Friday, November 6, 2009

Personal Journeys, Historical Facts

I am definitely enjoying learning through historical fiction more than learning through "cold facts." Of course there is a decided merit to learning about large-scale trends in history and society, but nothing can drive home a point better than storytelling.

Hasan's journey in Leo Africanus, both personal and literal, and especially in his relationships with his immediate and extended family, is one that we all can relate to. Family is the most basic organization of human relationships and structure. Although many of the details of this story are foreign to me, the historical and cultural differences, all the emotions involved are ones that I and every human being on the planet have known and experienced and felt the effects of.

It may be unfamiliar for us to read about people dealing with cultural norms like arranged marriages and polygamy without blinking twice. But reading in detail about the emotions the characters experience during these events are what really helps us understand that no matter how strange the traditions of a culture that is foreign to us, the people involved are exactly like us, and behave as we would have behaved if we had been raised in similar circumstances.

I have not had much chance to read about Muslim culture and I feel this book is a good introduction. Last semester I took a class about the history of modern East Asia, and for some reason every time I learn about a different culture I am amazed at the similarities to any other culture I have ever studied.

Anywhere you go on the globe, no matter how remote a place, there will always be internal power struggles within every societal unit, whether a family or a government. There will always be problems with distrust from in-laws, heritage, sibling rivalry, and marital problems. The battle of the sexes takes similar forms no matter what unique efforts are taken to subjugate and constrict the movements of one gender over another. And of course, no matter what color your skin, the emotional irrationality that comes with love and infatuation has the power to destroy any man or woman.

And that is the power of story, in conveying the emotions involved in being human regardless of culture or historical era. Historical facts can tell us what happened, but they leave out the emotions of the people who actually experienced them. And of course the fallibility of human emotion is the cause of these patterns in all cultures, and the human experience as a whole, because if we were completely logical, rational beings, none of the crap that makes life interesting would ever happen in the first place.

-katie dempsey

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