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.



siobhan said...

"Finding a middle ground between being completely submissive to another culture and being a belligerent expatriate prick."

My expatriate experiences have always been dominated by the struggle to find this middle ground. I have never been successful, but hold out the hope that if I were to live abroad now, I would be closer to this middle ground than I have been in the past.

How far do we let our fear control us? As far as seems necessary, I suppose. Do you think your students are governed by this fear in their own lives? (That is, do they or their parents open their doors to these men?) Or are they assuming that this is a situation that they can handle but that you, as a female foreigner, cannot?

American_in_Cairo said...

Hey, Siobhan! I definitely think that my students (who are in a privileged position) are controlled by fear in much the same ways that I could/can be in American cities. I think they do care about the ways Cairo is perceived and try to shield foreigners from anything they feel makes it look "bad."