July 11th, 2012
The Free Dictionary defines ‘authenticity' as the quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine. A definition I find distilled more satisfactorily in the following from Dictionary Reference: not false or copied, genuine.
When it comes to antiques, designer goods and music, these qualities are pretty easy to detect. Authenticity is practically stamped into the very production date, sewn into the seams or carried by a recogniseable voice or style. It's a measureable that doesn't require an overly trained eye or ear to identify it.
Detecting authenticity in people, places or experiences is, however, a whole different kettle of fish, as our biases, expectations and preconceived ideas tend to cloud our judgment.
I found this poignantly true on a recent trip to Dubai where I constantly caught myself feeling desperately disappointed by the ‘lack of authenticity.' I found everything far too big, far too shiny, far too polished, far too... new and not gritty enough. I wanted grit. I wanted crowded souks and intriguing street food, I wanted awe-inspiring, ancient mosques, a real, useable Arabian coffee set to bring home and, I wanted to hang out with locals.
Instead, I visited the tallest building in the world, an indoor ski resort, and a couple of waterparks, I ate hotel food, ended up buying four jerseys from the Forever21 store in Dubai Festival City mall and met more South Africans, Australians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Filipinos than I did Emirates.
Even the dune adventure with its faux-Bedouin setting, luxurious 4x4s and tired camels smacked of commercialism. I mean, the beverages we consumed included Coca-Cola, red wine and beer. Not very Bedouin, now is it?
I kept looking for the ‘real' people, experiences and places, overlooking the things I was already getting to experience. Surely there had to be more.
It must've been somewhere between buying a box of Al Maha tissues - the most ‘authentic' item I could find in Al Karama market - and inspecting a pair of genuine fake Oakley sunglasses for my dad that it suddenly hit me: perhaps the ‘authenticity' I was seeking wasn't relevant to the place and time I found myself in.
What I desperately wanted was a little taste of ‘1001 Arabian Nights,' instead it felt more like I'd stepped into a ‘Sex and the City' set. While I wasn't exactly pleased with this realization at first, I soon found that it made complete sense. Dubai is not a remnant of some ancient civilization and, therefore, not steeped in the kind of history I'd hoped to find. Instead, at roughly 46 years old, this modern-day Babel is one of the youngest cities on the face of the planet, and acting its age: being bold, brash, brave and brazen as only the young can be.
In other words, what I had labeled as ‘inauthentic' was in fact, bizarrely enough, perhaps one of the purest expressions of authenticity I'd encountered in a long time.
This made me wonder how often it happens that well-intending travellers fall into the trap of seeking a 'genuine' experience, and in the process, miss out on the authenticity playing itself out - so subtly, because that's how it rolls - right in front of their eyes.
I see it happening right here in Cape Town all the time - tourists (especially the younger ones) expecting to meet earthy, wholesome and slightly poverty-stricken Mama Afrika and encountering complex, diverse and indefinable Mother City instead. To many of these a night out on pan-African Long Street and a colourful township tour seem so much more 'real' than sipping a flat white at a V&A Waterfront coffee shop, strolling along Sea Point promenade or, for that matter, watching a local band at Mercury Live/The Assembly.
In a recent TED talk, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie referred to this as the ‘single story' mentality, and discussed why it is so dangerous... especially to those who constantly find themselves seeking for truth/authenticity/genuineness. She concluded her talk with these wise words: "When we reject the single story. When we realise that there is NEVER a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise."
And while the 'single story' mentality is particularly prevalent in travel, as Adichie's choice of the word 'place' suggests, it's needless to say that it also rears its head in the way we view and relate to people, situations, even icons.
Of course, Mandela Day and all the hype around it springs to mind.
On the one hand people were celebrating our former president's brave struggle and exceptional grace to the point of sainthood, and on the other, embittered voices were reminding everyone of his murky terrorist past, rendering him undeserving of any acknowledgement.
The fact is, both stories are true and therefore authentic, trustworthy and genuine, but neither is the ultimate or the full truth.
In a country like South Africa we are constantly victimised by our niggling dichotomies and the contradictory 'single stories' we spin about them. We so want to move forward (or so we say), but we keep getting stuck and can't figure out why.
Well, perhaps we should take writer's advice and boot our tendency to believe the 'single story' we've come to construct. Only then can we expect to usher in a kind of paradise, even if it's not quite what we had in mind.
Follow Nadia on Twitter: @nadi_krige