"IT’S THE STORY YOU ENTER, NOT THE CHARACTER."
An Interview with Aimee Bender About Her Syllabus
This is part of a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class. Read the full syllabus here.
Aimee Bender is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Her most recent short story collection, The Color Master, includes two retellings of fairy tales. Her work has been published in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and Granta, among other places. She teaches at the University of Southern California.
I. THE ECONOMY OF THE TALE
STEPHANIE PALUMBO: Tell me about the background of this class.
AIMEE BENDER: I’ve only taught this as an undergraduate class, and the people that have taken it are not necessarily English majors—they’re science, pre-med, communications. It’s changing now, but the general education program had a template of things you had to include in a class: a certain amount of writing, emphasis on critical thinking, and pages of reading per week. You got to take those factors and stir them in a pot and come up with an idea. I knew I would naturally lean toward doing something with fairy tales. They’re perfect little nuggets to talk about.
SP: So many books have been influenced by fairy tales. How did you narrow down the reading list?
AB: I split it into two halves. One part was direct influence: stories taken from a specific tale. So for “Snow White,” we’d first discuss the tale and all different kinds of Snow Whites from various countries, then look at a new telling, like Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, which is radically different but uses the story as a base. There aren’t an endless amount of these direct retellings. The other part, which is super flexible, is indirect influence. I switch those readings a lot more, because so many things can fit. For years, we read José Saramago’s Blindness, but a lot of the students would argue that they didn’t feel it had fairy tale elements, just certain craft similarities, like very little internal reflection and characters without names. What makes a fairy tale a fairy tale is pretty debatable.
SP: How would you define a fairy tale?
AB: There are various definitions, including a great one by Bruno Bettelheim. I think fairy tales are usually quite short, have archetypes, include very little internal experience of the characters, involve an element of magic, and often objects and animals participate in some way. Bettelheim says they have to have a happy ending to qualify as a viable fairy tale, but I don’t know if I agree with that, because Hans Christian Andersen writes beautiful fairy tales, and they’re extremely melancholy.
Something I love most about writing them is the direct and immediate connection to other people. This is partly a product of writing for the internet, of course, but there’s something else, too. The space in my head where I go to write horoscopes is different from the space in my head where I go to write fiction; in the same way, I imagine that a person can be a reader of horoscopes in a really different way than they are a reader of fiction or poetry.
Thistle Mag talks to this beloved friend and writer, Claire Comstock-Gay, a. k. a. Madame Clairevoyant.
“Think about it: Have you ever seen a cat driving a cruiser? Have you even once seen a cat with a badge? These animals want Friskies, not frisking.”
Stephen Tully Dierks is the editor of Pop Serial, whose third issue is currently being serialized online. The issue will be completed soon & then a print edition will be available. I talked to Stephen about Pop Serial & his own writing & other things.
Justin Carter: What is Pop Serial and why…
Illustration of a Diamond Python, Morelia spilota spilota, by an unknown artist associated with Port Jackson Painter.
In almost every culture, the snake or serpent has been associated with a female divinity: Minoan, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, Polynesian, Mayan. Female oracles also used snake venom in order to receive messages from the gods.
Patriarchal religions then went about making the snake the symbol of evil.
So don’t be afraid of snakes, girls. They’re your kin.
by Adam Turner
The roles were simple and well played. She: gadfly. He: court reporter—not in the legal but in the regal sense, as in court jester, court historian, etc., a man, in other words, of what used to be called the Establishment and now is, simply, the Beltway. They shared the same beat—the “Middle East”—but they were not in competition. Each was a member of the Washington club, the small family of journalists in the know. Or at least they sounded it. Information is the key to the kingdom. But who can say how good it is? They knew this, too. Both had become masters of allusion, he from the top down, she from the bottom up, the soft sigh, the homage to complexity mixed with self-deprecation, mildly applied: we’re just scratching the surface, of course. But we’ve been doing it longer than nearly anyone else. They also knew to listen.
He was drawn to Arabs, she to Persians. Neither could explain the attraction. Juvenile impressions, perhaps. She’d grown up in Southern California among Iranian exiles. His father had been an ARAMCO executive. They didn’t mind playing to stereotypes. To her Persia was a superior civilization: a Eurasian nucleus of beauty, poetry and intellect. To him Arabia was the opposite of all that he found tiresome at home: a raw, direct, rich culture, and enduring.
“You romanticize these Arabs,” said Emre, his friend and favorite source of gossip, much of it off color. “I do not say they are desert vermin but simply that they are not very intelligent. They have passion going for them, but little else.”
