Written by Azita Rassi, Our translator from Persian language
2016 has been a year of increasing schisms all over the world. Dissension accompanied with prejudice and an adamant refusal to see the others’ point of view marked this ominous year that might be the predecessor of worst ones if we do not try to encourage acceptance, and not just tolerance, in our communities and, arguably most importantly, in our children. Christmas is an excellent time to start doing so – if you haven’t already – both because of the spirit of the season and because the gifts we choose for our children can indeed help with this ambition. Below I will try to explain how.
November’s book in my book club was In Lucia’s Eyes by the Dutch novelist Arthur Japin. As pointed out here, this novel was written in 2003 when the growing number of Muslim immigrants and the killing of Theo van Gogh by a Muslim led to an emergence of xenophobic sentiments in the Netherlands. In his novel, which on the surface has nothing to do with current events, Japin draws a fine distinction between tolerance and acceptance:
Tolerance is not the equal of acceptance. Indeed, the two are more nearly opposites, the former sometimes serving as a subtle means of repression. To accept another is to embrace him unconditionally, now and always. But to tolerate him is to suggest in the same breath that he is rather an inconvenience, like a nagging pain or an unpleasant odor demanding temporary forbearance. (163)
After reading this passage, I began considering different countries and if they displayed more tolerance or acceptance (frankly, in some countries, mere tolerance, even with the derisive definition that Japin gives, is much missed). Then my musings became more personal as I remembered a change my family has gone through in the recent years.
As an Iranian Muslim, I grew up learning about Christmas only through foreign films and books. Then at the age of 40, we moved to Malaysia, where every festivity under the sun is celebrated with gusto, regardless of religion or race. As the communal cheerfulness imbued our lifestyle, we gradually adopted new family traditions, including decorating a small artificial pine tree every December, baking gingerbread men, and putting up Christmas-themed stockings for our two children and two amiable young Malay friends, whose presence have become an essential part of our Christmas celebration. Following my thoughts on what Japin had written about acceptance, I reflected on how our family is now celebrating Christmas but not, for example, Diwali, which is just as significant in Malaysia. The reason, I believe, is that we know so much more about Christmas and Christians. Why is that? It is due to all those foreign films, stories, and novels that we have been exposed to since childhood. Christmas has become familiar enough to be embraced, whereas Diwali, gloriously beautiful as it is, has remained “other”.
As the eventful 2016 approaches its end, Christmas can be the best time to increase our capability for accepting rather than just tolerating those who are not like us. The first step is taking measures to familiarize ourselves with hitherto alien cultures. One of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is reading fiction created by the finest writers of these cultures. Let us nurture acceptance in our children too by getting them, as part of their Christmas gifts, storybooks that reflect the unfamiliar traditions and habits of other nations or faiths. When presented as interwoven into a charming story, these ‘foreign ways’ can be appreciated, understood, and remembered. Closeness and compassion can then gradually replace aloofness and mistrust. Deep-rooted acceptance can replace strained tolerance. It can all start with the storybooks they receive this Christmas.
Japin, Arthur. In Lucia’s Eyes: A Novel of Casanova. Trans. David Colmer. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
More from this writer: