Vad sysslar muslimer med på nätet? Planerar självmordsbombningar och klagar över arroganta kvinnor som kräver rösträtt? Inte alls.
Egyptiern Mohamed El-Fatatry som växte upp i Förenade Arabemiraten och kom till Finland för att studera teknologi visste bättre. Han insåg att de flesta unga muslimer är som vem som helst i västvärlden. För att visa att han hade rätt grundade han som 21-åring sajten Muxlim som skulle bli det största muslimska livsstilsnätverket i världen.
Mohamed är den karismatiska visionären som ville bygga en bro mellan den metaforiska muslimska ön och det västerländska fastlandet. Såväl inhemska som internationella medier rapporterade entusiastiskt om hans verksamhet. Finländska politiker höjde honom till skyarna. Men han såg också på en annan verklighet där han fick kämpa för sina idéer, där han stötte på motstånd och främlingsfientlighet. Investerare satte käppar i hjulen och businesskumpaner vände honom ryggen. I recessionens skugga grubblade han ibland på hur han skulle kunna betala sina anställda och i turbulensen kring Muxlim gick hans äktenskap i kras.
Nu är Muxlim ett avslutat kapitel för Mohameds del. Men han känner inte för att slå sig till ro och infoga sig i det finländska ekonomiska och sociala systemet. I stället vill han skapa oro. Mohamed 2.0: Orosmanifestet är hans berättelse om vad som hände bakom kulisserna till Muxlim. Inc och vilka hans planer för framtiden är.
Boken är översatt från engelska av Stefan Backholm.
Ett finlandssvenskt förlag har publicerat, på engelska, en bok som lämpar sig utmärkt som läromedel för vilken som helst startup-företagare eller affärsängel.
För oss andra fungerar Mohamed 2.0 som kvalitetsunderhållning, vars drama inte skulle ha kunnat kokas ihop ens i Hollywood. Berättelsen om Muxlim må ha varit ett lysande misslyckande, men David J. Cords bok är, tom i sitt idealiserande, helt enkelt lysande.
Tommi Aitio, Muxlims strålande misslyckande, Kauppalehti
It is always somewhat uncomfortable reading something a writer was working on when he died. When I read Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura I wondered about his potential future: what might have been if he had lived to finish it. When I read Kurt Vonnegut’s If God Were Alive Today I thought about his past, and what the book would have become if he had still possessed his old skills right up to the end. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King made me think of his present, and what was going through his mind as he was writing.
Wallace was working on The Pale King when he took his own life. He had long struggled with depression, and it is difficult not to think of this while reading the book. One passage in particular caught my attention:
And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we’re remembered, these’ll last what – a hundred years? two hundred? – and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1864, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.
It is fascinating Wallace paraphrases Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Emperor’s book, normally called Meditations, is not a happy little self-help guide, despite some modern publishers’ attempts to market it as such. Marcus was approaching the end of his life as he wrote, and he knew it, and this was uppermost in his mind.
People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out… Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones that shone. The rest – ‘unknown, unasked-for’ a minute after death. What is ‘eternal’ fame? Emptiness.
Marcus Aurelius has achieved ‘eternal’ fame, or at least he is still being read 2,000 years after his death. David Foster Wallace has his own share of posthumous renown, but it remains to be seen if he is as lasting as Marcus. But does it matter? As Marcus wrote:
But suppose that those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do you?
I would suggest Marcus is completely correct. A posthumous reputation does no good to a writer as she is working. However, a realisation of the emptiness in eternal fame does do something beneficial. It places the mind in a position to create lasting literature. As David Foster Wallace wrote:
One paradox of professional writing is that books written solely for money and / or acclaim will almost never be good enough to garner either.
How’s that for irony?
Is there anything you would die for? Your friends, family, country, or God, perhaps? Is there anything you would kill for? Now for a harder question: is there anything you would kill innocent people for?
Yesterday I sat and brooded as I watched the BBC’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt. It was so impossible to comprehend: what goes through a person’s mind when they kill innocents?
When terrorists attack worshippers in Iraq, tourists in London or runners in Boston people try to explain it. They suggest the terrorists had some political or religious goal of some sort. They say they were alienated or brainwashed or evil or what-have-you. But these explanations, while logical, never really satisfy me. What was really going on in the head of a terrorist? What were the steps, what were the processes, a person would go through to kill innocents?
This led me to thinking of John Updike’s 2006 book Terrorist. The main character is a young American who becomes radicalised, groomed, and finally chosen to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan.
The book is very believable. By that, I mean the entire plot and evolution of Ahmed’s character was logical. I could understand how the terrorist plot was conceived and carried out. Ahmed’s actions and thoughts made sense.
