The Arab ear and the American eye: a study of the role of the senses in culture.

Author:Kanaana, Sharif


This article is a translation (with a translator's preface) of an essay by Sharif Kanaana on the significance of hearing in Arab culture. The analysis is based on Alan Dundes' "Seeing is Believing." Proceeding along the same lines as Dundes and using similar procedures, the author seeks to establish the hypothesis that in Arab culture the ear is more significant than the eye as a guide to belief. While "Seeing is Believing" is about American culture, in using its categories as a basis for the study of the Arab ear, this article brings to the fore its implicit comparative perspective. The theoretical point at issue is the determining power of culturally established cognitive patterns.

The dialogue between the two articles (Kanaana's and Dundes') is an instance of intercultural communication, which could not have come into being without the decisive role of translation. The translator's preface and response explore the reciprocal discursive connection between translation and ethnography, given that both of these, as disciplines, have to grapple with the problem of how to interpret the Other for a domestic audience. The analysis elaborates upon the metaphorical significance of the eye in Arab culture, showing that the Arab fear of the eye may be justified in view of the manipulative power that resides in images. Translated in terms of culture, it may be that the reliance on the eye breeds a need for visual stimulation and constant change, while reliance on the ear leads to reliance on tradition and fear of change.

Translator's preface

My contribution consists of three parts. The first is this introduction; the second is a translation of the better part of an article by Sharif Kanaana, and the third is my response. The original article appeared in the year 2000 in Kanaana's book on Palestinian folklore, Min Nisi Qadimo ... Tah! ("He Who Forgets His Past ... Is Lost!"). The ellipsis is part of the original title, which is a Palestinian proverb. I translated this piece not only for its cultural contribution but also because of its attempt to establish a dialogue based on shared scholarly interest, and that dialogue in turn cannot take place without translation. Therefore, the translation is itself the completing process of that dialogue. Additionally, and with respect to this dialogue, the significance of Kanaana's piece lies in its uncovering of the comparative methodological implications of the essay on which it is based, Dundes' "Seeing is Believing" (1980).

Dundes' article is based on the assumption that verbal folklore articulates or reflects world view, or both. While I think that the assumption of realistic mimesis (that is, trying to read world view from folktales or proverbs) can, and frequently does, lead the inexperienced into aberrant views of a given culture (Orientalism being an outstanding, and pernicious, example of this process) it seems to me that the exemplary areas of behavior singled out by Dundes, and by Kanaana in turn, do lead to accurate conclusions. To cite one specific example from my own experience, as a person who belongs to a "hearing is believing" culture, I always find it disconcerting when American friends use the seeing metaphor to refer to concerts--e.g., "I saw the San Francisco Symphony last night." Though as a student of language I understand that this is American usage (and no one can argue with usage), the culturally Arab part of me still thinks that this formulation is a distortion of experience. Perhaps we can use translation metaphorically here and think of this process as a translation in terms of one sense of something that takes place primarily in the domain of another.

Turning now to the specific details of that dialogue, we note that the two articles taken together resemble a circle, or a necklace, with Kanaana beginning where Dundes left off. The points that Dundes makes in bringing his article to a close are the very ones taken up by Kanaana at the beginning of his study. In his last paragraph, Dundes specifically raises the question of the cultural relativism of language:

With human observations expressed in human language, one simply cannot avoid cultural bias.... Cross-cultural comparisons of sense categories may not only reveal critical differences in the specific senses, but also whether or not the apparent priority of vision over the other senses is a human universal. Kanaana unravels the implications of this in a number of ways: first, methodologically, by using the same categories as Dundes does to undertake a cross-cultural comparison of the senses, showing that the "apparent priority of vision over the other senses" is not a human universal. And, secondly, by placing Dundes' formulation within the context of the translation of culture, as we shall see below in more detail. With regard to the first problem, Kanaana uses the issues brought up by Dundes at the end of his essay to raise rather large philosophical questions (which he admits are impossible to answer) at the beginning of his. Thus in taking up Dundes' "challenge," by undertaking a cross-cultural comparison based on the very categories proposed by Dundes, Kanaana opens out the horizon of the discussion by showing that, if we are to avoid the Orientalist pitfalls, we must take Dundes' questions, his doubts and hesitations about the gravity of cultural misrepresentation seriously enough to be aware of their consequences in relation to Arab culture.

Every field of knowledge has issues and problems that are appropriate to it. The issue, which I shall be addressing in this research, is of the type that usually engages anthropologists, but it has also been addressed by folklorists, sociologists, and others concerned with the social sciences.

Anthropologists see their function as the understanding of other cultures, the translation of the spirit of the cultures they study, and the transfer of the way indigenous peoples see their world and culture to the anthropologist's own world and culture. But there is always an anxiety--and therefore some contention--concerning the degree of truthfulness of what they transfer to their own culture: to what extent do anthropologists actually transfer another culture without imposing on it their own cultural perceptions?

Let us take an example. Every language is a part, or offspring, of a culture. It came into being so that members of that culture can communicate in terms of concepts and understandings appropriate to their culture. Is it therefore possible to speak of another culture in our own language? And when we do so, does that culture remain itself, or do we in the process recast it in terms of concepts appropriate to our own culture?

Let us take another example. Do the modern sciences that came into being in the West represent absolute truths or are they just expressions of modern Western culture? And when we try to arrive at an understanding of another society or culture by reference to modern Western social science, are we then not recasting it in the conceptual terms of these sciences?

The question I am addressing here is of the type dealt with by students of human culture, especially those among them who are concerned with subjects that are relevant to different cultures. We can reformulate the question as follows: Living human beings must interact with the environment in order to survive; otherwise, we would not be able to survive. Human perception of the environment takes place through the agency of the senses, which receive impressions from the environment. There is no other access to the environment except through the senses. Therefore, human beings' perception of the environment, their understanding of it, and their interactions with it depend on the five senses. So culture is the sum total of the ways humans learn to interact with the environment in order to survive. But these do not depend on the senses in equal measure, and different cultures do not utilize each of the senses to the same degree, for cultures may differ in their reliance on any particular sense. It is said, for example, that Western culture prefers the sense of sight to the other senses. The dependence of this culture on sight may reach such an extent that information available to other senses, such as touch or smell, may be ignored in favor of the sense of sight.

These considerations do not apply solely to ordinary individuals in daily life, but also to the student and the researcher, including the anthropologist, from whom we expect an understanding of the cultures s/he brings to the attention of the Western world. If it is true that the Western person depends principally on sight, then the picture that anthropologists and other students of the Orient draw, for example, of Arab culture is bound to be doubly distorted, since these scholars are likely to highlight the features of this culture that emphasize the sense of sight, and these in turn will be perceived by Western scholars in relation to visual data as a result of their primary dependence on the sense of sight. The distortion increases if the culture under study shows a preference for one of the other senses, such as touch.

Scholars of the Orient have written thousands of books, theses, and dissertations about the Middle East, Islam, and Arab/Islamic culture. Their writings exceed by far what Arabs and Muslims have written about themselves, particularly in the modern age. Most of what the world today knows about Arab/Islamic culture, even much of what Arabs and Muslims know about themselves, has come by way of the writings of Orientalist European and American scholars.

If what we are saying is true, or at least close to the truth, and when we ourselves try to describe our culture and society in order to make them available to the rest of the world, is it not reasonable to suggest that we...

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