Monday, September 21, 2009

Generosity and Beggary in the Month of Ramadan

Now that Ramadan is over, I briefly reflect on what I experienced. The most vivid impression I have this year is of the juxtaposition of generosity and beggary during the month of Ramadan.

People were even more willing to assist me as a foreigner, even when I did not ask for it. Most of the time I found this charming, occasionally I found it aggravating. “Ya 3m, ana ma talubtsh min’ak ei haga!” (“Yeah Uncle, I did not ask anything from you!”) I found myself wanting to say. “Ana 3arafa. Ana sakana hena.” (“I know. I live here.”) I would say at times in exacerbation.

Most of the time, though, peoples’ extended generosity was welcomed and warmly appreciated. And at times it was sorely needed. The public transit system seemed to change overnight with the start of Ramadan. One night I left downtown late, thinking it would be no problem getting home, only to discover that I was relying on local residents to get home because the way back was surprisingly unclear!

The month of Ramadan is a month of giving. And buying. On the day of Eid the children and teenagers take over the streets and the metro. They play outside in their new clothes, with their new toys. As a sister of a colleague of mine told me on Eid, when I asked her how people felt on Eid as we were heading to her brother’s place, children are happy because they are given new clothes and new toys, and adults are unhappy because they have to buy them. Indeed, Eid is for the young.

Of course as someone who comes from a tradition of commercialized Christmas, I understand well the stress of gift-giving during holiday times.

More than that, with commercialized Eid comes the Wretched of the Earth seeking out a meagre existence. Particularly during the last week of Ramadan, when scores of people went out shopping for Eid gifts, scores of beggars came out onto the streets. Or at least that is how it felt. I don’t think I saw as many beggars during Ramadan as I had seen the entire past year. And so many children.

In my daily routine I rarely see street children or children begging, so when I went to Doqqi, a fairly well-off neighborhood of downtown Cairo, during Ramadan and saw so many street children I was reminded that, yes, according to statistics there are over 1 million street children in Cairo alone. And just the week before, I had found myself trying to convince an Egyptian friend of mine that actually there aren’t that many street children in Egypt. I mean, compared to India or Brazil or war-torn countries. Really, everything is relative. Huh? Say that again, Marion?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Imperial Haze, Part II

In his famous poem Ozymandias, Percy Shelley only got it partly right:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley shows us the foolishness of man, so limited and so impotent compared to the boundlessness of the sands. So foolishly proud is the emperor. Indeed, just as surely as our own selves will slip away with time will even the mightiest of empires decay.

And what remains is the beauty of the sculptor; the hands that create. The creation outlives the man. The life that remains is in the art.

And oh how commanding is that which remains! Empires may surely fall but not without effect. Their restored remains (and all that is left behind ‘for posterity’s sake’) tell powerful narratives, woo audiences with their beauty and become the centerpieces of made-up histories. The victors may be in a colossal wreck but do not be deceived, dear Shelley, as they continue to write history and wield marked power in our contemporary times.

Of course it is the reconstruction of these remains in roughly the past century and a half, coupled with the written texts left behind by the victors, that has had such an influence on our contemporary reading of the past. The reconstruction and the interpretation have been deeply embedded in processes of memory creation, as the British empire and then new nation states actively tried to create their histories.

I am often reminded of this living in the ‘Land of the Pharaohs’. That is Pharaohs with a capital “P” no less. The imperial time of the Pharaohs has perhaps received unprecedented reconstruction efforts. Even an entire discipline and many sub-disciplines have been created to study this time. An entire nation was granted partial independence (Egypt in the 1920s) in part because of its remains. Millions of people make a living off of its display. An entire national economy is based on the selling of the Pharaonic past.

More than that, people take the ancient past of this place to be the past of the Pharaohs. How often the Pharaohs are conflated with “the ancient Egyptians” is mind boggling. We are bedazzled by the remains: gold, jewelry by the dozen, aesthetic catacombs, hidden chambers. They capture the modern imagination: How could they? How did they? What beauty!

As if all the peoples of this region during this vast time frame had such an elaborate burial, their catacombs stuffed with gold and jewelry and animal protectors!

