Aplomb, and Courtesy: A Paarfian Anecdote

Davdi Silverrock davdisil at gmail.com
Fri Nov 4 23:14:52 PST 2005

Some words of explanation:

Several years ago, I became interested in Islamic folktales and
stories.  My researches led me to collections of Sufi teaching
stories, and from there, to the works of Idries Shah.  After reading
the stories he collected, and deciding that I liked his style, I read
more and more of his works.  He was very ecelectic, good humoured, and
insightful, and I think some here might get quite a lot out of reading
his books.

Who was Idries Shah?  Well, he was, among other things, a Muslim, a
Sufi (for certain values of "Sufi" - there appears to be some
controversy over ideologies), and a proud Afghan.  He was a keen
observer of the people he interacted with and the societies in which
he found himself.  Living in England for many years, he decided to
write a few books about the English, describing them from something of
an outsider's perspective.  These were some very witty books indeed,
and as such, I really ought to let his own words speak for themselves.

This snippet is from "The Englishman's handbook : or, How to deal with
foreigners", which perhaps explains something about the bit that will

[Begin Cite]

   An Afghan, as such, has few stereotypes to accord with. My sister
Amina claims she has only one, because of Kipling's words, regularly
recited to her by English people:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
An' the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle an' blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

   But, as she says, it only needs someone to write something more
arresting and she could become approved of overnight. The trouble is,
the Afghans themselves have cultivated a tear­away image for so long
that they don't feel the need to do much about it.

   We keep it up, even in England. No time ago the medical journal
Current Practice quoted a Gallup poll among GPs. They were asked if
they had been threatened with violence at work. One third of them had:
they spoke of alcohol, drugs, razors and psychiatrically disturbed
patients. A single respondent, how­ever, was less detailed, laconic:

      Threatened three times in the past seven years, but, being an
Afghan, I threatened them back.

[End Cite]

This is the beginning of the chapter in particular that I wanted to
bring forth, from "Darkest England":

[Begin Cite]

   Aplomb is French for 'perpendicularity' as of a lead weight on a
line, self-possession'; and sang-froid, of course, means coolness of

   It is probable that the English prefer to use these foreign terms
for something which is widespread among them because it is bad form to
boast of one's own coolness. That is, it sounds better to say, 'By
jove, that Frenchman certainly had aplomb', to show that one approves
of the characteristic, than to claim to possess it oneself. It is left
to others to make further inferences.

   This is part of the amateur-status preference in England. A
compatriot of mine was told, at his first Oxford tutorial, 'You are
not only here to learn. Try to acquire the appearance of not bothering
to work at anything. Let others boast of their studiousness.'

   It is aplomb which other peoples associate with the English. An
American joke may be taken as the standard text:

   An Englishman is standing at the long bar of a saloon in the Wild
West. Suddenly a suncrazed outlaw rushes in, straight through the
batwing doors, firing into the air and howling, 'Get outta here, you

   Everyone dives for the floor or stampedes out of the place. The
Englishman, however, is still standing there, as the new­comer skids
up to him with staring eyes.

   'By jove' says the Englishman, 'you were right. There /were/ a lot
of coyotes in here, weren't there?'

[End Cite]

And he goes on for bit, through annecdotes more or less amusing.  But
this one, here, is the heart of the matter, I think.  As for its
relevance on this list, well, I can just see this as perhaps being an
encounter between a Dzur and an Issola...

[Begin Cite]

   Aplomb is often, though not always, related to the actual words
used; as I remember from an event of my childhood. For­tunately I can
recall it in detail, though at the time I did not know what the
phenomenon was called.

   It happened in the Afghan mountains. A distinguished Englishman was
due to visit us, and considerable preparations had been made to
provide a welcome appropriate to his dignity - and also to what we
regarded as ours.

   Now, our place was well enough fortified, but it was at the top of
a winding road, at times infested by outlaws who attacked people as a
matter of course. Their motto was '/O darad, man chira nabegiram/ -
He's got it, why should I not take it?'

   On the morning of the visit a fairly wild bandit was in the area,
and he spotted the Englishman's Rolls-Royce. With a cry of delight at
the prospect of sport and gain, this ruffian fired a warning shot
(which shattered a wing-mirror) and began to leap from crag to crag,
downhill towards his prey.

   The Indian driver of the car jumped out and rolled into the ditch,
teeth chattering, as the English celebrity sat: becalmed, eyes riveted
upon the advancing figure. There seemed no hope for him.

   Suddenly, like a scene from a film, another shot rang out, and the
bandit fell, drilled clean through the head.

   Then, from behind a boulder, also tripping from rock to rock, came
a stocky, middle-aged figure, clad in deerstalker hat and Norfolk
jacket, a hunting rifle in his hand: It was the formi­dable Sirdar
Faiz-Mohammed Khan, Zikria, our neighbour and a crack shot with a
Mannlicher, who had spent a lot of time in England, and spoke the
language well.

   As he came up to the Englishman, the Sirdar swept off his cap and
said, 'Good morning, my dear sir. The obstacle to your progress having
been removed, you may now proceed.'

   'But you needn't have killed him,' spluttered our guest, which was
quite quick thinking, all things considered.

   'I had to, on grounds of hospitality,' said the Afghan, 'the fellow
was being almost discourteous.'

   Between them, the two got the shivering driver back behind the
wheel, and the first thing that I knew about it all was the Rolls
entering our courtyard to the sound of trumpets, and then the
Englishman, white to the gills, muttering 'Almost discour­teous,
/almost/ discourteous, almost /discourteous/', like a holy mantram.

   My father said, 'Terribly sorry about that spot of bother. Lot of
it about at this time of year, you know'. Having recovered his
composure, and relaxing after the feast, our guest asked, 'What would
His Excellency have done if the ruffian had /actually/ been
discourteous, instead of "almost"?'

   My father said, 'The Sirdar would have crossed that bridge when he
came to it.'

   Now I come to think of it, I can't decide which of them had the
greater aplomb.

[End Cite]