Epilogue: on “being there”

“What was it like to be there during all those events?” has been the recurring question from students, colleagues, and friends since we got back from Cairo. It’s a good question, and I want to end this blog — which I am hereby doing — by starting to think through this business of “being there.”
Aristotle and Rousseau were preoccupied with the possibility of large-scale politics. How, they asked, is it possible to identify and discuss with a group of people so large that you cannot personally see each member face to face? Out of sight, out of mind. Isn’t any community over 100 too big? But scriptural traditions, then print capitalism, and now Facebook have taken care of that. I spend maybe five hours a day (facing my children or my students) living in a physical space; the rest is virtual. My friendships are epistolary; my communities, imagined. I am not one of those people, like Anthony Shadid (a terrible loss!) who travel and report for real, people so gifted and so committed to bringing out details from literarily and politically cut-off places that they may die getting there. Despite having little kids, despite the asthma; amazing. That is not (to my great shame sometimes) the life I have chosen. What I mostly did in Cairo was read and write. So then, why was physical presence so important? Why is it significant to be in the same time zone as a particular subset of one’s friends if one is too busy, or too stuck in traffic, to see them anyway? Or, as a worried U.S.-based interlocutor asked me when the revolution’s second wave broke, “Can’t you tweet and do Facebook from Massachusetts?”
Physical presence created some interesting moments, to be sure. Perhaps the weirdest were the four “Hamlet on the Barricades” lectures I gave at different universities around Cairo in the week between November 17 and 24, even as the Nov 18 protests and downtown violence starting Nov 19 affected everything from traffic patterns to the city’s political mood. It was educational to fiddle with Shakespeare while Cairo burned. Each host department and campus, with its specific facilities (sometimes lacking things like photocopiers) and faculty culture (who knew the Helwan drama department was so paranoid about students viewing theatre performance as un-Islamic?) and student body (sometimes all-female, not from segregation but because language departments are low-prestige) mixed in my mind with the ongoing events, shaping the questions people asked and the details I noticed. On Nov 19 at Cairo U, it was almost exclusively faculty, plus a few grad students and my friend the theatre critic Nehad Selaiha — bless her! — who stuck around for my 5pm seminar with director Hani Afifi; our good but ultimately not urgent conversation (which you can now watch, more virtuality, on YouTube) was overshadowed by people’s very real worries about driving home that night. Later that week I saw pro-SCAF graffiti in Abassiyya en route to Ayn Shams, where some members of my audience (and the professor who was my host!) adjourned almost directly from the Hamlet lecture to Tahrir; I was amazed they bothered to go to an evening lecture on Hamlet at all. At AUC, on Nov 21, students were mobilizing to support one of their peers who had been arrested in the protests, 38 kilometers away (he was released the next day); the energy at my noontime talk was amazingly high; one student who came in late with an eye-patch and a doctor’s note received admiring glances.
So yes, even in a place as well-networked and well-reported-on as Cairo there are things to be learned from “being there.” The crush on the metro, the endless taxi conversations, the ironic comments in passing, the clothes people wear, the hours at which there are lines at food kiosks, the age of the cars and telephones, the theatre performances, the layering of new over old graffiti, the phone conversations with people who could Skype with me in Boston but don’t, the (rare but valuable) experience of noticing something in person first — primed to notice it, of course, by what one has read; I don’t believe in any such thing as direct unmediated experience — and only then seeing how it is reprocessed online.
But the most significant experience for me — and this is why I’m ending this blog — has been the refocusing of attention. As Aristotle said: out of sight (or really, it’s the smell) out of mind. Others can parallel-process, or divide their caring between two places at once. The “Egyptians in Boston” Facebook group is testament to that. So were my friends in Cairo, able to live their normal lives even while being consumed with what they experienced as a historical process of change: my journalist friend whose preschooler still made it to karate class at the Ahly Club, my fashionable professor friend who stopped at the hairdresser’s on her way to her morning class, to wash out the tear gas from her night in Tahrir. I’m not like that, have you noticed? Miss my Cairo insomnia, but can’t recreate it in Boston. Didn’t find time to post during any of the interesting anniversary stuff, the inauguration of parliament, the continuing Occupy Cabinet protests, the anniversary of the Battle of the Camels or Mubarak’s resignation (but Feb 11 is also my mom’s birthday), the soccer match violence, any of the constant wavelets of news and commentary breaking unmarked over the electronic shores. Have hardly even been on Facebook for the past month; only the news about Shadid rattled me briefly back on. (One of my students had just written a paper on a chapter of Night Draws Near, sparking a long conversation yesterday about the strategic deployment of details in war narrative; relating to events at two removes is, after all, my job.)
So, back to the swing of professorial life in this oddly snowless Boston winter. More when there’s something else to report.


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