Thursday, May 7, 2009
A Week Later
Another week of jet lag. I hadn't counted on it being so brutal. Maybe I should have just stayed away. I came home to exactly what I knew to expect, a and now ex wife still deluded into imaging I would want anything to do with "friendship" without major changes in our relationship. I dreaded coming home for this reason alone. It was what I left and knew I would return to as no one has the power to change the past other than their perceptions and as yet I have had no grounds or experience to base such changes upon.
So now that's out of the way. I was in fact delighted today to find that the Egyptian Hotel Windsor desk clerk had sent my brass tray and it arrived in the mail as promised.
The delight was as much in having someone you trust come through for you as the fact that one of the artifacts of my childhood was such a tray. That original tray was bought when I visited Egypt as a child, dragged home by my mother with two children (of which I was the younger) along with a huge leather hassock (deflated at the time)as well as an amazing inventory of trinkets, souvenirs and lovely pieces of folk art typical of Egypt accumulated over the many months of our visit then. Those items were dragged physically across Europe by my mother with me and my sister on trains and ships and finally after New York by airplane to home, across the bay from San Francisco and displayed for decades only to be lost, dispersed or other wise disappear. I wanted my own tray now that I understood it was to be a table and not a display object for a shelf.
I live in a different world though I may be her cultural and psychological heir. I was apprised as I left Phnom Pehn for Seam Reap that my total weight must equate to no more than 43 kilos (the rest of the worlds version of 50 lbs) so I was glad I had had the brass tray sent by the Egyptian postal service.
Hopefully (and probably) that service has improved in security. As a child the anecdote I recall is the American or other expat who was expecting a gift in the mail from home that never arrived. The sender inquiring repeatedly finally feeling pressed to describe the particular striped neck tie sent, and upon inquiry at the Cairo post office the ex pat noticing the clerk wearing a tie suspiciously similar to the missing gift. So I am delighted to observe confidence in the present ability as well as (and perhaps most importantly) the Hotel Windsor which negotiated the entire thing for me at a remarkably more reasonable rate than that quoted to me by Egypt Air the airline I flew out of Cairo on to Bangkok.
But enough of that. I am home now and enjoying only the after glow of photographs that I am editing along with the slowly fading memories. It is aggravating to me that no matter how hard I work at preserving recollections I know for a fact that details will disappear day by day, invisibly and inevitably. Being human is such a humiliating and aggravating reality at times.
So as I knew I would find, I am home in my college town, filled with young people and of course being heterosexual I tend to some times notice women and the fact that the way they comport themselves along with how their physical characteristics differ from those in other countries, they are also of significantly different disposition towards men. Here I feel, as I knew I would at home, far more isolated and severed from contact. It is a consequence of both my being of some generations older than the coeds that frequent the neighborhoods near the university as well as the facts of how genders behave in my culture differently than in others I visited. The curiosity to me is that in Egypt with a clear distinction in the roles of men and women, perhaps due to my being a man, I felt included and respected though socially separated from women, in Asia I felt included and socially engaged and at home I feel neither except with people I know well and not many of those.
As I work on the photographs I remember how I felt being there and finding them. I remember feeling an intense love of Egypt, of the people and knowing that they would not necessarily understand my feelings or what being there meant to me. I thought about it a lot at the time and after. It is not an academic sense, it is of necessity highly subjective, born of experience and repetition. I'm sure if when I visited in 1976 I had not had a positive return I would not have wanted to return again as much as I had for the last over thirty years. Fortunately I was not disappointed but felt entirely vindicated in my feelings.
It is not hard for me to see the gulfs in reality between my own country and Egypt and much harder to know how to bridge those gulfs as an individual. As I work on the images I see one after another, faces that I remember looking at me either quizzically, friendly or angry and knowing in that moment to not further pursue, to take my advantage of good will or resign myself to a moment missed and the light being wrong. So many considerations, none of them particularly personal and mostly circumstantial.
Time and again I wanted to tell someone that I could not communicate with how important I felt it was that I have a momentary chance to show how wonderful Egypt is, how marvelous that people can still feel the pride of history that Americans can mostly only read about.
