Writers or Missionaries? | The Nation


Writers or Missionaries?

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V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul

The author would like to thank Sara Roy and Elias Muhanna. This essay is an adaptation of the 2014 Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture delivered in May at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that one shouldn’t take positions or make political arguments in writing about the Middle East. It would be very hard not to. And part of what drives me is anger over injustice, and the hope that I might persuade readers to think more critically about American policy in the region. But developing friendships with Middle Eastern writers and traveling to the region very much changed the way that I understand my work. Two Arab writers have been particularly important in shaping my understanding. One is the former FLN leader turned historian Mohammed Harbi, whose books on the Algerian independence movement are a model of critical history, and who has patiently guided me through the maze of contemporary Algerian politics whenever I have seen him in Paris. The other is Raja Shehadeh, the founder of Al Haq, a lawyer and writer in Ramallah who has taught me what Zionism has meant—legally, politically and psychologically—for the Palestinians. Anguished and somewhat fragile, he is a man who, in spite of his understandable bitterness, has continued to dream of a future beyond the occupation, a kind of neo-Ottoman federation where Arabs and Jews would live as equals.

When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a good listener. I realized how insufficient it was to have the right attitudes; they would provide me with little more than an entree. The brash young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.

Shortly after September 11, I interviewed V.S. Naipaul about his views on Islam for The New York Times Magazine. Much of what he said was predictably ugly, a provocation calculated to offend liberal sensibilities. “Non-fundamentalist Islam,” he told me, is “a contradiction.” September 11 had no cause other than “religious hate.” But Naipaul said something else that I will never forget: that ultimately, you have to make a choice—are you a writer, or are you a missionary? At the time, this remark struck me as glib, even dishonest. If anyone was a missionary, wasn’t it Naipaul, with his crude attacks on Muslims, his extreme Hindu nationalism and his snobbery, all of it dressed up as devotion to the noble calling of writing and art?

Still, the remark stayed with me. I couldn’t dismiss it; I have since seen its wisdom, although I am no fonder of Naipaul’s views now than I was then. Naipaul was evoking the tension between the writer, who describes things as he or she sees them, and the missionary or the advocate, who describes things as he or she wishes they might be under the influence of a party, movement or cause. The contrast is not as stark as Naipaul suggests, but it exists, and the more closely you analyze a society, the more you allow yourself to see and to hear, the more you experience this tension.

In Finding the Center, Naipaul writes that travel “became a necessary stimulus for me. It broadened my worldview; it showed me a changing world and took me out of my own colonial shell…. My uncertainty about my role withered; a role was not necessary. I recognized my own instincts as a traveler and was content to be myself, to be what I had always been, a looker. And I learned to look in my own way.” He continues:

To arrive in a place without knowing anyone there, and sometimes without an introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation; to allow oneself to be carried along, up to a point, by accidents; and consciously to follow up other impulses—that could be as creative and imaginative a procedure as the writing that came after. Travel of this sort became an intense experience for me. It used all the sides of my personality; I was always wound up…. There was always the possibility of failure—of not finding anything, not getting started on the chain of accidents and encounters. This gave a gambler’s excitement to every arrival. My luck held; perhaps I made it hold.

In this passage, Naipaul captures some of the most crucial aspects of reporting: an alert or receptive passivity; a willingness to expose oneself to unfamiliar and even unsettling experiences and people, to give up control and to get lost. This is not as easy as it sounds. That “readiness for adventure or revelation” has to be cultivated. As Walter Benjamin writes in his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, “not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”

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