In fact, Ahmed was a sympathetic character. And here lies the crux of the issue. Updike was a masterful storyteller. He made the terrorist a character the reader could understand and emphasise with, but this made the conclusion of the story inevitable. Ahmed stepped back from the brink, and chose not to detonate the bomb.
This ending was obvious from the outset. The reader could never sympathise with someone who would actually kill innocent people. The reader could never understand it. Ahmed was forced to become the good guy and refuse to kill because of the rules of storytelling.
A good novel can tell us much about the world, but Updike’s Terrorist fails on this score. This might be why it is one of his worst books. It doesn’t explain how or why someone could actually become a terrorist and carry out terror attacks. But this may be asking too much of even the master Updike. To explain such evil, I think, might simply be impossible.
5. People around the world don’t like America.
Generally speaking, Americans view themselves as the good guys, the cowboys in white hats, the superhero coming to the rescue. They are quite proud of their history, particularly America’s role in World War II and containing the Soviet Union afterwards. After leaving the U.S., I discovered the rest of the world does not share this positive opinion. I think most Americans know people in North Korea or Iran hate their country, for instance, but I would guess they don’t know how many people in allied countries dislike it, too.
I’ve met a significant number of Europeans who hate America for no discernible reason. Emotions are strange, and sometimes it is difficult to articulate them. (Why do people dislike the colour blue? Or broccoli? Or fluffy sweaters? These are some of the mysteries of the universe.) But a large number of people have very specific reasons why they dislike America. These range from business practices to foreign policy, from a national arrogance to a refusal to sacrifice for the global good.
4. American workaholic tendencies might have fewer benefits than they realise.
Americans tend to be proud at how hard they work. Perhaps this feeling is a descendent of the old Protestant work ethic. They look down their noses at the lazy Europeans who are always on strike or holiday while they demand more and more pay for less and less work.
There are obvious benefits of working long hours. Currently there is a movement across Europe to get people to work more across their entire lifespan: starting their careers earlier, taking less holidays, and delaying retirement. Personally, I enjoy working long and hard. I calculate that I work eight hours more per week than the average Finn, which is equivalent to almost two months more work per year. I do it because I love the feeling of exhausted accomplishment.
I’m not alone among Americans doing this, I suspect, but our efforts may be misplaced. Some studies have shown taking more time off increases productivity so that it more than offsets the missed time at work. The Norwegians are a good example: they work 20% less than Americans, but their productivity is 38% higher. They work less but produce more.
3. America isn’t the best at all things.
Americans tend to unconsciously view their country as the pinnacle of every conceivable thing. Anything with an American origin is better than the alternative. I unconsciously believed this, too, when I lived in America, but my eyes have been opened.
I had no idea what good seafood tasted like until I visited a little restaurant in Malta, and the waiter pointed out the window to the harbour to show me which boats had caught the different fish he had available. I had no conception of what good chocolate was until I visited Zurich. I shudder to admit this, but before I sat behind the wheel of a German car I thought Mustangs were excellent machines. Sometimes I tell this story at parties, and people laugh and slap me on my shoulder in commiseration at my naiveté.
I discovered America does not necessarily create the best food, the best products, the best ideas or social constructs. I do have a caveat to this, however. As I constantly tell people who ask me about the U.S., America is a very big place and you can find anything there. I am convinced that a person can find a restaurant in Manhattan that serves Italian food as good as anything you can get in Milan. But the average quality in the States is exceptionally poor compared to Europe. I suppose for most of America, quantity is more important than quality.
2. Realising the American Dream is disturbingly rare.
The American Dream states hard work will result in upward social mobility. This is beaten into every American’s head from birth, and they absolutely adore rags-to-riches stories. It doesn’t matter who you are, your skin colour, your gender, the wealth of your parents – if you work hard you will succeed. At some point, every single American child is told he or she can be President someday. This is meant literally as well as figuratively. If you don’t want to be President, but would rather be a CEO or scientist or own your own home, you can do it. Here’s what I learned: not only is this dream of upward mobility not unique to America, but America doesn’t do it particularly well.
The simple fact is other developed countries are much better at realising the American Dream than America. As a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago states: “the U.S. may be exceptional for its relative lack of mobility.” I think this is the most disturbing thing I’ve learned about America since I left it.
If you have poor parents in America, most likely you will remain poor, and so will your kids. In other developed nations, on the other hand, you have a much better chance of rising far higher than your parents.
If we look at studies of the intergenerational elasticity of income, we learn poor kids in Germany, Canada and Finland are much more likely than their American counterparts to have higher earnings than their parents. Poor kids in other countries have a better chance of becoming rich than poor Americans.
