They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

To have or not to have prejudices? Is this the question?

To have or not to have prejudices? Is this the question?

By Sara Plaza

A couple of weeks ago I was reading quite an old English edition of "The travels of Marco Polo", and in chapter XLI of Book First "Of the province of Khamil" I came across a story that reminded me of another from Gabriel García Márquez's novel "A hundred years of solitude", for both of them have to do with fertility: the former refers to plants growing well in a particular region and the latter is connected with animals having a lot of young. Seven centuries and a good number of geographical features separate one from the other; however, they share certain reasoning regarding the gifts humans are awarded when Nature looks happy with their infidelities, what lead me to believe that they might be the reason we remain faithful to ourselves through history. I would like to share with you that chapter about Khamil, though it is my purpose to reflect on prejudices rather than on deceit...

Khamil is a province which in former days was a kingdom. It contains towns and villages, but the chief city bears the name of Khamil. The province lies between two deserts, for on the one side is the great desert of Lop, and on the other side is a small desert of three days' journey in extent. The people are all idolaters, and have a peculiar language. They live by the fruits of the earth, which they have in plenty, and dispose of to travelers. They are a people who take things very easily, for they mind nothing but playing and singing, and dancing and enjoying themselves.

And it is the truth that if a foreigner comes to the house of one of these people to lodge, the host is delighted, and desires his wife to put herself entirely at the guest's disposal, while he himself gets out of the way, and comes back no more until the stranger shall have taken his departure. The guest may stay and enjoy the wife's society as long as he likes while the husband has no shame in the matter, but indeed considers it an honor. And all the men of this province are made wittols of by their wives in this way. The women themselves are fair and wanton.

Now it came to pass during the reign of Mangu Khan, that as lord of this province he came to hear of this custom, and he sent forth an order commanding them under grievous penalties to do so no more but to provide hostelries for travelers. And when they heard this order they were much vexed thereat. For about three years' space they carried it out. But then they found that their lands were no longer fruitful, and that many mishaps befell them. So they collected together and prepared a grand present which they sent to their lord, praying him graciously to let them retain the custom which they had inherited from their ancestors; for it was by reason of this usage that their gods bestowed upon them all the good things that they possessed, and without it they saw not how they could continue to exist. When the prince had heard their petition his reply was "Since ye must needs keep your shame, keep it then," and so he left them at liberty to maintain their naughty custom. And they always have kept it up, and do so still.

It seems as if such custom was not of Marco Polo's liking, thought we do not know whether he came to know about it from others or from his own experience while journeying throughout Persia, in the XIII century. The book about his travels is full of similar anecdotes. Some of them affect him deeply, others make him shudder. While he finds some of them commendable, considers others to be regretful. He agrees that some of them deserve to be mentioned and feels sorry for not saying a single word about others, and... Always gives his opinion about them, always judge them, always challenges whether they are moral or immoral. Religion is present everywhere and while he praises the one he professes, is not very understanding with the rest. Accordingly, the same happens with those who follow one or the others. Neither intended our traveler to be objective nor seemed neutrality to have played an important role among their worries.

However, both concepts are of a lot of concert to some education and library professionals, who pretend to educate and manage information in an aseptic manner, as if such a thing might be possible. As if the matter of not having prejudices when they are next to the shelves or a blackboard was in their hands. We all have prejudices and it is worth asking ourselves about ours and trying to find them out: firstly, to become aware of them; secondly, in order to avoid the sort of discriminatory practices they may induce us to carry out; and in third place, to give ourselves the opportunity to overcome some of them: preventing them from getting in our way and not allowing them to obstruct others' path. We do not have to necessarily agree among all of us, but for being conscious that we think different from others, it is mandatory to know what we think and what the other thinks, and therefore to try to get to know each other... Marco Polo observes and tells. He tells whatever he sees and also which his opinion is about it, and I do not believe this to be wrong. Precisely for it let the reader the unfinished business of contrasting his lines with those written by other authors to build up our own opinion. And this is fantastic. I assure you that it is an exciting adventure to start doing some research and developing critical thinking.

Particularly, if you decide to take a few old maps out of the drawer and trace out the route followed by the Venetian, I believe you will not regret it. And if you prefer any other author, era or horizon, I imagine you will not be disappointed either. Travels' books are delightful. You will find yourself laughing sometimes and going red others. There will be occasions when you feel like running behind the main characters' steps and moments later you would rather take the opposite direction on others. It is impressive what those characters were able to attain and it is difficult to believe all that happened to the inhabitants of those remote areas. Nicolas Polo's son has no reason to be envious of the authors of travel guides such as "The Lonely Planet" or "El trotamundos", for at that time he was able to estimate how long a journey would be, how much it would cost and also the most interesting trading posts, exactly as modern guides indicate picturesque settings.

All in all, after reading about travels it is not difficult to notice that one has read about something else than the routes followed to go and return, for there are many paths and shortcuts in the middle, which use to be full of surprises. Once you have finished the book, you feel an irresistible wish to take your backpack, a pen and some paper and leave, ready to note down everything you see and listen to. I do not dare to encourage you to try and touch everything, since these are difficult times and you would have to pay a surcharged bill afterwards. Anyway, what I suggest you to do is to travel and read with your prejudices aside, which is not the same as without them, and to allow those how are heavier to get lost along the way. By experience I can tell you that it is easier to travel and read when one does it light. In addition, there will always be free space to bring new knowledge back home.