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Alia Al Hazami: The curious case of the one-narrative
July 18, 2016
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As a people grow up, the books and stories they read as children heavily impact them. Children’s minds get moulded by what they are exposed to in their earlier years. This was the case for writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. However, as she grew up, she realised there is more to literature than Western stories. In 2009, Adichie gave a TEDx talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”. In her talk, Adichie discussed the way in which people usually associate a culture with what they read about it. Sadly, non-Western cultures are described in such a one-sided manner.

For instance, in our case, Arabs are depicted as barbaric camel-riding mammals. This has been the case for so long, that most books and Hollywood adaptions only portray Arabs in that way. As Adichie stated, “Show people as one thing over and over again, and that’s what they become.” When stories of a specific culture are continuously written in one dimension, people tend to believe that there is nothing more to them than what they read.

Just like Adichie, as a child, I grew up reading American and British stories, which later on impacted my writing. I wrote about blonde girls with blue eyes, attributes that I clearly do not have. As I grew older, and read more and more books, I realised I did not write about people who resembled me because there was limited Emirati literature written in English available. It is interesting to see how abundant and versatile Western literature is, whereas our own culture gets categorised in a single group.

However, even though we are on the other side of the spectrum, that does not mean we are innocent in the game of stereotyping. Western literature usually depicts Arabs in a singular way that makes people believe we are the exact same way we are written about. Therefore, we should be aware of the words used to describe each race or ethnicity, as the way they are being represented could become our view of them without even realising it. Adichie herself exposed the dangers of stereotyping where she confessed that when she moved to the States, she believed the image perceived of Mexicans. Adichie bought into the stereotypes and wondered every time she saw a Mexican if s/he was an illegal immigrant. She further explained, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Yes, Arabs’ pasts are of living in deserts and using camels for transportation and nutritional purposes. However, that cannot be said for modern day Arabs. Even though we are heavily attached to our heritage and past, there is more to us than depicted. We have turned our muddy houses into skyscrapers, and our camels into Lamborghinis. We have managed to become leaders in the economic and development sector, where countries from the West look up at our achievements and aim to achieve them. There is a huge level of advancement acquired by Arabs that simply does not get credited for.

Adichie’s talk is a simple example of how this one-narrative has become a dangerous story everyone believes, where it is not remotely true in the cases of several identities. It is quite uneducated to make such assumptions, especially since in our modern day, several outlets such as the printing press and the Internet offer ways to understand cultures in depth. Nonetheless, even with the availability of such outlets, people seem to neglect the need to change their understanding of cultures.

That behaviour could be linked to superiority. Western countries were made to believe that they are the best. The West is so absorbed in showcasing its brilliance and prosperity, to the point where it is willing to step on achievements presented by others. Unfortunately, other cultures are denied their success, as the spotlight is focused on the West. There is no denying the sheer genius of Shakespeare, but who’s to say that people named Salem or Maitha cannot reach his level one day?

I understand that ridding the mind of misconceptions is a long process, and demolishing stereotypes is a lengthy journey. Nonetheless, I believe that people get more educated as days go by. Therefore, I ask you, my kind readers, to write your own stories using your own identities instead of borrowing stories from cultures that are not our own. It is vital to represent our culture to other cultures, whether by writing about it in English, or even translating Arabic works; the means are unlimited. Moreover, I urge you to seek different perspectives instead of believing a single narrative. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting to it. Thus, since the world is slowly beginning to realise the prominence of misconceptions, there is hope that stereotyping would decrease at an accelerating rate.

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The writer is the author of “Alatash,” a columnist, and an
International Studies and English Literature student at AUS

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