Monday, May 22, 2017

So much ferment, but stability wins

Rachel Aspden, a newly minted 23 year old aspiring British journalist, wanted to "discover some of the truth," so she arranged to drop herself into Cairo in 2003. She would study Arabic, pick up a low-paid writing job for an English-language news magazine -- and try to figure out what this strange city and country were about. Over the next 12 years, on and off, she achieved something fascinating, becoming simply friends with a diverse group of young Egyptians. This book follows these people through the suffocating stasis coupled with glimpses of consumer modernity that was the Mubarak era, through the exhilarating uprising in Tahrir Square that overthrew that dictator in 2011, and then through the political and religious morass that buried democracy and left Egypt under the thumb of its current military tyrant, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, friend of our Orange Cheato. Somehow everything changed -- and nothing changed.

All of Aspden's (authentic, even if necessarily disguised) cast of characters survive, though it was a near thing for several Islamist teenage women who took to the barricades in support of the one freely elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. Others among them organized to depose Morsi and cheered their new army boss. Most just tried to keep their heads down and get on with life. This is not about heroics; the best of it is simply about everyday life.

The Cairo that Aspden found herself in, a city of 15 million people, was a place where "the idea of 'privacy' barely existed, while social bonds and social judgments were everything." And, though a foreigner and carrying the stigma combined with privilege of former colonizers, she was a woman.

Because I happened to be female, I was now surrounded by people who wanted to dictate what I could do, say and wear; where I could go, who I could go with and when I could go there; where I could sit in public; how I could travel; what time I could enter and leave my house [a shared apartment] and who I could invite there -- and the finely gauged range of disapproval, harassment and intimidation they could mete out if I crossed these boundaries.

Most of these strictures had little to do with formal Islamic teaching. ... I found that many men assumed that a woman with no male "protection" was an easy source of sex for those with the initiative to take it. ...It was the state that had laid the ground for these sex-crazed citizens -- like their puritanical mirror images ...Sexual harassment and assault were not criminalized, the police dismissed reports of domestic violence and rape -- and were themselves responsible for beating, sexually humiliating and raping detained men and women ...

She did meet a woman -- she calls her Amal -- who had escaped, literally, a strict upbringing in a Nile village, made her way as a teacher and lived on her own in the city, owning her own car. Other Egyptian women were not inspired by Amal's story.

"Why would I want to live apart from my parents, when I love them? Or pay for everything myself? ... Unfortunately, no man will ever agree to marry her," they said.

By the end of the book, Amal has indeed married -- to an Irishman and they are emigrating.

The demands of a patriarchal society also weighed heavily on the young men, with paradoxical results. Aspen describes Abdel Rahman, who entered college with romantic dreams of choosing a perfect mate among the brilliant Egyptian girls he studied alongside. Those dreams were dashed because the father of the object of his hopes pointed out he was still penniless.

Like his friends, he had grown up watching Western porn, first at illicit video parties, then online and he realized the whole world wasn't like Egypt. After he graduated and got a job at a newspaper, he met a string of European girls who smuggled him past suspicious bawabs [doormen] to drink, smoke hash and have sex. ... For a few years, it was fun. But as he neared thirty, it stated to feel empty. He felt guilty and stressed when he thought about the drugs, parties and one-night stands. ...

He realized he had to change. ... Now he began to listen to Quartic recitation as he stop-started through the choking Cairo traffic to and from work every day. It made him feel calm ... He started to pray ... He went to the mosque on Fridays ...

[Soon he explained to Aspden what he wanted in a wife.] "She must be one, beautiful, ... two, religious, three, respectable. ... Men like me, who have done this stuff, think like this more than anyone else ... We know what girls are really like, what they get up to in secret. ... After all my experiences, I've realized that the personality of the Egyptian man tends to stability. Religion is important, marriage is important, who you marry is important ..."

Abdel Rahman turned to his parents to arrange a marriage but the process disgusted him.

"It's like the Camp David negotiations, haggling between the families about money. I'm not a bridegroom, I'm just a walking back account. ... All the burden falls on men. ..."

Abdel Rahman wanted social approval, to make choices that would be endorsed by family and the state. Being a man, that option remained to him. At the book's close, he was still a respectable man about town in Cairo media circles.

Aspden's explorations of her friends' political participation in the Tahrir Square insurrection and in the subsequent flailing and failed democratic project seems less perceptive than her social observations. She came to realize that some friends brought to these events (or learned from them) what she found an unfamiliar source of stability.

[Mazen and Ayman] both hated the old regime and thought of themselves as revolutionaries ...They both had a passionate desire for freedom. But for them, religion was far from a restriction or a burden -- it was a means of liberation.

... Ayman and Mazen's lives were a whirl of instability. Their parents' values could no longer guide them, their country was in upheaval, and their future was uncertain. Islam was their rock in the middle of chaos.

Ayman adopted ultraconservative Salafi Islam for awhile, then turned toward studying comparative religions and writing a novel about how different religions treat women. Mazen landed as a cog in his family's business, cynical and disappointed about all enthusiasms, but conventionally Egyptian in believing that ISIS is a creation of Israel and the US meant as cover for a Western imperial plot to seize oil.

Most of Aspden's people end up disillusioned and frustrated or bent on emigration. Insofar as Aspden's story in Generation Revolution tries to draw any conclusion, it is that for diverse reasons, most Egyptians she knew between 2003 and 2015 came to crave stability above all. Before judging them, I think we need to ask ourselves whether our deepest wishes are any different.

I came away from this intriguing little book unsure whether I'd been exposed to any truthful insight into Egyptian society and events. There are so many social filters between how I understand the world and how Aspden's people do. And she sits in the middle, not always helping much. There are limits to the explanatory power of this kind of participant observation of an unfamiliar society. But this is an interesting attempt to share the realities of people she obviously cares about. It was worth reading, though not for me deeply illuminating. Someone with a less instrumental intelligence might feel differently.

2 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

Reminds me of Lolita in Tehran except that author had been part of the Iranian society, wanted Khomeini, and then found out too late what that would mean to her as a woman in a fundamentalist society.

Hattie said...

I wish I had done some traveling and maybe spending some time living in the Middle East. I can't fathom anything about it, even though I have known a fair number of people from Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, etc. But they are all very different from one another except in that they can't articulate much about where they come from, what it was like.An exception has been a couple of Israelis, who brought their country vividly to life through explaining the reasons they left, mostly their disgust at the actions of the military in Palestine. One of them had been involved as a soldier and was ashamed of what he did.
So: another unknowable in life for me.

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