Cool Encounters Between the East and West – Dr Akbar S Ahmed

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets students at the Sophie Scholl school during a visit on the fifth European Union school project day in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets students at the Sophie Scholl school during a visit on the fifth European Union school project day in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Societies that feel confident and are dynamic are able to integrate outsiders more comfortably


[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ocieties that are confident in their identity are more accepting of difference, whether racial or religious. There is a ‘cool’ factor where the arts are freely pursued, there is an environment of openness and creativity and acceptance of religious and cultural diversity.

I saw this in my first encounter with the US in the 1980s when I arrived at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I was struck by how civilized, welcoming and generous Americans were. Today in Europe this is happening in Germany, a vibrant, innovative and open nation with confidence and a thriving artistic spirit, notably in Berlin. It is also happening in Scotland, which has steadily become an artistic haven, recognized around the world and on the cutting edge in the fields of visual art, fashion, literature and music.

Both Germany and Scotland are increasingly comfortable in their identity — witness the response to two significant 2014 events in both countries: Germany’s World Cup victory and Scotland’s holding of its referendum on independence. Both resulted in a surge of confidence in their identity following years of self-loathing, for Germans horror and soul-searching at their culpability in the Second World War and for Scots the “Scottish Cringe: a persistent sense of inferiority, self-pity and embarrassment at overt expressions of Scottishness developed over years of English domination” (Karen Gardiner, “Is it the end of the Scottish Cringe? “ BBC News, January 25, 2016).

Societies that feel confident and are dynamic are able to integrate outsiders comfortably. In Scotland, I saw proof of this when I met two immigrants who held important positions. Scotland had appointed a young man with a Pakistani background to an important position in the cabinet and fielded another, a woman this time, as a Member of Parliament. In Germany,  Angela Merkel   took in over one million refugees when the US, traditionally hospitable to immigrants, accepted a mere 2,600 with heated debate accompanied by unpleasant abuse (a presidential candidate called Syrian refugees “rabid dogs”).

The situation in Scotland and Germany can be contrasted with that in European countries such as Greece and the nations of East Europe, where the opposite is true — they are not confident, are insecure, and unsure of themselves, thus reverting to primordial forms of identity that resist outsiders. With the economic crisis, xenophobia, terrorism and the enormous flows of refugees, you have a perfect storm in these countries.

I saw this confidence and cool in visits to both Scotland and Germany. In 2013, I visited Alex Salmond for a private lunch in the First Minister’s residence in Edinburgh. Accompanying me were Harrison Akens, my assistant from Washington DC and Ibrahim Hoti, my grandson who had joined us from Pakistan. When we arrived in the taxi, I asked the driver whether he was sure this was where the First Minister lived because I did not see a single policeman outside the house or anywhere in the entire square.

The driver said he was sure saying, “Not in Scotland!” and we walked toward the door. Someone was waiting inside and opened the door straightaway. We were taken upstairs to the living room which was of modest proportions and had modest furniture. A small table had been arranged for lunch. The menu was simple and there was no dessert. We were joined by two of Salmond’s staff.

Salmond himself was the perfect host — hospitable, humorous and full of anecdotes. Harrison who was proud of his Scottish ancestry was thrilled by Salmond and so was my grandson Ibrahim who was the more difficult to please as he was a teenager and not so impressed by high office or age. As Salmond entered the room, I held out my hand to shake his hand. He reached out and embraced me.

But it was Salmond’s humility and humor that won over Ibrahim. In fact, when Salmond took pictures with him, he lent across with his elbow on Ibrahim’s shoulder and his legs crossed in a mock vaudeville comic pose as if they were old buddies. All this was cool enough; then, as we left, Salmond said to me we will meet again,  inshallah.

In Berlin, I had the occasion to call on the senior German envoy in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dr Michael Koch. The meeting had been arranged by our friend Dr Heinrich Kreft who had received me at the reception. As we walked through the impressive foreign office building, I could not help but notice the vast central space at the entrance, festooned and decorated with a football motif. It was in the days leading up to the World Cup final and there was a genuine football fever in the land. There were images of footballs and young men kicking footballs, and even the cushions to sit on in the atrium resembled the colors of a football and were designed as deflated footballs. Dr Kreft explained the German passion for football and how Germans relate their pride and identity with their fortunes as a football-playing nation.

As we were ushered into the office of Dr Koch, I was struck by its simplicity. Arsallah Khan Hoti and Dr Amineh Hoti, who were with me, could not help compare the humility and simplicity of the VIP we were meeting to Pakistan’s elite. Apart from one black and white picture, there was nothing else — no pompous-looking pictures of heads of state or the minister, no colorful calendars of the Alps, no football hero scoring goals in heroic poses while distorting his limbs, and no photographs of poised wives and scrubbed children with shiny faces which are so common in offices in the US.

I was intrigued by who was in that photograph. Perhaps his father, I thought but decided it was someone else. The fact that the picture hung alone, high above us, almost as a talisman, conveyed to me that it had some deep meaning for the occupant of the office. It was Schopenhauer, the German philosopher. Wow, I thought to myself; this was German cool.


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