Khaled Hroub
Mernissi: The Sindbad of Fes travels against the Cowboy

Khaled Hroub writes:


Mernissi: The Sindbad of Fes travels against the Cowboy

Fatema Mernissi and Khaled Hroub in Granada, 2006
Fatema Mernissi and Khaled Hroub in Granada, 2006

In memory of the writer, sociologist and novelist Fatema Mernissi who died on 30 November 2015 – a great friend with a joyful and roving spirit that kept travelling but never left us

‘Who is the winner in globalisation, Sindbad the Sailor or The Cowboy? Such was Fatema Mernissi’s question and title of her talk that rainy Frankfurtian evening back in October, 2004. By then, debates on and around globalisation had reached the boredom phase. Thoughts and perspectives on globalisation were overwhelmed by repetition. Fresh insights into any understanding of the intensification of human globality in time, place and activities came rarely. Personally and around that time, I was badly hit by the same boredom with the subject. Immersed in heaps of literature on globalisation, I was researching a book that never saw light on globalisation and Arab intellectuals. Then, I thought that I had come across everything ever said or written about globalisation in Arabic, English or French, and in particular by Arab writers. Therefore, Mirnissi’s inclusion of ‘Sindbad’ in a discussion about globalisation took me off guard. Where, why and how could this fictional sailor of 11th century Baghdad featured in the legendary book One Thousand and One Nights relate to the globalisation of modern times?

Projecting Sindbad ten centuries foreward and entwining him metaphorically against the cowboy in a discussion on globalisation seemed no less fictionally fantastical. It would require a spell of magic, an exceptional discerning of the present and solid grasp of the past - a set of intellectual skills that Mernissi had always mastered. I sat next to Fatema on the stage at the Debate Corner of Frankfurt Book fair that year, eagerly waiting to listen to Fatema and her Sindbad. The question of Sindbad vs the Cowboy opened endless thoughts for me to ponder. It also opened a boundless journey of magnificent friendship between Fatema and myself that endured until her sad departure.

My friendship with Fatema took us on a journey that kept unfolding in time, space and occasions forming lasting snapshots in my memory: This one is Asturias in the Spanish north where Fatema transported us to explore Ibn Hazm and his splendid thoughts on the limitless faces of love; Amsterdam, where we accompanied Fatema to receive her Erasmus award; Al-Muharrq in Bahrain, where we followed Fatema through the enchanting alleys of the ancient neighbourhood, searching the history of Dilmun. This one is Seville, where we sat on an old Andalusian rug channeling Averroes debating contemplations and hermeneutics with his disciples. Yet another one is the Harhoura seafront near Rabat where Fatema used to rent a small house overlooking the Atlantic, and invite us to watch the sunset while listening to the prose and memoirs of the Moroccan poet and long-life political prisoner Abed Al-Latif al-Lu’bi. And, the snapshot that is Frankfurt, where it all started with me, witnessing Fatema running a race between Sindbad and the Cowboy.

Over the past two decades or so, whenever Fatema ran into me she’d ask jokingly if I was still Sindbadized and about my next destination. I’d avoid answering and distract her by asking back about her latest necklaces. She’d fondle whatever necklace she wore and release her distinctive laugh. Fatema’s style of colorful dresses, with all those chattering bracelets and chains along with peculiar headgears presented a mini festival or exhibit on the move. At our last meeting in Rabat, almost a year before her death, she led me to some of the poorest, neglected and most populated neighbourhoods where she was taking notes, interviewing people of all ages and backgrounds. So absorbed was she in her chats with these bare-foot old women or scruffy boys and street traders, she looked like a fresh university graduate conducting her first field research. During that visit, I encouraged her to accept the invitation by Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar to give a keynote speech at a conference on Islamic Art in November 2015. She apologized and declined because of her busy schedule, which was such a true loss for the many people who would have heard her in Doha.