How frequently I have heard the human past equated with the constructed Pharaonic one is even more disturbing. Such fetishization of the remains leaves the bedazzled in a stupor. The mark of the slave and serving classes is masked by the beauty of the art that remains.

I am perhaps more reminded of the decadence of the ruling classes and the their history in the making when I leave or come back to my home in Cairo. Most ways pass by the Citadel with the Mohamed Ali Mosque jutting out into the skyline. When I am making my long way home, I get dropped off in a dust and smoke filled field of cement. Its night and its dark. I walk along beside an overpass and next to a wall (probably from the same period as the mosque), making my way to the transportation hub in Sayeda Aisha to catch my next micro-bus. And there above me, on top of the hill, shining above like a full moon, is the lit Mohamed Ali Mosque. It takes my breath away almost every time. Amidst such grime, such coldness, there is this stunning beauty lighting up the sky.


Well, that is precisely what Mohamed Ali was aiming for. He didn’t create the Mosque for God and then name it after himself. He was the man who ripped thousands of farmers from their land, enslaved them in his army and then denied them a proper burial; forced thousands of other farmers to cultivate cotton; gave land and favors to his political allies; and the list of atrocities under his reign goes on. He was the man who reaped injustice in this land – and as the historian Khaled Fahmy argues, for the sake of him and his family.

But in that haze of nation building and national history creation, Mohamed Ali became the founder of modern Egypt (which had something to do with the mosque and other remains left behind). And now the grand Mosque is a major destination in Cairo, not just for tourists but for school children. It is with awe that they look upon “his creation” and in that awe the history is told as if he himself was telling it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Imperial Gaze

“As for the rest of the category which cultivated
no sciences, they are more like animals than human beings.
Those of them who live deep in the north – between the
end of the seven climates and the confines of the habitable
world – have been so affected by the extreme distance
from the sun from the Zenith above their hands, resulting
in cold climate and thick atmosphere, that their temperaments
have become chilly and their humors rude. Consequently their
bodies are huge, their color is pale and their hair long.
For the same reason they lack keenness in intelligence and
perspicacity, are characterized by ignorance and stupidity.
Folly and blindness prevail among them as among Slavs, Bulgars,
and other neighboring peoples.”

From an 11th century Arab writer, writing at the height of the Muslim Empire, gazing down upon those other peoples in the North. That is, in present-day Northern Europe.
(Said al-Andalusi, Kitab Tabaqat al-Uman, taken from Szyliowicz’s 1973 Education and modernization in the Middle East)

A thousand years earlier, in present-day Britain, the Roman Pro-Council Agricola looks upon a map of the Empire’s newly conquered (and yet to be conquered) northern territories with one of his advisors. Agricola points to the map in the direction of the island of Ireland.

Agricola: Do we occupy it?

His advisor: No, we don’t. It is not worth occupying. The people are primitive. There are marshlands. We sent people to scout it out. Really, it is not worth occupying.

Agricola: I think this is where you are wrong, because an unoccupied land gives ideas to people who live in occupied lands.

(Tacitus’s account from his biography of Agricola, taken from Tariq Ali’s 2003 “War, Empire and Resistance” lecture at UC Berkeley, available in full at google video)

As Tariq Ali reminds us, up until the 18th century most wars were fought by empires or between empires. Empires self-sustain and self-destruct themselves, conquering newer lands to, as Agricola would put it, avoid giving ideas to those already occupied.

From the seat of Empire one gazes upon the others with feelings of superiority, and from the periphery intense rivalries wage between newly demarcated groups of conquered peoples.

Empires make wars, conquer lands and are governed by intense processes of othering. The others, even the most ‘backward’ of the lot, are forced within to play a role in a hierarchical system from center to periphery.

The intense hierarchies of our time are indeed not timeless, even though they may feel so. They are certainly not part of some amorphous “human nature.” Even if, as I heard argued recently, the Pharaoh’s show us a preferential system for lighter-skinned females! More than anything, the racism and marked inequalities of our times reflect the sickness and self-destructiveness of empire building.