So why is this? Is it cheaper university education in other countries? A better social safety net? Fewer glass ceilings? I don’t know. But I think making America the Land of Opportunity in reality as it is in rhetoric should be a priority.
1. American optimism is a rare and wonderful thing.
America is a uniquely optimistic country. Even though it is relatively rare for a poor American to climb the social ladder (see point #2), it is almost universally believed to be possible. If you look at every presidential election in recent memory, the winner has not been the candidate with the best plan, or most experience. The winner has been the candidate who could best communicate a message of hope and optimism. I suspect the more intelligent Republican staffers knew the game was up when they caught sight of the Obama Hope poster. How could you compete against that? More Hope?
This national trait might be due to American history. It is a young country and, through much of its growth, was faced with a gigantic continent to expand into. It is no wonder it is a hopeful country. There were always better times right over the horizon.
The rest of the world does not share this optimism. Finland, in particular, might be America’s exact opposite. Finns are characterised by moroseness, cynicism, and pessimism. Even to share a smile with a stranger is so rare as to merit notice and discussion.
Americans have no idea how rare and wonderful this optimism is. It is a defining trait of the national character, and it is one of the things I miss most about America.
When you leave your home country, you become even more patriotic.’ A native Finn who had moved to Sweden gave me this profound maxim. I find it to be largely true, but it only tells part of the story. After you leave your home country, something else happens to you besides an increase in patriotism. You learn more about your homeland, more of its good points and more of its bad points. You learn how to criticise it, or praise it, from a wider base of experiences. So after eight years outside of America, here are some things I have learned about it by viewing it from a distance.
10) Americans aren’t stupid; they are myopic.
There is a world-wide perception that Americans are idiots. This is a stereotype bolstered by thousands of anecdotes. Everyone has seen the Youtube videos or Facebook screenshots of Americans who can’t find Canada on a map, or think kangaroos live in Austria, or believe London is a country.
When I lived there I thought Americans were pretty dumb, too. But now I think it is more complex. Americans are myopic. When it comes to the world, Americans are more interested in America than anything else. They are near-sighted, or, if you want to be generous, you can say they are inward-looking. Where kangaroos come from is simply less important to some of them.
9) Americans are fat.
Yes. Yes, you are. And you’re not just fat. You are morbidly obese. I only get into the States once a year or every other year, and it is always a shock to walk off the plane and see the huge mountains of flesh waddling around the airport. Americans aren’t stupid (see point #10), and they know they are dangerously overweight, but if you see it every day it begins to be normal and you don’t notice it anymore.
I can assure you this is not normal, America, and you should notice it. The rest of the world isn’t like this. Whole generations of people around the globe are growing up thinking those immortal lyrics of AC/DC – ‘knockin’ me out with those American thighs’ – means something completely different. And don’t try to blame it on genetics or how busy you are. Don’t try to pretend anyone under 140 pounds is promoting an ‘unhealthy body image’ and you have been enlightened to the true beauty of enormous fat rolls. That’s rubbish, and you know it.
I went shopping in America last summer and bought a size medium shirt. I’ve worn medium T-shirts since I was about fourteen years old, so I never try them on. But when I finally slipped it over my head it was gigantic. I brought it to Finland and compared it to the sizes here. An American ‘medium’ is a European ‘extra large.’ It wasn’t this way eight years ago, when an American medium fit me fine. So much has changed over the past decade that now the new normal is morbidly obese.
8) Extreme religious piety causes problems as well as solves them.
Overall, I think piety is a good thing. For individuals, it can offer hope and solace in a world where human life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, as Thomas Hobbes described it. The theory is religion also benefits society because people will be good during life so they won’t go to hell when they die. However, judging from America’s violent crime rate this theory might need a re-think.
Despite its good points, religiosity can cause problems. One of the reasons many Europeans think Americans are imbeciles is that so many people in the States believe in Creationism, despite the centuries of accumulated scientific proof to the contrary. Also, some Americans don’t believe in changing their behaviour to solve environmental problems because of pseudo-religious reasons: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ There are faith issues at work that secularists have difficulty comprehending.
But to be honest, what bothers me most about religious fundamentalism in America is the promotion of hatred towards particular groups. In the past century we’ve seen industrial-scale mass murder and genocide committed in the name of racism, patriotism, class warfare and the simple consolidation of power. Now we are seeing the potential for religion-induced genocide in Africa. A great religious demagogue who plunges the world into another Holocaust could just as easily come from America as anywhere else, I think, although I hope I don’t live to see it.
