Beginnings – البدايات

Dear Readers,

It’s a rainy day in Newark. I’m up in Delaware for the next four days, searching for a job in the Philadelphia-DC area, and the weather is about as bleak as the prospects. There’s a constant drizzle, and the clouds have turned gray and make the orange and red leaves look that much brighter.

Delaware is a far cry from the Middle East.

November is the beginning of the rainy months in Alexandria — something that no one tells you about when you go to Egypt. Months of unbroken sunshine — filtered and focused by smog and smoke in Cairo like a lens — suddenly turn into inky afternoons, and the deluge begins. As there was once monotonous sunshine, so suddenly there is constant rain until February. I miss Alexandria in the wintertime the most. Characteristically, when an Iskanderani says “It’s raining,” he or she never uses the ordinary MSA word for rain (maTar), they say shita, which is the MSA word for winter. Instead of “It’s raining,” the phrase is “It’s wintering.”

The Egyptian blogosphere is awash with Egyptians and Americans abroad — thanks to the efforts of abroad programs, practically every Mac-wielding student on semester study can put together a weekly, if not consistent daily blog with some insight into local color and a lot of photographs.

What do young Americans  do abroad? Junior year abroad provides a welcome hiatus for most and usually jump-starts most linguistic skills. But most — and I stress most, NOT all — end up losing themselves in the mess that are the Cairo bars, and the leafy, insular jungle of Maadi and Zamalek: in the very, very closed foreign communities of Egypt, the put up signs that say “No Egyptians” and munch on imported bacon and drink their alcopops with particular smugness. Thursday nights pass in a drunken, hashish-induced haze identical to other abroad experiences in Italy, Spain, France — the only unique circumstance being that you have to (or should) hide your drunkenness from anxiety over local reprisals. These students usually use a checklist for Egypt: Pyramids, Nile cruise, visit to Siwa, temples of Hapshetsut, Dahab, St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. And why not? This is how many people, who wait a lifetime to see Egypt for two weeks, see the Mother of the World.

The problem is when those bloggers say, unreservedly, that they “know” Egypt.

The problem is when people assume that the pig of a cab driver who just tried to grope your girlfriend is every Egyptian.

The problem is when you assume the traffic in Cairo is a mess. Or the stink of the streets is terrible. Or you refuse to tip someone or pay extra because you’re an American and expected to be a little more generous. Or that the dollars in your pocket entitleyou to something. No one can know Egypt in two weeks.

No one can know Egypt.

Don’t get me wrong; I have thought all those things. I’ve had the knee-jerk reactions, I’ve craved bacon and good bourbon and wanted to pack up and leave. But gradually I realized that I was wrong. Egypt operates on a schedule, beauty, and quality of light that is altogether different than what the average American expects, and often the place leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But if I have learned anything during my time there, it is not to assume my knee-jerk reaction to something is the best reaction. In fact, it is often the worst. And the place…it grows on you. There is something about Egypt that seeps into you, and as one of my good friends has said tongue-in-cheek, once you have tasted that Nile water, you long to return.

In the area of Middle East Studies, quite a bit gets thrown around about Edward Said’s Orientalism, which describes a discourse common to French and English colonial literature; that “The East” is exoticized in the mind of the Western writer, he makes it a place where all is permitted, all is emotional, illogical, mystic and mysterious. The Orient is constantly disappearing, and travelers search evermore for the “authentic” Orient — the one where you cross the desert on camelback, listen to folk tales by firelight, trade silks for ivory, and cruel caliphs fall for veiled Circassian beauties. My conversations with Americans both here and abroad have proven to me that this discourse has defined — and continues to define — our own perceptions of what the Middle East is.

And yet, in writing this, I am also faced with a paradox; I am, in fact, perpetuating Orientalism. I am asking you, reader, to believe me; to trust that my expertise and experience is indeed authentic. I am asking you to believe that the Egypt I know is different from all the Egypt of other two-week travelers, of semester students at AUC. In claiming to fight Orientalism, I am asking you to orientalize Egypt. Problematic?

