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Ali is an economist and political analyst, working at a private UK-based company. He worked previously at the World Health Organisation and has an MSc in Development Studies from SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter (@alialsaffar).

Civilisation is…

Forget the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens, the Gutenberg Press or Michaelangelo’s masterpieces. I have discovered the peak of human civilisation, its the queue for the 521 bus at Waterloo.

For those of you who haven’t witnessed this marvel of human civility, it is a line that in the morning rush hour stretches back around 200 metres. It is composed of hundreds of people on their way to work waiting in a single, orderly, quite formation.
The beauty of the 521 queue though, lays not in its aesthetics, but in what it signifies. The respect, and consideration shown by complete strangers to one another. These are people who could be late to work, who might be in a rush, who could very easily walk to the front of the line instead of joining it at the back, but chose not to because they realise it is wrong, because a civil society is about order and respect, about looking at those around you and seeing equals.
Those of us who have been to the Middle East will know that even the very first experience you get there, in the airport, is the antithesis of what I have just described. Inconsiderate travellers elbowing one another in a cumulonimbus mob with no thought of who was there first,trying to get one up on the next person. This begs the question: why?

Is it because of Israel and Mossad? Or because America steals our oil and colonises our lands? Is it Balfour’s fault? Or are our societies the way they are because the principles of equality, respect for the other (regardless of age, colour, gender or religion), and common courtesy, which constitute the very essence of Islam, are not prioritised over all else, and we instead focus on the peripheral accessories that have somehow become the centrifugal forces in our religion. The 521 queue, in my humble opinion, is close to being the physical manifestation of the morals we should all aspire to, the type that will propel our communities and societies back to the forefront of civilisation.

To the giants amongst men who line up every day to catch the 521, I salute you.

6 Comments on “Civilisation is…”

  1. bon March 19, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    I think the queue of 521 is visible in almost every aspect of daily life in the West (most of the West). I ask myself this question every day…is it our religion, is it ignorance, lack of education, shortcomings in our upbringing?….and sometimes, in bouts of sheer anger and frustration, I wonder if it’s a biological thing, maybe our minds are smaller? Ok, I don’t really believe that but I can’t resist thinking it. ….

    Here’s an example of a type of scenario I witness on a daily basis: A citizen throws garbage out of his car on to the streets of his country and a foreigner gets out of his car and walks in the heat of towards an inconveniently placed garbage can to dispose of an empty bottle of water. WHY? Why does the foreigner have more respect for the country, for the earth, for God…for whatever reason? What’s going on? This is just one minute example that I think demonstrates something much larger than this, something I just can’t seem to put my finger on…

  2. Mohammed Abdullah March 19, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Speaking of airports, I remember reading about an observational study carried illustrating the differences between passenger interaction in an Arab country and a Western one. In the waiting area, passengers in the Western country would typically sit at some distance away from each other, whilst in the Arab one, the distances would be much smaller. We can bemoan our uncvilised selves all day and night, but it’s healthy to keep balance and not exagerate the merits of one culture over another, or if we are going to compare, we should take a holistic view, rather than focus on what one culture does well (we’re world famous for our queueing skills here in the UK) and compare that to another. Sure they will queue up, but if your house burnt down, would they invite you into their home, look after you and your children and not expect anything in return? Over the last 7 years, I have heard many remarkable stories from Iraq illustrating selflessness, compassion and community support, something that many in this country feel is long gone. Besides, Im sure in Iraq at least, people have gotten used to the idea, given how many hours they spend in line for petrol and check points in sweltering heat.

    Glad to see you’ve started this blog Ali, it’s a long time coming.

  3. Ali Rashid March 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    Hi Mohammed,
    Very good point about the house burning down, I think you’re perfectly right. Perhaps its not so much about drawing a balance sheet but appreciating our unique opportunity as British Iraqis to merge the best of both cultures.

  4. Mohammed Abdullah March 19, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    I certainly agree, and we really are privileged in that respect.

    Actually, as a side note, this has inspired me to ask (without googling :)) “why do we queue?” . I think, like almost all things human, it boils down to self-interest. You can try to push in at the front, but will be punished for it, and will probably fail, and most importantly lose your space at the back so get delayed further. Or you can join the back, meaning you will be no more or less privileged than others already ahead of you. Once you’re at the front, you will in turn resist a pushed-inner because you have payed your time, and don’t think others should get a free ride. This is despite the fact that letting someone push one place ahead of you hardly costs you anything (and perhaps why we are more willing to let someone push in near the back than near the front). The system is therefore self-stabalising, and only so because we are willing to live with a fair system if we can make sure it stays fair. On the other hand, at the disorderly Arab airport, waiting serves you no purpose, it is in your interest to push in, and you likewise aren’t going to punish others for trying to pushing in because you don’t feel like you have made a payment in waiting. Again, the system is fair, so it is stable. So why do some cultures favour one over the other? The queue is actually only stable in an idealised setting. In the real world, stronger people will capitalise on their advantage and push weaker people out of the way. This doesn’t happen here because law enforcement neutralises that advantage. Otherwise, it would quickly degenerate into the the Arab airport, which is naturally fair – ie, fair given your physical (dis)advantage relative to everyone else. So what does it take to turn the Arab airport into Ali’s bus route? Perhaps we need to change the risk/reward profile by injecting the prospect of having the crap beaten out of you by an Arab policeman if you don’t stand in line.

    Good blog.

  5. Hamzeh Hadad March 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm #

    This is a big issue, Arabs have no where near been organized in their lives and as for helping, westeners do a bigger and better job in helping then Arabs. In western countries there are many charity groups about every issue you can think about and westeners never seem to hesitate to donate but when it comes to Arabs well lets just leave it at that. Westeners never hesitate to help whether its giving clothes away or donating their money to causes such as people losing their homes.

    As for the westener not litering and the arab litering always shocked me. No one cares for the earth let alone their country. It was always said in Islam a Muslim should be clean but you see all the Muslim countries littered on every street and when you look at foreign countries they are clean with garbage cans all on every street to put your garbage in. Why is that?

    When it comes to donating and helping others western countries are the best in that. When it comes to being clean and caring for your country and the whole enviroment western countries are the best in that. When it comes to being organized people western countries are the best in that. Look at Iraq as they are in an election right now with many parties claming the votes have been rigged. I who live in Canada has never heard of an election being rigged! From federal to local.

    Western countries are runned in a much better way and you could say in a more Islamic way then Islamic countries are. There is something wrong in that. Whether it is lining up in an organized line to a man throwing his garbage in the bin instead of littering, Muslims and all Arabs must do something about it.

  6. Zaineb Latif March 23, 2010 at 11:31 pm #

    There is something I once heard, I am not sure of its authenticity, but apparently an Isreali official once said as soon as the arabs start to queue we’ll start to worry.

    I agree whole-heartedly with Ali here, as I have lived a fair 7 yrs in the Gulf. The queuing is not just about queuing, its about an attitude of narrow self-interest. Try driving there, there is no courtesy to the fellow person whoever they are, the only way one is given way is when you have a scary single digit number-plate.

    And that’s the point, as long as Islamic countries are governed by despotic dictatorships where religion is wielded by the guys at the top to serve their interests then Islam will not be, or seen to be applied genuinely, nor will the correct awareness and teaching of the right Islam be spread amongst the people.

    I think that, my friends is the difference between East and West. I just don’t know when will be the day the Arab citizen will wake-up this.

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