Yesterday (Sunday, October 26, 2008) was a fascinating day of stumbling into global perspectives that continue to shrink my world. I got into the office and did my routine start-up of checking and responding to e-mail and then noticed an interesting meeting on my schedule - "Chinese Embassy Delegation re: exchanges." I ran off to the meeting wondering who would be there and what would unfold in the conversation. To my great surprise, I walked into the conference room only to find one of my Qatari colleagues finishing a presentation on Qatar Foundation and waiting to turn the meeting over to me. I've become increasingly comfortable in not knowing what to expect from moment to moment in my work but this one really threw me.
The Chinese delegation was guided by an under-secretary of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China and included four representatives from higher education and business in China. The programs represented were; Beijing International Studies University, Shanghai International Studies University, Northwest University for Nationalities, and the founder and president of "First Real-Name Blog Portal for Chinese Intellectuals." I asked if English would be acceptable for our meeting and was told, "yes." It didn't take but a minute for one of the Chinese participants to turn to my Qatari colleague to ask a question of him in perfect Arabic. Suddenly the communication shifted and I realized that the common language of the room was Arabic, not English or Chinese. Wow! Who would have thought... a meeting with Chinese intellectuals, conducted in Arabic, and translated by a Qatari for the English speaker who knew neither Chinese or Arabic (me). All in all, the meeting was a success and ended with an agreement that I would attempt to broker a meeting with my superiors so that the People's Republic Ambassador could begin to introduce the possibility of student and faculty exchanges between Education City and the institutions represented by our visitors.
Later in the evening I attended the Rand-Qatar Policy Institute celebration of five years in Doha and 60 years of the Rand Institute. Rand is a research and think-tank organization that has provided considerable assistance to Qatar in researching and proposing models for improvement of education, public policy, and capacity building. There were two panels of their researchers and other guests who explored questions about the status of the Gulf and the impact that the upcoming election in the U.S.A. will have on the area. The panels were interesting, although I was surprised at the off-handed references that reflected their ignorance or disdain for the Middle East - simple things like "I don't know what people over here think, but..." or inaccurate language such as using Arab, Persian, Muslim, Islamic, jihad, and other terms as simply colorful synonyms to depict the people "over here." Frankly, it was sad because these people are supposedly well informed about the Middle East but the imprecise and careless language was very telling.
The show-stopper for the Rand-Qatar Policy Institute celebration was when a Qatari in the audience asked the question of the panel, "What's holding us back from fulfilling the promise of our intellectual heritage? Why is the Arab world always subject to the advice and direction of the West?" I turned to a colleague beside me after the question was asked - "Breathtaking," I commented. This is a room with 90% Westerners and a precious few Qatari or other Arab people and this man was turning the microscope on himself. But, was he really? The panel offered platitudes like political will, visionary leadership, development that helps people understand the systems, and education. After considerable intellectual fumbling, the convener of the panel returned to the man who asked the question, "What do you think? What's the greatest impediment you see?" The room fell silent because we all knew that what this gentleman would say would eclipse the others' comments. "Empathy." A stunningly simple one word answer to what's holding the Arab world back. He developed the idea a bit but not so much to keep the word from hanging in my mind for the rest of the evening - empathy. But whose empathy for whom and what's not being understood?
I don't know for sure but the empathy that I see as holding us back is more about Westerners' lack of understanding than anything else. Lack of understanding for what it's been like to be at the epicenter of the world for centuries, first as a critical trade route and then as the custodian for the world's cheapest and most readily usable fuel source, and having others attempt to control you by political, military, or economic means. The best thing the panel convener said all night was that perhaps Barack Obama (yes, and the panel pretty well concluded that it's a done deal) should begin his Presidency with a "Listening Tour" that would travel across the globe to ask others what they think of the U.S.A. and the role it should play in the modern day. Yes, empathy may be what's holding us back more than anything and the question will be, how do we all foster the empathy for each other that will begin to take us to a new level? - global perspectives creating a smaller world.