The universal appeal of self-pity

Zeinab Badawi’s ‘The History of Africa’ (BBC World News)

Artillery Row On Television

“How could one be Persian?” asks Montesquieu, as he ironizes on the narrow-mindedness of some spirits of his time, who only perceive Eastern foreigners as radically strange without questioning the oddities of their own lifestyle. The post-colonial trend flowing through academia and media alike has something of that irony, as it wishes to deconstruct such notions as strangeness and foreignness.

Zeinab Badawi’s series, The History of Africabroadcast by the BBC taps into this wish to shift the narrative by making African voices heard. The show’s pilot ambitiously announces its wish to tell “the history of Africa from the beginning of time to the modern era”. The programme is part of an UNESCO project – “The General History of Africa”, being, by its own conceit, Africa’s history told by Africans. If, necessarily, not to Africans.

To tell the whole history sounds like a valid purpose, and a hugely ambitious one at that. However, each historical tale remains a story, a narrative, inescapably partial, biased by the standpoint, the voice, and the past of the one who writes it. Although it claims to be African-centred, the most surprising aspect of The History of Africa is not so much its partiality, but its unconscious, very Western, Rousseauvianism.

“This is where it all began for us humans”, says Badawi’s voice in the pilot episode, while the camera hovers on dreamy green hills, to the sounds of allegedly primitive music. “Here in Tanzania, the landscape looks much like it would have done at the time of early humans.” We are diving deep inside the fantasy of a lost innocence, of an Eden unsoiled by Western corruption, where the Noble Savage should be allowed to remain noble, and savage, and native.

The “we were here first” nativism, is hard to miss, though doubtless not intended as such. This idea of original goodness in humankind, only perverted by society and its inequities, was dear to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the chief defenders of universalism. His very specific (in terms of time and place) Enlightenment doctrine being that humankind, wherever it is, is the same.

The overt partiality is less troubling than the blindfolds that shut away essential elements of historical complexity

Plainly the universalist ideology of the Enlightenment could only thrive among the narrow intellectual elite who created a community of mind all across Europe, a then-budding concept. Europe shaped its identity in opposition with two poles, slavery at the West, and despotism at the East. And willy-nilly, The History of Africa ends up duplicating the same attitude. With the lack of precision typical of orientalists keen upon giving an impression of foreignness rather than embracing the places they discovered from within, episode 7 – “North Africa” – shows a map that mixes up the Pigeon Cave – Tafughalt – located near the Algerian border, and the Temara caves, on the Atlantic shore. Does it matter much? Not in the slightest, if what one seeks is a general idea about a foreign, exotic land; but maybe a little more, once one considers that Tafughalt and Temara are twice as far from each other as Paris and London. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed, had I not grown up near the Temara caves. Yet, such lack of rigour leads one to question the accuracy of the rest of the show.

It would not be as worrying had Zeinab Badawi not been raised to the status of an establishment grandee, not least by being a leading member of the independent commission currently in charge of discussing the future of the statue and plaque of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. (I’m not sure of whom it is meant to be “independent”, I just note that its sponsors are very insistent upon asserting this word; self-evidently its existence is not independent of the people who self-interestedly brought it into being to address their very specific PR problems.)

The overt partiality is less troubling than the blindfolds that shut away essential elements of historical complexity. No episode addresses the question of black slaves sold by black tribal kings, of forced conversions of Jews and Christians to Islam, or of the infamous part North-West Africa played in slave trade. These things happened. These things were not covered. We should notice these lapses: they are instructive.

Zeinab Badawi gushes at the variety of faces in Marrakesh, linked to the city’s high importance in trans-Saharan trade. Such a delicate euphemism for slave trade. Up to my great-grandfather’s generation, in many commercial cities like Fes and Marrakesh, many Arab men begot two lineages, one from the wife and one from the black maid. It is a peculiar Western egotism to suppose that only Westerners are capable of the dreadful sin of privilege.

The universalists only wanted to look at other places that taught them something about themselves. Eastern despotism told Montesquieu about the separation of powers. Slavery in the United States told de Tocqueville about equality struggles after the fall of French aristocracy and clergy. As I watched The History of Africa, I felt, rather uncomfortably, that I was being taught that the White Western Man, from the Roman to the Victorian Empire, is bad, and that he is to blame for all the troubles in Africa, from the Roman Empire destroying Carthage to Cecil Rhodes digging up diamonds in Zimbabwe.

I do not mind vulgarisation, as teaching must begin somewhere, but I kept wondering about the potential inaccuracies I could not spot. What annoyed me the most was how thoroughly Westernised The History of Africa is. It still entertains the fallacy described by the late King Hassan II of Morocco as “Third-Worldism”: an attitude that throws back all the problems of Africa on colonisation, thus negating newly independent countries’ right to their own mistake. Africans lack agency by this account. It is hard to imagine anything more immediately patronising.

One must be careful when rewriting history; careful, and very humble

Mistakes are entirely part of history, whether they would be committed by the White Western Man, if such a man ever existed, or by the populations that could not fight against the West’s military or financial superiority. Behind its pretence to universalism, this post-colonial attitude creates a rift between a “them” and an “us”, no matter which of the two entities would be the West and which would be the rest of the world, piled up in an undifferentiated heap of folkloric costumes, customary laws, and strangeness that is perceived as positive just because it does not match what the West is used to. Orientalism strikes again – just as when Zeinab Badawi enjoys the fortune-teller, the snake charmer, and other typical tourist traps as though they were typical of Moroccan culture.

There are winners and losers in history. History is, some say, written by the winners. Giving the other party a voice does not help if this voice only speaks of its loss and resentment. One must be careful when rewriting history; careful, and very humble.

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