Skandar Keynes: Week 6

SKANDAR isn’t working for MI6. Honest. Nevertheless, with a license to thrill, this week our foreign corespondent tackles the issue of stereotypes.

assassination backgammon camels CIA deserts lebanon MI6 rockets Skandar Keynes stereotypes

skandarkeynesWhen my editor first asked me for a picture to accompany this blog, he added, “Preferably in front of a desert/camel/something suitably Arabic.”

Let this be the last time I have to say this – there are no deserts or camels in Lebanon. If you want sand, go to the beach. For camels, hit the zoo. Lebanon is mountainous and has plenty of rainfall, bad for both deserts and camels.

Playing backgammon was about as close as I could get to fulfilling his Orientalist fantasy.

Before my year abroad, I had grown accustomed to such stereotyping and took it in my stride. When asked what I wanted to do with Arabic, I often resorted to saying I wanted to become a professional Arab with my own camel trading business – although this was in part a simple way of deflecting such tedious conversation points.


Not a camel in sight.

But actually going to the Middle East forces you both to confront the reality of stereotypes, and also to experience the other side of the coin.

Concerning the stereotype of the entire Middle East as one big clusterfuck of guns and bombs, sadly there is some truth to it. Considering Lebanon, guns are everywhere, tucked away in cupboards and attics, and being waved about in streets. And it only takes the occasional political assassination in the form of a car bombing to destabilise the country and scare the bejesus out of any foreign investors. Being in Beirut you have to accept the possibility that every so often a couple of grad rockets may be randomly thrown about – as occurred last week injuring three people – just as you have to accept knife crime in British cities, or gun crime in America.

Having said that, while admittedly bad for the political and economic stability of the country, I do despair at having to convince people that I’m perfectly safe and it’s not too dangerous for to visit for the hundredth time.

As for Arabs’ stereotypes of me as an Englishman, I don’t mind their solid belief that I must love tea. That’s one stereotype I have no qualms reinforcing.

I would also be lying if I said nobody had ever thought I was an American spy out to investigate their junk shop for the CIA. I’m still trying to work out whether it was his belief that the CIA is all-powerful, or whether it was his sense of self-importance as the owner of a modest hole in the wall, apparently of great strategic interest to a world superpower. Regardless, one look at me and he was instantly suspicious.

When I tell people I study Arabic in England, they often presume that it’s early training for MI6 so that I can listen in on terrorists plotting to destroy the West. I had accepted it at home but hadn’t expected it during my year abroad. The convergence of stereotyping between cultures is evidence of our common humanity if I’ve ever seen it.