In Defence of Open-Mindedness

In Defence of Open-Mindedness

Last week, we stayed in a lovely B&B in a medieval town called Dürnstein in Lower Austria. The people were wonderful, the food delicious, the wine even better but the weather… Meh. It could have been better, especially considering that my winter and cold-weather wardrobe depends significantly on my one pair of jeans, a few summer jerseys, a summer hoodie and my ski jacket (which I use purely for warmth and NOT for skiing, not being a skier).

I tell you this no because you are terribly interested in my limited winter gear, but to set the scene for what was supposed to be cycling and walking break and what turned out to be a break that required what our host called a “bad weather programme”, and what I shall refer to as our “cultural programme” henceforth.

One of the cultural offerings in the surrounding area was at a lovely castle called Schloss Schallaburg, which is apparently one of the best-known Renaissance-style castles in Austria. The building itself is beautiful, dating back 900 years, with wonderful nooks and crannies, formal gardens and squares, with a history that includes a period as a Lutheran school. Since 1974, they have had an annual exhibition, and this year, the exhibition is on a subject that seems to cause feelings to run high – Islam.

Why do I say that an exhibition on Islam causes feelings to run high? Partly because of our host’s reaction when we told him we planned to visit the castle. “Oh” he said, “We usually go to every exhibition, but we have no interest in Islam and few of our guests do, either. It’s probably not worth going this year.”
Both m! and I were taken aback. Islam is a vast subject with a long history, and people who follow the faith are scattered across a wide variety of countries, all with different values and cultures. How was it possible that Islam was of no interest?

When our host inquired, with some distaste on his face, about our visit, he seemed to be unwilling or unable to believe that the exhibition was interesting. Obviously, because some fanatics have chosen to interpret the Quran in a way that leads to death, destruction and war, the whole of Islam has been consigned to the garbage heap of “interesting information”. Clearly, there is no point is trying to understand where Islam and Christianity and Judaism meet, where they branch off, and what might have led to the current state of affairs of terrorist attacks and IS.
I found this disinterest and distaste sad, because Islam isn’t so much about a religion for me, but about people and their values and what they hold dear. Understanding more is the key to better relations. Ignorance is dangerous. What I found interesting about the reaction of our host was the fact that in his part of the world – a very beautiful part of Austria – he is unlikely to come across many followers of Islam. All the locals we met were very white, very Christian (and largely Catholic) and very opinionated about Muslims. All the visitors we saw were very white, very European or American or Austrian, and I can’t say I know much about their opinions on Muslims. In a week, the closest I came to seeing people of colour or diversity was a Chinese couple and a couple of wine farmers who had probably spent decades in the sun and turned their faces to a lightly tanned leather…

Are the opinions I heard the result of research and an active attempt to become informed about people who follow Islam? Or are the they result of scare-mongering stories?

I have a suspicion that it might be the latter, which has prompted me to release a month of tales from Islamic sources over in my Ziyadliwa Instagram and Facebook pages. The tales I’ll share are a mix of wisdom, folk and fairy tales, from across the Islamic world, and include tales of saints and sinners, tricksters and wiley women. I’m unlikely to enlighten people who prefer to stay in the dark, but perhaps a few will make people realise that stories from Islamic sources have a great deal of wisdom, humour and worth. Perhaps that means that the people who have told these stories orally for hundreds of years have the same attributes, and perhaps it’s worth setting aside stereotypes and judgements and taking time to learn more.


Literacy first, please

Literacy first, please

I’m a big supporter of literacy projects, whatever the language, and whilst oral storytelling imparts a number of literacy skills, the ability to actually read is fundamental, and often something that readers take for granted.

With literacy in mind, I thought I’d share something that I read on the BBC today, a story about a woman named Florence Cheptoo who lives in an isolated rural village near Chesongoch, in Kenya. As a child – especially a girl-child living in a rural location – education wasn’t considered particularly important, which meant that at the age of 60, Mrs Cheptoo had managed to raise a family, run a subsistence farm and be a contributing part of the “global village”, all without being able to read.

This all changed when, at the age of 60, her granddaughter brought home books from her school’s lending library, and Mrs Cheptoo realised that she couldn’t help her read. Teachers began adult literacy programmes, and for the first time in her life, Mrs Cheptoo can do things that many of us take for granted, like:

  • Learn more about the medicine she takes
  • Read newspaper headlines and find out about the world beyond her village
  • Read maps
  • Sign contracts with her own name
  • See if she was being cheated in written contracts, or with payments
  • Read the Bible and read storybooks for the first time
  • Read her grandchildren’s school reports

Reading about what this woman has done in her life without being able to read, and what she has the potential to do now that she can, is something that’s both inspiring and re-affirming.

In some parts of the world, we seem to have gone straight from no education or limited formal education, resulting in people who can live happy lives, but who can’t read, which means that they miss out on many of the benefits of self-learning that reading brings – being able to read about whether your politician is a corrupt so-and-so, for example, of whether your child is lying about the contents of a teacher’s letter.

On some level I can’t help but wonder whether the technological revolution is all a bit useless in places where people don’t have the ability to read.

Perhaps, along with all the technology exports we also need to think about how to bring reading skills to the masses. Because it’s tough to navigate Google or buy something online or take an online course if you’re not sure how to read or write – a shame for people wanting to take part in the consumer market, and possibly devastating for the people and companies investing in commercial and altruistic products and who want to reach the vast markets in areas where literacy hasn’t previously been valued.