Doctor Dog

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So a suspicion of mine was confirmed today. In Arabic, my title is Doctor Dog.

I had the notion a week or so ago, while flipping through my edition of Spoken Arabic of Cairo, looking up words as they occurred to me. Dog is kalb (Arabic letters above), and since (1) vowels are different in Arabic and (2) my family has always pronounced “Kolb” with a short “o,” “dog” may very well be the most sensible way to render my name.

I wanted to make sure, so I asked my tutor about this at the end of today’s Arabic class. I showed her how I’d written my name in Latin and Arabic letters, asked if it was correct, and if this was indeed the word for dog. Her face fell. My tutor is an incredibly polite and proper middle-aged lady, and I could see her wrestling with how to tell her employer that his name might now be a pejorative.

“Um, yes, you might write your last name that way, but I would suggest you use the long ‘a,’ alif. I think it would be more…accurate.”

“But I pronounce it with a short vowel. Am I Doctor Dog to my students?”

A pained smile, “Um. Perhaps, but yanni, there are many very expensive dogs here in Zamalek!”

[Quick language note: Yanni, meaning roughly “I mean,” is a common filler or hesitation word, especially for Egyptians speaking English. It’s the equivalent of the American “y’know,” or “like.”]

I’m OK with being Doctor Dog. I think it captures something about my place in Egypt. While my wife and I have been treated with nothing but hospitality and patience since we arrived, and we are embedded in the liberal, anglophone, cosmopolitan environments of Zamalek and AUC, there’s a strangeness to us that never quite goes away. I see it when we walk our dog down the street. People are generally polite, and some want to pet her. They ask “Husky?” as that seems to be one breed Egyptians have heard of. But most are wary. I’ve seen women jump out of our way, fathers pull children closer, people give us looks like we have a rat on a leash. While some Egyptians keep dogs, and you see “very expensive” purebreds on the sidewalk in our neighborhood, most people still consider the animals unclean, even dangerous.

I don’t get that kind of treatment, but I know I’m still foreign, a curiosity who gets looks, questions, and exclamations of “Welcome to Egypt!” on the street. It’s been difficult for me to reconcile the warm reception I’ve received with some of the stories I hear. Xenophobia has swelled since the July 3 coup, with some very ugly consequences. My students told me about a PSA the Army put out the last time they were in charge, in late 2011. It showed a group of young Egyptians talking politics in a cafe when an inquisitive, blond-haired, blue-eyed man asks to join them. The ad ended with a stern warning not to disparage the country in front of foreigners (who might be spies!). My students roll their eyes at this ham-handedness, but many Egyptians don’t.

“It’s different for you,” said one of my students. “Americans don’t have to adjust when they go abroad because everyone already knows America. There are little Americas everywhere. When we go abroad, we have to explain ourselves.”

“And we have to explain a lot,” said another student. “An American once asked me if we can drive cars on sand. She thought we rode camels everywhere.”

It’s true. Americans (especially white, male, professional Americans like me) don’t often have to explain themselves. The empire has long ago paved the way for its citizens, so I can move across the globe and be confident that there will be a little America for me to slide into, complete with English-speakers, wifi access, and fast food outlets. It makes it easy to stay in a bubble, and that’s what I did during our first weeks here. Arriving in the wake of the Raba’a massacre and the state of emergency, it was soothing to stay in the apartment, keep up with friends online, and keep Egypt at bay while I prepared my syllabi.

It’s a form of privilege, no doubt, and an unfair one. The injustice of it all is thrown into relief by the refugees with whom my wife works. Most of them come from sub-Saharan Africa, struggle with finding work and housing, face pervasive discrimination, and often have no or tenuous legal status. Still, I’m grateful for the bubble. It’s good to have a choice of worlds, to have the shelter of the familiar and the freedom to experience the new and strange. It’s a form of hospitality–the right to keep one foot in your old home while engaging with the new–that should be extended to more of the strangers in our world, not just the lucky ones like me.

Learning Arabic is helping. I can actually have (very limited) conversations with people on the street, and they generally appreciate the effort. I’m a strange beast, probably harmless, but weird and shaggy and unfamiliar with the local customs. Eager and friendly, but clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing yet.

Sabah ilkheer. Ana ismi Doktoor Kalb. 

