Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Talking Politics... Reluctantly

The last thing I ever try to do is start a political conversation with Egyptians on the street. But somehow, I feel as though I’ve had more than my fair share. I’m careful with who I engage in politics; discussing Israel and Lebanon, Iraq, or George Bush is intensely emotional for Egyptians, but it is a conversation I want to have because I have a lot to learn about the Egyptian mind and heart, and politics is a big part of their makeup. So I enter carefully, discussing only with my teachers, my landlord, and a few other select people who I can trust to discuss rationally.

But then there are those conversations I didn’t bargain for, the ones that are thrust upon me, and they are the ones that really keep me up at night as I struggle to piece together the sum of my knowledge and experience in the region, which, by the way, is an impossible and yet thrilling task. While I am often approached by strangers who want to discuss America and Bush with me, I should note that there is almost always context to these conversations. People do not approach me out of the blue, but rather they are waiters, taxi drivers, sandwich stand owners, and store keeps with whom I do business. They speak clearly from an Arab point of view (and all that implies), but I found the tone to be generally that of disappointment with the United States, rather than anger. Many people also make the point of distinguishing between their problems with the U.S. government and the American people. Still, these conversations are always a little jarring to me because these people speak more from the heart than the brain, and this is something I’m not used to.

I met a few Egyptians in the United States in the weeks leading up to my trip here. Everyone had handfuls of advice, and so I found it most useful to really focus in on those tidbits that seemed common throughout many of the conversations. One of the most common suggestions I received was that Egyptians are very frank and straightforward people and that I should expect an earful from some of them, but that the key was to listen because not only would I learn a lot, but I would earn the respect of those I talked to as well. And I became pretty good at that; I listened thoughtfully, threw in maybe an observation or two, but I really left the talking up to them.

But yesterday I broke my own rule of thumb, and it’s been really nagging at me ever since. On my way home from school yesterday, at about four in the afternoon, a well-dressed (this is especially important in Egypt where being well dressed really is a sign of status) man talking with his two friends turned sharply on me as I walked by, saying, “Hey, you American?” When I told him that I was, he asked me pointedly whether or not I agreed with the U.S. stance on Lebanon-Israel. Annoyed by his tone, I was tempted to keep walking, but I didn’t and I answered his question in a careful manner, “No, I don’t agree with my country’s policy towards Lebanon.” He shot back, “Well why don’t you do anything about it then? Why don’t your people do anything to destroy very very bad government?" Instead of staying calm and giving him a stock answer, I felt all the blood rush to my face and in a moment of anger, I retorted, “What are you saying? That every time I disagree with my government I should tear it down? That I should just rip it all up? That’s a philosophy I see an awful lot over here, and it hasn’t done anybody much good.” I had done it. Not only had I expressed my disagreement, but I had done so through a criticism of his people and with an angry tone. After this, he reiterated some of his complaints, shook my hand, and that I plodded home.

Retrospectively, I’m not pleased with how I handled the situation; my temper got the best of me and the words just slipped out. But I do want to go to my main point, which was weighing very heavily on my mind when I made those comments to the Egyptian. My biggest difficulty here is in my ability to express my dissatisfaction with certain U.S. government policy, while simultaneously making it clear that I love my country and wholeheartedly support the governing institution that runs it and that there is a clear distinction between my stance on “Bush” and my stance on “America.”

Many of the Egyptians I’ve talked to are cagey, trying to wedge me into a corner in which I criticize my country when I really only intend to criticize policy. I have avoided tiptoed carefully and have therefore avoided the fate of being attributed rhetoric that I try to steer clear of. I find it frustrating to say to someone, “I don’t agree with U.S. policy towards Lebanon,” and in turn get the response, “Yes, a bunch of Jews control your country, and that’s why the policy is that way.” I don’t even know how to begin to respond to that. They usurp a discussion that I want to have on certain terms and take the rhetoric to such intense extremities that we cannot continue the conversation because I feel compelled to rebut their last comment with a defense of my country rather than going on and discussing the heart of the matter.

A better example was when I told someone in moderate terms of my view towards Iraq, and they responded by saying, “Yes, your country does horrible things.” Again, this is a conversation I cannot continue because it turns me from making a critique of Bush to pursuing a defense of America.

The difference in the rhetoric between our two cultures is substantial. Sometimes when I take a step back I realize that I have to adjust my whole radar when I come over here because if placed in America, some of the comments I hear would be grounds for serious repercussion. And maybe that’s part of the problem with U.S.Middle East relations: we don’t talk the same talk, literally, and more importantly, metaphorically. There’s a desperation here that doesn’t lend itself to moderation, and that’s what makes being a foreigner here so intriguing and, on occasion, so painful.


Anonymous said...



Theo May said...

Sorry, can whoever wrote that last comment please identify themselves? I'd love to respond but would like to know who I am responding to.

Anonymous said...

I am my Bro's sister- the favorite one, too! I am not crazy about having my name out in cyberspace. Did not mean to shake you up.....

Anonymous said...

i guess i'm in the same train of thought as "anonymus" who can't spell. if your picking up political conversations on the street,don't expect much ,more than your getting. as far as i'm concerned, street talk has only two values: improves your listening skills and your accent as you say goodbye.

Anonymous said...

i think i am the only one who gets what you were trying to say. of course you have many other, more in-depth conversations with the egyptians you meet. the conversation you described was a way to introduce the subject in your blog and show us the tone of things in the region.

Theo May said...

Ok Ok Im beginning to get the picture here. As long as the disses stay all in the family Im ok with that. Capital letters though, doesn't seem like your usual subtle self, anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Now, I was given a lesson by my son last night as to blog etiquette. I learned that capitals were are real no-no ? Emphasis was not intended- I just wanted to read my message more clearly without leaning forward!? Are there any other rules to blogging?

Now, that you know who I am are you going to rrespond to my original comment?

Theo May said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply, but I think better late than never, especially now that I understand the identity of anonymous....
Like I said in the post, I really try to avoid street conversations. You're right in pointing out that the issue is far too complex to be thoughtfully considered in a two minute exchange with someone on the street. But these conversations are important for two reasons. First, they provide a small snapshot into the mind of the ordinary Egyptian. String together enough of these brief encounters, and you begin to get a sense of where the Egyptian heart lies. Secondly, these conversations are important for the simple fact that they give continued testimony to the enormous emotional impact that these conflicts have on Egyptians. That these outbursts are so regular and so passionate speaks strongly to me about the pan-Arab sentiment in the region. As a student of the Middle East, it's fascinating for me to study the shifting strengths of unifying forces in the region. It's a constant struggle for Middle Easterners because various factions make strong cases for allegiance to Islam, unity through a common Arab bond, and national loyalty. Time and circumstance have shown that Middle Easterners' support of these various allegiances are continuously shifting. And I think these conversations I have with people on the street speaks to how strongly the pan-Arab belief is in this country.
I hope that begins to get at what you were asking. Thanks for all the comments.