Fatema Mernissi is a faithful contemporary example of her own metaphor, Sindbad. The sailor, who never rested on land or sea, trans-illuminated his soul in Fatema’s spirit and way of life. A transcendent and constant traveller, Fatema's spirit remains roving around in our present, defying total death. Fatema’s sudden yet incomplete departure is a reminder of one desperate human victory against death. Death, now and then, fails to take the loved ones totally and entirely. Their Sindbadian spirit stays alive, refusing to leave. My following remarks are meant to honour such a spirit and the lasting hold of Fatema’s presence. And, to rekindle some little thoughts inspired by that insightful metaphor of her global race between Sindbad and the Cowboy.

* * *

One of the contradictions of the ‘globalization’ of the present day is the fact that everything is not universally globalized. Globalization is in fact selectively globalized in direction and movement of people. The depth of globalization is contingent on the depth and breadth of wealth. Here, the poor and their ideas are particularly not warmly welcomed. Globalization has indeed offered unprecedented capacities for human communication, movement and intensification of time. Yet, these offerings are mostly the privileges of those who have. Global flows are determined in certain directions, namely with a North-to-South pointing compass. People and goods can travel easily in this direction, for business or tourism. The inverse South-to-North movement for work, immigration or sometimes tourism is almost decidedly blocked. This globalization, therefore, does not dismantle all barriers, only ones in prescribed directions, but leaves many others. Even so, this is a globalization that privileges the rich among us to travel over any of these barriers, be they opened or kept intact. It is a money-driven globalization, obsessed with accumulation of wealth and hooked by conquering new markets.

The aggressive movement of ‘money globalization’ and maximization is challenged by the movement in another form of globalization – a more human one. The latter exists, perhaps, as a sideshow next to the mighty thrust of the former, but resolutely expands the spaces that it occupies. Humane globalization is the manifestation of the good side inside us humans, our instinct to care about each other and our inner yearning for justice. This is the league of universal good, enshrined from universal shared values, experiences and aspirations. Human rights groups, trans-border organisations siding with the underdog, anti-oppression and anti-brutal capitalism activists, anti-despotism and all advocates of all freedoms are members and leaders of this humane globalization.

How do the above issues relate to Fatema’s work and ideas? We contemplate where and how Fatema is seen within this debate over globalization. Fatema had indeed jumped into the heart of the globalization debate, early on, enthusiast and capable. As an eagle-eyed observer, Fatema excelled in capturing overlooked details; spotting them, bringing them to light then integrating them into the bigger picture. If many of us overlook details, scattered events, disconnected processes or dotted news, Fatema stops by them, examines their significance, pausing long and deep. Exploring what’s new and rejuvenated in neglected areas, she rotates the angles of looking at things, and reveals a continuous newness in them, compelling us to broaden our sights, and go back to what we have long ignored. On globalisation, Fatema followed the pace of history and framed out the debate between brutal and human globalizations in her own way: in a race between the Sindbad and the Cowboy. She travels back and forth between the present and the past, tying up and knitting together her stories and discoveries, then transferring them into the spotlight. Such was Fatema’s approach with other ideas and research, a combination of brave encounter, curiosity of details and historical contextualization of the given issue or locality. 

Scheherazade Goes West by Fatema MernissiWith this approach she examined the endless questions of Moroccan and Arab women, as well as cultures of patriarchy that she herself lived in and witnessed. Perhaps other Arab writers had preceded Fatema in observing some of what she observed and wrote about. Yet, they lacked the courage to break into ‘scandalous taboos’, and opted for the false warmth of collective apology. It is never easy to publicly expose the ills and disgraces of one’s own society in times of weakness and failure. This is what distinguished Fatema in her famous book Are You Protected Against Women, challenging masculine dominance in the East, and seeking to free the Harem. If the masculine mind in the West was temporarily saved from a similar exposure in that book, a following one Scheherazade Goes West directly steered the brunt against that Western masculine mind, championing the freedom of the Western Harem. These two books combined dragged all patriarchal and masculine established patterns of society out into the open, from the East and the West. All was thrown out under the sun, naked and shamed. How did she accomplish the double intellectual exercise of advocating the liberation of liberation the Harem in both the East and the West?

