Lesson 4: Take the time to learn and take the time to unlearn

The world is an evolution of cultures and societies through periods of bloodshed, peace, dominance, acceptance, power and will always be so. Food, music, art, culture, people, races, politics, and problems result from that dynamic.

The issues seen today are a reflection of a past from centuries back. The same dynamic played out in the past.

In 2016, I visited the genocide museum in Kigali, Rwanda. It was a sobering visit. We had heard about the horrific violence that gripped Rwanda when the Tutsis and Hutus started massacring each other. It was incredibly moving to see the photographs and read the stories of millions caught up in the war. During that visit, I learnt more about the role the Belgians played in widening the divide between the Hutus and Tutsis during the colonial rule. It took time for the deep-rooted hatred between the tribes to surface up, and it did most horrifyingly in 1994. The effects of the genocide are still felt in Rwandan society today.

The unexploded ordinances in the jungles and fields of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have resulted in numerous fatalities. Today, there are 600,000 tonnes of unexploded ordnance in Laos, leftovers of the CIA’s secret war on the communists in the region. The geopolitical fight between the Americans and the Soviets resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries.

Today, in Ho Chi Minh City, you can still see a mother carrying her adult child on her back, begging for help.  Agent Orange has deformed her son. Though relations have improved between Vietnam and the US at the federal government level, there are lingering issues, which have prevented a deeper relationship between them. Ho Chi Minh City is also known as Saigon, a reflection from a bygone era, when Saigon was part of South Vietnam and was quite different from Hanoi, in North Vietnam.

As we trace back history, the impact of war, colonisation, religion have all changed the fabric of our world. It is something I experienced in multiple places around the world, including Rwanda and South East Asia.

As I went back in time in many places, I transformed into a different era when traditions, practices, culture, and societies differed. It was very much apparent in South America and Central America. Before the colonisation of the Americas by the Spanish, the entire region was vibrant with multiple tribes and cultures. We had the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and many more dominate the lands during different periods. There were no horses in those days, and the use of the wheel to transport goods was not in practice. The Gods belonged to nature, and there were strict rules about customs, rituals and traditions. Christianity wasn’t yet part of American society. In 1492, Christopher Colombus found Americas, which led to the eventual introduction of Christianity. The Spanish conquerors introduced new practices and structures, alien to the locals.

Today, the impact of the conquests is felt across the region. There is a divide in economic and wealth distribution between the Spanish descendants and the native descendants. Christianity dominates American society though natives are back to practising their old traditions and customs. More importantly, the introduction of European diseases decimated the local population completely changing the Americas’ fabric.

The sands of time have been flowing since the Big Bang. The wheel of change has been turning since then with profound impact after the evolution of life on Earth and the subsequent dominance of Homo Sapiens. Man has changed the course of history, time and time again.

My journey to Istanbul, Cairo, and Athens proved the above.

Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is where, in my view, Western/Middle Eastern civilisations played out for centuries – more than any other place except possibly Jerusalem. It was conquered, lost and gained. It was built and torn down by numerous dynasties.

As I took the first steps from the ticket counter to Hagia Sofia’s entrance, I immediately transformed to another place, far back in history. The Hagia Sofia is an artefact representing those times. Today Hagia Sofia is a full functioning mosque. The decision was taken in 2020 by the current government of Turkey led by President Erdogan. Before a mosque, the Hagia Sofia, also known as Aya Sofia, was a museum. Before that, the Ottomans, who ruled Istanbul, classified it as a mosque. Therefore, the Hagia Sofia started as a church, then became a mosque, then a museum and now is a mosque again. It is a representation of the changing dynamics of society.

The same dynamic manifests itself in the multiple monuments in Istanbul. Istanbul showcases the riches of history from the Byzantines to the Romans to the Ottomans. Iconic architectural gems such as the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Cistern, the Rumeli fort and many others are a testament to the deep history.

The BBC documentary, Ancient Invisible cities, does immense justice to Istanbul and two other cities: Athens and Cairo. Inspired by this documentary, I spent some time exploring the sights of these three cities.

The overwhelm felt at Hagia Sofia was vastly trumped by the awe when I first saw the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza:

How is this even possible?