I think the name fits.

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Cities and the Dead

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They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually, it was the dead who built the upper Euspasia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead. 

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, “Cities and the Dead 3”

For our first real day off in a while, Kirsten and I decided to take the metro to the Mar Girgis (St. George) stop and visit Coptic Cairo, one of the city’s older neighborhoods. We initially planned to walk down Gezira Island from our neighborhood, Zamalek, to the metro station by the Opera House. Found the Opera House, couldn’t find the metro station. Realized we were near the Kasr-e-Nil Bridge, decided to walk across the Nile to Midan Tahrir and catch the metro at Sadat station. Dodged traffic to get to station entrance, discovered the Sadat station is closed, with black steel shutters blocking all the entrances. Our passage into the underground was locked tight.

Hot, tired, and hungry, we repaired to the Hardee’s across the street from Tahrir. The restaurant has famously served as a safe haven for women and the base of operations for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault during demonstrations on Tahrir. But today it was just a place for chicken sandwiches and curly fries (two weeks in and the cravings for American junk food finally arrived). With Mar Girgis unreachable by metro and our willingness to find a cab going that way fading, we decided instead to go to the Egyptian Museum, just on the other side of the square.

I’d never seen so many armored vehicles in my life. The street in front of the museum, usually full of tourist trap cabs and pushy papyrus vendors, was a closed off parking lot with at least twenty armored personnel carriers parked in a row, soldiers perched on top amid water cannons and coils of barbed wire. I had to show a copy of my passport at a police checkpoint and Kirsten’s bag was x-rayed twice before we could get inside.

The museum was its usual self, packed to the brim with underlabeled sarcophagi, statues, haunting animal mummies (including a dog mummified in a pose I’ve seen my own dog make), beautiful Roman-era funerary portraits, and, in a wing that requires an extra ticket, two dozen mummies of kings and queens, their faces stretched tight over their skulls, their fingers and toes held straight with gold stays. Some had tiny white stone eyes inserted into their sockets. Some, according to the labels, had their eyes replaced with pearl onions.

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We started to wonder how many dead lay in the museum. Dozens? Hundreds? It was a conversation that continued as we left, walking past the burnt-out National Democratic Party (Mubarak’s party) headquarters, a ruin that looms over the museum, the banners placing Defense Minister El-Sisi next to Nasser and Sadat, and the murals on the outside walls of American University’s Tahrir campus, depicting young men killed in the 2011 revolution with multicolored angel wings sprouting from their shoulders. They look like smiling cousins of the solemn Roman-era Egyptians looking out from their mummy portraits in the museum.

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The dead crowd the living in Cairo, where there’s not enough space to file the past away. They lie in your path, jostle you, catcall you, hustle you as you walk. The past looms up around every corner, be it a statue of some long-dead pharaoh or pasha, 2011 graffiti that seems strangely dated now, the burnt remains of some street fight, or the coils of barbed wire laid in the street in its aftermath.

It’s a thrill, but exhausting too. Walking back out past the guns and the checkpoint, we grab the first cab we see and head home.

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SOUS LES PAVÉS, LA PLAGE

I wrote this proposal a while ago for the BABEL Working Group’s biennial meeting, to be held at UC Santa Barbara in October 2014. I’m happy to say it’s been accepted.

The theme for the conference is “On the Beach: Precariousness, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World.” Naturally, my thoughts turned to Egypt and its revolution,

My panel is “SOUS LES PAVÉS, LA PLAGE: Holidays and castaways in the (early) modern revolutionary moment.” Description follows. Email me if you are interested in contributing.

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29 May 2013. Sidewalk by the Tahrir Square campus of American University in Cairo. The paving stones were pulled up and thrown in 2011. Now your feet swish through sand walking by.

In Cairo, the sidewalks around Tahrir Square have turned into a beach. The paving stones were pulled up and thrown during the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, and never replaced. Sand has blown in and filled the space between the curbs.

The slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!”—under the pavement, the beach—emerged from the May 1968 uprising in Paris. Hard, still stone would give way to soft, shifting sand, discovering a better, freer, more playful and less ordered world just beneath the certainties of life as it is. This spirit can be found in many modern protest movements—from the Wisconsin Capitol to Zuccotti Park to the streets of Athens and Tunis—that occupied public spaces during the heady year 2011.

