The Headless Body Politic
November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I fahima (understand) quite how best to “take advantage of opportunities.” Perhaps it’s my own fault, or perhaps the fault of many others, but I feel like I’ve been given opportunities all my life, and I don’t really know what it’s like to be without them. The whole world is illuminated before me, never in fear of darkness. I’ll never be the prisoner, glimpsing but shadows on a cave wall and confusing the silhouettes for reality. I’ve been given so much, and I don’t often stop to ponder how I’ll arrange my impression of the world, but rather how I’ll arrange the impression of myself to present to the world. As if I were just waiting to figure out how to best exhibit myself.
I learned the word domestic today. It was quite exciting, for I often joke that I’m in a domestic mizaja (mood) as I try to impose order upon our little apartment, but it’s often hopeless. Oh! Speaking of which, about a month ago we moved into our new apartment, and the place is beautiful, and up until today, there were no sketchy incidents–until, early this morning, a random man (who did not live in the building) walked into one of the girls’ unlocked apartments and offered them travel-size lotion. Though in general we are most likely safer in this apartment than the last, it still feels temporary. Like we just moved and we’re about to move again. I’m not quite sure what to cling to here–and as I sit here, in my bed with my left foot propped up on a pillow (there’s a story there), I’m starting to wonder why I don’t just stop trying to forge bonds with the outer world and just give up. Like this guy I know. There’s this guy on our program, and he’s such a conundrum to me. Perhaps because he’s one of the only people I’ve met that didn’t seem to be instantly taken with me–and as positively self-centered as that is, it’s also pathetically true. But he’s not the hard-to-get type of uninterested, he’s just simply concerned with other things. And he has many friends and is generally well-liked, but he doesn’t seem to need any of it. I asked him once about himself, with my standard ready-to-go line for most people, “I don’t know anything about you. Meen anta? A3n jad, I want to know something no one else knows.” And he talked about his summer, which sounded like the epitome of independence to me–a grant to study Arabic in Jordan, a solo journey to Morocco, and then back to Jordan with Middlebury. He was only in Morocco for ten days, but it pushed him to declare that it was the first and the last time he will ever travel alone for that amount of time. As I was sitting there, next to the campfire in the middle of Dana Nature Reserve, I couldn’t help but look at him and search for the answer to why? Was there a problem, I asked–no, he said, no problems, and all in all it was a great trip. He just didn’t want to do it again. Did he trade in comfort, in all aspects, for a fluency in Arabic? When was it that Arabic become a defining factor in his self-presentation, rather than in his impression of the world around him? And so I wonder, what’s the lesson there? Is being sociable, loved and in a constant stream of dates appointments and meet-ups mutually exclusive from being uncomfortable? From exploring and growing? It sure feels like it. And as I look back on the last seven weeks, and forward to the next eight (and as I post this, we’re actually closer to three), I can’t help but wonder if I’ll actively stop being passive. Or if I’ll just act in a routine way, passively–what do I want to get? To give? Is one more important than the other? Is detaching from comfort a guarantee for those precious treasures (like fluency) only obtainable through struggle? I came here with zero expectations, a whole bunch of white pants and a yearning for peace–to learn Arabic better and, quite truthfully, to make it out without more health issues. And I have definitely learned more Arabic, I know that, but I can’t say that I feel confident in either my health (I have a sprained ankle!) or my Arabic. Most of the time I feel lazy and tired, and as one friend said today, English is like a drug–you use it a little and all of a sudden you want more. And it’s not so much the inability to communicate, but the ease of communicating without trying. Do I want to try? Or do I just want the ease of action without thought? But that can’t be worth it, can it?