How did humans, 5,000 years back, accomplish this wonder of the Ancient World?

It is a testament to the human spirit and ingenuity.

Like Istanbul, numerous dynasties influenced Cairo over thousands of years – From the Pharaohs to the Romans to the Islamic dynasties to the French and then the English. We have iconic gems such as the Pyramids, the Coptic Cairo structures, the Saladin Citadel and the mosques in Islamic Cairo, representing the various dynasties throughout history. In Ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs ruled for two thousand five hundred years. Within this extended period, there were numerous dynasties (thirty-one dynasties in total), and multiple periods (such as old kingdom, middle kingdom and new kingdom), profoundly impacting Egyptian society. Akhenaten was the pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, who ruled Egypt around 1350 BC and changed Egyptian society by replacing the main god Amen-Re (and other polytheistic gods) to a monotheistic god, Aten. As a result, he changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten. It riled up the priestly class in Egyptian society who were also very powerful at that time. After his death, his son, Tutankhaten, took over the kingdom and then changed back the kingdom religion to the worship of Amun from Akten. That young king is known today as Tutankhamun.

The changing winds of faith in society can have profound impacts. In the modern world, no other example makes this point more than the brutal ISIS, who fought for a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and believed in Islam’s extreme form. Unlike most of the Islamic world, where the religion is a lot more relaxed, it preached Islam’s far extremist version. However, compared to many European countries, Islam worldwide is very conservative compared to these countries’ secularist values. The differences in value systems will profoundly affect social and political networks in time, with the rise of populism as an early indicator.

Athens too has had influences from multiple dynasties but is most influenced by classical Greece. Here, on the Acropolis hill, where great thinkers laid the seeds of democracy, one can gaze into the distance as far as the eye can see and be transported to centuries back where important debates and discussions occurred. Nothing stands out more in Athens than the Acropolis. The ideas of Stoicism, Democracy and Art have deeply influenced European society and over time, the entire world. European Art in the 15th century based itself on Classical Greek Art and hence was known as the Renaissance period after the gap in history known as the Middle Ages where there was little creative output. Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Michaelangelo are the three pillars of the period of the European Renaissance. They influenced numerous artists who followed their style and vision, and these artists influenced subsequent artists to date. The ideas of democracy resonate in multiple countries in the 21st century. People fought in numerous civil wars to defend rights and democracy, and countries such as the USA, France and the United Kingdom value democracy core to their existence. In Sports, the marathon, popular among millions, is rooted in the Classical Greek period, from the battle between the Ancient Greeks and the Persians at Marathon.

There are icons built by multiple dynasties in all three cities – some dedicated to the Gods and some dedicated to themselves and their legacies, all made by man.

If you think of the deep history of these places, you have to ask the question:

What does it mean to be Turkish or Egyptian or Greek?

The answer today is quite different from some hundred years back.

The sense of identity would have changed, and there would have been intense anxiety in trying to answer these questions:

Who am I?

What is my identity?

How do I keep my identity?

I can only imagine these questions were being asked by the people in Egypt, Turkey, and Greece over the centuries as numerous religions, kingdoms, and dynasties took hold.

The same dynamic played out today, whether in the US or Europe or a small village in Africa. In some way, humanity’s interconnectedness played out for thousands of years and will always influence the present and the future. Change cannot stop.

When you take the time to learn more and therefore reflect on more, you also make an effort to unlearn more. The result is a space created for better appreciation and compassionate acceptance. It does not mean agreement with perspectives, but it could be the difference between acceptance and rejection of emotions, beliefs and actions driven by personal bias, outlook and prejudice.

It could help us understand why identity matters to a young white boy in Middle America.

It could help us understand why an aged covered woman in Afghanistan thinks very differently to a young black woman in Kenya.

It could help understand why a young Native American is bitter about the United States history and consider Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning.

It could help us explore the drives, the fears, the values, the passions of the divisive political divide seen in our world.

Compassionate acceptance of our differences is not the same as the agreement of divergent values and needs. That simple principle is borne out of learning and unlearning. This insight is probably the greatest gift given to me by my explorations.

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