Remember that Robert De Nero film when he said those words? I think it was Taxi Driver, and believe me; you wouldn’t want to be the one talking to him. You probably have enough troubles without getting a crazed animal on your ass.
Is it just my imagination, or do people in the Middle East get pissed off easily? Do you think that some of them, at least, get up in the morning wondering where the next insult will come from? And once they lose their cool, they don’t forget so easily, do they? And it’s not a religious thing, either. Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle East all seem to be afflicted with the same malady. Maybe it’s a tribal thing? Who knows?
I remember getting married some thirty-three years ago. We were married on the Champs Elysees in Paris, my wife having grown up there. We invited family from all over the world, and a lot of them actually showed up. But of special concern to us were my two uncles, on my father’s side, who hadn’t spoken to one another for some twenty-five years. How would they get along at the wedding, we wondered. Would they even come?
Well, both ended up coming, and we assigned them to be the two witnesses to sign the Ketubbah, which is the marriage contract in the Jewish tradition. God forbid you give one an honor, and not the other. But would they speak to one another after all those years of silence?
My fiancé and I came up with a strategy. We would spend a day with each one separately, showing each some of the sights of gay Paris. We asked one, “Tell me uncle, what was the fight with your brother all about?” He didn’t seem to remember. We asked the other. Same response. Hmm. Twenty-five years of not talking to one another, and no one remembers why? Interesting.
The day of the wedding, believe it or not, everything went well. The two brothers signed the Ketubba, and that seemed to break the ice. They chatted away, and stayed close ever since, until they passed on.
I’ve often wondered about the psyche of the Middle East. Could it be that people there are particularly sensitive, and prone to bear a grudge? And what are the implications for peace if this is so?
If I had to guess, I would say that there is a strain of ultra-sensitivity in the Middle East. Obviously, not in everyone, but the tendency is still there as part of the regional culture. Many Middle Easterners are very proud of their cultural and religious heritage. But the flip side of pride is extreme sensitivity, and a tendency to hold a grudge.
Do you have a father, or a family member, that has to be spoken to in just the right way? And if you miscalculate your wording, do you begin to feel the heat just as the words slip off you tongue? And do you sense that your faux pas will not soon be forgotten?
Why is any of this important? A sense of honor is important, but a craving for honor could easily bring dishonor. Honor killing is an extreme example. Honor killing brings dishonor to the family, even as the family strives to protect its honor. A sense of pride is important, but too much pride can shut one off from criticism, and can induce long term hatreds due to perceived insults. And like an elephant, one never seems to be able to forget, or to move on.
The business of peace in the Middle East will not be clean or comfortable. People abused by the scars of history will hurl insults at one another, to give expression to their collective sense of grief and injustice. How we react in light of those emotions will make all the difference in the world as to our success in brokering a peace.
It is natural for people to be emotional. And emotions run particularly high in the Middle East, and for good reason. But it may be time to cool the emotions, even if only a tad. It may be time to go about the business of peace with a cool, calculating, collected mind, one bent on strength of purpose, instead of emotional release.
We may well have to swallow our pride, to create a reality that we can really be proud of. If that means shelving our emotions for a while, so be it. If that means bringing some flexibility to our sense of honor, well that’s how it goes. If that means giving up a piece of ourselves in the process, c’est la vie. We will have to be big enough and wise enough to admit that it’s not just about us, but about those who will come after us. We will have to step out of who we are, to become something more than we ever were, or could ever imagine.