Building Bridges

By Dr. Jan-e-Alam Khaki

BUILDING bridges and removing walls characterise our times, despite some gaps. Enormous efforts are being made by various organisations and individuals to help build bridges among communities and cultures, notwithstanding the thesis of clash of civilisations.

It is time to remove walls that obstruct human communication, flow of information, knowledge and wisdom from crossing borders and boundaries. The times are gone when communities were cocooned in their villages or towns. My parents’ generation, for example, hardly saw any city, let alone another country. Today, I, like many others, have travelled to countless cities and more than two dozen countries. My son, in his 30s, has so far travelled to double the number of countries that I have visited, and he is half my age. His children may travel even beyond the limits of the earth.

If such is the speed of journeys across countries and continents, what does this mean in terms of our way of looking at the world and our attitude towards its people? Could we still cherish our self-centred, self-righteous, and narcissist attitudes that helped us survive in small ‘ponds’ while we today swim in big ‘oceans’? What does the spirit of our time (zeitgeist) demand?

In my view, in order to not just survive, but thrive today, we need to build bridges, across frontiers, languages, cultures and perspectives. We need to learn to live with, rather than live away from, the ‘difference’ with the ‘other’. The attitude of bridge building is an appropriate response to, and skill for, living with difference.

It is time to remove the walls that impede communication.

A physical bridge is an overarching structure across a gap, such as a river, or even a long ditch between, say, two villages. It enables people to connect two separate spaces which otherwise are directly inaccessible to one other. A bridge is built step by step, plank by plank, raising the level of the bridge. Once built, people and vehicles access what is otherwise inaccessible.

Likewise, used in a metaphorical sense, bridge building is connecting different cultures, peoples and ideas across civilisations, revisiting our own ideas about them and trying to understand their worldview in their own terms; approaching them as they are, not as they should be.

Cultures and civilisations are enriched not by being the same but by being different.

Great philosophers, poets, mystics, scientists and artists often build bridges when they promote cross-cutting themes through their ideas, inventions, concepts, artefacts, poetry and literature that often have universal appeal. They interpret human conditions in a way that transcends boundaries and creates more space to allow others to come in and enable insiders to access what is outside in a closed system, cultural or philosophical, as Plato rightly exemplifies in his cave metaphor.

For example, the inspired messages of the prophets, mystics, poets, and philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, Ibn Sina, Maulana Rumi, Allama Iqbal, Shakespeare, Shaikh Sa’di, Tagore and Newton are a few names to cite that have international appeal across geographical boundaries, regardless of whether or not the people agree with their entire thought.

To illustrate this, a verse from the great poet Sa’di, best known for his Gulistan and Bustan, is cited here which emphasises the unity of mankind and interdependence. The verse has been placed at the UN building entrance in New York. In the verse, Sa’di says that the sons of Adam are akin to the limbs of one organic body, as they have been created from one essence. When an ailment afflicts a body part, the other parts cannot remain restful. If you are unconcerned about the troubles of others, you do not deserve to be called ‘human’.

Means of communication and travel such as planes, trains and other means of transport do the same today — connect people from distant lands to the remotest villages and towns. The stretch of this physical bridge building is so great that today the means of transport are connecting us to the farthest stars in the heavens.

Many modern movies and dramas similarly pick up ideas that connect many cultures and people who often do not see eye to eye with each other. Similarly, electronic communication methods, such as the email and social media, mean that, despite its limitations, today’s world aims to connect and integrate.

Four words characterise the metaphorical bridge building: shared aspirations, integration, connectivity and inclusiveness. These are some of the great planks with which we can build the longest and strongest bridges reaching out to what is otherwise unbridgeable.

We all, in sum, need to be involved in bridge building across communities by sharing with, and learning from, each other. Communities and individuals unwilling to build bridges today are likely to remain isolated tomorrow. Bridge building today, indeed, is future building.

The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2017

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