An American in Egypt

NO LONGER INNOCENT ABROAD

From my student days, almost forty years ago, when I hitchhiked with a backpack on my shoulders and a guitar at my side, I’ve been an eager traveler in the Middle East, fascinated by the rich historical resonance and complex politics of this region. Since the Iraq war began, I’ve stepped up the frequency of my visits, giving numerous talks and readings at universities and schools in Egypt and Jordan. I do this mainly to learn about lives so different from my own, though I also believe it’s useful for students and faculty in that area of the world to meet Americans who oppose the aggressive policies of the current White House. I always say firmly to my audience, and to anyone who will listen, that violence is not an appropriate response to violence, as it merely continues a cycle that becomes difficult to break. (When pressed on this, as I usually am, I make an exception for genocidal situations, where one might well choose to enter the cycle of violence, thus attempting to break it, but doing so with fear and humility—never jubilation and swagger, as when George W. Bush declared victory in Iraq on the deck of an aircraft carrier: an immensely damaging piece of war propaganda.)

I have just returned from a heady trip to Egypt, my second in three years. This time around, I spoke at three universities and one high school in Cairo, usually about American literature. There is, as could be guessed, a great deal of anti-American feeling in Egypt today, a common situation throughout the Islamic world since the Iraq invasion. One professor at Cairo University told me: “The students are furious with your country and its policies, but they don’t quite know how to express this fury. Many have turned to radical Islam, out of frustration. The women, increasingly, have taken to the veil. It’s not just a religious thing; it’s a way to assert an identity.”

Let me describe a typical visit to a university in Egypt (the scenario is very similar in Jordan and elsewhere in the region). For a start, large state universities, such as Cairo University, exist beside smaller, private universities, such as Sixth of October University (the name commemorating a victorious day of battle in the 1973 war with Israel). In a poor country with a staggering unemployment rate, students might as well pass their time in a classroom, and they often do, although their chances of getting a decent job afterward are not terribly high.

A visit begins at the gates of the university, where security guards monitor the flow with great care. (Egypt is essentially an armed camp, and there are thousands of soldiers and police on the streets. Every doorway in Cairo seems protected, often by very young men with machine guns and high-powered rifles.) Once the guards are convinced that I have a legitimate reason for wanting to visit the campus, a member of the faculty will take me to the office of some administrator, such as a dean or vice chancellor. I’m always struck by the immense size of these offices, and their wonderful décor. They sport leather sofas and coffee tables, with Oriental rugs on the floor. Thick Turkish coffee is served, with a tray of honey-drenched sweets. The conversation is stilted, an exchange of pleasantries, and the administrator will probably recall a visit to some campus in the United States in years past. My hosts seem delighted to have an American visitor, and assure me that they harbor no ill will toward my country. “We do not blame you, not personally, for what President Bush has done.” Needless to say, I’m grateful for this absolution.

There is, for me, a feeling of irony here, as my visits to Egypt and Jordan in recent years have been set up by the U.S. embassy in Cairo or Amman, both of which have a cultural affairs officer in place to assist in bringing American academics, writers, artists, and musicians to the region. Wisely, our government understands that these visits are useful in easing tensions and in promoting good will. I have seen firsthand how amazed everyone is to discover that somebody with my opinion of the Iraq invasion—I regard this war as nothing less than an illegal outrage, one that will promote instability and terror in the Middle East for a generation—is nonetheless allowed to speak out freely, under government sponsorship.

The point is often raised about sponsorship and why I’m allowed to speak out as I do. I explain that nobody “allows” me to voice an opinion. The country belongs to every U.S. citizen. For all its faults, it remains a democratic country, and free speech, the coin of the realm, is essential for its operation. My government understands this, I tell my hosts, even if certain elements in the government will at times not like what some people say, and will try to suppress it.

At last—usually ten or fifteen minutes late—I’m led into a lecture hall, where anywhere from fifty to five hundred students wait eagerly. Most of them appear to be women, as the men usually prefer to study business or science, not literature. The women are mostly covered these days, peering at me through tiny slits in their veils. As for the lecture halls themselves, they seem in poor shape, especially at the state universities, with plaster peeling from ceilings and walls. The sound system will probably not work, and the lights in the room (or the air conditioning) may well fade halfway through my talk. But these are irrelevancies.

Indeed, the physical decay of the building is more than made up for by the enthusiasm of the students and their teachers. I often speak for about forty minutes—reading my poems or discussing some aspect of American literature—then open the room to questions. This is the fun part, which often lasts for an hour or more. The audience leaps in with gusto, invariably shifting the subject to politics at the first possible moment. They’ve got a live American standing right before them—a rare occurrence. They speak passionately, wishing to discuss the Iraq invasion, the hostility in America toward Islam, the perceived imbalance in our support for Israel over the Palestinians. I try my best to remain level-headed, clear-eyed, and fair. I always say I regret our lopsided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though I make it clear that I believe in Israel’s right to exist, and Israelis’ right to live with a feeling of security. It seems important to state this explicitly and firmly. I often recall, for my audience, my own visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories some years ago, and quote the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, a much-loved Palestinian poet whose work I deeply admire and whom I know.

I try to use my presence in the room—an American citizen at odds with the current administration—as a teaching opportunity. There is, of course, very little in the way of free speech in the Arab world. In Egypt, the authoritarian state seems capable of reading minds. It’s not really a democracy at all, although the government claims it is. The prisons spill over with political detainees, and conditions within these institutions defy description. Torture is commonplace in Egypt, as throughout the Middle East, which is why America’s recent behavior in Iraq, at Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, remains so abhorrent. It stands to reason that we must not, under any circumstances, confirm the use of torture as a legitimate tactic. Doing so makes it far more difficult for us to criticize countries that routinely employ torture as a way to stay in power and control their own people. (I’m invariably asked to justify U.S. use of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.)

After the question period, audience members line up to speak with me personally, wanting to make a further point or to ask my opinion on some matter of concern. They seem taken aback by my frankness, and grateful for my willingness to talk, even argue, with them. We frequently share e-mail addresses, or exchange cards. In some cases, the discussion goes on by e-mail for many months afterward.

I have no doubt about the value of these trips. While the students get to see free speech in action—a revelation to many of them—I learn about them: their difficulties, their aspirations. The deep spirituality of Islam invariably strikes me, and I will never forget several long conversations with devout Muslims who believe in peace as strongly as I do. The vast majority of them, of course, if allowed to practice their faith with genuine respect from the West, will naturally seek a peaceful life. Extremists are far and few between, and we must not assist them as we recently have, by pushing moderate Muslims into their camp through our ill-conceived and dangerous policies.

Islam preaches generosity toward strangers, and there is little doubt in my mind that most Muslims practice what they preach. I’ve been a grateful recipient of their benevolence for many years. My hope is that my own government will continue to pour funds into cultural diplomacy and academic exchanges, as a way to begin the arduous task of trying to repair the damage done by the invasion of Iraq, which has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis, a brutal fact that will have severe ramifications for decades to come. We must come to know Islamic nations as friends and neighbors—a shift in approach that must happen if we are not to demonize and hurt one another in the most execrable ways.

Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 

Jay Parini, poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His latest book is The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems (Braziller).

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