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Thursday, December 18, 2014
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Published: Monday, 7/27/2009

Shall the East and West ever happily meet?

A 10-DAY sweep through England opened up the diverse cultural landscape of this island.

I was on a vacation to attend the wedding of a friend's daughter (yes, old cultural traditions still compel that one travel, if at all possible, to far corners of the world on such occasions), and to visit some old friends. It was as if I were watching the drama of the British Raj in India unfold through the prism of present-day Britain.

In Surrey, I spent a few days with my niece and her husband. Though they are living in England, they have created a tiny Pakistan around them in which they are surrounded by the soothing culinary, aural, and visual reminders of a land they left behind.

This is what I call living in a mental ghetto where people spend decades surrounded by another culture and never allow the self-absorbing and reassuring sheen of their own culture to lose its luster.

In Orpington, just south of London in Kent, I visited a Pakistani friend from Peshawar. The retired physician and his English wife live a charmed life that is full of music, art, and literature. Afternoon tea in their lovely garden is a treat. They seem to be at ease in both East and the West.

One day, I took two of my visiting nieces to lunch at Harrods, the famous London landmark. Both are professional women who, having studied medicine in England, have gone back to Pakistan to work. Here we found another cultural hurdle that these young ladies found daunting.

Muslims are allowed to eat animal products that have been prepared according to religious dictates. The food then becomes halal (roughly kosher) and thus can be consumed.

Muslims follow the same dietary restrictions that orthodox Jews observe, plus a total ban on alcohol. The Qur'an allows Muslims to eat food prepared by Jews and Christians. Barring alcohol and pork, there are no celestial provisos or fine print to qualify that statement.

The young ladies opted to play safe and limited themselves to salad and fruit. Once they were comfortable with their decision, we had a delightful afternoon.

The wedding in Solihull near Birmingham was a vintage desi (meaning "native" in Indio-Pakistan parlance) affair. The gathering, the food, the music, the rituals were all from a land 5,000 miles away.

In the gathering of 350 guests, I saw very few white faces. I wondered about the near-absence of locals at this and at similar gatherings. My niece and her husband in Surrey could possibly be excused because they are relatively new to this country.

However, a good many people at the wedding, including the hosts, had lived in Britain for decades. I wondered whether we are extending the concept of kosher or halal to other people as well.

My last stop was in Wiltshire to visit former Toledo residents Tony and Pauline Shelbourne. A few years ago, Tony retired from the Dana Corp. and the couple moved back to England to settle in a small village in the picturesque Midlands, where they enjoy working their fruit, vegetable, and flower gardens and care for a few farm animals. They are active in the village and contribute a significant amount of time to local issues.

It was my second visit to their home and they were - as usual - most hospitable and gracious. Many years ago they had crossed the threshold where skin color or a foreign accent was not a deterrent to meaningful friendships. My desi friends at the wedding were surprised that I was going to stay with a gora, or white, family. No wonder those friends were surprised. After all, like most desis, I would not be welcome in many white households.

Old prejudices do die, but they usually take an awfully long time.

To me, the melting pot and salad bowl metaphors are nothing but colorful clichs.

Man has a primordial urge to preserve his ethnic and racial identity. Evolutionary biologists tell us that the urge to pass on a genetic legacy to our offspring is as old as the evolutionary process itself.

I often wonder if my nieces and the desi crowd at the wedding were following a pattern that consigns them to repeat it in order to preserve their identity to the exclusion of everything and everybody else from their lives.

Is the famous line of Rudyard Kipling "Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" still relevant a century after it was written?

And if it were true, then doesn't this negate the concept of a pluralistic society in which there ought to be free interactions and free exchange of ideas between cultures and religions?

Could one, in other words, keep their identity but still be an integral part of the society at large?

In the small slice of Britannia that I saw, the answers are far from clear. While some white and brown people have certainly moved beyond skin color and accents, there are a lot of people still trapped in ethnic and religious cocoons of their own making.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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