“The ferocity of the Arabs,” he replied, “the brutality of the Turks—”
“And the duplicity of the Persians!” Emre chuckled.
“Then again, I wouldn’t limit that to Persians. As they said over in Iraq, ‘The Americans won the war, Iran won the peace, and Turkey won the contracts.’” Neither mentioned what any Arabs had won.
Until now, that is. The world they had known for the past few years appeared to be falling apart, or, as columnists liked to say, splitting up. Some saw another round of a war of all against all. Emre was more sanguine. Yes, some borders may change; others may stay the same. But there was a recalibration underway, he thought, and it was happening along generally pragmatic lines: less a constellation of warring statelets and would-be empires than a grouping into three quasi-federations: Turkish-Kurdish; Arab Sunni; and Iranian-Arab Shiite. This was the abstract hope, anyway.
Emre was better read than he let on. His father has been a diplomat. He was the child of the man’s second wife, whom his father had met in Cyprus. Emre had grown up there. He was an only child; he didn’t see his half-brother and sisters much. His parents, though they doted on him in the usual Turkish way, had busy lives, always flying off someplace. Emre’s real family was his father’s books.
“Do you know the splendid Madariaga?” he asked. “An idealist, yes, a man of his times, and a witness to great disappointment. But also a first-rate observer and judge of character, especially of those he knew best. The author of a great testament.”
He referred in this instance to Salvador de Madariaga’s essay, “Englishmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards.” It is a comparative one, published in 1928, of what today is no longer fashionably called “national character.” This has been supplanted, it is said, by clashes of civilizations and culture wars. Or not. Emre liked to say that the more he saw of the world, the more people acted pretty much the same as they always had.
Dean, the court reporter, was quick to pick up the reference. He had been to St. Paul’s, then to Princeton where he planted himself in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, specializing in anthropology and dabbling in languages when he could find the extra time. “Yes, Madariaga’s men of action (English), emotion (Spanish) and intellect (French), drawn in contrast with one another. That was it, wasn’t it… I don’t recall any Germans or Italians.”
“Interesting,” said Nicole, the gadfly, walking in on the conversation. “So?”
“So, Emre is suggesting our three favorite cultures are, somehow, permanently opposed, as well as linked, yes?”
“Yes, my friend, that is true. A terrible oversimplification but true nonetheless.”
Nicole frowned. “I don’t know… these generalities, I don’t think they matter as much as other things…”
She was tentative; the journalist in her didn’t want to put Emre off. She tried to be interesting, too.
“Generations. These societies are so young. They rule the ‘street,’ or at least they roil it. They set the political terms of reference in many cases. And it doesn’t matter so much what sect or tribe they come from as much as where they are in life, and where they’re going.”
“Yes, my dear,” Emre said with a kind of gentle smirk, “you are probably right. But then there are still many old men. And old men forget.”
Dean interjected. “Some forget more than others, I should think.”
“Yes. Of course.” Emre’s smirk now spread to the rest of his mouth. “We are fine anthropologists indeed!”
“But hardly old men—“
Nicole put an end to their little symposium. She felt she was right and they were wrong, or rather, stuck in a slow lane, a pattern, a mold. She preferred aspic of a different color, one she thought wasn’t saddled down with perverse biases. What little she had read of history (actually it was rather a lot) told her that nearly all these biases—these cultural “facts”—were comparably recent. Yes, some groups had been killing others since the beginning of time. But most had lived together in relative peace until opportunists made things much worse. If deterioration is so easy, why not progress? Why rule it out?
The “what went wrong?” cottage industry made her weary. Too many theorists who knew very little at all about their subjects. Her friends’ world weariness wasn’t much better. She sometimes wondered what the point of it was. What Dean most liked about Emre, by contrast, was this tongue-in-cheek tendency. Nicole was earnest. Not too earnest but earnest still. On some level Dean was probably even more earnest, the homme sérieux was never too far from the surface. But the surface was another matter. He was almost always easy, chatty, never sarcastic or silly, but pleasant, sometimes droll. He learned this from a young age. It was as much part of him as anything else and, at some level, an even bigger indication of egotism than Nicole’s stubborn, open-minded curiosity, always wanting to know what made people tick. For Dean the story was always about just one thing: cui bono.
* * *
Some days later the two men met at Zorba’s, the cheap Greek taverna off Dupont Circle. The large open area in front attracted tourists and happy hour-goers; it was often full of people. Emre liked this place; it reminded him of home. They sat inside, upstairs, near the window.
