DIFFERENCE - Mike Riddell

Recently my wife and I travelled in Morocco. We stayed in Marrakesh for two weeks, and pretended to be locals. Not that it fooled anyone. Wandering along the stalls in the Medina, we would be the subject of a guessing game by the shopfront vendors. “English?” they’d cry out as we tried to avoid eye contact.

When that failed to gain our attention, they’d try new options. “American?”, “Canadian?”, “Australian?” One ambitious man went left-field. “Nigerian?” he laughed. That earned him a chuckle and a turn in his direction. By the time we departed the wonderful city, they’d worked us out. “Kiwi!” they’d call every day as we walked by.

My miserable Arabic was limited to “As-Salaam-Alaikum”. Although after doing a cooking class and shopping for ingredients, I did learn the very useful “affark attine wahid kilo sardine?”. Roughly translated, I’d like a kilo of sardines. Handy to know in an awkward situation. Mostly I relied on schoolboy French to get me by.

On a fine clear day we hired a driver and headed for the hills – or to be more specific, the Atlas mountains. It was the day before Ramadan, and we questioned Omar, our driver, as to how he would cope with the daily discipline of not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. It was hard for me to imagine what it must be like over a period of a month.

“The purpose of Ramadan,” he said, “is to experience a little time like someone in poverty. We do it only for a month. The poor man must live every day without food. We can go back to eating – the poor man cannot.” His eyes shone with kindness and compassion. His mother is exempt from Ramadan because of her age. But she has the responsibility to provide a meal for a beggar (or money to buy one) every day of the celebration.

Across the divide of language, culture, and religion, we make a connection. He is gentle and respectful. Omar didn’t have the luxury of an advanced education, but is making sure his daughter attends university. Whatever the source of his spirituality, it is deep and sincere. It’s a joy to share his local insights as we travel, and simply to meet a good man in a land far from ours.

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We are in an age when differences are accentuated and made to seem threatening. Many people cope with this by huddling in cohorts of similar thinkers. Social media platforms use algorithms to group us with those who think the same as we do. The advent of gated communities has divided residents into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. In such a world, difference is threatening.

At one time villages were geographical centers. Now they are pseudo-communities of the like-minded. This seems to me to be a dangerous trend. The foundation of prejudice and hatred is dehumanization. In order to persecute people, it’s necessary to make them ‘other’ than us. Then the inevitable trend begins, in which they are seen as a threat to our security and well-being.

The failure to engage with difference salts the world with bigotry. The one certainty in the mystery of humanity is that we are no two the same. This is a fact that generates either celebration or terror. A generation ago it seemed that we were heading toward the end of tribalism and its consequent violent conflict. Now I wonder if we’re not developing an even more sinister form of it.

We are largely siloed from each other, living as if our existence were self-contained and our views self-evident. I don’t watch television or listen to talkback radio. But the vitriol that pours out online is enough to demonstrate the fragile nature of our sense of identity. The attacks on others who exhibit different opinions or lifestyles is both extreme and dangerous. Self-harm and suicides litter the wake of our fears.

Diversity is a precious but vulnerable gift, easily damaged. Beauty is not the result of perfect symmetry, but of the combination of contrasts and accents. Driving down the valley the other day, we passed a field of impish deer foraging in a fenced pasture. Just to one side of them stood a horse and a sheep, in seeming communion with each other. When we passed them again on the way home, they were still together enjoying each other’s company.

Should we rail against this crossing of the species barrier, or marvel at the way that animal friendship can transcend differences in form, shape, and size? For my wife and I, it was a sight that inspired great joy. Any great forest is full of a myriad shades of green, each complementing the others around them. What would we be without diversity?

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I’m standing at the bar in our tiny village. The man drinking next to me is sexist, racist, and homophobic. He’s lived in a rural community all his life, whereas I moved here less than a year ago. What should I do? Call him out on his prejudices, and start an argument? One part of me feels that injustice should be confronted at every opportunity, and here’s one staring me in the face.

But we’re not on Facebook here. We’re members of the same small community, destined to live side by side on a daily basis. I choose to continue our fledgling friendship, trusting that over time and interaction we will begin to inevitably influence one another. This man has a backstory – one that I’m only just beginning to learn. He’s been shaped by his environment, and experiences I can only guess at.

In community it’s not possible to hide differences, nor to surround yourself with people who think the same as you do. That’s both the gift and threat of sharing one’s life with people. Just as in marriage, the work of love doesn’t start until the commitment has been made. My bar friend and I will reveal our stories over meals, conversations, working together, and sharing common experiences.

No doubt we’ll both be changed by this interaction. I’m no savior to come and correct his perceived bigotry. We’re in this life together, and our differences are what make us unique. Relationship is more likely to engender change (on both sides) than ideology and confrontation. I feel supremely lucky to be living a life of close encounter and thus be forced to befriend people I wouldn’t necessarily choose to be my neighbors.

But for all of us, it’s only by venturing into new territory and encountering difference that we overcome our fears. When truly secure in my own skin, opposing views become a source of enrichment and discovery, instead of a threat to my well-being. The question as to “who is my neighbor?” results in a surprising answer in Christian scripture.

When we returned from our trip into the Atlas Mountains with Omar, we embraced. Across the seeming barriers of culture, religion, and geography, we’d forged a connection. It was a small and insignificant encounter in the greater scheme of things. A tiny seed, that might either perish or grow to bear fruit. Friendship isn’t about results, but the enrichment of love.

Mike Riddell is a Kiwi writer.

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