The View From HereHoly living vs empty talk [Archives:2003/686/Culture]

November 17 2003

By Jamil Abdul Karim*
Ramadan is winding down, and with it, another season where Yemeni have done their best to muster all the merriment they can, at least under the circumstances.
Indeed, for some, shopping without enough money isn’t easy, especially for food that’s often overpriced and outdated. And it’s hard to smile knowing that kin in Palestine remain without a home, while the Yanks continue to trample with their muddy boots all over Iraq.
But thank God for small solaces, such as having a simple cool drink. And, now, quick, tell me, what is your favourite soft drink? It seems to me, based on casual observation, Coca-Cola and Canada Dry drinks are in a dead heat for Yemen’s most popular beverage.
Of course, bottled in Yemen’s port city of Aden, Canada Dry in Yemen happens to fall under Coke’s trademark, that is its American umbrella. Clever.
And I have yet to see a single Yemeni even taste one particular competitor called Mecca Cola. You likely know of it, as this Islamic alternative is now in some 45 countries.
That may seem like good progress, since Tawfik Mathlouthi, a businessman from France launched Mecca Cola last Ramadan with the motto, “No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment!” He noted it’s time to fight “American imperialism and Zionism by providing a substitute for American goods.”
But the so-called stupid drinking of the world-famous beverage from the Coke people is still continuing everywhere. Even in Pakistan, a country created as the ideal Islamic state, Mecca Cola only has five per cent of its market. Why is that?
I suggest, quite simply, it’s because people drink what tastes good.
Isn’t this something to think about for those of us who are wringing our hands over the evils of American cultural imperialism? You know: Planet Hollywood and MTV and Big Macs from Belgrade to Bangkok, all signs of the Yanks’ desire to Coca-Colonize everyone. What are we to make of it?
Not as much, perhaps, as some people would like to. Because, don’t people accept the cultural trappings they want, without coercion? As one American told European film-makers: “If you made movies as good as your cheese, people would watch them too.”
Don’t you think it’s strange when some Muslims make the point that America is going to hell because of its immoral culture, then turn on American shows? Saddam’s Hussein’s son Uday launched Youth TV in Iraq, using pirated Hollywood movies. His radio station had disc jockeys blast George Bush as a criminal before giving a snappy introduction to the rather salacious pop singer Madonna.
Even North Korea’s president Kim Jong-il idolized the former basketball star Michael Jordan, while heir Kim Jong-nam loves Mickey Mouse. And why wouldn’t he? I recently saw Mickey in a Sana’a supermarket. Apparently some store manager felt that the Disney icon is not just American, but a universal figure that can bring a smile to even the most difficult of days.
But isn’t this soft American power? Yes. But let’s remember that American cultural dominance is hardly new. A century before satellites could beam anyone’s propaganda or immorality anywhere, countries were miffed over U.S. brand bullies like Kodak cameras, Heinz ketchup and Colgate tooth powder. Miffed, but using them, of course, because they were quality products.
That doesn’t make everything coming from the U.S. good. But by our own actions, we’re proving that everything from America is not bad either. And compared to history’s previous empires, like Rome, cultural control of the Yanks is in many ways quite tame. Have you seen anyone thrown to the lions in any coliseums lately?
Some even argue that today’s soft imperial power, rather than adding to global tension, enhances peace. Unlike hard power, that is military domination, soft cultural power can promotes stability through commerce. Numbers since the mid-20th century support this: liberal democracies virtually never go to war with each other because they’d rather line up for burgers, that is become economic allies, than fight.
So if a McDonald’s comes to Yemen, be honest. What will you do? I suggest you’ll want to see if their hamburgers taste good. If you’re already eating great-tasting burgers, fine, you won’t go. But if you’re not, and if you find a Big Mac hits the spot, why should you worry about where it originated some 50 years ago?
It’s all food for thought, something to mull over next time you choose, if you do, to have a Coke product. That’s what holy living is all about, Ramadan or not. It’s about walking the walk, not just talking the talk. It’s about making your actions line up with your words in the everyday details of life. It’s living with freedom, inside.
If we really got a taste of that, we’d all be better off, not to mention happier. Don’t you think?
*Jamil Abdul Karim comments on Arab and western issues.
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