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Sunday, October 21, 2001

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Food for thought

Bags marked Humanitarian Daily Ration were dropped in Afghanistan as a ``Food gift from the people of the United States of America''. THE French have a saying that, roughly translated, reads, ``The more things change, the more they stay the same.'' Six weeks have passed since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but in that short time the United States has witnessed radical changes in the apparel and appearance of some of its inhabitants. Certain American companies have asked their Sikh employees to shave off their beards in case they are mistaken for Islamic terrorists. Almost all the other Asian employees, for the same reason, have been requested to eschew any species of national attire and to wear T-shirts and jeans. But the suicide squads of September 11, so far as media information went, sported no beards, and were clad in T-shirts and jeans, not in exotic eastern raiment.

In these matters, logic ceases to exist. When I was very young I was privileged to have Allen Tate as a friend and mentor. He was 40 years my senior and was teaching at Oxford. He was one of the finest American poets of the 20th Century and had an acute and perceptive mind. But he came from Kentucky, and called black people ``nigras.'' This was the gentrified version of another, more opprobrious word, still commonly used by many white Americans in the 1950s.

Some time around then I had to tour America and asked Tate how I would fare in the southern states. ``You don't look like a nigra,'' he said judiciously, ``but the folks down that way can be ignorant. You should maybe wear a turban to be sure.'' I remember this now that turbans are no longer safe headgear in America.

Since then I have often travelled around the United States, and I lived in New York for nearly two years. I never had any racial trouble anywhere, not even in the Deep South. I also realised that most Americans associated turbans with Arabs, who were known, in demotic if not democratic parlance, as ``rag heads.''

But as Tate once advised me to wear a turban so as not to be mistaken for a black, people now advise Indians not to wear them in case they are mistaken for Arabs. In both cases the advice offered was as a protection against racial persecution. No American can truthfully deny that racial prejudice exists in his country, and has always done so. The French saying comes to mind once more. Nevertheless, I love my American friends and the country they live in.

This is not necessarily the country that many other Americans live in. Prejudice is a natural by-product of ignorance. I have taught literature in American colleges and spent time with American schoolchildren, the offspring of my friends. Not many young Americans I have met in their own country over the last 40- odd years have known very much about other nations, particularly not those whose cultures were different. So it never surprised me that few of the soldiers I met in the Vietnam War understood much about the country they were in. All Asian countries seemed alike to them. They were all populated by ``slopes.''

Afghanistan should have been different. Over the last few weeks, for obvious reasons, it has had extensive media coverage all over the world. Its recent history is familiar to millions of television viewers. They must all know that the Afghans are warriors. Even now the malnourished men stare at the television cameras with hawk like faces and fierce eyes. For centuries, like hawks, they have flourished on meat. Now the Americans have started to drop food parcels into Afghanistan as well as bombs. The principal contents of these parcels are reported to be baked beans, salad dressing and fruit bars. Have the Americans mixed the Afghans up with orthodox Hindus? It isn't entirely impossible.

I remembered an episode from long ago. For some years in the 1970s, I worked for a UN agency. The great anthropologist Margaret Mead received UN funds for some of her work. I met her in this way, and we became friends. Margaret was a substantial and formidable lady, with a loud, resonant voice. She had a golden heart and an iron will. We were once both delegates at a World Food Conference in Rome. Margaret had decided to carry, as part of her often very eccentric costume, a Masai shepherd's crook, taller than she was. She sat next to me. We faced H.J.Heinz, the dapper boss of the great food company.

Margaret was violently opposed to foodstuffs that were not natural. She also felt starving people should be fed what they were accustomed to eat. She quoted instances in India where a starving population of rice eaters, supplied with wheat, had continued dying. She glowered across the conference table at Heinz, a perfectly nice man who seemed puzzled by her basilisk glare. I was relieved that the shepherd's crook was safely propped up on the wall behind us.

The speeches started. Heinz made a speech in which he promised to supply needy nations with his products. Margaret, flushed and belligerent, demanded permission to speak. All the other speakers had spoken sitting down. She not only stood up, but seized her shepherd's crook and brandished it at Mr. Heinz. It was fortunate that twenty feet of polished mahogany separated them.

She continued to flail the crook at him as she bellowed, across this space, ``So first you kill Vietnamese peasants with napalm, then you destroy African tribesmen with baked beans!'' This remark, and the general spectacle, was unbelievably funny. But Heinz stared at her in bewilderment. The interpreters stopped work. The huge conference room was silent. Margaret lowered the crook and sat down. She is dead now, but I wonder what she would have said if she knew how President Bush has attempted to alleviate starvation in Afghanistan.

At least he believes the Afghans have somehow learnt western table manners. Each food parcel includes a plastic fork and a paper napkin.


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