Dean was preoccupied. He had made the usual rounds and was plied with more than the usual number of scoops. Something was up.
“Emre, let me pick your brain about something. There is this giant gas find in the Eastern Med. One field is said to hold some 200 billion cubic meters of gas.”
“So they say, my friend. Everybody wants a piece of it: Turks, Greeks, Cypriots, Lebanese, even Israelis. Or, should I say, especially Israelis.”
“Right, but whose is it?”
“You mean, who will you Americans say it belongs to?”
“Come now, Emre, I wouldn’t be asking you if I were looking for that.”
The gentle smirk returned. “Yes, dear friend. I know that you know I follow such matters carefully. I wouldn’t be a very good shipping broker if I didn’t. I’ll tell you all I know, which, I regret to say, isn’t much more than I knew a month ago.”
“All the parties, except the Greeks for some reason, have hired the best British and American lawyers to thrash it out. It may go all the way to the Hague court. The borders are in dispute. But no gunships, at least not yet. This isn’t the South China Sea. If only the Chinese tycoons had some more Mediterranean sun and a few more yachts!”
“Very funny. But who is on top? Who is most likely to cave?”
“Oh Dean, you know better than I, surely. I wasn’t entirely joking before. This is mainly up to your side. We both know the Americans are pushing very hard for a Cyprus deal. And it may still happen. Our sad little island will ‘reunify’ under your auspices. Then come the big contracts: Bechtel, Halliburton, GE, they’re all in line. And everybody will get a nice piece of the action, and be happy. It’s the classic win-win, as people here like to say.”
Dean did know better.
* * *
Nicole had been chasing down a related story. It was her old stomping ground, after all; her first job out of journalism school was as a reporter for the Oil and Gas Journal. She spent the 1990s following the ups and downs of the U.S. Government’s mantra “happiness is multiple pipelines” throughout the former Soviet Union. She was happy to move on to real matters of war and peace but she didn’t mind this assignment. The Rolodex still worked.
Now the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Israelis had cooked up a nice oil deal where the latter would purchase the first of many shipments directly from Kurdish suppliers without going through (or paying off) Baghdad. This was done with the full cooperation with the Turks, across whose territory the oil transited.
Baghdad’s oil relationship with the Kurds was complicated. So was the long-standing (but, until recently at least, rather quiet) alliance between the latter and Israel. None of this was breaking news. More pressing was the state of the region’s refineries, which cut across such relationships. The Kurds and others could tap all the oil they liked. But it had to be sold, transported and refined. That was the trickier part.
There was also natural gas. Nicole was looking into the discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean insofar as they related to the various countries’ overall demand. Turkey’s for example was growing by leaps and bounds. A facility in Silivri, near Istanbul, was targeted to double its pumping capacity in the next two years, and triple in the next five. Other targeted sites included some in Thrace and at the other end of the country, in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakır.
But that wasn’t the whole story. The latest crisis in Ukraine sent attention southward. The Russians, keen to cut off or at least to lessen the market share of the Ukrainians, had suggested that its much touted South Stream gas pipeline could even be built across Turkish territory. Until now, Turkey had been one of the preferred routes for pipelines designed to reduce the Russian share of gas going to Europe—just as it had once been for oil.
How all this potential growth would affect particular markets—and prices—was of tremendous interest to many people. Oil they say is fungible; gas isn’t. But there was something about the webs of beneficiaries who insisted that this or that deal “wasn’t connected” to the others, that kept drawing her back to Dean’s world of winners and losers. Too much was happening at once to rely on coincidences. She knew better, too.
Costs and benefits are also semi-fungible. The Kurdish-Israeli alliance of convenience, for example, involved much more than energy deals. There were deals of all sorts… even scholarships set aside for Kurdish students in Israeli universities. The Israelis were among the most enthusiastic boosters of an independent Kurdistan. So long as the Kurds could be a thorn in the side (or worse) to Israel’s adversaries, the relationship made sense. The latest oil deal seemed only natural. But it was a stretch to say that it was in the driver’s seat.
The difficulty she had was not in seeing so many interconnections but instead in forcing herself to separate—or “disaggregate,” as her doctrinaire editor liked to say—the commerce from the politics. Could she get away with writing a story about this oil purchase, or about the gas discovery, without mentioning, or even alluding to, particular national sympathies? Certainly not. Nobody in this part of the world—not even shrewd Cypriot middlemen—could do that. The chemistry was otherwise. So was the physics.