So let’s set some perimeters:

– I explore American perceptions of the Middle East. This means the Middle East as I have known it, and how I encounter it in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. Not New York Times perceptions, but here — on the ground, in Amreeka. Frightening perceptions, surprising perceptions.

– Additionally, I am a sucker for religion. I love it; I love talking about it, trying to understand it, getting confused by it, and hearing about it. This blog will attempt to tackle the unique issues of Islam as it exists in America.

– I will also try to provide insight into the rhyme and reasons of American opinions, as well as my own insights into issues as they occur. I want to point out that this is “local insight”; I’m not pronouncing an all-encompassing ruling.

– This is an ongoing commentary: I am developing my opinions as I go. I love nothing more than another opinion.

– Because the Orient has been orientalized for so long, I’m also pandering to an Egyptian audience: former students and teachers. I will try to occasionally post in Arabic as well on “local color” of life as I know it.

So this is a disclaimer. I’ve two years in-country as a denizen of Alexandria, first as a student with Middlebury College’s C.V. Starr School in the Middle East, studying with the tiny pilot class of 2008. I have lived alone, with Americans, with Egyptians; but mainly at 164 Teba Street in Sporting al-Kobra, just off the tracks from the little tin tram, and down the street from Mekka Juices. I developed such an obsession with colonial Alexandria and the city’s pre-WWII history that I became a freelance tour guide under the auspices of Nile Sun Tours, and led groups around the colonial parts of the city. I taught English to college students and young professionals at the Egyptian American Center in Roushdy, tutored a wonderful group of young Egyptian women in conversation, and primed the occasional foreigner in Arabic. Somewhere in between, I managed to amass a nice library of Arabic reference books, crank out half a manuscript, and do some occasional translations of colloquial poet Salah Jahin. But I am no expert.

The only thing I can give you in the way of reassurance  is that I love Egypt, I love Arabic, I love writing, and that I will do my utmost to be truthful, balanced, and well-written.

In Newark DE,

OO

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5 Responses to Beginnings – البدايات

  1. Pingback: New Beginnings – البدايات الجديدة « SON OF A DUCK / إبن بطوطة الجديد

  2. el-Rumi says:

    So happy that you are back in the blogosphere, looking forward to my weekly dose of comment on the Orient – a much needed antidote to the detritus I read elsewhere.

    I just got back from Alexandria – Ali and Othman send their regards to a certain “Mister Scotch”.

  3. Sarah says:

    Good for you Michael, your blog promises sounds interesting.

    After having experienced it, I have some of the same reservations about year abroad programmes in the Middle East. It was a very eye-opening experience, but it often feels difficult to reflect on people, moments, problems etc that occured and really comprehend them. Which can lead to sweeping generalisations or more often than not, criticism based on the assumption that if something is different to what we’re used to – different values, different aesthetics etc – it’s probably worse, or wrong.

    Whether we like it or not we become ‘ambassadors’ for our countries, just as the Egyptians do for theirs when they show incredible hospitality, or equally when they harass us. I’m quite uncomfortable with this idea because I know I have so much more to learn, and don’t wish to ‘represent’ my country, only myself…!

    • Many thanks for the encouragement!

      Agreed; in part, I’m hoping to address some of the issues you’ve mentioned — most especially the generalizations. One of the things that’s actually neglected in the blogosphere is how those generalizations follow us home; in fact, that’s probably where they crystallize and affect more people. While it’s pretty well-documented that we have struggles abroad, what about the struggles of home? Most students come home with altered perspective (better or worse), and I’m interested in documenting how mine comes into conflict with a generalizing homeland. I still have trouble explaining things to my family, my friends, those closest to me, who have heard secondhand and lived secondhand through my experiences abroad, but haven’t actually been.

      And I too have felt that enormous pressure to be an “ambassador.” I hate it and love it. It gives you the opportunity to change other peoples’ perspectives and surprise them — in fact, my best friends are the ones that have been the most surprised. But it is such an important role to realize, and it’s unfair to expect expats to constantly be “on”; we all have bad days, we all get irritated. But beware the repercussions still!

      Thanks for reading, and I hope to hear more from you!

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