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The ''Big -Talk" Syndrome

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ByTarek Heggy

In our tongues so glib
Our very deaths reside
We have paid dearly for our gift of the gab

Nizar Qabbani

No wonder the war ended in defeat,not victory,
For we waged it with all the Orient's gift for oratory,
With quixotic hyperbole that never killed a fly,
Fighting in the logic of fiddle and drum.

Nizar Qabbani 

In the sixties, we claimed to be the stronger military power in the Middle East, a claim that was revealed to be nothing more than an empty boast on the morning of June 5th ,1967. To the same extent that we overrated our own abilities, we underestimated those of our historical enemy, which we dismissed as 'a bunch of Jewish gangs'. Events were to prove that the enemy was far more dangerous than we had talked ourselves into believing . Nor were these the only instances of 'big-talk' during the sixties, a decade that has become synonymous with hyperbole. A number of notorious examples come to mind, as when we described the British prime minister as an effete sissy ' a particularly offensive characterization in the Arabic language ' or when we taunted the United States of America by inviting its president to 'go drink from the sea, first from the Red sea and, after it is dry, from the Mediterranean', or when we spoke of the Qaher and its sister missile the Zaher as the ultimate weapon.

When we listen to the rousing national songs composed in the sixties, we find that, despite their high artistic standard and beauty of the national and pan-Arab dream they celebrated, their lyrics are replete with big-talk . The tendency to indulge in bombastic and high- flown language continued and, in fact, grew, throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties , and is now such an integral part of our public life that anyone using a different language today strikes a discordant note .

Thus when we talk of our history, we do not use scientific and objective language but invariably sink into grandiloquent rhetoric that drowns the truth in a welter of words .The same pattern applies in our approach to the here and now. Even a victory by the national football team provides an excuse for a veritable word fest. Although our standard in the game ranks somewhere between 'average' and 'poor' at the international level, on the rare occasions our players score a victory on the football field we are not in the least embarrassed to hail them as 'conquering Pharaohs' or to use similarly overblown language to describe what is, after all, nothing more than the outcome of a match.

The use of superlatives is rampant in our media where, as a look at the front page of any newspaper will show, big-talk is the order of the day. Thus any meeting is a 'summit' meeting, any decision a 'historic' decision. 

It must be said in all fairness that our propensity to use big-talk is in no way contrived: we are only doing what comes naturally. High-flown language has become part and parcel of our code of communication, both oral and written. It is not associated in our minds with obsequiousness or fawning; we do not use it in order to curry favour or to ingratiate ourselves with the object of our flattery but as a spontaneous form of expression. Sadly, this reflects a serious flaw in our mental buildup that has become deeply-entrenched in our culture. Even the few who are conscious of the problem are themselves not above succumbing to the big-talk syndrome on occasion, proving that the problem has pervaded our cultural climate to the point where no one is immune to its effects. 

An example that graphically illustrates how this feature has come to dominate the cultural landscape in the country is the coverage by Egyptian television of the marathon that took place around the pyramids shortly after the Luxor massacre in the autumn of 1997. Viewers were treated to the amazing spectacle of about ten foreigners, interviewed separately and supposedly at random, who all said the same thing in virtually the same words, as though reading from a prepared script: 'Egypt is a safe country in which we feel secure .. terrorism does not exist only in Egypt but in all parts of the world .. everyone wants to visit Egypt and see its wonderful antiquities'. 

The twenty years I spent in one of the largest industrial establishments in the world gave me the opportunity to discover that this feature is unique to our culture, a mark of dubious distinction that sets us apart from other members of the community of nations, whether western or eastern. 

Cultural evolution in the countries belonging to western civilization, including North America, has proceeded along a course that equates big talk with ignorance. Human knowledge is a complex web of interconnected strands in which there is no room for big talk, only for moderate language that tries as far as possible to reflect the unembellished realities of science and culture.
As to eastern civilizations, the reserve that has always been and continues to be one of their most prominent characteristics shields them from any temptation to indulge in big-talk.

The picture is very different in the Arab world, where the temptation is indulged to the full. Indeed, the big talk syndrome is endemic to our culture, which has a long tradition of declamatory rhetoric that places more value on the beauty of the words used than on their accurate reflection of reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rich body of Arabic poetry, which is full of poems eulogizing or vilifying this or that ruler for reasons known only to the poet and often having nothing to do with reality . The dichotomy between language and truth is not only acceptable in our culture, it is actually honoured in a famous saying 'The most beautiful poetry is the least truthful' (a'thab al sh'er ..akthabo).

No less authoritative a source than the Quran itself addresses the issue when it denounces poets as 'drifters in all directions' and of not practicing what they preach.

The writer of these lines believes it is incumbent on all those who are aware of this distortion in the Egyptian mind-set to raise national awareness of the dangers inherent in using big talk that is totally divorced from reality . To that end , they must expose the negative effects of a phenomenon which has led some to describe us a 'culture of words' or, with scientific progress, 'of microphones'.

Educational curricula must be designed to alert our youth to the highly detrimental effects of this phenomenon, which not only distorts our image in the eyes of the outside world but keeps us imprisoned in a fantasy world that we have created for ourselves with no basis in reality. It also holds us hostage to a past we evoke in such glowing terms that it becomes more attractive than any present. There is no doubt that the big talk syndrome is linked to number of other negative features, such as lack of objectivity, escaping into the past, excessive self-praise and inability to accept criticism . Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that it is the bridge that links all these negative features together.

It is also important to emphasize the link between the big-talk syndrome and the narrow margin of democracy. In a cultural climate dominated by hyperbole, it is as difficult to expand the margin of democracy as it is easy for political forces to win adherents through the use of demagogy. Those who claim that their political project represents 'the solution' to all of Egypt's ills are merely serving up another course in an interminable and indigestible meal of big-talk. Economic and social problems today are far too complex to be cured by a slogan rooted in the big-talk syndrome. 

As I listen to our public discourse drowning in a sea of hyperbole, I turn to the words of Nizar Qabbani, who eloquently sums up the situation in these words:

'We have donned a thin veneer of civilization 
While our soul remains mired in the Dark Ages.' 


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