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.


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October 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Three weeks is really the maximum amount of time one can cling to the title “visitor” before becoming a “resident,” however temporary that residency may be. As I contemplate the relative permanency of my stay in Jordan, I realize that the thing I’ve learned most is, likely, restraint. I am sitting smack in the middle of a fakhir (posh) outdoor restaurant, and while all the Arabs around me drink, smoke arghileh and laugh ostentatiously I am conspicuously typing on my computer with Al-Kitaab open in my lap, feeling more and more like a foreigner. It’s a funny thing, in the States I often go out alone–to cafés, shopping, on a walk–and I delight in the feeling of anonymity and escape. Because for me, too often the burden of simply being is remedied best by not being–and outside in the world, I can be anyone. That possibility of reinvention (a strictly American pastime, if you ask me) is always present, constant, and more than anything else–accessible. I’m finding that here it’s quite the opposite–the public space is not for escape, nor reinvention nor slipping into any individual identity, rather the public space is where individuals undertake the burden of public identity and its ensuing consequences. Here, the place for escape is where one is out of public sight: inside, in the home, and away from the mutually reinforcing public code of expression.

I have never found this to be the case in America. Go to the grocery store in your pajama pats, treat the world as you wish–I think it has to do with the internet or development of something. It seems to me that American private lives play out across stages, devoid of wings or curtain call or intermission, and each interaction takes place between a performer and an audience. The only way to exit stage left is to stop interacting; escape into the public sphere where anyone can be anything. But the Middle East is a horse of a different color: the public sphere is interpersonal, and requires constant interactions in which roles are already prescribed, and successful connection prohibits ad-libbing. Once intimacy is established indoors, or in a place off-stage, behind loosely closed doors, the scripts are burned and suddenly people are free.

Western culture demands public, genuine expressions of some inner identity, but our country has become a consumer machine and the only logical explanation must be that we’re empty. I, as an American, have freedom of speech, of dress of thought of action of expression, but I wonder if sometimes we don’t need a little structure. If one has nothing to push against, is there any possibility of true expression? The idea is yes; an expression is literally the conveyance of either an emotion or a thought, both things that are individually sensed before they can be communally shared. But sometimes the barrier between “individually sensed” and “communally expressed” crumbles, and I wonder how much of  interaction is expression, and how much is just reaction to outside stimulus. How genuine can one be if one if constantly performing? To be a full person, one must be both fully internally developed, such that there is an essence of a person that is indistinguishable, unchanging and translatable across any medium, and be able to express this self across a thousand different mediums–starting with the personal–emotions, facial expressions, mannerism and dress, and spanning to the abstract: can you tweet yourself well enough to express who you really are? can you post it on a wall? can you blog intuitively, effortlessly translating this fully developed self to the rest of the world? Of course not. You need some sort of mutually understandable code for everyone to agree upon. In the West, this isn’t defined. It’s up to you to find a way to express the infinite in a finite way. Here, it’s very defined. There is not the same freedom of expression, of thought, of dress. Instead in outer world the methods of communicating are limited.

It’s a funny thing, men in the Middle East. In our amiyya class, we spent an entire hour and a half class discussing harassment and how to combat it like a native. Most of the phrases are the standard, “Let go of me,” “Get away from me,” “I’m going to call the police,” but then there are others: “I am a guest of yours in Jordan,” “Don’t you have sisters?” and “May God curse your fathers.” As Tawfiq, our professor said, “You need to appeal to a man’s morality, his sense of self.” So there I am, sitting in class and growing more and more suspicious of all Arab men, the day before our big trip to Aqaba. The next day, we all get up at five a.m., unwillingly witness shorouq al shams (the sun rise), and head off towards Al-Aqaba, one of the touristy-ist spots in Jordan where I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am really just a visitor who is quite dependent on sporadic help from men. At one point we walked past the shatra a3ma (public beach), where men seemed to prowl while covered women (some in burkinis and others just in full coverage on the shore) dotted the seascape. In desperate need of a good tourist experience, Ayane, Rabab, Rena and I searched high and low for Aqaba’s best snorkeling. After a few phone calls and a little sleuthing, we figure out that we actually need to be at the Japanese Gardens, a strip of beach about 10 minutes away by taxi, where Arab families congregate in small groups allowing for relative privacy. We figure out that to snorkel, we need to rent the equipment and then leave our bags with a man named Waseem, who runs the snack shop. As I handed my all-purpose brown leather hobo bag to a very over-eager looking man, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would see my camera again. Can I trust him? And even more importantly, how important is it for me to snorkel–maybe I could just go back to the hotel and not take the risk? But, in the end I donned my mask, fins and snorkel and handed over the bag. As we’re trying to find the best place to enter the water (sans burkini and with webbed contraptions strapped to our feet) a man who approached us earlier, trying to offer us another deal on kamama, tries to tell us that we’re entering the Red Sea incorrectly and come, come with him now, and he will show us the right way. Growing more and more annoyed by this man’s seemingly profit-intentioned offer, I tell him no, thank you, we are just fine and we’ll not be in need of his services. And just as I say this, my rubber-capped heel slips on a rock, and I plunge my hand into the water to balance myself–getting stung b a kunfuth al-bahar (sea urchin) in the process. So, of course, the man comes running with even more offers of lighting a cigarette to get out the stingers, or going to the Clinic or perhaps just swimming with it anyways, and as I’m standing in the shallow coast of the Red Sea in my black bikini, full snorkeling gear and with an acute pain emanating from my fingers, I look around at the growing crowd of Arabs and this man who, for all his possible annoyance is possibly just trying to help. So I give him my hand, decide to trust for a moment and waddle (for that’s really the only movement you can do in flippers) in the direction he’s pointing to.

And the snorkeling was phenomenal. We swam through schools of fish, saw more sea urchins (from a distance, thank god) and basked in the freedom of the Sea. After a slightly embarrassing and attention-yielding walk back from the dock to the snack shop, I got my bag back, with all of its contents safe and sound inside. I was feeling so good about things that I didn’t object to the idea of hitch-hiking back to the city center, which we did be-belash (for free) in a nice Aqabian man’s car. The rest of the trip was even more stunning–we drove from Aqaba to Wadi Rum, a desert valley that houses incredible rock formations and a thousand great spots to watch the ghoroub al-shams (sunset). It’s an interesting thing, being a young foreign woman in Jordan. It seems that simultaneously some public activities–like walking to the gym at dusk–is much harder, replete with stares, unwanted attention and the knowledge that just by being out in public in a certain time and place renders you conspicuous, a public entity ripe for the consequences of public interaction. Yet at the same time, to be a foreign woman is to be in the constant clutches of Arab hospitality (not quite comparable to that of Iran, but still!), and to always be the recipient of local generosity and general good will. All the cat-calls, whistles and impaling stares I’ve gotten on the streets of Amman are equalled only by the number of times I’ve been helped by a relentless taxi driver who will not give up until I’ve reached my destination, or offered discounts from shop keepers and been given extra hummus at Sefeen. And perhaps that’s just a consequence of being undeniably foreign, but sometimes I wonder if that’s not a consequence of living in a place where the public sphere is not for individual advancement but for communal advancement, where each member is subjected to the human emotions of its components. Bi shakl a3m (in general), the idea of this social arrangement scared me at first–I’ve been taught to be cautious of widely-accepted truths–but I’m beginning to see that perhaps there’s a sort of communal protection, a safety in being known.

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