Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Week of Endings

This past week, I would rather have been at home. It’s not that my vague desire to return home, which is always with me, suddenly welled up to form something more concrete or resolute. It’s not that anything in particular happened here that was bad—just the usual garden-variety stuff for a fairly garden-variety semester. In fact, things are good. My job is going well. I enjoy a flexible schedule that most people my age would love to have. Reading and writing comprise huge chunks of my life, just as I always wanted them to. I work out a lot and I’m getting into pretty good shape. Even my psoriasis is in recession.

But, well, there are times when I feel a tangible tug to be at home—to stand in solidarity with others in honoring a mentor, or in mourning an uncle. That was this week. I learned last Sunday that my uncle had died of pneumonia. He was 41 and suffered from a fairly severe form of Down’s syndrome. He had been living in a group home for many years now—I only remember him from my childhood, when my family would make the begrudging trek down south to visit my grandmother. At that age, I was scared of my uncle. He was unable to speak, but he made grunting noises mixed with high-pitched squeals. He was almost 9 years older than me, a lot larger, and he didn’t know his own strength. More than once had I been caught in his smothering, forceful embrace, as he squeezed more tightly, refusing to let me go until my grandmother or my father forced his arms away.

Still, when I heard the news of his death, I felt the loss. My family was one person less than it had been. I called my father and roused him from Xanax-enhanced dreams, and he told me that he and another of my uncles, Tom, had been in the room when Kelly had died in his sleep. There was no bucking, no death rattles. He just stopped breathing, the end result of his final illness. My father was…sad, in a way that is difficult to characterize. He clearly felt a loss, too, even though Down’s syndrome had rendered my uncle Kelly unable to maintain familial relationships in the conventional sense—although his mother, my grandmother, visited him every Sunday, took him to Ponderosa, and let him wander the aisles of Wal-Mart before returning him to the group home. None of us really knew him because he was locked inside Down’s syndrome, and yet it was clearly a blow to my father, who had lost his half-brother, to my uncle Tom, to my aunt Darlene, and most of all to my grandmother, for whom my father felt genuine sympathy—remarkable if you knew anything about the history of their relationship.

When I talked to my father, I told him I wished I could attend my uncle’s funeral. I felt wrong carrying on with the business of work while my father’s side of the family gathered en masse to mourn, and just like when a childhood friend died in 2006, I spent the day wishing I was at home. I felt the stirrings of a kind of solidarity that have taken root only since I moved here.

In other news, in another stratosphere of life, one of my mentors is retiring at the end of the school year, and yesterday was her surprise party. She is the director of Wittenberg’s Writing Center, has been for nearly 30 years, and writing tutors from all eras descended upon campus yesterday to surprise her with a show of support and appreciation. I was not there. This bothered me a great deal because, well, Maureen was one of the first people to take me seriously. She did so without ceremony, without any of the bluster you see in corny teacher-changed-my-life movies: no howling Morgan Freeman, no streetwise Michelle Pfeiffer. I think this is one of the most important things a mentor can do for a student: you can take that student seriously. Too many teachers are self-absorbed, or burnt-out, or otherwise ill-suited to this aspect of the profession, but Maureen, she was selfless. There was nothing grandiose or self-serving in her taking me seriously. I think she saw a young man—a boy of 18, really—who wanted to be taken seriously. She recognized what it was even before I recognized it myself, although, in looking back over old essays from freshman year, I see a boy trying on words too large for him, striving to show he belonged. Maureen had at least an inkling of this, and that alone is more than you get from most teachers. It’s something I’ve been mindful of lately, in my own teaching: only this week I encountered work from a student who clearly wants to be taken seriously, and I tried to follow Maureen’s lead, by giving this student’s work serious, rigorous and fair treatment. I think this is one of the ways you take a student seriously—you reciprocate that seriousness in your approach to their work, without assailing their rookie mistakes, lack of perspective, or adolescent bluster. These things, one hopes, will pass on their own. My job is to show them another path, just as I was shown. I only needed somebody to recognize that I was searching for that other path, and Maureen was among the first.

