When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2008, for several months I stayed at a hotel in the downtown Tourist Club area. Returning to my room late after work most nights, usually I fell back on room service and invariably ordered the excellent meze off the menu. That meze, featuring a smooth hummus garnished with tahini, was my first taste of the Middle East and I have never tired of it. Although it is difficult to replicate precisely what is, at its heart, a deceptively simple chickpea dish, occasionally I try and, when I pull it off, the taste transports me back to the UAE. And that, it now seems, is a problem. I am guilty of “cultural appropriation,” one of the many crimes identified by the newly “woke” generation.
If the term “woke” means nothing to you, brace yourself. As surely as the social media phenomenon has been adopted across the world, so the wave of disapproving, self-righteous wokefulness it is facilitating will soon crash heavily upon the shores of the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.
In essence the term “woke” describes a desirable state of mind – being “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice,” in the definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary. This is something we should all aspire to. But woke has evolved to mean far more. Rather than bringing us all together as one big happy human family, as digital optimists once predicted it would, the social media revolution has fueled an epidemic of opinionated yet ill-informed entitlement, in which the hyper-sensitive live for the opportunity to take offense.
Rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and rebooted about five years ago, the word “woke” has been hijacked by these self-appointed moral guardians as a catch-all term to justify taking offense on an industrial scale. The irony – that the adoption of the word ‘woke’ is itself an act of “cultural appropriation” – has passed them by.
Much madness has ensued. Musicians who adopt a sound or look regarded as “belonging” to another culture are censured and forced to apologize and chefs have been hounded for producing fusion dishes. Fashion is the latest target of the woke mob. This month Louis Vuitton was accused of cultural appropriation for producing a scarf with a pattern inspired by the Palestinian keffiyeh, while three international brands have been criticized for “stealing” designs associated with indigenous peoples.
None is exempt from this ideological scrutiny. Recently, the actor Michael B Jordan, star of the Black Panther movie, was bullied online into apologizing and changing the name of a line of drinks he was developing. “J’Ouvert” is a term associated with the Caribbean carnival season and 12,000 moral high-grounders signed an online petition describing his use of the word as “offensive cultural appropriation.”
Madness. The world as we know it would not exist without “cultural appropriation,” a better term for which might be “cultural exchange” – a vital mechanism that has made the world go round since before the Mesopotamians first began importing the metals and timber they needed to create one of the world’s great civilizations. For centuries, travelers from diverse civilizations traded up and down the Silk Road and along the incense routes of the Middle East, disseminating goods, beliefs and ideas that today are woven into the DNA of cultures across the world. The inane instruction to “stay in your own lane,” so favored by the cultural separatists, would have been incomprehensible to those who lay the foundations of the modern world.
Modern, multicultural cities such as Dubai are the living manifestation of this human history of cross-cultural unification, the joyful antithesis of the sort of smallminded cultural isolation that all too easily leads to toxic nationalism.
Besides, how far back should we go in attempting to determine which people are the “rightful” owners of customs or objects long ago adopted far beyond the lands of their origin? Should we give paper back to the Chinese, or printing to the descendants of Johannes Gutenberg? Maybe only Germans, or the direct descendants of Carl Benz, should be allowed automobiles? Perhaps it’s time to give up the potato, native to the Americas and a staple for pre-Columbian civilizations but “discovered” by European explorers in the 16th century?
As for hummus, around the Mediterranean everyone from the Egyptians and the Lebanese to the Greeks regard it as a national dish. Ancient Greece and North Africa were culturally entwined for centuries.
Instead of taking offense and objecting to the “hijacking” of cultural assets, wouldn’t it be far more constructive, and ultimately beneficial, for any people to have their culture embraced and understood by others? But that is not the way of the woke, for whom all that matters is the excuse to go to war in order to seize the moral high ground.
So, how to build defenses against this coming tsunami of wokefulness, so damaging to any society’s social cohesion? Clamping down on social media is no solution. As various governments have discovered since the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2010, trying to suppress freedom of speech in the digital age is akin to trying to hold down the lid of a pressure cooker with sticky tape.
The real solution lies in education. In schools and universities, the priority must be to equip young people with the skills necessary for critical thinking, to allow them to seek out the facts and make up their own minds rather than be stampeded into kneejerk reactions by actors with hidden agendas and no sense of historical perspective.
There is nothing wrong with questioning our values, upbringings and histories – it’s how societies evolve. But constructive debate, in which both sides are heard with respect, is one thing. The beast that is stalking the digital world right now is deaf to reason and interested only in wreaking social havoc.
And it will not have my hummus.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.