I just got back (whoops, now that was two weeks ago and I still haven’t washed the dust of Cairo off my white–now beige–pants) from a ten-day trip to Misr (Egypt) during Eid Al-Adha. We began our journey in Cairo and after three days hopped onto a tour headed South, where we rambled through temples in Aswan and Abu Simbel, slept on a felucca (a sailboat about the size of a large dining room table) up to Kom Ombo, Edfu and Luxor before finally returning to Cairo (Alqahira in Arabic, meaning “the victorious”). And that she is–my usual travels expectations have never been quite so defeated as they were in Egypt. Firstly, the country is comically divided–within Cairo itself, just walking around the city I saw leftovers from the French, monuments to the British, and of course plenty of sky risers from what I can only guess to be the seventies. A city of twenty million, Cairo could be construed as bustling, congested, or even stuffed to the point of bursting, but I never felt that way–for Cairo without it’s bloated population would be empty, the people were necessary to carrying it’s identity along from periods of foreign rule to periods of intense nationalism. Our hostel, Meramees (amazing, by the way–if you’re ever in Cairo, you must stay with these five men who run the place and who will make sure you’re stay is unforgettable), was a three-minute walk from Tahrir Square, and so of course we explored the place (which is actually not a square, but a massive circle). Everyone we spoke with had a different opinion of the Revolution–one of the hostel managers had no problem telling us just how much business he had before last January, while our guide at Kom Ombo informed us that the crowds we had to weave through were a mere 2% of the numbers the year before, and that we were incredibly lucky to not have to wait half an hour to enter the temple. And as we climbed over ten-thousand year old temples, through Great pyramids and all throughout ancient Egyptian history, I couldn’t help but wonder how this country was going to remake itself. Excuse me if I generalize, but if we look back over the recent-ish history of Egypt it goes something like this: Egypt was under Ottoman rule starting in the sixteenth century, then subject to French invasion at the end of the eighteenth, after which power flipped from Mohammad Ali Pasha to the British, whom eventually garnered control over Egypt in 1882, holding onto it until the (first) Egyptian Revolution in 1952. Over the next six decades, just three men would rule the country: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, who as we all know was deposed from power just a mere nine months ago.
So my question is this: how do a people, a nation, create an identity when the nation-state is under foreign control? How much does one’s environment, in that case, interfere–or help?–with the formation of identity? Really I think my questions boil down to this–which is more effective to know one’s self, as either an individual or a collective–“free” choice, meaning choice made free of pressure, or “forced” choice, or those choices made in response to external factors? Because my gut reaction is that free choice isn’t really meaningful at all–how can anything mean anything if the options are equal?–and that those choices made under pressure, with a struggle for survival, are the ones that expose the most about the chooser, because there is no time for deliberation, for i3tabaar (consideration, literally in Arabic, “to repeatedly express to one’s self”). And so I look to a country whose systems of government have grown out of reactions to other systems of government–revolutions against foreign occupation, colonialism, and finally against native rulers who have fallen prey to corruption–doesn’t it make sense that that national identity has to be strong, cohesive, deep, because of all the challenges that have chipped away at the outlying hypocrisies and inconsistencies, leaving a much more–I shudder as I think the word “pure,” but–well-formed identity? And then I look back on myself, on us, this group of expats in Jordan, and it all seems so arbitrary to me. I don’t know how much of my own intents to trust, and as I sit here, once again in a Western-style café (the bakery downstairs boasts “Gluten-free bread,” which is all but un-findable in Jordan, a country where bread can sometimes serve as the utensil, placemat and napkin to hummus and fattah laden meal) on Rainbow Street, I know that I’m so thankful that our crazy program, with all its flaws and rough starts, is doing the one thing it promised us: to put us in an environment of all Arabic all the time. Our Pledge may not hold up in Skype calls to our parents or negotiations with the Emergency Room Doctor at Al-Khalidi, or sometimes in quiet moments of mental exhaustion, but in general it persists–and the incredible thing is not so much our Arabic, which for all it’s improvement and speed and impressive sounding vocabulary has stared to disintegrate into a lazier form of the language that only we understand, but I find that I stop thinking so much. Stop deliberating. Get out of my head and not worry so much about whether or not I’m making the best of my time here, or what it means for my identity that I’m a twenty (almost twenty-one!) year old spending time in the Middle East–because maybe I can finally abandon the semi-arrogant notion that one’s actions are valid only for one’s own identity, and adopt the idea that the most important is the action itself, and whatever that means for the identity will follow.