This is something I would have liked to tell Maureen in person yesterday. Instead, I am left to deposit this missive ruminating on her and on my dead uncle, shouting at them both from a far distance (in the case of my uncle, a far, far distance). This is something about life abroad I hadn’t considered, the curious immobility of being away. It’s the opposite of conventional wisdom, that life abroad is the ultimate independence. Sometimes it’s about being on the run, or taking refuge, or starting anew after one thread in life has run its course or been ruined. I’ve seen such things in the expatriates here. All of these paths begin with an impulse toward liberation, but they have their own deterministic pitfalls. Me? I can feel the constraints of the ex-pat life this week, keenly. And I know I would have to go on living with these constraints if I were to stay here much longer.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009


A man holds a sack, its edges rolled. Next to him, boys scoop kernels of corn into piles and sweep those piles into their hands. They drop them into the sack. Corn and dust and sand and cigarette butts. Tires, slowed by other tires, pass those small brown hands. Somehow, this corn spilled. It probably fell from a truck. In a city of many spilled things, this corn is gathered.

The boys are on the outer curve of this bridge, and our bus hugs the inner curve. A segment of railing is missing from the inner curve of the ramp. Below us, traffic merges. A row of shops and battered buildings presses against a median, on which a toddler stands. In front of a garage, a man sleeps on a chair with unsteady legs. Adolescents in grease-splattered T-shirts heave tires and plunge themselves elbow-deep into the guts of cars and trucks. When the pollution eases, the Giza pyramids are visible from here.

When I was small, my father would warn me against entering the corncrib – there was the possibility of snakes and mice, but, more importantly, a slippery pile of corn could suffocate, cover, kill anyone, especially a small child. Corn was as potent as sand. From afar, it seemed uniform. Close up, you could see its pink-tinted, disfigured kernels.


One of the university students climbs to the highest walkway on campus. He puts his hands behind his ears and closes his eyes and delivers the call to prayer.

There is a photograph of him in the student newspaper. He does this every day because the new campus is perhaps the only place in Cairo where you cannot hear the muezzin’s calls. Many students express admiration for what he is doing; a few find it disturbing. He mentions in the newspaper article that he disapproves of certain aspects of the university, such as the way males and females feel they are allowed to interact or the fact that courses such as philosophy are required.

In a makeshift mosque on the new campus, someone keeps hanging signs that say such things as “Lower your gaze before women” and “Why aren’t you veiled?”.

I remember that student, the one who stands in the photograph with his palms cupped behind his ears and his eyes squeezed shut. I was his teacher during my first semester in Egypt. Each time I returned an essay, he caught the pages with two fingers placed as far from my fingers as they could get.

He recoiled from me. I cannot allow for a softer verb than that.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Don't Open the Door

In class yesterday, we were covering logical fallacies. I had been using a thin slip of paper as a bookmark for my text. On it were several depictions of hand signals accompanied by Arabic. This is not the first time I have seen this paper. A few times a year, J answers the door to a deaf man who passes these out and indicates that, for this public duty, he should be tipped.

Over the course of discussing fallacies, I had busied my hands with this paper. It was one of those days where too many students were actually whiny – whiny as if they were children, whiny to a depth I hadn’t seen since my five-year old nephew and I tried to sort out our differences when he wanted to whisk down the street from me on his bike and I insisted he stay close. I suppose my hands were responding to the voices of these young adults when my fingers ripped the paper in half. But because I am also rather juvenile, I gasped. This caused my students to ask what was wrong. I explained what had happened. It didn’t matter that the paper was torn – I had abandoned my Arabic lessons when I got to the verbs (which took nearly a year to get to), so I would have needed the intelligence of Helen Keller to connect the rather small, depicted gestures with their Arabic meanings.

Nonetheless, my students, in the spirit of distraction and boredom that we all felt at that moment, erupted.

“Professor, doctor, don’t open the door to those men!” they implored.

Students here call you “doctor” and “professor” even if you don’t have the proper degree. My degree is terminal but hardly doctoral. I was not under the impression that my students were concerned about me – I fully understood that this explosive chatter had more to do with putting off the educational process than saving my life. As a result, I tried to calm their pleas and said: “I’m glad you’re so concerned about my safety, but let’s get back to logical fallacies.”

Before my declaration, though, my students had told me about a woman who answered her door to one of these men. He pushed past her, stabbed her, and robbed her apartment. They all seemed to know some version of this story, and, had I let it go on much longer, it may have taken on Headless Horseman proportions.

I have never answered the door when the deaf man has visited, so I can only imagine him, a shadowy presence in the dark hallway, catching a whiff of cats and garbage as he waits for some well-to-do foreigner to open the door. J, our resident well-to-do, opens the door, greets the man, hands over a couple of pounds, takes the paper.

