Trafficking in cultural cliches is a weird business to be in. It’s an annoying but omnipresent aspect of most travel writing. Everyone does it. But some writers are unapologetic in their laziness, seeming to love to summarize whole countries in shorthand, as if they’re making a delicious balsamic reduction of a whole nation.
Maureen Dowd recently published an entire lengthy article of cultural cliches about Saudi Arabia, which is not surprising. What is almost shocking is that she got caught being reductionist to the point of incorrectly representing the country she was profiling:
“Maureen Dowd’s piece is funny–at times, hilarious–but instead of taking a Burquini with her, a guide to the Arabic language would have helped a great deal. She writes, “It’s funny to see how many people have named their camels ‘Barack.’ Saudis never give human names to animals–it’s not part of the culture. But every camel driver will at some point scream at a camel and say, “Barak!” That is the command for “Kneel!” or “Sit!” I wonder if some of the other nuances of Saudi Arabian society were lost on Dowd.”
–Ebrahim Moosa, Department of Religion, Duke University
More–including a fun and funny use of cultural cliches–after the jump.
Can I also mention that almost every photo accompanying the article, true to Boomer-self-promotion form, is of Maureen herself? Yuck. But I digress.
The reason this kerfuffle is interesting to me is that it probably didn’t even occur to her to confirm that they were saying Obama’s name. Observations without real verification equals gross cultural cliches for sale, cheap.
The whole they-name-their-camels-either-after-our-president-or-the-command-to-sit incident reminds me of this ad I saw recently. The ad makers hooked me with their use of snow monkeys, but the real cleverness is in parodying a sea of cultural cliches about the most manly world travel ever–Hemingway by way of Che:
“People hang on his every word–even the prepositions.” “His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”
Cultural cliches can be fun–as long as no one actually takes them seriously. That means you, Graydon Carter. Rein that stuff in, buddy. As a camel driver would do.