Her mind boggled over this story. She thought about it and decided that a shrewd Cypriot was exactly what she needed right now. Nicole telephoned Emre and asked him to come by for tea. He could be counted on for this kind of thing, that is to say, the right kind of facts. He said he’d be happy to come by in a few hours. She left Emre’s name at the guardhouse of her gated community near Georgetown, the sort favored by politicians, Supreme Court justices and others who liked an appearance of security.
He never showed.
* * *
Dean had been thinking about their earlier conversation. He reached the conclusion that old Madariaga had got it right, to a point. You cannot draw national manifestations of particular character traits, at least in this part of the world. Arabs did not regard themselves—and most others did not regard them—as especially more passionate or fanatical than anyone else. It was the political circumstances—and religion, of course—that made some of them conform to the stereotype.
The essence of cultural opposites, he thought, came from something more basic, which was territory and tribe. There are friends and enemies. It was that simple. Your friends, your only friends, came from your tribe. But enemies vary. There are near and distant enemies. Al Qaeda and others, including the Israelis, use the formulation. For reasons that he was never entirely able to understand, the political Left there until only recently cast the distant enemy, Iran, as the greatest threat, and sought peace with those closer to home, namely Arabs. For the Right, also until only very recently, it was the reverse. He remembered asking a particularly virulent Likudnik why, unlike so many of his countrymen, he didn’t seem to fear Iranians. The man smiled and said, “Why should I? I have no problem at all with theocracies.”
Dean had convinced himself, therefore, that cultural essences like these were really reflections of oneself, and of one’s fears, desires and measured hierarchy of biases. For you couldn’t be neutral. You couldn’t be more than one ‘phile at the same time. You felt close to one culture or another, but never to all. Multiple passions, he thought, could not coexist peacefully in the same heart. At the same time you couldn’t avoid latching on. Why was this? We love or hate our own shadows most of all; maybe Madariaga—an apparent Francophile Spaniard married to an Englishwoman—would have agreed. There was a romantic appeal of the Arab; Dean certainly felt it. The romantic figure was someone he had perhaps once wanted to be, or know as he would know himself. This source of attraction was narcissistic, yes, and it was also reflective as well as reactive, that is, it formed as the result of knowing also who and what he did not want to be.
These thoughts suggested to him that his missing friend Emre was not all that he said he was. Who was he then? And where was he?
* * *
Nicole’s article appeared on page two, above the fold: “Oil and gas deals in Eastern Mediterranean spark new great game.” She always hated headlines like that. Her phone rang and rang. CNBC, Bloomberg, Richard Quest, and half a dozen or so European and Asian networks wanted her on air at three minute soundbite intervals. The word that came to her mind was ‘serviceable.’ This summed up her performance. She did well enough. But she much preferred PBS or BBC weekend roundtables where she could muse about the youth bulge, demographic transformations, cultural watersheds, Sufi poetry. She thought it was about time she wrote a book.
This was not a mere matter of personal preference. Any writer—even a serviceable one—must have some passion for her subject. The expertise followed. In the end this is what it came down to. She could play act as well as anyone in print and on screen, but her head wasn’t in this story, that was obvious—to her, at least.
That’s why she had needed Emre. She could only fake it for so long. It was easy enough to string together enough quotations alongside the off-the-record gossip she got from her industry contacts. But something was amiss. Why were the Iranians and the Turks going along so easily with the gas deal if, as things appeared, their enemies were in place to corner this particular market? There were too many hints of petty conspiracies: the oil deal with the Kurds being a sweetener for something else yet undefined, both for them and for the Turks who took their usual percentage; the Iranian nuclear saga always in the background, demanding, in principle, at least, any number of other sweeteners; the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars with their maze of alliances of convenience; the overt Iranian and Saudi meddling and the covert Turkish warmongering; the manipulation, even, of several thousand Armenian refugees from Syria who had been sent to the disputed Caucasian territory of Karabakh for propaganda value; the hard currency and bullion deals with Iran to skirt the nuclear sanctions; and of course the open conflicts running from the Sinai all the way to the Tigris, which meant innumerable black market arrangements in everything from oil to gold watches. Yet this was real money. Turkey’s little gold transfer arrangement with Iran alone was estimated to have grown some hundredfold in one year to around seven billion dollars.
