Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Sounds, Not of Silence

This morning I hear cicadas in some brief mating sojourn. I cannot see them, for there are few trees in Tucson, and this is where I would have looked for cicadas were I in the Midwest. Not that I want to see them. I have a real “poison-them-all” attitude toward flying things with hard shells. I hear the swamp cooler and two fans, whooshing. Occasionally, a bird, and Bodie, the cat, adjusting his position in a chair before the screen door. My fingers beating at the keyboard. Every fifteen minutes, the clock tower on the university campus, a mile from here, announces itself, so that it is difficult to lose track of time. I’m sure if I listened closely enough I could hear traffic from a few blocks away, but the cicadas rule.

It is strangely quiet in this flat, spare town. Or, it is strangely quiet in this neighborhood. Most of the students have not yet returned from summer break. Even when they return, quietness tends to prevail. I’ve noticed it more since joining the neighborhood listserv after burglaries began to increase here last year. Sometimes burglaries are reported, but most discussion of thievery is characterized by its possibility and emerges from the paranoia of two old women who cruise the alleyways in search of criminals (which they claim almost always wear hoodies and carry backpacks) and refuse to open their front doors if someone knocks, their fingers perpetually poised over 911. At least this is the way they report it on the listserv.

The quietness of this neighborhood is different than the tableau of silence I imagine at my parents’ house in Illinois. It wasn’t long ago that I thought of that place as perfectly silent, almost motionless, for, when I moved to my first real town, Decatur, the city sounds punctured, as did the city light, and I found it difficult for a while to sleep and focus. Of course, the silence of this countryside is a myth, for there is always at least the rustle of leaves, the buzzing of insects, the plethora of bird calls, not to mention the farm equipment and the trains in the valley, which pass at least once an hour.

This morning, I started to read Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage. It opens with a description of her childhood in a Cairo not yet populated by the eternal honking variations of vehicles. Rarely does she hear a car horn, and the family dog always hears a vehicle coming before she does. She describes sounds both invigorating and spiritually lonely – from a reed piper to the greetings of people on the street. In spite of the absence of cars, which are so prevalent in the Egypt I knew, I can relate to the feelings of life she captures – the hearty greetings, the bustle of small business – even individual – commerce, and the growth of plants and animals encouraged by the proximity of the Nile. But mostly, a sense that life was present and acknowledged, a feeling that the existence of others mattered. I don’t want to exaggerate since the Egyptians I knew often complained that people were just not as friendly or helpful to strangers as they used to be, and there were plenty of moments in Cairo where I felt like either just another anonymous part of the hoard or just another foreigner waiting to be parted from her riches. But these moments, in my memory, are counterbalanced by acts of kindness, not only those which happened to me but which I observed from a distance, moments that I think James and I have recorded quite often in this blog. And a texture to those acts of kindness that I haven’t often met back in America.

Silence is not really about absence as much as presence and acknowledgment. I could be silent in Cairo, where “noise pollution” is deadly high, in the sense that I could feel life. I don’t know if that makes sense, but this morning in Tucson I do not feel life, and the silence feels less like silence than something palpably sinister. Where are all the people? Why aren’t they calling out to each other, talking? They know each other, some of these people who have lived here for years, but there is a lifelessness, a huddling that too easily translates to suspicion. I see this in many places in America, even the place I am from, the place that I in most ways love the most, and it makes me wonder about the ways in which Americans are destroying the capacity to love each other. This sounds dire. It is dire. When we can be suspicious of the people across the street, how can it be possible for us to cultivate the capacity to know and understand someone who lives across the ocean? I know this feeling. I live behind a fence, and it is difficult to see my house. I enjoy that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with privacy or solitude. And I stood at my window in Cairo and looked down at the street far too often to claim that I was immersed in Cairene street life. But I admired many parts of that life. I am envious of it. I wish I knew how to live like that. I wish I could be more like the man I passed in Cairo one morning, eating a sandwich, who casually offered me a bite.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt Sans Internet

Word is that Egypt has not simply shut down Facebook or Twitter, but that the Egyptian government took the bold step of actually shutting down the Internet. I was in Egypt for a few days when a ship had dropped anchor on the Internet cable buried in the Mediterranean. That's right, there is actually a cable buried in the Med upon which entire swaths of the Middle East depend for Internet access. The government hasn't cut the cable (yet). The country faces potential financial ruin if businesses open on Sunday without access to the Internet.