For Fatema, as she explained in the first of these two exciting books, woman in the East is imprisoned within the bounds of physical space, whereas woman in the West is imprisoned within the shrinking limits of time/age. Arabian Khadija starts weak, dominated and kept. Her male guardian rules over her, claiming to protect her in a well-demarcated space, fearing that her beauty and youth will lead her and others lured by her astray to the path of lust. As her beauty and youth fade gradually, turning first into a mother and then a grandmother, Khadija becomes strong, liberated and elevated in society. Revered and loved, she occupies the heart of familial circles and authority. Khadija starts her life enslaved because of beauty, youth and space, but ends up liberated and bestowed with wisdom and status.

By contrast in time and story, beauty and youth of Western Lisa brings her liberation, joy and self-esteem. Lisa starts strong, liberated and elevated. But in fact, Lisa is, like Khadija, imprisoned within the bounds of fading beauty, yet in time not space. Lisa is pressured to ‘use’ the time of beauty and youth for the advancement of herself before these depleting treasures fade away. Once beauty and youth are vanished, Lisa starts to slip into oblivion and keeps slipping further as she ages. Lisa begins her journey liberated and crowned, then gradually loses splendor as she enters the ruthless folds of time and age. She ends up weak, dominated and kept – where Khadija started. Siding by Khadija and Lisa and rallying for their emancipation, Fatema attacked both notions of Harem, the Harem of space and the Harem of time. It is Fatema’s Sindbadian spirit that takes her (and us) over and above space and time, and with her she rescues the Khadijas and Lisas. That was part of Fatema’s exploration and excavation into forms and geographies of feminism. But what about her venturing into globalization, the main point of these remarks?

Again, it is Sindbad that took Fatema travelling into the worlds and histories of globalization. Sailing besides him in all directions and Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissitimes she landed among us in that Frankfurtian evening to tell us that today’s globalization belongs to the Cowboy, and this globalization is indeed not only undesirable but also dangerous. But what on earth did Sindbad have to do with globalization? My smug over-confidence lasted less than fifteen minutes - the time that it took for Fatema to give her presentation. It was as if she had unleashed in my face her Sindbad who was now laughing out loud over all that I thought I knew about globalization.

At first glance, the title seemed strange and somewhat disharmonious with the subject matter: a mythical traveller from the ancient past brought into life, and combined with no less a metaphorical character – the Cowboy; both to be imposed on a serious talk about present day globalization? The strangeness of the two characters was immediately deconstructed, then a powerful new metaphor was offered: Today’s globalization, the Cowboy’s, is the unstoppable and restless capital that keeps roaming around the world chasing money and profit. The globalization of Sindbad is the universal journey that travels the world in all directions, for the sake of travel, knowledge and joy. The former is heartless and led by multi-national companies, and trans-border corporations, obsessed with copyrights and continuously escaping egalitarian duties and sharing. The latter, while seeming innocent and naïve, cares less about money, tax or claiming intellectual property rights or even borders. Fatema, who back then was concerned with the growing universal talk about East-West and inter-cultural dialogue, conditioned the success of any such dialogue on the existence of a level playing field. No serious outcome could be concluded if a broken East sits across to talk with an arrogant West. Instead, a human and shared communicational ground, that eliminates prejudiced positions and hierarchies, should be the starting point. One way of creating this common ground observed in Fatema’s work, would be to break into the bounds of time, intensify it, release our imagination to travel in all directions, including into the past. On her own journey, Fatema identifies literature and travel as the beating heart of the globalization of the East in ancient times. These are the missing components of the agressive and violent capitalist globalization of our present day.

