When I was a teenager on my first trip to Paris, I remember looking out at the Parisians from the window of a taxi as we proceeded along some splendid boulevard and thinking, But do these people take themselves seriously, really? They’re not Americans, after all. Sorry. It’s true, though embarrassing. I felt sorry for them because they weren’t us. I needed a reality check, which the French were only too happy to provide. They soon taught me how superior to us, and to me, they were in every way, especially intellectually and in matters of literature, fashion, proper cigarette inhalation and the application of maquillage.
Well, let that pass. Now
has published the greater part of an issue (Spring 2002) devoted to Their perceptions of Us, called “What We Think of America.” Interestingly, the writer who is possibly the most violently anti-American in the collection, or who admits to the most violently anti-American feeling, is not French, or Arab, but Latin American. Ariel Dorfman, the US-born Chilean writer, tells about the time he watched an American toddler tumble into a swimming pool at a resort in the Andes and carefully measured what his own reaction might be–after all, the kid had been behaving badly (loud, blond, white, Anglophone, whining, stupid, spoiled, exploitive, rapacious, intervening, assassinating legitimate heads of state, financing coups, training torturers… oops… but really, you catch Dorfman’s drift). In the end, though, he did dive in after the brat.
There is the gentler French person, badboy Benoît Duteurtre, author most recently of the novel Le Voyage en France, which won the 2001 Médici prize. Duteurtre criticizes Europe for proclaiming a high ground in human rights from which to criticize the Americans, as if, he says, to disguise from itself that it belongs to exactly the same world and is mired in identical contradictions. He makes fun of the way the French use the word Disneyland (pronounced Deez-nee-lahhhhnd) to refer to the entire American polity. President Jacques Chirac–that unsuccessful chameleon–comes in for a smacking, too. In Chirac’s speech after September 11, Duteurtre writes, “I heard the inferiority complex of a Europe deprived of its role as world leader…but still quick to judge good and evil.”
The effect of Granta‘s roundup is shockingly human: Here are no, or few, diatribes, and much affection–through tears–from Arab and Muslim contributors. A piece that perhaps explains well what led to September 11 (which I take to be the ostensible reason for Granta‘s package) is Pankaj Mishra’s “Jihadis,” a beautiful, brilliantly observed essay about Pakistan (by an Indian!) and its troubled identity, as well as about the US and Pakistani governments’ growth and nurturing of the jihad movement. Gives you an idea, too, of the level of corruption that made the initially pure-minded Taliban attractive–at first.
This, to me, is the best issue of any magazine trying to explain September 11. There is also Ziauddin Sardar’s “Mecca,” both funny and instructive about the rituals of the hajj and of Saudi society in general. Don’t forget to appreciate the photo essay on Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak: It captures the dust, the mud, the turbans, the mountains, as well as Northern Alliance soccer, burqa ladies buying their liberation pop-music cassettes and the eerie ruins of eternal Kabul, after the attacks.