I know that Egypt has advanced under Mubarak. I know there was a controversial liberalization of the banks, unpopular with many, and an increase in tourism. And I know Egypt is better than a lot of other despotic regimes. There are institutions of government, and those do operate, even if they are riddled with petty bureaucrats who work an average of 15 minutes per day, the tasks of governance squeezed around Al Arosa tea and Cleopatra cigarettes.

All the same, I know about a police state that crushed dissidents, stifled political opponents, and robbed the democratic process of any integrity. I know basic goods and services haven't always been provided. I witnessed some of this (when I wasn't finding my own little things to complain about). But I also knew that public apathy wasn't the same thing as private discourse, of a talk among friends at the Horreya or the ubiquitous, tiled sheesha cafes. After all, Egyptians are famous talkers. They are lovely, social people at their core. I think they love the world, I really do, despite what you're seeing now, the pent-up anger blasting. They have their thoughts about Hosni Mubarak, as we can see by now. But there has always been a reticence to address it publicly, perhaps because no public platforms existed. So you would see frustration manifest in other ways--the physical assault of a former student, an attack on women by a mob at Eid in 2006, bread riots and strikes in 2008, silent protests in Alex last year when a young man was allegedly beaten to death by police. I wondered how a populace absorbs these blows, absorbs the attack on Christians (by the way, Christians have been protecting Muslims who are praying in the face of police, literally bowing to the illiterate young men wielding batons)--how it maintains its equilibrium in a city that is already tilted sideways, veering on a fine brink. These blows matter. They are felt. They reverberate. They are remembered, and they return when called upon by events like those in Tunisia.

I think I knew this could happen. I remember reading about revolutions in undergraduate history classes, from the brutal tyranny of the Soviets in Hungary and the Chinese in Tiananmen, to the toppling of the Soviet bloc. The governments ignore, then try to appease. Do they wait too long to appease, allowing a fire to go unchecked? Or does appeasement only elevate their opposition, embolden it? What happens when appeasement fails?

We are at that point now. The protestors may be happy with Mubarak's false promises and go home. They may rail until he finally rescinds the emergency law under which he has governed since 1981. They may go home when free and fair democratic elections are held, and the unpopular Mubarak is voted from office. They may not wait for any of this, believing it will never materialize, and continue pushing. And then what happens? I remember that from my history classes too. What happens? Who fills the void? What will result from the scrum? Could it be worse than what they've got? Mubarak seems to be betting so, by trying to drive a wedge between sympathetic but housebound middle class families and those who have taken to the streets.

In the meantime, I have colleagues and former students there. I wonder about them, worry about them. We've heard reports from them downplaying the riots. One colleague breezed through Tahrir Square, seeing nothing. Another, who lived in Lebanon during their bloody civil war, puts the Cairo riots in context: they are nothing in comparison. AUC students sequestered in Kattameya wonder how the events "way in Midan Tahrir" actually impact them. Some don't see the relevance; perhaps they have not yet realized that their ways of life will be altered if regime change comes. They might view it as suffering, or unfair, if this happens. But it's not. As I've learned of late, fairness is about knowing simply that it is possible that you may or may not get your way, and that if you live in a place where the same people get their way all the time about everything, then you have others--most of the people--who never get their way about anything. I think that is how Egypt has operated. It's perhaps why we've seen a conservative backlash during the Mubarak years, a holding dear of celestial justice for a lack of the temporal variety.

That may be beginning to change. 


Monday, January 03, 2011

On the January 1st Bombing of the Coptic Church in Alexandria

It was the first time I cried about something that happened in Egypt. It was the first time since moving back to the U.S., too, that I wasn’t there when it happened.

When Khan il Khalili was bombed (again), James and I were a fifteen minute drive from it. I felt…sad, of course, but had a sense of clarity that such bombings – the kind that don’t come from war-planes - are reckless and random. You can’t hide from that. It didn’t stop me from going to Khan il Khalili or from taking my parents there months later; it didn’t stop me from doing anything I would have normally done in Cairo.

There are badges each nationality wears, each belief wears, each history of nationalities and beliefs. We can express our sorrow for these badges; we can lay our fingertips on them and try to give solace. We can’t claim events if they aren’t seen as ours. Still, I cried on January 1st. And I knew that, if I had still been in Egypt, where, just a short while before, it had snowed in Alexandria, the texture of the experience would be completely different. I cried, and I missed Egypt.

I watched on facebook that day as Egyptians who were not in Egypt expressed their grief, changed their profile pictures to the intertwined symbols of Islam and Christianity. I watched (or “creeped”) as expatriates still living in Egypt claimed the event, furrowed out their own tears and pain.

