In Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia, tribespeople and villagers often speak about avoiding 'the evil eye.' If you possess substantial wealth or have positive attributes that could attract envy, it is important to not be too obvious or showy. Behaving otherwise could attract 'the evil eye.'
It is equally important to be generous. If, by necessity, an individual or a family must show, then they must expose a 'good hand.' Everyone who touches them must receive something. Otherwise, inevitably, one's wealth or good fortune will attract attention from the 'evil eye.'
Women of the tribes are especially creative in contriving defenses against the evil eye. Using the color blue is known to be effective. The evil eye hates blue and can be deflected by defensive uses of this color on clothing or suspended from objects.
During my visits to Afghanistan and Iran, I found blue beads dangling from tribal bags that came onto the market. These beads struck me as quaintly superstitious. Mixed with these attitudes, however, were important truths regarding how we need to treat one another, especially how those who 'have' must treat those who 'have not.'
The 'evil eye' offers a metaphor for what happened to the United States, culminating in the September attacks. We have, and we display, all this incredible wealth, all this might. Somehow we haven't managed to live in the midst of all of this affluence with a sufficiently generous hand to avoid attracting dangerous levels of envy, resentment, and hatred.
No one can diffuse the hatred of small clusters of people whose hearts and minds are truly insane. But our problems in the world are much broader than those associated with crazed terrorists.
With a few exceptions, we have not managed to reduce factors of resentment by showing the world a truly open hand. We did so after World War II with the Marshall Plan, an incredibly generous policy that helped rebuild war-ravaged Europe and Japan.
That was 50 years ago, and the benefits can still be felt in our relationships with European and Japanese allies. Since then, we have bailed out several countries that fell into economic crises, in part to help them and also because of considerations focused on our own national interests.
Perhaps the tendency to mentally expand these occasions of generosity is simply human nature, multiplied on a national scale. But there is a price to pay for cultivating a self-portrait that does not correspond to the picture that the rest of the world sees.
Shifting our thoughts from that self-portrait to the reality, which of the following ideas took hold in the United States during the past several years:
• 'Let's share more of this incredible wealth, if only for our own good.'
• 'Let's cut taxes.'
The answer says a lot about our values and about the risks we have been willing to run in becoming the object of increasing levels of envy and resentment.
Allowing for tendencies throughout the world to exaggerate America's riches, there can be no question that this nation represents an extraordinary pinnacle of affluence.
The rest of the world sees this; they hear about it. But, as a rule, they aren't permitted to touch, to taste some of this for themselves.
For the great majority of the world's population, as close as they can come to our affluence is to see images on the glass surface on a TV screen that does not even belong to them.
James Opie is a Portland Oriental rug importer who has traveled widely in Asia.