Fatema’s Sindbad travels eternally and … gently! He races with nobody. He stops at destinations, wanders around, talks to people, learns hidden wisdoms, then either stays longer or continues travelling. At one of his mystic Sufi stops Sindbad meets Fatema, incarnating his passion for learning, travel and wonder in her spirit. He conveys to her some golden words coined by the 9th century great Syrian poet Abu Tammam: ‘travel to be renewed’. Fatema embraces these words and adds to them the commandment of the 11th century Iraqi/Egyptian poet Ibn Wakee’ Al-Tanisi: ‘Travel for there are five rewards in voyaging: refreshing of the soul; pursuit of means of living; acquiring knowledge; gaining literature; and enjoying the company of noble men.’ This is the essence of a fleeting Sindbadian globalization that Fatema belonged to, admired and promoted. We can read much in this. Travelling in a Sindbadian spirit is a circular move that goes on without a destination – a global Sufi dance. The treasure of travel is knowledge. Perhaps with or without knowing Sindbad’s tale, the great Mughulian emperor Humayun of 16th century India, was a great universal Sindbadian. Embedded with his ancestors’ lust for travel, he used to take his books with him wherever he travelled, because he believed that one takes their most precious treasure with them in travelling. No less great Sindbad was Adelard of Bath, who left the comfort of his family and English city in early 12th century onto a magnificent Eastward knowledge-seeking journey. Years passed on with Adelard travelling across Europe, the Mediterranean and the Arab region; paving the way for his return to England as a pioneer of intellect and science combining Greek, Hindu and Arab knowledge.

This Sindbadian globalization stands at odds with that of the globalization of the Cowboy, as Fatema juxtaposes. The Cowboy for her is a traveller as well, yet he is obsessed with occupying territory and claiming its ownership. His concern is to solidify what he occupies, erect fences and defenses, and point his guns at whoever approaches his newly claimed and occupied territory. If the Sindbad is the eternal traveller, the Cowboy is the eternal owner. The Sindbad owns the means in order to be able to travel, the Cowboy travels in order to be able to own. The Sindbadian pursuit transcends being acquainted with new geographies, it runs further and deeper. It is more about discovery and knowledge, acquainting with the ‘stranger’ and knowing the ‘unknown’ than anything else. Fatema’s Sindbadian spirit and wonderful travels take her to Jahiz, a fascinating thinker and writer from 9th century Basra in Southern Iraq. She spots Jahiz’s advice to the Abbasid caliph that ‘literature is the mind of the other added to your mind’. Fatema is enthralled by Jahiz’s view of the ‘stranger’ as a source of knowledge, and considered it a novel paradigm that breaks away from the dominant xenophobia of the present time. Today, the ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’ is reduced to being a source of threat and suspicion. The Sindbadian/Mernissied view of the foreigner establishes him or her and their knowledge as a continuation of self-knowledge itself. The ‘stranger’ is a floating part of the self that should be sought after and found in order to meet up and realize self-completion. The Sindbadian globalization is a journey of mutual travelling undertaken by the self and the other, full of suspense and anticipation, culminated by reunion and enriching each other’s knowledge. The fascinating aspect of this journey is that it never ends. All remains open, mysterious, pursuable and imagined. There is this pleasurable Sufi feeling in understanding the stranger as part of one’s own incomplete self; a self with an uncontrolled urge to venture into the unknown seeking, but never realizing, perfection. This is reflected is the wonderful literature of those writer-travellers in the past centuries in Arab and Muslim history, as well as in all other histories. At the top of a long list sits Ibn Batoutah, Ibn Jubair and Ibn Bajillan all roamed the ancient worlds, discovering places and knowledge of ‘strangers’, and enriching their own minds with all of that, and reporting on their discoveries. They moved and travelled, traded and conversed, loved and married the ‘stranger’ … died in the land of the stranger and eventually buried by his/her hands. From very early on, they reported to us that the beauty of the journey lies in its incompletion, in its lacking of a final destination.

All that differs from the globalization and travel of the present day Cowboy that internalizes a junglish and antagonistic view of the stranger. The stranger here is prejudiced either as a source of threat, or a target to threat; a potential enemy or a potential victim. From behind a fortified territory, the Cowboy launches his offences against ‘all strangers’. The ultimate aspiration is to protect the geography that he had occupied and fenced. Whoever dares to approach the fences risks their life for guns and bullets are all mounted and ready to guard the entrenched borders. Once the Cowboy’s fortress is safe and extensively shielded, he comes out cautious and prudent, not so much to discover and explore as to invade and conquer. The relationship with the ‘other’ is not governed by the desire for self-completion but self-elevation.