Nicole hated the complexity cop out but she didn’t have the energy to sort her way through the maze. Emre had helped to make her lazy. He could weave together a story in his special Levantine way so that it made sense, flipping everything that appeared complicated, yet stupid, into something smart and simple. All she had to do was translate it into the language of Middle America. Did it satisfy her? Something in her still wanted to get her head around all these people. The tribute-seeking, center-of-the-universe mentality of her Iranians… she got that. They could dance around it so subtly even their neighbors could fail to catch on to it, but in the end this all they were after: just a bit of due deference. A simple kow tow. But these others? The Arabs and the Jews, the Greeks and the Turks, and all the rest… she got what they were after. But why? It was more than just besting the other pour encourager les autres. No, there had to be more to it than that.
* * *
The clamor died down after about two weeks. The phone stopped ringing. Until a call came from Dean.
“Let’s get together. Lunch? Zorba’s.”
Nicole was curious. She hadn’t heard from him since Emre’s disappearance. His paper had assigned the gas story to a more junior reporter, and Dean clearly had not helped with it at all.
When they met at Dean’s usual table, another man joined them. Bespoke suit, Cartier watch, signet ring. A man about sixty, tan, almost caramel skin, eyes the same color, though a bit lighter with a yellowish streak. Dean introduced him as a visiting journalist friend from Oman.
“Nicky, we need to ask a favor—”
“That’s cutting to the chase. What’s going on?”
“Call it a matter of professional courtesy. We’d like to you spike your next story… just a bit.”
“And why on earth would I do that?”
The Omani smiled and fidgeted with a cufflink. Dean, on the other hand, was all gravitas. He stared straight at her… and somehow at the same time right through her.
“Because we think we know where Emre is. Somewhere in the Gulf. He’s up to no good and is, for once, in over his head. He needs what we might call a small intervention. And you can help.”
“How… what, exactly?”
“Don’t worry, it’s not an airborne rescue or anything like that. We just need for him and his people to know that others are on to them. That the little deals they’re cooking up just won’t work and he should get out before it’s too late.”
“What little deals, Dean?”
The Omani continued to smile and fidget. Dean mumbled something about LNG terminals, then stopped talking and focused intently on his souvlaki. The conversation, more or less, stopped. On leaving, Dean said he’d be in touch again soon, then added, “You know what to write.”
It was then she knew that they knew that she and Emre had once been lovers.
* * *
She decided to do as she was asked; her editor probably wouldn’t notice.
So, it became part of the public record that: The Kurds had postponed their move to rewriting the borders of four nations; the Israelis objected to the postponement but still got a piece of the gas deal; the oil shipments from northern Iraq across Turkey to the Mediterranean also continued, lawsuits notwithstanding; and the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner was overheard saying that several more chapters of Turkey’s accession with the EU would be opened for negotiation now that the reunification of Cyprus was imminent. “We need them more than they need us.”
The EU spokespeople denied it in the strongest terms. French public opinion was especially hyperbolic: so many millions of Turks! Imagine them coming to Strasbourg to sit in Parliament! The Russians meanwhile took another opportunity to muscle their former vassals over planned pipeline routes, starting with the Bulgarians, even forcing a run on a few of the country’s largest banks. Rumors spread about bribes having been paid, including to EU ministers. Prices became more volatile. The energy editor of the international edition of her paper, where the article first appeared, was summoned by the owner himself, who, to put it politely, was not a disinterested party in all this.
She hadn’t, strictly speaking, made any of it up, apart from the last bit. But it did the trick. As Lyndon Johnson used to say about telling lies: I know they’re lies, but let my opponent deny it! Well there were white lies and there were black lies. In this instance there was just some reading between the lines and some creative montage. In the old days it may have been called agitprop. Today it’s called connecting the dots.
She took it all stoically. The only worry she had was whether Dean’s people would keep their side of the bargain, particularly since she neither knew who Dean’s people were nor understood most aspects of the bargain. Dean and friend offered no quid pro quo; this was more like a quid pro quid. Still, professional courtesy did count for something with her; she was, after all, part of the club; she would call in the favor sooner or later. Anyhow, she always told herself that incomplete information was the worst of all enemies. You can’t win against it. So she kept her outward peace of mind and received the stream of visitors, beginning with the Russian commercial attaché, who treated her to an expensive lunch, berated her, then made some offers of his own. He was the first of several. They’d call, arrange to meet, spoil her and then suggest they stay in regular contact: “let’s do this again soon.” Well, they were in the same game, really: just filling an information quota. She imagined what a profitable side business she could have in the periodic deployment of artistic license like this. She wouldn’t be the first, but this had to be a one-off. She was not, to repeat, invested in the subject. And then there was Emre.
