Sunday, October 2, 2011

L'shana tova in the altiplano: anthropological reflection

One of the reasons it was so important to me to share this holiday with my friends here is that anthropologists have an unfortunate reputation (and it is well-deserved) for being sponges -- that is, going places and asking people to share their cultures, customs, traditions, ideas, and life stories with us, in a nearly entirely one-sided exchange. This is also true of some cultural tourists, who travel to consume and participate, and yes, appreciate.. but rarely with the sense that we should reciprocate by sharing something of who we are, where we come from, and what we are all about. In part this comes from how we are trained to listen and observe rather than intervene, and to impose ourselves and our views and values as little as possible.

There are obviously many who are trying to shift that, and to be more reciprocal. After all, if we are asking people to share what are sometimes private and also painful experiences, ideas and memories, we should be ready to do the same... without turning the exchange into a narcissistic exercise where it becomes all about us.

So, since people have been so generous with me -- and generous in all kinds of ways, not just opening their homes and sharing their food but also inviting me to be part of some very private moments, and also sharing their views on what might be unpopular or controversial subjects -- I wanted to honor that generosity and reciprocate in some small way. One of my friends/comrades argues that we shouldn't think about friendships and political relationships in terms of debts or exchanges, and I'm finding it hard to express what I want to say without falling into that discourse, so I hope he will forgive this excursion. I have been very privileged by the trust, true friendship and comradeship that has been offered to me, and so I wanted to try and open a window for my friends into some parts of who I am and what I value.

Also, I started to think about some of the parallels (as well as the differences) between the "Jewish experience" and that of the Maya and other indigenous peoples. One of the reasons that my atheist communist parents maintained a strong cultural identification as Jews was to because of the history of discrimination, repression, and so forth (I don't want to get too carried away here; this line of thinking is often used to justify some of the more egregious policies of the state of Israel, or it turns into a contest to see who is more oppressed).  Also, the coincidence of the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula and Columbus' voyages and the forced conversions, the role of the inquisition in the old and "new" worlds, were part of my reflections. Finally, my friends in Xela and I had all been deeply involved (and most of them much more than I) in the electoral campaign for Winaq and the Frente Amplio. Some weeks back, before the election, we had been saying that we were going to celebrate after the election no matter what the outcome, to honor the effort and the intention and the hard work. And, in the case of Doña Mati and Doña Fermi, the fact that we managed to get any kind of campaign going at all. So since the Jewish new year came a few weeks after election, and for me the new year has always symbolized a time of reflection and regeneration, it seemed completely appropriate. And, then, unfolding events in New York and elsewhere have brought to mind that slogan from the movement for the 8 hour day, that the human spirit has to be nourished not just with bread but also with roses.

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