7) American influence is different than you might expect.
When you live in America, you believe the main aspect of American influence around the world is hard power. You think of things like military might, diplomatic skill, and business muscle. Yes, America has that, certainly, but hard American power is quite a bit less than the average US citizen realises. Think about it: America’s military still hasn’t been able to root out the Taliban, even after more than a decade of trying. America’s diplomats couldn’t stop India or Pakistan or North Korea from getting nuclear weapons, and I strongly suspect they will fail with Iran, too. When it comes to business, most growing companies are much more interested in breaking into China than the oversaturated, slow-growing US.
But the soft power of America is quite a bit more than the average American might realise. American universities have educated some 300 current or former world leaders, according to the State Department. American culture and methods and ideas are widespread.
Then there is the language. Of course the UK and other Commonwealth countries have contributed to this, but the growth of English as the global lingua franca is largely due to the US in the latter half of the 20th Century. As an example of how it has become so important, the main Finnish university has decided to conduct all its graduate business programs in the English language. But, to put it bluntly, America is not that important to the Finnish economy. Finland trades more with the Netherlands than America. So the fact that they chose English as their language of instruction should tell you something.
6) The whole world isn’t watching.
In 1968, protestors at the Democratic convention chanted ‘The whole world is watching.’ Before big media events such as the Superbowl or Daytona 500 breathless American commentators will remind the audience that billions of people around the world are tuning in. No, they aren’t.
It is true that the world pays more attention to America than America does to the world, but the level of this is frequently overstated. Worldwide, over twice as many people watch Formula One than NASCAR and IndyCar combined. I won’t even get into football, or soccer.
The day after the Superbowl people on the streets of London, Nairobi or Shanghai are not excitedly talking about the game. In many European newspapers it is reported in a couple of lines in the ‘Other Sports’ section, next to the results from some horse race in Dubai or swimming championship in Australia. So just because something is important to America doesn’t mean it is important to the rest of the world.
Next up: hating America, the benefits of workoholism, and the land of opportunity.
I love reading bad reviews, as long as they aren’t about something I’ve written. If I am buying a new book, I check the worst reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. If I am going to a particular hotel for the first time, I read what the most pissed-off guests I can find say on TripAdvisor. It’s the same way with movies, restaurants, or practically anything else that can be reviewed and disseminated to the public.
So I love the Omnivore’s Hatchet Job of the Year Award, which they give for ‘the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review’ each year. Their stated aim is to ‘raise the profile of professional critics and to promote integrity and wit in literary journalism.’
It’s rare to find a superbly-written book review, just as it is rare to find a superbly-written book. Literary journalism is a distinct art form. I haven’t done a great deal of it, but I have done enough of it to know how difficult it is. Reviewers are often given a tiny amount of time to do the work and a tiny amount of space to write the review. I was once asked to write a thirty-word review, believe it or not. Many professional reviewers can barely spend a full day on an article, so they are expected to read a book, think about it, and write a coherent review between breakfast and dinner.
I think most people would agree that superbly-written book reviews should be honoured somehow, but I think it is glorious they honour bad reviews.
There are a couple of reasons I like to read bad reviews. One is that I would like to know the worst case scenario before I get too committed. Another is that sometimes reviews are unfair, and this reminds me of what is realistic to expect. (You might be surprised at how many hotels get one-star reviews because it rained on someone’s holiday, as if the tourists expected hotel staff to pull out their weather modification machine and create sunshine or something.)
But the main reason I love bad reviews is a cynical backlash against the increasing use of positive superlatives in modern society. Every movie is the greatest creation in the history of the world. Every singer on Idol is heralded, by some drooling twit, as having the most perfect vocal skills since the dawn of time. The same goes with books.
Rubbish. If I’m reviewing something, I give out a five-star review with the same reluctance as the pre-Christmas Scrooge gave out coins to charity. Rabbit is Rich? Without a doubt it is five-star book. 2666? Ditto. Freedom? Nope. In my opinion a five-star book is a rare and wonderful thing, and publishers sure as hell don’t churn out dozens every year.
However, they do churn out dozens of clunkers. I think it is a grand endeavour to honour those book reviewers who are able to tell us what they think is crap in an insightful way. Many of these reviews are funny, so these awards have an Ig Nobel Prize feel to them.
Out of all those nominated for the Hatchet Job of the Year, my favourites were:
Ron Charles’ review of Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis in the Washington Post.
Suzanne Moore’s review of Vagina by Naomi Wolf in the Guardian.
The one I liked the most was the one which happened to win:
Camilla Long’s review of Aftermath by Rachel Cusk in the Sunday Times.