At the heart of Mernissi’s globalization is her global Sindbad who is essentially a communicator, unlike the global Cowboy who is essentially a dominator. This communicating Sindbad is thirsty for knowledge, literature and exploration; the dominating Cowboy is driven by hegemony, control and profit. While Fatema makes sharp this contrast, she surprises us by throwing out a new idea: a present day Sindbad exists, in fact, in trans-border media broadcasting. This media enjoys most of those characteristics that our ancient and beloved Sindbad used to have: adventurer, transcending borders, reaching out to the other, inter-communicating on an open field and being open up to uncharted futures and limitless possibilities. Zooming into the case of this modern Sindbad across the Arab region, Fatema applauds the impact of pan-Arab TV-broadcasting. She argues that the around the clock media transmission enriches layers of unprecedented communication among and between groups, individuals and societies. This is, as Fatema depicts, a process where Sindbad is reproduced and reborn in a new modern form. Fatema refers to her astonishment during the travels she made across the Moroccan Rif into remote villages where she found illiterate housewives following programs and talk shows on Al-Jazeera, Al-arabiya, Abu-Dhabi TV and others. They knew by heart, Fatema said, names of poets, thinkers and presenters who were based at the other end of the Arab world, and talked about them and the subjects of their programs as if they were friends or family. Fatema admired the investigative aspect of this trans-border media broadcasting, which for the sake of information and knowledge this media travels the world. Presenters of news coverage, reports of field stories, producers of revealing documentaries or even makers of mere touristic shows are seen by Fatema as various shades of a modern Sindbad. As I was listening to Fatema, her words were falling on my ears like pure music since I had for some time been someone who happened to work and appear on Al-Jazeera as a presenter and producer of a book-review talk show. In those days, criticism of Arab broadcasting media never waned; and hearing Fatema’s insights was indeed refreshing balm and reassuring.

The Sindbadian notion that Fatema advocated would surely please those concerned souls that are worried about the march of heartless capitalist globalization at the expense of human and non-materialistic aspirations. It is a notion that undoubtedly obliges support and praise. However, this is the praise of a ‘yes’ that is suffixed with a ‘but’. The caveat that I offer in the remainder of these lines is prompted by my deep respect for the Fatema’s memory, writing and critical mind. In the same spirit of self-completion in knowing and reading others, I attempt to take Fatema’s Sindbadian idea another stretch forward. I make no claim of realizing any completion of any idea, but instead, a declaration of staying on the course of the journey of thinking. But where I pause for a while is at the following: the dichotomy that Fatema paints between an innocent Sindbad of the East, and a wicked Cowboy of the West, leaves some considerable untidy territory in between, across which Westro-centrism is faced by Eastro-centrism. Both extremes should be dismissed and that messy area in between looked at more closely.

The notion of Sindbad and Sindbadian globalization is undoubtedly attractive, in spite of that touch of utopianism attached to it. When encountering ruthless reality such as that of the uncontrolled capitalist globalisation, injecting utopian aspirations can only be an inspiring challenge. If such intrusion fails to help, it remains harmless anyway. What I could see harmful here and needs careful consideration is a fixation of conceptual juxtaposition between a ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ East and ‘tainted’ and ‘evil’ West. Such a simplistic fixation is not only epistemologically false, but could easily and dangerously foment a volatile current Arab/Muslim vs. Western reality, heavily influenced by mutual victimhood convictions and blockade psychologies. Purifying one’s own culture while disparaging the other’s belongs to the infamous thesis that pits civilizations perpetually against one another, and is the very antithesis of Sindbadian voyages of discovery and self-completion.

Also, in the very same East where Sindbad was roaming around the world on the wings of human and cultured globalization, there used to be a Muslim Cowboy too that invaded others, driven by accumulating wealth and controlling foreign domains and countries. Away from historically baseless claims or naiveties about Eastern innocence, long centuries and decades witnessed episodes of Arab and Islamic aggressiveness and imperialism. The Sindbad and the Cowboy are born in fact in every culture. They rival against each other in protracted rounds of fights, in a journey that seems to never have an end. Any triumph of either of them in any of these rounds is proven, always, to be only temporary. Within each culture and civilization these two ‘models’ promote and advocate opposing forms of globalization. That was the story of the past East, as it is now the story of the present West.

