First impressions last

First impressions last

Dave Broom mulls over recent world events, the stereotypes that influence first impressions and the ties that bind us all. The world to rights over a glass....

A Dram with Dave Broom | 16 Dec 2001 | Issue 20 | By Dave Broom

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Even now it’s like a dream, the feeling you’ve been sucked into a film set. Then the papers come and reality thunders in. They reinforce the old saying that one of the first victims of war is truth. The second is the simplistic demonisation of the enemy, in this case anyone who dissents or belongs to the ‘wrong’ religion. My thoughts are with friends in New York, people I know, the families of the victims, like the barmen, waiters and busboys of the Windows on the World restaurant. But the events of September 11th made me remember another story, giving it new resonance. On holiday in Tunisia I’d been coming up against a language problem all week. “Where are you from?” I’d be asked in French. “Ecosse,” I’d reply. Blank stare. I’d then embark on a garbled geography lesson straining my brain for the words north, snow, haggis, trying to act out kilt and cold. It was no use. We couldn’t help noticing the table of large shaven-headed men in their late 20s behind us in a restaurant. Soon, they started talking to us – you get used to it. Curiosity as to the names, occupations, and birthplaces of strangers isn’t an intrusion, it’s an extension of hospitality. Where I was from came up almost immediately. Once again, the Ecosse gambit failed. “Whisky!” I said eventually, a note of irritation creeping into my voice. It was greeted with huge smiles and backslaps. “Whisky! Scotchland! Johnnie Walker!” England conforms to normal linguistic parlance as Angleterre – Scotland, however, is ‘Whisky’. “Come with us!” came the order. Next thing you know, we’re jammed in the back seat of Mohammed’s tiny car racing through the darkened backstreets of Tunis, destination unknown. I remember thinking this is precisely what guide books tell you not to do. It reminded me of a lunch I once had with a winemaker and his friends in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley. Making polite conversation over a glass of Scotch, I asked my rather taciturn neighbour what he did for a living. He looked at me and pushed a box of matches across the table. There was a tank of the back of it. “This,” he said, unsmiling. “Ah,” I stuttered, trying to remain cool, “so you’re an arms dealer?” He looked bemused, then bellowed with laughter. “No,” he said, “I sell matches!” First impressions and you think the worst. Lebanon = arms dealers; backstreets of Tunis = muggers. Our new friends drew up outside a large house. We swished through the door and entered the plushest nightclub in Tunis. “Whisky!” Mohammed shouted, and a bottle of Walker Black was brought … and dispatched. The band played faster and faster, women fought for supremacy on the dancefloor, another bottle of Black appeared, the cap taken off, crushed and more drinks poured. We drank long and hard to new friendship, talking politics, football, anything. The only note of annoyance came when I offered to pay: “You are our guest.” To some, guys like these are the enemy because they are Muslim. Somehow they bear responsibility for the September 11th atrocities. OK, we may have alliances of convenience with their governments but there’s a partially-hidden subtext: remember, they’re inherently untrustworthy, they’ll kidnap you, sell you guns, betray you. Well, no. September 11th revealed how interconnected and interdependent the world is. To me, the staff of the Windows on the World are linked to Mohammed in Tunis, to Muslim friends in Beirut and Brighton by an amber thread of whisky. An inconsequential thread, one among billions, but one which shows how under the surface we are all the same. Fail to see it and we are all the poorer.
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