One Question Interview: Marius Kociejowski

07Oct10

Marius Kociejowski is a poet, essayist and travel writer. He has published multiple volumes of poetry, and travel books such as The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool: A Syrian Journey, and more recently the book that covers the return journey, The Pigeon Wars of Damascus.

Your book The Pigeon Wars of Damascus concerns a trip to Syria, and suggests travel writing shouldn’t be about going to a place, but should be writing that comes out of it.  Is there something North Americans understand the least about the Middle East?

One should not generalise, of course, because there are numerous Arabists in North America who have a keen understanding of the Middle East. I wish I had a fraction of their knowledge. If only the powers that be would consult them a bit more, then we might have been spared the consequences of their many mistakes. What I find alarming on my trips back to Canada is the tenor of many of the newspaper articles which in their interpretation of the Middle East and of Islam in particular are simplistic and crude in the extreme. Only recently the Ottawa Citizen ran a piece in which it was suggested that the pastor who wanted to burn the Qur’an and the imam who wants to build an Islamic centre, which actually is at some distance from the site of the Twin Towers, are of the same ilk. One wishes these columnists would read a bit more or even visit the countries which they discuss with such apparent ease before committing their erroneous and potentially damaging views to the page. What they have done, of course, is feed the fears of the populace. On September 11th 2001 the terrorists not only hijacked planes but also the religious faith that has been such a source of strength for the Arabic people. The hell they inflicted upon others will be nothing as compared to the hell which, according to their own faith, they will have to endure. Those people serve to make Islam unrecognisable even unto themselves. There is a Hadith saying: “The day will come when holding onto one’s faith will be like clutching a piece of burning charcoal.” I wonder if that day has not already come. However, it is not a particularly useful exercise seeking out the darker passages in the Qur’an when equally we might do the same with the Holy Bible. I think what North Americans need to understand isn’t so much the differences as the similarities between cultures, the desire of most people to simply get on with their lives. As soon as people are turned into abstractions, it becomes all that much easier to call them ‘collateral damage.’ Also, North Americans must be wary of striking at Arabic pride. If there is a single passage in my book that serves to underline this view it is when Sulayman remarks, “When an Arab is wounded in his honour or in his dignity he will become harmful. He will consider you his enemy. If you hurt him he’ll be sad for five minutes and then move on, but if you humiliate him he will be in a rage forever.”

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