It’s not polite to say I don’t like Persian food and it’s not cool to be Maronistani – Political wankering in East London

Sitting in a circle on the floor of someone’s East London bedsit, we’re discussing the evils of cultural appropriation. There’s an American who misses Iranian pomegranate juice, an Iraqi and a Russian are debating whether London “makes more sense” than NYC, then complain about the price of rent everywhere, even in Berlin! Even in Lagos!

We should walk into a bar…

Instead, someone cracks a Hannah Arendt joke. I’m not sure I get it because I’ve never read anything by Hannah Arendt, maybe a couple of reviews here and there, just enough to preserve a veneer of culture with reasonable credibility to survive moderately academic circles. I’m not that well read and whatever I did read, usually in the adrenaline rush of writing a last-minute dissertation, left nothing more than fog in my brain.

I lost track of the conversation about half an hour ago but someone just said the words “post-racial” and now there’s a debate going on… I feel should contribute. I should sharpen my Gramsci and brush up on my Castells.  They’re throwing around obscure references and never-ending quotes that may or may not make sense. It’s not like we’re listening to each other anyway.

Privilege… oppression… the difference between a migrant and an expatriate. Semantic bubbles fly around the room, heavy with the smell of whatever it is that my friend cooked for us. I don’t like her food. If I said that, I’d probably get a long lecture on how it’s not politically acceptable to discard the ancient and varied Persian culinary tradition (“ancient” and “varied” said with emphasised reverence).

She can’t cook. I don’t like overcooked vegetables, or the spices overload she’s addicted to, or undercooked basmati rice but we agree that all choices are politically motivated so it’s not polite to say I don’t like my friend’s food…

Instead I just play the vegetarian card. I don’t really like meat anyway but they don’t know that so they think it’s an admirable political commitment. It’s cool to love non-European food; it’s also very cool to eat on the floor. It’s cool to be Nigerian, Arab or Burmese but we’re careful to pretend we don’t treat our friends like fashion accessories. Exotic is good, but it’s not OK at all to say it explicitly. We’re horrible wankers. As a Middle Easterner, I’ve got a fair amount of clout, except I would be more interesting for them if I came from a better defined history of oppression and less engrained capitalism. Maronistan is not authentic enough, not interesting enough.

If we were brave enough to grab a mirror this is what we’d see: Useless media degrees and the luxury to read Marx all day long. Getting graded for intellectual masturbation as we contribute nothing of use to society. We may not drive Lamborghinis but it’s hypocritical to forget that we are privileged because we’re in our 20’s and 30’s, discussing the politics of oppression in an East-London bedsit, complaining about the price of rent in Lagos.

I guess it’s mean of me to say that… I know it’s wrong to deny anyone an opinion, I also know my friends are brave and smart and their voices matter, that academia at its best and at its worst can move people and mountain. But…we’re such wankers.

Epilogue:

Our friendship survived, cemented not threatened by relentless criticism of each other’s life choices. I love my friends, brilliantly beautiful individuals. Collectively, we can be an irritating bunch, plagued by unoriginal condescending assertiveness.

Two or three of them are now exceptional scholars, doing important and relevant work. They’re not the ones you’d expect I must say, certainly not those who once screamed the loudest.

The pothead raised over a million dollars for some super-smart development initiative in his rural hometown.

The revolutionary works in the oil industry…

I’m still a fraud, and I’m still not sure what I’m doing.

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