Let me introduce Egypt:
The sun has set behind the swampland of the riverbed as we float on a felucca, awaiting a glorious Nubian meal prepared for us by our crew of two men. We have spent the afternoon reading, sipping on hibiscus tea, listening to the Nile lap its way into our inner rhythms. Our first mate quietly takes a break from preparing our supper to spread his small rug out on the hull and proceed with his evening prayer – standing, then kneeling, then meeting his forehead to the rug, rinse and repeat. We will spend the night on this felucca, lulled to sleep by whispers of the Nile and campfire kisses. The warm air turns cold in the early morning hours, but it’s worth it just to watch the sun rise over the palm trees.
I will break out the watercolors (a new resolution to paint once or twice a week) and let my mind wander as I try to capture the scenery on a small white page that barely does justice to a water droplet. I will envision myself in a new place, a new land, experiencing a different culture complete with its own ways of life and ways of thought. Some I will agree with, some I will not. But at least I can try to understand why, quickly becoming my favorite word. I wonder who I will befriend. Or who will befriend me. I wonder what I will miss from home: family, friends, ice, Swedish Fish, climbing, my car, my freedom.
My packing list for a semester in Egypt consisted of very conservative clothing:
Long sleeve shirts……….Check
Capris and long pants…………Check
Long dresses with cover-up sweaters……..Check
Very few shorts, almost nothing without sleeves. I placed a lot of weight on respecting a culture that does not understand or approve of scantily clad Californians in our short skirts and low-cut tops. It’s not my country, not my culture, so I made my vow to respect that, leaving behind most of my favorite clothes.
And I love clothes.
An addendum to this: It’s more than 100 degrees here.
Jeans are miserable. Pants are miserable. Any excess fabric is miserable. Yet I watch hundreds of women walk by me on the street covered in layers and layers cloth à black cloth. Eyes sometimes the only creatures that meet the sun. It’s moments like these when I have to say
I always carry a tiny little book in my wallet that I bought at a flea market for $3: “Speeches and Addresses of Abraham Lincoln.” It’s about the size of my palm and older than dirt (covered in dirt as well), but I take it out every now and then when I need some inspiration, or when I need to breathe in that charming old book smell.
I took it out today.
I need not quote this, because you know it by heart, but it doesn’t hurt to say it out loud ever now and again.
Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.
Of course Lincoln left us chicas out of this, but we know deep down what he means. I don’t take it personally.
Lincoln is right.
I just finished a book called King Leopold’s Ghost which is the non-fiction account of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It tells the story of King Leopold of Belgium’s horrifying exploitation of the Congo in the 1890s and early 1900s, and the more than 10 million Africans he killed in his quest for ivory, rubber, and riches. However, it also gives accounts of the brave individuals (in this case American, British, and Irish) who fought for the freedoms and rights of the people of the Congo. Roger Casement is one such individual who echoes eloquently and in a few more words what Lincoln had the stunning foresight to say only a few decades earlier:
“Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself—than the right to
feel the sun or
smell the flowers or to
love our kind. Where all your rights become only an accumulated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours—and even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them—then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”
Now that’s good stuff.
Roger Casement was right. Lincoln was right. King Leopold was wrong.
And I’m sorry to say but the way women are treated in this part of the world is wrong. The men who treat them this way are wrong.
I have been having a recurring argument with my dad about perspective in relation to history, but I think it is relevant when we speak about tolerance and understanding for other cultures and traditions:
Is history fact or fiction?
Or perhaps a little bit of both?
History, to me, is simply a version of facts presented in a multitude of different ways.
I am sitting in McDonald’s right now in Cairo (free WiFi and a wicked good McArabia gyro-like sandwich) with one of my roommates. We are both sitting in the same room, watching the same events transpire; yet, I guarantee if I were to write an account of the last two hours, it would be completely different than my roommate’s. She would present different facts about the evening than I would, but neither of us would be wrong.
The point I’m trying to make has to do with our perspectives and our tendencies to pass judgment based on the facts we are presented with. I learned history, American and World history, in a certain way. I think the history I know is a version of fact. But it’s not the only historical account. Do children in Vietnam learn the Vietnam War the same way children in America do? What about Civil War curriculum in the North versus in the South?
Perspective is everything, and understanding how people absorb information and how people see certain events, is key to achieving any kind of globalized, peaceful civilization. So when I read about King Leopold and the author gives me a good account of his childhood traumas, the reasons that potentially explain his evil behavior throughout his adulthood, I can understand why he did the things he did. But it doesn’t excuse them. Reading an Nazi account of the events of World War II would be helpful in understanding all facets of the war, but it would not make the Nazis any less evil.
While I may have argued to my dad once or twice that no version of history is right, I take this opportunity to change that statement. What I mean is that I don’t think history is complete fact
***modern history will be more factual because of our technologically advanced news media
But I do believe that even understanding someone else’s perspective does not prevent one from being morally right. And in this I justify that right and wrong exists
The point being that I want to understand why and how one is right and one is wrong.
So, I have done my best thusfar to understand the facets of Islam, and have tolerance for a culture so vastly different than my own. And I am tolerant. But just as King Leopold is wrong, there are a lot of men in this country who are just plain wrong.
All men and women, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, orange, green, big, small, gargantuan…they are all created equal. There is such a thing as basic human rights.
We were sitting in the bar in our hotel yesterday, my dad, our friend Dave, me, and our wonderful Egyptian guide, George. After a long day in Luxor exploring the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, we were looking forward to an ice cold Egyptian Stella beer. We placed out orders, and a few moments later the waiter returned to tell George that it is forbidden to serve Egyptians alcohol during Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting). George is not a Muslim. He does not follow Ramadan. Yet he had to sit and watch as we drank our beer.
George is awesome and he didn’t care. But I wanted to tell the waiter exactly where he could put my beer.
Egypt is not a theocracy. Technically it is a democracy. But a democracy doesn’t exist here like it should. It’s not fair.
Not fair for George.
Not fair for women.
God bless the U.S.A.