Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas cheer and other exile experiences

Here is Emmett at a local toy store. The artists who own it started posing Emmett with different items. He was good-natured about it. I've promised to send them copies of these photos. Maybe I even will.

Here is the scene Christmas eve after Santa had been through. We hung our stockings firm the window handles since we don't have a hearth. Santa figured it out.

I didn't take a picture of Christmas morning. It was actually quite a nice scene. I was nervous since it was our first year without any family elders around, so Dave and I were running the show. We missed family for sure, but Thomas and Emmett had a nice Christmas. Thomas had been pretty worried about getting coal, and was relieved and pleased at the number of presents he got. Later he wondered aloud if perhaps "Santa couldn't see behind the couch.". Not sure what that means, tho grandpa peter's piano story springs to mind.

And, switching gears, here's a scene from a friend's dissertation defense at Cairo University. She teaches English literature there. Thats her in the corner speaking into the microphone. When I first met Sonia, who got her masters at Santa Cruz in the states, I asked her what her specialty was. I expected her to say Arab literature, or Arabic women, I guess because that would be a very marketable specialty in the States. She said hispanic-American literature. This really surprised me.

Her PhD thesis focused on narratives of exile- Hispanic American women writers whose characters have moved from their home country to the United States. I was really pleased and honored to be invited to watch her defense. I for sure would not have invited my own mother to watch my job talk in the states, but I guess it's different here. It seemed like a lot of her friends and supporters were in the room, and two big bouquets of flowers arrived at the beginning.

It was a little surreal sitting in this classroom in Cairo listening to Arab academics discuss the experience of Hispanic immigrants to the United States. At one point one of the panel of interlocutors said, as if it was self-evident, that virtually all Egyptian scholars that focus on American literature specialize in African- American writers. She asked Sonia to explain what was special or noteworthy about hispanic American works. I found this quite surprising- I was a little sad to realize that scholars focusing on American literature don't generally focus on Hawthorne or Edith Wharton or Mark Twain. Maybe all that was done to death a generation ago.

The interest in, and obvious sympathy with, the immigrant experience in the United States also surprised me. There was a lot of discussion of the hardship of translating the Spanish experience into English, and the fight to retain the language and customs of home against the "Anglo" majority culture. Initially I couldn't figure out why this room full of Egyptians would be in such universal sympathy with this community. None of the questioners or nodding audience members were exiles- they were native Egyptians studying in their own land. It's not as if Egypt is such a haven for migrants or minorities, especially religious minorities. If anything I have the sense that Egyptians are more sympathetic than many Americans to the idea of protecting and preserving national culture. Egypt has had it's periods of empire- why weren't they also discussing the difficulties of assimilating different populations into a coherent whole? I know the whole legacy of colonialism blah blah, but that still wouldn't make Egyptians exiles.

Here is what it looked like on the cairo university campus. I was still puzzling over this after the talk when I remembered something Sonia had said that had gotten a lot of smiles and nodding from the audience. She had referenced how the Louisiana Purchase had transferred huge areas of Texas, new Mexico, California? (I am not checking my facts here - this could be off, but Sonia had it right) to the united states from Mexico and quoted a Latino poet as saying, "we didn't come to the united states, the united states came to us.". That was kind of my lightbulb moment- that would also be how Egyptians feel about the British and their successor, the Americans. Even if it is still their country, so much has been transformed by the West and the products and technology of the West. The craziness around cars, pollution, litter- all of these things were imported in the last century and have been grafted not quite successfully into Egypt. Not to mention that the Mubarak regime, which is acknowledged to be corrupt and ineffective in many ways, survives due to American support. I can see why it might feel like the united states, or at least some nebulous Anglo power, had come to them and was forcing change.

That would also explain why I didn't identify as much with the descriptions of the exile experience as I thought I might. Even though I am no longer living in the geographic territory of the united states, I have not really left it. Americans and other Europeans are top of the heap here, and nobody seriously expects me to speak Arabic or wear a veil. We have special police who make sure we are not harassed or bothered by the locals. (Once when I got in one of my usual fights with a cab driver, which I do everywhere no matter what the city, and the guy was really clueless and so lost and incompetent I just jumped out and started walking away without paying. He followed me and pulled up next to me gesturing that i owed him money. I shouted "la!" (No) quite forcefully through the window and walked away. Two seconds later I heard someone shouting excuse me and a pretty woman in western dress ran up to me. She said she worked with the police and wanted to know if the cab driver had done anything improper. I felt like such an idiot having to explain that basically I'd jumped the fare and the guy was probably well within his rights to ask for money. If I'd said he'd done something he probably would have been put in jail and tortured. I dont know whether she was keeping an eye on me all along or just happened on the scene- either way it enhanced my feeling of walking around in an artificial expat bubble. . . . ) There is more to say, of course, about "exile" and our "immigration" experience in Cairo, but for now I'll just leave it here Anyway, it was a great talk and a very rich subject.

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