Emre, who still was nowhere to be seen. Nicole had no idea whether Dean’s little plan worked. She knew nothing of the trouble he mentioned, or whether her contribution made any difference. She thought it the better part of discretion not to ask Dean… at least not yet. She’d wait for him to bring it up. If not at least she’d know if it all went south. He’d tell her, surely.
But Dean also had dropped out of sight. He was on leave from his paper, and said to be working on his own book—a new biography of the explorer Wilfred Thesiger. She later ran into him at a diplomatic reception where he was all smiles. He said nothing about their outstanding arrangement but was keen to talk about a startup he’d invested in, something to do with desalination. The Omani—if he really was an Omani—was not around.
As for Emre, there were only rumors. Sightings here and there: Kuwait, Sharm el-Sheik, even Monaco. At least there were sightings. His sudden departure had been strange but not entirely out of character, at least what she knew of it, which was considerable. Still, their communication had always been rather open, even honest. This time it was different. It was… the word she was looking for… illogical.
She moved back to her favorite subjects. In Istanbul writing a story about Iranian expat artists, and collaborating on a photo book about the Syrian refugees who had taken over Tarlabaşı and other historic slums. One day, leaving her hotel for a morning’s run of interviews, she heard her name spoken in a familiar accent. In the corner of the lobby he sat on a sofa, reading a newspaper, left leg dangling over his right. He looked a bit worse for wear but the clothes and manner did not.
Emre walked over, brought her hand to his face and kissed the outer bend of her wrist. “Long time, my dear, I know. Do forgive.”
“You. Do tell—”
“A long story, certainly. There is time enough for that. And you? How are you?”
“I’m fine, Emre, and it isn’t like we’re not used to your disappearances from time to time. But this one was different, yes? And Dean—“
Emre gave a dismissive waving motion of his hand, and rolled his eyes a bit. “Don’t worry about that. It was nothing.”
“What was nothing? You do know he asked me to put my job on the line because you were in some kind of mortal danger. Well?”
“Really, my dear, just the usual business. You know Dean and his enthusiasms. I was fine. I am fine. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of much help on your pipeline story or on any of the rest, but you see, it all worked itself out. Worked out for the best, I should think. Look. I have a present for you.” He gave her a small wrapped book. “Open it, please.”
“A first edition of the Madariaga essay you were going on about. Well thank you, Emre… So?”
“So my dear, I am not stopping, I’m afraid. I just wanted to see you, and to see you looking so well. We shall see each other again in Washington, soon, I am sure. Take good care, my dear.” He reached for her wrist again but she held it back and then, for no conscious reason, she hugged him. He did not flinch or tighten at all. But it was done in a few seconds. Then he disappeared into a waiting car.
That night she thumbed through her small present. The essay was better than she had thought it would be. It really wasn’t bad. But she remained unconvinced. These characters. How did they get the way he says they are? Will they always be so? She remembered another saying: Persians look to the past, Turks to the future; both set on humiliating the Arabs, who, perpetually, carry on holding the cards. Madariaga had toyed with such contrasts. He has written for example that the “Englishman thinks while acting, the Spaniard while speaking”; that “Spanish thought is rich in genius but poor in talent”; and that “frankness is the quality of the Frenchman as straightforwardness is that of the Englishman. Frankness declares its actions. Straightforwardness endeavours to keep them on the right road…. the Frenchman foresees because he mistrusts life; the Englishman refuses to foresee because he mistrusts thought.”
This wasn’t all bunk but nowadays every other European you meet presents a kind of cultural amalgam. Were people that different in the early twentieth century? Madariaga granted the caveat only toward the end: “All human types contain simultaneously the man of action, the man of thought, and the man of passion… The unity of the human race rests on this obvious fact. But it is no less obvious that in certain men one or other of these tendencies predominates…”
She wasn’t so sure about that in her adopted part of the world. Arabic, Farsi and Turkish are very different languages. They aren’t even in the same family. But how many words they have in common! How many references, habits, foods, climates, garden styles, beliefs, ethics, aesthetics, morals, standards, tastes, histories and of course psychologies—the great “combination of qualities and defects” that define who we are and choose to be. They are at once insiders and outsiders, defenders and invaders. They mix and repel like an incestuous, multidimensional magnet. They really are impossible to disentangle, or compare. Yet they persist in being one another’s political foils. And in always seeking mastery of one kind or another.
The more she thought about that, the more she realized how much easier it made things for most of us.
Adam Turner is a writer living in Geneva.