We answer the door all the time. Sometimes we hand bills to delivery-people for which they do not have the right change, and they tell us they will be back. They always come back. Once, I was charged eight pounds too much at a grocery store in Zamalek. The overcharge was less than two dollars, but an hour after I had returned home, an employee of the store showed up with eight pounds that I did not realize I had lost. A man comes to check the gas meter; the bawaab might deliver mail. In Zamalek an Asian woman would come by sometimes with garbage bags full of clothes, and once I let her in and she laid out the clothes on our dining room table, urging me to buy. We hear the bell far more in Egypt than we do at home, and here it rarely occurs to us to peek suspiciously through the hole before opening it.

But I wondered, as I rode home on the bus, where I do most of my reflecting these days, how the students had reached these conclusions about this apparent army of deaf men taking pounds for their informative slips of paper. I had dismissed the students’ comments, partially to get the class back on track and partially because their alarmist response seemed too familiar.

I thought about the balance that I’ve never achieved here but which I strive for. You have to open your door and keep it closed; you have to know your context. There are some things in Egypt that I will never understand, absorb, or accept. But I tolerate a lot here in my daily life that I would not in the U.S. And it’s a matter of determining which things I should accept and which things I should push back against. Finding a middle ground between being completely submissive to another culture and being a belligerent expatriate prick. I’ve seen both ways, and neither appeals to me. It’s a matter of deciding when to open the door and when to keep it shut.

In that classroom, my students’ voices didn’t sound like their own. I often get this sensation from college students and know that it was true about me when I was an undergraduate – the beliefs I first was asked to explain to others expressed themselves in the voices of my parents and the community I came from. It takes time to develop voice – this is one reason I like to teach writing; this is one reason I gravitate toward writing nonfiction. As my students warned me about the knife-wielding army of deaf men stabbing one innocent woman at a time instead of entertaining the possibility that he was spreading awareness in a country that has little infrastructure for disabilities, I could hear something else in their voices, something that wasn’t them. It was rumor and innuendo and gossip. It was class, for the class system in Egypt is so blatant it’s hard to look at sometimes. It’s quite possible it was a story from their parents. Stay on the right side of the tracks. Don’t take candy from strangers. Fear the unfamiliar. Don’t open the door. Build a compound in the desert and grow grass there, far from the cesspool of the ghetto.

But it was the voices from my home, too – the voices of white flight, the voices of gated communities, the voices of simple ignorance, the voices of blindness and barriers and buffers and shields. My students are from a much higher social class than me, and their identities are so different than mine, but in this case, we seemed frighteningly similar.

After I had written the first half of this entry, I picked up Dave Eggers’ What is the What. It’s a nonfiction novel of sorts; Eggers tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan. The story opens with Valentino, in America, answering the door to his apartment. A woman enters and asks to use his phone. When he says yes, she runs back to his bedroom and slams the door. He begins to follow her only to hear a voice at his back; a man has accompanied the woman, and they are in the process of robbing Valentino. Through the scene, Valentino reflects upon how he got here, the horrors he has seen, experienced, and inflicted. Here is a passage about the robbery from p.4:

I sit now and he shows me the handle of the gun. He has been holding it all along, and I was supposed to know. But I know nothing; I never know the things I am supposed to know. I do know, now, that I am being robbed, and that I want to be elsewhere.

It is a strange thing, I realize, but what I think at this moment is that I want to be back in Kakuma. In Kakuma there was no rain, the winds blew nine months a year, and eighty thousand war refugees from Sudan and elsewhere lived on one meal a day. But at this moment, when the woman is in my bedroom and the man is guarding me with his gun, I want to be in Kakuma, where I lived in a hut of plastic and sandbags and owned one pair of pants. I am not sure there was evil of this kind in the Kakuma refugee camp, and I want to return.

During this scene we learn that, in Sudan,Valentino watched other boys being eaten by lions, observed two boys weakened by hunger fighting over some scraps (an incident that resulted in the weaker one’s accidental death), and, perhaps most chillingly, was running away with two other boys from Ethiopian soldiers when a woman beckoned the boys to come to her. They ran toward her, and she shot the other two boys; she was an Ethiopian soldier, too, who had called upon the power of a maternal voice to murder these children. Valentino is thinking about all of this in the face of some punk who is stealing all worthwhile secondhand material from him – a camera, an old TV, his roommate's laptop. And he is helpless to it. When he tries to defend himself, he is pistol-whipped.

Those students who were paying attention yesterday might tell you that I am headed toward the rather repugnant fallacy of false analogy. I am not trying to do that, at least not in the case of Valentino. It seems that he finds much to fear in America, a kind of pernicious evil that he can’t compare to the horror in his past. My story and the stories of my students hold nothing like this.