Threads are bad enough. What about the knots?
Dr. Rifai took us to a dinner party at the house of a couple he knows. After dinner, everyone socialized. Though I’m not normally good at dinner party patter, I didn’t want to spend the night huddled with the other members of the tour group, most of whom were complaining about everything.
A student a little younger than I met my gaze and introduced himself. His name was Romani. He spoke perfect English. We spoke easily and, at length, he told me his ideas about the great future Egypt had in store for it. He mentioned the capital flight that plagued the country and added, “…it’s hard to attract foreign capital. You people in America think we don’t have electricity or that we all live like nomads.”
“I didn’t think that,” I was able to honestly say. “My uncle worked in Saudi Arabia for many years and my cousin told me things were modern.”
“That may be,” he replied not sounding very convinced, “but, in general, people in America have a lot of misconceptions about Egypt.”
Through some miracle I hit on a very good point, the kind you usually don’t think of until days after a conversation. “I’m sure your right,” I said, “but I think it’s natural to have misconceptions about a foreign country. I’m sure you have misconceptions about the United States.”
He waved his hand at me. “No, I know all about America.”
“Yeah, well tell me what you think about America.”
“In America, everything is very modern and people have everything they need…” he went on for a minute or two about the paradise of America. I felt an odd mixture of pride in the image of my country and amazement at how incomplete and generalized it was.
“You’re wrong,” I said.
“No, I’m not.”
“Do you know there are people in America who don’t have a home and sleep outside, even in the cities? And there are kids who don’t get enough food and who have to receive welfare from the government?”
If I’d sprouted a second head right in front of him, Romani couldn’t have looked more shocked. “Not in America!”
Another member of the tour group, who probably thought things were getting too animated, interrupted our conversation.
Later, our tour group walked back to the hotel and I thought about how odd it was Romani would have such a limited picture of America. What was even stranger was how strongly he held to that picture. Perhaps I really was right. Perhaps everyone has misconceptions about what foreign countries are like and, even worse, what the people who live there are like.
However, I also had to admit Romani was right to a certain extent. After all, when I’d told people back home I was planning to go to Egypt the first thing everyone said was: “Aren’t you worried about terrorists?” As if I were going to meet Yassir Arafat in Beirut! Nothing I said could sway those people from their belief that all of the Arab world was a series of car bombs and gun-toting extremists, and nothing I could say would convince Romani that America was not a perfect paradise for all who live there.
Being in Egypt is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. My fellow students and I were the minority, instantly identifiable as outsiders by our pale skin and foreign language. We were a small petrie dish of America floating through this other world and displaying all our strength and weaknesses in startling relief.
I saw my lack of knowledge of other cultures. At the same time, I knew I was from a land where one could go a thousand miles without passing into another country or being immersed in any language or culture other than my own. I saw my relative wealth, but I also saw how I was defined by it. I was labeled with as tight a stereotype as any the students I traveled with cast upon the Egyptians. I saw things about myself which I have since tried to change, things I never would have seen without the lens of Egypt.
* * *
Just over ten years later. October 2001.
“Bomb all the sand niggers!” “Islam teaches violence and hatred.” “Those crazy Arabs are animals!”
And on and on. And from people I know have never been to Egypt or any land in the Mid East. They condemn two dozen or so countries and hundreds of millions of people with the carelessness I’d use to crumple a piece of paper.
I can honestly say I hate the people who perpetrated 9-11. I would have no moral problem shooting one of them dead. I can’t feel anything, one way or the other, about those people who celebrated the fall of the twin towers. They are reacting from a place I do not understand.
But I love Egypt and I respect the people I met and saw there. I sometimes wonder how they are and what their lives are like. I hate hearing them denigrated. I can’t explain this to anyone because a month in Egypt doesn’t make me an expert on the country or its people. I do speak up and sometimes people admit they’re being stupid. Many times they don’t. Most of the time, I don’t think they care one way or the other.
But mostly I just wonder about the dark waters that cannot be seen into.