The June 9 entry at Panchayat, The Imam and I: An Argument in the Qasbah, presents as sharp a picture of the divide in today’s world and the way it affects the way people talk with each other as I’ve read in a long time. The entry’s author, Conrad Barwa, quotes a difficult conversation Amitav Ghosh had with an angry imam; I urge you to read the whole thing, but here’s the conclusion:

I was crushed as I walked away; it seemed to me that the Imam and I had participated in our own final defeat, in the dissolution of centuries of dialogue that had linked us; we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all the others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak as any one of the thousands of travellers who had crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done; of things that were good, or right or willed by God; it would have been merely absurd for either of us to use those words, for they belonged to a dismantled rung on the ascending ladder of Development. To make ourselves understood, we had both resorted, I, a student of the social and ‘humane’ sciences, and he an old fashioned village Imam, to the very terms that world leaders and statesmen use at great global conferences, the universal, irresistible metaphysic of modern meaning; he said to me in effect: ‘You ought not to do what you do, because otherwise you will not have guns and tanks and bombs.’ It was the only language we had been able to discover in common. I felt myself a conspirator in the betrayal of the history that had led me to Egypt, a witness to the extermination of a world of accommodations that I had believed to be still alive and in some measure still retrievable.

(Link via Path of the Paddle.)
Update: It turns out the conversation is an excerpt from Ghosh‘s book In an Antique Land, which I’ve been meaning to read for years but haven’t gotten to yet; thanks to Conrad Barwa and Ikram Saeed for their e-mails, and I have edited my intro above accordingly.


  1. It was an upsetting article, no doubt about it. I would not have enjoyed being in the situation. But I disagree with the author’s drawing of more general conclusions from the incident. I would no more draw apocalyptic inferences from this scenario than I would assume that in a similar situation that my mother did, in fact, wear army boots. The Imam was being deliberately provocative and argumentative, and an “Oh, yeah? So’s your mother!” response is, while not laudable, certainly understandable. I’d have wanted to slug him, myself. But the fact that an unbalanced Imam praises the west for having better machines of war and elicits an equally incoherent response from a startled acquaintance is no basis for drawing conclusions.
    I’m actually a little more worried over how addled Barwa is. He doesn’t have a clue that he’s (for all his Indian nationality) a Westerner. He’s heart and soul an exponent of Western, Liberal thought. He couldn’t write or think as he did, otherwise. I’d agree that for millions of people worldwide, the West means “science and tanks and guns and bombs.” And I could add: Britney Spears, Coca-Cola, and David Beckham. I could also add, “Big deal.” The fact that people want “stuff” isn’t news, it’s the entire basis for trade. People are always looking for a way to get an edge over their neighbors, whether militarily, economically, or just “keeping up with the Joneses.” Western “stuff” is sorta big right now, globally. I’m actually quite heartened by the fact that for all his confused nostalgia for a Hindu-Muslim past of brotherhood and fraternity (remember the Mughal Empire?), Barwa actually reflects on the event in a way that shows that he is a card-carrying member of “Western” culture.

  2. How sad! But I have to think this is a reflection of the inabilities of two individuals to communicate as individuals, rather than representatives of their respective cultures. It is possible to get beyond that…

  3. OK….Forget I said anything…..(serious blushing)

  4. Hell, you can make the same point, just substitute “Ghosh” for “Barwa.”

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