I’ve never before visited the USA. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve had it come to me. Its approach has been unstoppable, for good and for ill. For good first: the incredible achievement of American prose, which leaves British writing of the last century far behind. I am astounded by Faulkner, Bellow, Updike and Roth (when they’re good), Cheever, Scott Fitzgerald, and now Joshua Ferris. Formulaic Hollywood switches me off, but I can’t get enough Spike Lee or Martin Scorcese. I love Bob Dylan, Public Enemy and Miles Davis, just for starters. Jazz and particularly hip hop are American art forms which have travelled very well indeed. These two came originally from the black poor, and it’s the heterogeneity of America, and the possibility of marginalised genres and people being heard, which is so appealing. America is a continent-sized country of mixed-up Africans, Jews, Italians, Irish, Latinos, French, Wasps, and everyone else. It should be the most globally-minded and tolerant country in the world.
It isn’t of course. A narrow hyper-nationalism, the shaping of public discourse by corporations and lobbies, and a stupifying media and public education system have seen to that. Which brings us to the ill: America’s homogenising rage, which has ravaged first its own main streets (so Naomi Klein says in No Logo) and then the high streets of the world; its humourless TV gum; its advertising culture of false smiles and sugary platitudes; its racism, wars, military bases, aircraft carriers, support for dictators and apartheid regimes. These are the reasons why the US is known in some parts as the Great Satan, standing behind most of the little satans sitting on Asian and African thrones. In Muscat, Damascus, Shiraz and London I’ve met many people who have been made refugees by the USA.
America is the empire, admittedly in decline. In one sense, therefore, I haven’t needed to visit to know it. But last week I visited nevertheless, for a conference at Notre Dame University which I enjoyed very much.
I’d heard enough stories to make me fear entering the country, from the comic (the seven-year-old Pakistani boy held for days because he shared a name with an alleged al-Qa’ida terrorist) to the tragic (the Canadian Maher Arar who disappeared for ten months after flying through New York – he was sent to Syria and tortured there) via the infuriating (a French Palestinian woman, the sister of a friend of mine, whose laptop was confiscated in a US airport and never returned – she was doing a PhD on Zionism). A few years ago Notre Dame university invited the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan to teach, but he was turned back at the border. Yet I, armed with my invitation letter, had no problem at all. In Amsterdam’s Schipol airport, where I was in transit from Glasgow, every non-American boarding the Detroit flight was given a ten-minute interview. I wonder if any terrorist atrocity has ever been prevented by hassling the already-hassled in airports, but I wasn’t singled out here so I didn’t take it personally. I’ve experienced much worse in Scotland’s Prestwick airport, and on the Russia-Finland border (and of course when entering Palestine).
On the plane a safety film played. A grinning woman wagged an extended finger: “Smoking is not allowed!” We were served kids’ food: pizza and ice cream. A man in front of me was watching a comedy on his seat back screen and laughing like a chicken. I filled in the immigration form. Are you now or have you ever been involved in terrorism … or genocide? So Pentagon officials and Israeli politicians are denied entry, therefore? Or are only Islamist terrorists expected to be stupid enough to tick yes? In Detroit we were subjected to a propaganda film as we waited in line: happy, multiracial, go-getting America. A Hollywood-style statement of purpose was pasted to each immigration officer’s booth: We are America’s first line of defence.. We are committed to protecting the homeland. Another sign informed us: risk of terror attack today: high. My iris was scanned and finger and thumb prints taken. A genuine smile from the black lady controlling the machines, and that was it. Detroit airport was more comfortable than any European airport, with chairs you could sleep in and interesting art works. I ate a giant beefburger and failed to find a bookshop. Then a small plane to South Bend, Indiana. In this airport a voice on the PA reminded us to be scared. Displayed on a board at arrivals were photos of local men and women ‘serving’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My cousins picked me up. I’d discovered they were in Indiana a week before I travelled. If I’d known earlier I’d have arranged to stay longer (I should have done so anyway, to go to Chicago at least). These are cousins I’d last seen in Britain 20 years ago. The only balanced character in my novel is called Muntaha, and I named her after Muntaha Yassin-Kassab. They aren’t at all the same character, but the real Muntaha is a fine example of a committed Muslim, and she taught me to read and write Arabic. Now she and her husband and brother, and their families, live in Indianapolis, birthplace of Kurt Vonnegut, and they live in some style, in big houses, with big cars. They are Americans now, and doctors, and are grateful for the lives they’ve built there. They like the fact that most Americans take religion seriously, and they find most of their compatriots cheerful and open-minded. I spent a lovely day with my family before returning north to South Bend.
It isn’t only Muntaha’s house that’s large; everything I saw from the car was supersized: the people like another species (tall as well as fat), the vehicles, the wide streets, the buildings. The country it most reminded me of is Saudi Arabia, a similarly spacious land, and one built on an American model. There are as many churches as there are mosques in Saudia, and just as Saudi mosques often don’t look like mosques (because Wahhabis don’t like decoration), these churches are bungalows or warehouses. You know they are churches by the written signs. But America flies far more flags than Saudi Arabia or any other country I’ve visited, more flags than pictures of the president in Syria. Flags not just on official buildings but on half the family homes.
Also from the car window I saw signs advertising Amish cheese and butter. A friend of mine who knows says the real Amish don’t advertise, but they are nearby, and if I’d had time I would have sought them out.
I was lucky enough to meet Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada and author of an important book on the one-state solution for Israel-Palestine, which I responded to here. Ali is as intelligent and humane in person as he is in his writing.
And I met a lot of interesting invitees to the conference, mainly French-speaking North Africans, including Laila Lalami, whose Secret Son is an engaging story and an honest commentary on class, language and regional divisions in Morocco, and Selim Bachi, whose Silence of Muhammad will be published in English soon. I watched Ismail Ferroukhi’s excellent film Le Grand Voyage for the second time, but this time in Ismail’s presence. I was most impressed by the Tunisian philosopher Youssef Seddik, who has written provocatively on the Qur’an, amongst other things. One of his books is titled “On n’a Jamais Lu le Qur’an” – “We’ve Never Read the Qur’an” – and he made the point again at Notre Dame, that the Qur’an is a book much more often recited than ‘read’ in the fullest sense of the word, that we have done the Qur’an a great disservice by allowing its meanings to be fixed by clerics and the classical commentators. Sadly, Seddik’s books have not been translated into English (if anybody knows where any of his talks or articles are translated, please let me know). He was kind enough to give me a book as a present, and I’m struggling through it now, though my French isn’t good enough these days.
Si Youssef opened his talk by saying how happy he was, despite the political problems, to be able to address Americans, who he thinks of as small children hungry for knowledge. His words were not fully translated, perhaps because the translator found them patronising. But I understood them as complimentary. Americans have a friendliness (it sometimes jars, sometimes seems likes the false compromise of a public realm which is not at ease with itself – but is this my unAmerican bad humour?) and a genuine curiosity which is missing in Europe. Here in the Old World the problem is cynicism and apathy. In America the problem is ignorance, or the false information which dominates the airwaves. America’s potential is perhaps greater than Europe’s, therefore. If the tens of channels of vapidity I flicked through in one spare hotel hour were replaced with real information, America could really be a force for good.
At the end I took a taxi back to the airport. The driver had to stop to pick up another passenger. As we approached the house I groaned inwardly, for the house flew a flag. Another bloody flag. But as we approached, I saw this flag was a little different. The stripes were in place, but the stars were substituted by the disarmament symbol. It was a symbolic finish to the trip. I’d like to return and learn much more.