Monday, February 14, 2011

On love

This is a very quick, but complex blog on love which came to me running in the rain at lunchtime today. It is Valentine's Day, so naturally my mind was thinking about love, and what exactly that means to me in my life.

And I thought about something very bizarre, but that seemed to make sense out of it all. I thought about the story in the bible about Jesus' 40 days and nights in the desert, on how the devil tempted him. I wondered if this is meant to be a metaphor for something quintessentially human about Jesus - what if in order to be able to feel true empathy, to be capable of real forgiveness, it is necessary to make bad choices, to face darker stuff in one's life?

This I believe is the essence of love - that in order to truly know and love ourselves, we need to make mistakes, to face difficult decisions, to wonder if we did the right thing, or even better, to know that we did not. And these very same principles are what define love between people, friends, marriages, etc. - that in order to truly love our partners, our friends, our children, we need to experience with them those vulnerable moments.

I've been working on the novel, steadily, and am coming to learn about and love a character whom I thought would be the most difficult for me to understand and/or feel towards, as I am not like her nor am I the opposite of her. The key to seeing her, to truly knowing her, has been watching her make mistakes, struggle, change, come to terms with those aspects of herself that are not perfect and are not part of her comfort zone.

At the same time, I have been reading Virginia Woolf's diaries, and I am feeling the sense of sadness coming over me - that she is so very hard on herself, so truly unforgiving, lacking all empathy towards her own self, her own work. I wish I could have met her, talked with her, made her see how very essential these aspects of self are part of the greatness that defines her work. I can't help but wonder if this inability to embrace those dark parts of herself is why she chose to end her life as she did.

And this is becoming an incredibly important part of my novel - this wrenching discovery of self that is followed by a level of comfort that one can never experience without falling apart.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I want to write about Egypt

When I was 18, I went on my first adventure out of the US: an antiquity tour of Italy and Egypt, 5 days in both countries. It was a student tour, but run by a school that was not my own. I knew a couple of students on the trip, but they weren't close friends, so I felt mostly on my own, not isolated, but with a sense of freedom that one can only experience when free from the constructs of familiarity. We traveled both countries on guided tour buses. I don't remember the Italian tours - I spent most of my time trying to get away from the group.

In Egypt, we had the same tour guide, a young woman, highly educated, beautiful in that way I imagined myself becoming in life as I learned more about the world. My relationship with this woman started off like an admiring pupil asking her teacher questions that made her think I was smart, well-read. Very quickly that relationship changed into something much more elegant, simple, a sharing of cultures that shaped how I approach women of different cultures going forward.

One of our tours was of the Citadel of Cairo. I had carefully planned my outfit for the day, a simple dress with a long cotton skirt, wooden sandals, and a head scarf large enough to cover all of my hair. I felt a reverence, putting on the cover, taking off my shoes, and walking into the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha. When we got inside, I became very aware of the fact that the only women around me were tourists - there were no local women who had come to pray. Perhaps I was naive, but I wanted to feel prayer in this moment, I wanted to experience what God felt like in such an ancient place.

After the tour, I took my usual seat next to the tour guide, and I was quiet, something that is unusual for me. The tour guide asked me what I was thinking, how come I wasn't  talking a million miles a minute about the experience. And so I asked her if it bothered her that she was not welcome to worship in the main hall of this spiritual place. She laughed, full-heartedly, and her words still remain very clear to me nearly twenty years later. She asked me when I am in deep prayer, when I want to connect with God and feel that presence, am I able to do this surrounded by groups of men chanting, with my face to the floor? She said that for her, it seemed so much more natural, free, to experience God in a communal group of women, mothers, daughters, sisters, smiling, heads up, bodies swaying, a sense of warm and of kind.

She told me about her faith, what it meant to her, this belief in God, and how she had come to understand that power of women in community, that they were much freer to feel happiness in the face of God, rather than what the men were meant to experience - reverence. Typing this now, I can feel her faith and I can feel that presence of God that we shared - the same God I experienced, not watching a priest chanting up at the alter, but in celebrations with my family, with close friends, people with whom I could trust to be my most vulnerable self.

Later that same evening, the sun was setting over the city, pink hued, smells that can only be experienced first-hand, and I heard the evening prayer, walked out on the balcony, and realized how truly amazing it was to be in a country where people stopped to center themselves at key moments in the day. This was so very different from the Sunday Mass, something that had begun to feel empty of meaning, that sense of going through the steps, but not really understanding what those steps were meant to mean in the living out of one's life, in those moments of conflict, and grey. Strange, reverent in itself, this moment on the balcony was also the first time I heard the Nirvana song, Memoria - my roommate was playing for me in the background, and there was this simple merging of the two worlds, both sounds still resounding in my ears this many years later.

Fast forward many years, approaching a topic for my dissertation on post-colonial literature, and I knew I wanted to examine that sense of community that I had felt so many years ago. I wanted to understand what this meant in a world that seemed to be changing quickly. The first paragraph of my dissertation included an excerpt from Barack Obama's speech in Cairo. Although I knew it at the time, that this was rhetoric, it still felt so fundamentally different to the Western speeches on freedom and individuality that had preceded it for so many years under the Bush regime.

And I truly believed that there was a revolution stirring - that the young people in that audience felt something powerful, far more than the presence of a less ideological US president. There was a pride that day in the University of Cairo auditorium, a pride that was a merging of simple ideals, those of the family, the community, that had shaped each person's faith, and supported a people for thousands of years, and those of human freedoms, to be creative, innovative, honest, and capable of changing the world for the better through the power of each individual voice coming together.

Over two years later, watching the people gather in Tahrir Square, large groups of men chanting, families, children asleep on mother's shoulders, women in solidarity, tears sometimes streaming down the faces of men and women, and I feel I am truly watching history. This is not a revolution about taking down a dictator regime; this is not a 'facebook' revolution. This is very much about the meeting point between two very important beliefs that mean so much to all of us - that of the power of community, a sense of belonging, and that power of freedom to make change, to shape our own lives and the lives of our children. It is a cross-roads in the global world - a meeting of the best of Western and non-Western ideals.

I have felt an excitement the past couple of weeks, and a profound disappointment in the elders (Egyptian and US leaders) to be unable to see just how important this change is for the future of society. When I expressed some of my thoughts to my husband, he brushed it off - saying it was just another news reel, something to hype, people watching from the outside in, the media almost hoping for things to fall apart, and the rest of the world waiting for things to go back to the way they have always been.

So I decided to test the waters - I posted a comment in response to the New York Times' columnist, Nicholas Kristof's blog, The comment I posted:

"For Egyptians reading this,

There are many people like me who very much support you in your efforts to take back control of your own country, to have the power to define what it is you feel is best for your people, and to be a voice of positive change across the world."

From very early on in my posting, the comment topped the list of readers' recommendations. As I am writing this blog, it is still at the top of the list. What this tells me is that we are witnessing something very different than the typical news real. Unlike most scenarios in the non-Western world that make it into a prolonged news real - we are not secretly watching to see innocent people's lives ruined and destroyed by corruption. We are genuinely hoping that this community of people can succeed in their endeavors. We are watching with hope.