Today, the Cowboy and the Sindbad present in the West itself fight against each other, to promote an aggressive globalization or a human-faced one. Removing the Cowboy and the Sindbad from any fixated geographical boundaries, East/West imposed binaries or rigid conceptual theories, is what these thoughts are attempting to suggest. Today, one could say it is in fact a Western globalized Sindbad who leads the most ferocious fight against the cruelties of a Western globalized Cowboy. A long list of universalized Sindbadian agents and bodies, either originally founded in the West or which enjoy non-governmental Western support, are spread around the globe challenging the aggressiveness of the Cowboy. These Sindbadians include anti-racist, ant-capitalist, anti-war and all other anti-dehumanising humans movements; spanning human rights bodies, green and environment organizations, eradication of poverty campaigns and all the way to politically driven groups that advocate justice and freedom for the oppressed and indigenous peoples. All stand against the devastating effects of bulldozering globalization and its cold-blooded Cowboy. Today’s Western Sindbad is the strongest ally to the Eastern Sindbad; they smuggle to each other the knowledge and expertise to fight back a common brutal enemy. It is within and in the shadow of a mighty Cowboyian globalization that a globalized Sindbad has grown and became stronger.

Thus, if those who love and admire the East’s Sindbad condemn the West as a Cowboy characterisation only, ignoring and overlooking aspects of functioning Sindbad in the West, they fall into a prejudiced trap similar to that of the orientalists’ where confining the ‘other’ to a preconceived image is the unmovable norm. The Sindbad and the Cowboy are common in space, time, culture and geography. Not a single culture is purely Sindbadian, not a single culture is purely Cowboyian. The normal practice however, is to spot the Cowboy of the ‘other’ and elevate the Sindbad of the ‘self’; where in fact self-confidence and sincerity are badly needed in acknowledging the opposite: the existence of the sinister Cowboy that roams around the allegedly purified ‘self’.

True courage as well as the righteous start is to begin by resisting the insider Cowboy, before pointing at the outsider. In so doing, a healthier ground is laid for an alliance among all the Sindbads from all corners of the globe, join forces and stand in the face of all Cowboys from all corners of the globe. The enemy for all Sindbads is the combination of violence and savagery, patronizing and exploiting of the other – these are the traits of the Cowboy whenever and wherever he exists. The aspiration of all Sindbads regardless of time and space is to pursue knowledge, harmony, justice and equality – the contrast of the Cowboy traits.

An alliance of inter-cultural Sindbads is to set free waves of spontaneous and un-imposed universal hybridity. These waves bring mutual knowledge and appreciation to dark corners of misunderstanding, stereotypes, prejudices and mis-trust. Here lies the triumph of all those shared noble values that cut across human civilizations, and where the hope for a human future hinges. The irony of the Cowboy globalization that invented dazzling technologies and means is that these very technologies offer gaps and cracks for Sindbads to exploit, mostly in communication. The exploitation of the communicational aspect of globalization allows for a universal Sindbadian counter-attack, expanding areas of shared values and concerns, or in fact occupying the very areas that were conquered by the Cowboy to accumulate wealth and influence. On the very same level of globalization Sindbad and the Cowboy compete to occupy spaces, each for different ends. Most global highways that are paved by a Cowboyed globalization soon become open for public use and benefit, with or without the Cowboy’s consent. It is the ironical condition of globalization that these highways must stay open for public use if the Cowboys wants more money, and where the Sindbads keep travelling on them back and forth fighting for just causes.

At the heart of the globalization of the Cowboy, the Sindbad of Fes, our Fatema, led an uprising that defied and penetrated time, space, cultures and loyalties. She called upon all those Sindbads who shared the same spirit, gathered them to march on and occupy all cracks and uncharted areas of globalization. In those cracks Fatema stood firmly, spreading her arms and legs against the walls forcing the cracks outward for ever more space. Other Sindbads followed her in a universal dance against the narrow gaps, pushing back and creating wider spaces. The continuation of this Sindbadian dance, drumming and hitting against the walls of brutal globalization is part of the great legacy that Fatema left with us.


• This tribute was excerpted in Banipal 55, 2016 No 1, pp212-217.  

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