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One thing that divides the East and the West is our attitude to fashar. Fashar is Arabic and means..well- here’s an example. My wife’s Egyptian uncle went to Sweden in the 1970s and found that ignorance of Egypt was rife…so he told everyone he had an oilwell in his backgarden, which he had just sold…and, that the bag he lost (what a terrible airport Stockholm has!)- had almost all the money in it…

When he came home to Egypt all the relatives laughed their heads off.

This is pure fashar. Fashar is partly fastasising, but there’s a difference. In the West we assume a fantasist is self-delusional. We have very strict ideas that kids lie and make up self-aggrandising stories but adults don’t. Unless they are mad, or out to con you. Or a bullshitter. Unfortunately being called a bullshitter isn’t very pleasant; once you’ve been dubbed a BS merchant people make a ham fisted game of doubting everything you say even that which is glaringly obviously true. 

But fashar is self aware. The uncle was having a joke at the expense of literal minded Swedes. Fashar is also harmless. There is often no end in mind apart from pure enjoyment, the enjoyment of telling a good yarn, the enjoyment of the attention it gets you.

This talk about fashar brings up another key difference between East and West. In the East it’s your business to discern the truth of a thing. In the West it isn’t. In the West we have TRUSTED AUTHORITIES. In the West it’s OK to say “But we believed our teachers/leaders/friends.” In the West, it is the liar who is guilty, the lied-to (perhaps lie-ee, or lieee?)who is the innocent. In the East the liar is innocent, casting his bread of deception like a fisherman spreading groundbait, and the lieee the guilty one. Like the fish, they’re a fool for being fooled.

People in the East build a trust-ometer over time. You can go into a corner shop in Cairo for the first time. You may not have enough change (no one has enough change in Cairo) so the owner will tell you to take the newspaper/cigs/drink and come back later with the money. He’s never met you but he has a well maintained trust-ometer. He’s sized you up and knows he can trust you.

I have a corner shop here in the UK I visit almost everyday. Once I didn’t have enough for my paper. The owner slid it out of my hot little grip, and, as if doing me a massive favour indicated he would hold it on the counter for me- after I had trundled home in the rain for the exact £1.20…It’s not that he didn’t trust me- he didn’t trust his own trust-ometer.

So, when our TRUSTED AUTHORITIES can't help us, we are helpless, not even trusting our friends. 

One reason I like people who have travelled cheaply is that they have been forced to build their own trust-ometer. When you rock up with a tatty backpack in some dusty town in Africa you need to be able to trust- because you have nothing else to go on.

Back to fashar. Am I really advocating we should go round telling each whoppers? I’m not sure.

In the East the game of fashar means that you never confront the fashar head on if you rumble them. That’s inconceivable here. Our closest friends are the ones most likely to be policeman. They are constantly reminding us ‘that never happened’, or ‘when was that then?’ Partly it’s because in the East people never like to smash into each other head on, but partly because in the East truly incredible things do happen so what seems to be fashar could just as well be true. Of course truly incredible things happen here too, but usually they have to be validated first by the Sun or the 9 o’clock news for us to ‘believe’ them.

What is this ‘belief’? Anyone who has ever had a story about them in the newspapers, including local papers, will know that there are always 2 or more glaring untruths in the piece- sometimes just down to sloppy reporting but usually things that just make the story better. Journos are our unconscious fashars here.

So is fashar just exageration and ‘improving’ a seed of truth? Often it is- for the average fashar. But, for the real masters of fashar, there need by absolutely no basis in ‘reality’ at all (just like a good Sun story). What do I mean by putting the ‘reality’ word in quotes? Well, once a fashar starts weaving his stories they sometimes begin to come true. Rather like the Graham Greene story where the spy sends the vacuum cleaner plans to his bosses and says it’s a secret weapon…and then, strangely, by using these plans a real secret weapon is uncovered, so the inspired fashar somehow connects to something ‘real’, maybe in the future, even though the fashar is just made up story telling.

Words get used up. Take the word ‘spy’. We think of James Bond. But a modern spy is actually a kind of journalist, checking all kinds of local media and sources for information that will give their leaders at home some kind of edge in negotiations or planning. It’s not like being a spy at all. Or take ‘bestselling author’- we have images of writing on a gold plated typewriter in the Bahamas, fancy publishing parties and long lunches with sycophantic editors. Nope. The reality is being a humdrum person forced to do ten interviews a day every two years, the rest of the time worrying about your sales rank and sitting at the kitchen table with your laptop like every other writer out there. So to give the true taste (words I prefer to ‘reality’) of one’s occupation- if you are a spy- one might prefer to use a different word: researcher, perhaps. This makes life ‘truer’ but more boring.

One the other hand life isn’t boring. Life is incredible. We only think it is boring because we are bored ourselves, too long indoors watching the rain and listening to Radio 4…or something. Life is a constant miracle- and that perspective is kept alive by fashar.

Perspective- if you look at life from the perspective of geology nothing much of ‘interest’ has happened for thousands, often millions of years. A ‘true’ geological account of things in the short term has to be boring, by its nature.

If your perspective on life is that of someone selling ice creams to make a living then life is interesting in a heat wave but right now is very dull.

The problem with the miraculous nature of everyday life is that we wouldn’t be able to do ‘everyday living’ if we were constantly remarking on all the small miracles of existence. Or we’d be worse at it. And modern life really extracts it’s pennyworth. You have to put in a lot of commitment to modern living to get the success you crave.

Maybe fashar can help you out.


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