We imagine ourselves to be proud of our history but there is absolutely no comparison with the pride of people knowing their heritage counts immeasurably in the history of the world while ours is still an experiment barely even tested as the contemporary world watches in a combination of envy and confusion at our embarrassing wealth even in the worst of times and our incredible nearly total lack of experience with physical strife amongst ourselves or with invaders compared to extensive poverty more common elsewhere.
Luck does not even begin to describe our circumstances. Our standard of living, our assumptions, our sense of entitlement is beyond the expectations of kings for even the lowest of us in so many circumstances. There is no way to understand this in a text book and only travel and being in the midst of the reality of other cultures begins to educate.
It is an experience that is more precious than the finest university can provide, it can only be gained by throwing your self into the midst and taking what you find by trusting that people are human every where and they feel largely as you do and want mostly what you want, that is to be loved and respected and accepted for who they are. It's not all that complex really.
Today as a self indulgence, feeling crummy still both physically and emotionally, I bought two CD's to make myself feel better and I took a long time choosing. The first is Women of Egypt 1924 -1931 and the other is Amr Diab, greatest hits. a major pop star in Egypt. Obviously these are sort of bookends of the modern world, and being an amateur student of culture I found myself wanting at least some degree of perspective. This wasn't too bad for two choices for someone who reads no Arabic and took a chance. I can't begin to describe them adequately but the first is much more listenable to a western ear willing to hear and the second is surprisingly both clearly rooted in the culture and modern in being sped up (as is our own popular music since World War Two for the most part) and American influenced in the way that pop music is almost everywhere now.
Anyway, an afternoon spent making rice pudding with my formula with cardamom and almond flavoring) a good cigar, a martini made with gin from Washington State and finally a phone call from a local acquaintance and then Jesse to leaven my otherwise sometimes heavy moods.
It is hard for me to come home to what I left, knowing what it would be so well. not looking forward to it particularly and not being disappointed. Hoping to be wrong but knowing the probability being I would not be wrong.
So onward with the predictable and wondering if maybe it is time now to just move entirely away after believing so fervently in being of a place and having more than a brief history as is so common. Wondering where I would go and why. Wondering what my purpose here is anymore without a context or a partner to justify my presence. I feel like a left over with out any particular excuse or necessity.
Maybe that will change, or maybe I will change by leaving and creating a new reality for myself. It's too soon but I feel impatient as I was feeling already before I left.
As I review the images I am alternately amazed and embarrassed. I am amazed at the humility and good humor people exhibit towards me for the most part and I am embarrassed by own arrogance and assumptions. I freely acknowledge my sometimes predatory and voracious tendencies when behind a camera, my desire to capture before the subjects defense mechanisms and perhaps outrage at being invaded by an apparently presumptuous tourist take over against my simultaneous desire to not be rude, be a poor guest in their country that I so delight in for the very reasons that it is not my own culture and that I have so much to learn and want to share.
I am an ignorant outsider without more than a rudimentary command of a smattering of words or knowledge, just a profound affection.
An odd thing I heard the night before we left Cairo. We're visiting with a friend of a friend of my son. a woman from Egypt who's parents were diplomats and grew up in Washington DC. I give her the brief details of why I am so fond of Cairo and at some point she compliments me on my pronunciation of Arabic. I felt somewhat embarrassed as I felt there was no basis for such a compliment. I could only attribute it to the early phonetic recognition of a child to what the sounds "should" be coupled with the infrequent exposure I've had as an adult. Still though, through our entire visit words would come to me that I recognized but had forgotten the meaning of and when I asked I realize that of course I did know the word. Not whole phrases really but words coupled that help greatly when dealing with people in the street, phrases like "mafeesh felooze" or "I have no money" which you tell the appropriate beggar, or "mazboot" when asked how I want my coffee, which simply means balanced or not too sweet and not too plain. It happened every few days and by the time we had to leave as has happened in the past I didn't want to leave yet, I wanted to belong and be accepted and feel loved. Something that sometimes feel missing at home where it should be for everyone. It's no ones problem but my own to fix.
Still, looking at these images, seeing some of the faces of joy and genuine welcome how can I not wonder why it should feel so hard to find this close to home, but it does.