The Death of Culture

Iman Kurdi, Arab News,

  Last week Time magazine caused a huge stir in France by declaring on its front page that French culture is dead. For the record I disagree, but partly this is because I seem to have a different idea of what constitutes culture.

If you read the Time article and all the debate it has generated in the French press, the central core of culture revolves around exporting creativity. Time declared French culture dead because it felt that France was no longer creating ideas, political movements or art that influenced people beyond the hexagon of France. Where is the modern-day equivalent of Sartre for instance, or of Proust?

As a writer, I have a problem with the idea that literature is defined by the national borders in which it is written. If I write a novel in English, whilst living in France, is this novel part of English, French or Arab culture? Taking the idea beyond literature, if a British architect builds a tower in downtown Riyadh, is this British or Saudi architecture?

Moreover I take issue with the notion that creativity defines culture.

What is Arab culture? Is it the body of literature, philosophy, architecture, art and so on that has been produced by Arab nationals? Or are the character traits of a country that make it distinct from another? Its mores, traditions, values, ways of life... Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that literature and art are not part of culture. They are. What I am saying is that there is more to culture and that being cultured is not limited to people who can read Proust.

And in fact I find cultured a more useful word than culture. Being cultured to my mind means being able to bridge the past and the future.

Cultured people are hence people who have a strong sense of the influences and traditions that make up their character while being open to new ideas and experiences that can change the way they think, feel and do.

It’s a highly subjective definition, but then I believe culture is a subjective construct. My definition of Arab culture — if I could put something so complex into words! — is likely to be quite different to that of J, a French friend of mine who has just returned from Marrakech.

J came back from Marrakech a changed woman, and I am not exaggerating. She is young, newly married, has rarely traveled outside Europe. Her honeymoon in Marrakech was her first experience of an Arab country.

Unlike most of her fellow guests at the French-owned hotel chain where she stayed, she chose to go out and meet her Moroccan hosts. She made friends with the chambermaids, the waitresses, the cooks, the tour guides, everyone she met. She was invited to their homes, met their families, drank tea and got a glimpse into a world she had never imagined. Their hospitality and generosity dazzled her. “They earn only 200 euros a month! Can you imagine? Two hundred euros.” Of course 200 euros buy you much more in Morocco than it does in France, but it was also the cost of one night’s stay at her hotel. She was livid at the inequalities she saw everywhere.

The turning point for her came on a visit to a Berber village in the desert. They stopped outside a house, just a regular house like hundreds like it, and the guide told them they could help themselves to water and that if they were tired there was a room available, a room where any traveler could stop and rest. “Can you imagine”, J continued her eyes popping out of her head, “the owner of the house leaves the door open and refreshes the water urn every day just in case someone thirsty or tired should pass by. He takes no money, he does it out of kindness and generosity. And we French think we should teach them about values!” And she shook her head vehemently.

I doubt the Berber villager who puts out water every day for thirsty passers-by has read Proust or Sartre; yet he strikes me as someone cultured. And J’s definition of Moroccan culture revolves around her experience of his hospitality. It includes words such as warm, welcoming, kind, hospitable. What struck J in Morocco was the sense of solidarity and community, the simplicity of people’s lives and their faith.

Returning to Time’s declaration that French culture is dead, I not only disagree but cheer the fact that France has remained distinctly French. If French films rarely enjoy great box office success in the US — though there are notable exceptions — it is more likely to be because American audiences are not open to non-American films. Put another way, they may not be cultured enough to appreciate something generated by a culture other than their own.

Where I do agree is that artistic creativity is an important engine of culture. It is a catalyst of progress. And artistic creativity in France is not what it once was, to some extent Time magazine is right in that claim. But just think, if by that definition French culture is dead, what of Arab culture?