems of multicultural, bilingual, immigrant children.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, I'm not sure, but you may have confused Berlinski with Zia.

Zia is Bengali and is analyzing the problems that he sees the transplanted Bengali villagers facing -- based, of course, on his personal experiences as a villager who overcome the barriers that he himself encountered.

He sees these problems exacerbated by the Madrassa system that he describes.

On whether or not immigrants come to America and settle in enclaves, I don't see that happening to the same degree as in Europe, but I'm willing to hear what others think.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:51 PM, Blogger John B said...

You're right, I did misattribute the comment. I looked at the citation rather than the introduction to the quotation.

Regardless, I stand by my comment that the "villager mentality" is not a very productive explanation, and that the comments on education aren't recognizing general problems in public education. Basically, I think the problem described is typical of immigrants and the native lower class, and don't see them as particularly specific to the Bengali immigrant population. Basically, I don't really see where she was going with that.

Then again, I haven't read the book, so it might be more compelling with greater context.

At 3:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

One thing that struck me upon reading Zia's remarks was that I've encountered similar problems among Korean students -- an 'inability' to discuss what they've read.

Some of this 'inability' might derive from shyness or second-language difficulties, but some surely stems from the way that education takes place here in Korea. Students spend their time memorizing materials and working well-defined problem sets -- all to prepare for that all-important university-entrance exam but not to prepare them to think analytically or creatively.

So, I tell my students that reading is not merely mouthing the words, and not even knowing the definition of each word. Rather, it's a very intellectual process of asking questions and looking for connections as one reads, and these lead one outside of the passage at hand to the framework of the larger text and ultimately to the context of that text.

I therefore ask them to look things up as they read. Keep a browser on Google. "You come across the name 'Trevor Philips' in an article on British culture, don't just skim over the name. It's there for a purpose, so you have to know who he is and what he's done." Some of them begin to read differently.

Maintaining a blog has led me to read things even more closely and within their larger context. You might have noticed some similar process in your own blogging of topics.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:11 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

"they recite pages and pages from the Koran without understanding a single word"

Reminds me of the Latin Mass. Can't understand why folks want to return to that.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

For some people, the Latin mass is resonant with mystery. Others simply associate the Latin mass with a more conservative Catholicism.

Or so I gather from things that Catholics have said to me.

Interestingly -- and somewhat incongruously -- I had a gay, Catholic friend at Baylor who still lamented the loss of certainty that resulted from Vatican II (which had done away with the Latin-mass requirement, or so I'm told).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:11 PM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Prof, I didn't like a lot of the Vatican II changes, either. I was in a Catholic elementary school. We went from the absolute certainties of the catechism to "feel good" fluff that I could not understand. And I wasn't too keen on putting cheesy forward facing altars in front of the massive beautiful marble altars in back or doing away with altar rails. But on the other hand, I could understand the Mass and participate and the more modern music was way more fun and joyful than the depressing organ pieces of the older generations. (I still can't stand organ music, though we now have a real pipe organ and talented musicians.)

I digress. I read a book (can't think of the title off hand) about an Iranian Muslim who converted to Christianity. It was a long path, but it began with a teenager wondering why she had to pray to Allah in a foreign language she could only recite, but not understand. She defied her pious parents and prayed in Farsi. That made me think the chucking Latin was a very good thing.

At 4:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, I think that I recall reading of that woman somewhere, but I can't recall where.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:27 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

I found it. It was Miracle of Miracles by Mina Nevisa.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, CIV, for the link.

Actually, I hadn't known of this woman. I must have been thinking of some other conversion story.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:24 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

He likes the blondies

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He has much company.

Jeffery Hodges

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