As the days pass, one of the overwhelming messages on facebook is that Christians and Muslims are in this together. A Muslim student posts that he will be attending church now in solidarity with the Copts. The Copts post about peace and about the light of God; many of them post about forgiveness. These are the kinds of messages that my tears, as I read the objective BBC news story and watched the gruesome video that opened the story, might have been connected to.

Amidst this outpouring of solidarity, why is it, then, that I keep coming back to this: another former student posts a political cartoon in which a sheikh and a Coptic priest are reaching out to each other from a minaret and a church steeple. Below them is a hulking shadowed man with beady eyes and a cowboy hat pushing the buildings apart, doing his best to keep them separated. The man looks like a bandit or an American cowboy, and I think that this is what he is supposed to be, but the black and white picture appears to have been doctored. A yellow Star of David has been photoshopped onto the bandit’s chest. Yellow. This is the one that really gets to me.

In the comments about the political cartoon on facebook, another Egyptian says, “Oh, so now it’s Israel’s fault?” Good for you, I think. Even as she is answering, the student says she refuses to answer; she posts a link to a photo of a runner in the Special Olympics that has also been doctored with a caption about how arguing on the internet is “retarded.”

I started to write an email to my former student. Often, I craft emails to people that I never send. And what do you think I said? I didn’t say, That Star of David? It’s YELLOW. Yellow. Have you read anything about the Holocaust, about stars pinned to clothes? And that joke about the retards, about the Special Olympics? Retards were also killed in the Holocaust.

Maybe my student was right – take out the ignorance about retards and you have a point about people arguing on the internet – it becomes less the democracy computer scholars hope for and more a series of incomprehensible shouts that no one is invested in listening to. We are all so busy shouting and staking identity claims.

Still, that cartoon she posted is such bullshit - a cruel misrepresentation, a red herring – we know this. She probably knows this somewhere in her young heart and head. Don’t blame her, teacher. That is important. Do not blame. She is young. I am getting to a place where I can say that. What did I think when I was 18, 19, 20? How did I think? What will I think when I am 40? 50? I know a little more now about the ways in which she may have been indoctrinated to think about Israel and the ways in which she may have a right to think that way. I know too some of the ways in which Americans tend to be blind about Israel.

I am quicker now to pull back from being that condescending adult who wants to tell it like it is. That doesn’t mean I am successful since I have always been pretty self-righteous and am sitting here writing a blog entry, which is an indirect confrontation. But I know, too, that I am no longer her teacher and that I should not presume otherwise. Even if I were the teacher, the subject is delicate. The context must be understood and discovered. As her teacher, I would have to respond in a way that didn’t shut her down, in a way that encouraged her to think and that only hoped that one day she would broaden her thoughts and develop a more critical perspective. I see around me many teachers who block their students at the most crucial moment; I do not want to be like that.

Most importantly, I do not know what it means to be an Egyptian who was a child on September 11, 2001, who may have been told that it was the Jews who brought down the towers, that it was the Jews who killed JFK, that it was the Jews who have created a plan to destroy Egypt by sending foreigners with HIV to spread throughout the land, that it was the Jews who recently implanted GPS systems in the heads of the sharks who showed up in the Red Sea and killed a German tourist. I have to hold this in my head. I have to hold it there and not dismiss it even as I find it ludicrous. I have to remember the Gulf War and how the only thing I understood about it was the racist shirts depicting Saddam Hussein that I saw in my junior high. I have to remember that we all knew who the Jews were in my wasp-y school. That some jackass tried to run down a half-black kid in the high school parking lot. That my town, for a while, was dubbed Kluxville, and this was in north-central Illinois, nowhere close to the South. I have to hold in my head the image of the kid on my high school band trip to Washington, D.C., who wore a T-shirt depicting a confederate flag with the caption “The South Will Rise Again” and taped a piece of paper to the bus window that said “Show us your tits.” We all come from broken places and carry fucked-up notions.

Whenever I see news footage of Egyptians, they do and do not look like the Egyptians I know. I know more about the Muslim world than I otherwise would have, but I do not understand what it is to be an Egyptian, or a Muslim, or an Arab, or a Coptic Christian in Egypt this week. What is depicted has edges that confine, like a picture frame – even as there are inaccurate expressions forced by the imposition of the camera, there are things outside the perimeter that we cannot see, or know, or come to understand. We could try harder, though.