That year saw Tahrir transformed from a traffic circle into a vibrant democratic assembly—and later the site of horrific assaults against women. Recently, occupations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in other Cairo squares were dispersed by the military regime in a week of shocking violence. In the wake of a military coup, the old security state is reasserting itself with new vigor and popular support. In the face of over two years of uncertainty, revolutionary enthusiasm seems to have given way to nationalism and a resigned acceptance of authoritarian control.

Is the beach a space of freedom and play, or is it a place of chaos and vulnerability? Is it the womb of the new world or merely the grave of old? Once the paving stones come up, are we on holiday or cast away? I am looking for projects that address this aspect of the beach: the anarchic space, at once exhilarating and terrifying, lying just beneath or beyond the structures of civilization.

Relevant topics could include utopias, like Cockaigne, More’s Utopia, the City of the Sun, or the commonwealth described by Gonzalo as he stands in the sand on Prospero’s Isle. Or the beach as place of dangerous uncertainty, a place outside civilization’s comforting confines, where an exposed life must adapt or be extinguished, as in a castaway Viola’s uncertain prospects at the beginning of Twelfth Night or poor Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale, who sees all his old certainties swept away before being eaten by the bear on the fantastical seacoast of Bohemia. As the rising sea encroaches on our cities, blowing sand down their streets and washing their walls away, what shall we build out of the sand?

The nature of the session will depend on submissions. I imagine a round table, with four or five presenters giving short (10 minute) presentations (which can be traditional papers or some other medium) followed by an open discussion. Please place a proposal of up to 500 words in the body of an email to Justin Kolb (justinbarneskolb@gmail.com).

If possible, I’d like to hold this session on the beach itself, standing amid sandcastles and waves.

KEYWORDS: Holiday/Castaway, Stone/Sand, Revolution/Counter-Revolution/Devolution, City/Shore, Old World/New World, Beach/Ocean, Submerge/Emerge, Party/Revelry, Piracy/Smuggling, Coast/Edge, Holiday/Play, Atoll/Reef, Weather/Atmosphere, Migration/Invasion, Hospitality/Mission, Raft/Castaway

THEMES: Anarchy, Authority, Thriving, Precariousness, Presentism, Affinity, Dissent, History, Temporality, Post/humanism, Materialism, Life, Ecology, Decolonization, Unlearning, Play/Enjoyment, Speculation, Post-Catastrophe

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Table Talk

Lunch conversations among my fellow new AUC faculty:

“So what were those women at your table arguing about in Arabic during the teaching workshop?”
“Oh, you know how we were supposed to talk about how to handle political disputes in the classroom? It turned into a political dispute. One prof teaches human rights, so she talked about the breakup of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins and how it was excessive, undemocratic, etc. And the professor across from her said, no, it was necessary. Then they started arguing about democracy. I tried to join in, and the one supporting the Army said ‘Why should we listen to Americans about democracy. America’s not a democracy. In 2003 they had millions in the street against the Iraq War and they still went to war. Here, the Army listened to the people in the streets.”
“Huh.”

“So you live in the apartments near campus too.”
“Uh-huh. They’re very nice. Good grocery store close by.”
“OK, so it’s close, but is it walkable? No car, remember?”
“Um, theoretically. I wouldn’t though. The traffic is really busy.”
“Imagine the headline: ‘Suicidal Foreigner Steps in Front of Car to Make Egypt Look Bad.'”
“We’re an international conspiracy right here. US, Egypt, you’re from Canada, right?”
“So they’re in on it. What about you? Where are you from?”
“Iran.”
“Perfect!” [Peals of laughter].

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Truth in Advertising

Our neighborhood contains one of Cairo’s few liquor stores. It is called Drinkies.

The beer selection is limited to Heineken, Stella (Egypt’s own crummy lager) and a few other equally uninspiring options. This will perhaps be the hardest part of moving here from Wisconsin.

Thank God they have South African wine. Egyptian wine is considered undrinkable by everyone we’ve asked and I’m not eager to challenge the conventional wisdom.

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Mohamed Sakeb St., 11:00 pm, Friday 23 August

Cairo’s 7 pm curfew has led us to walk Tenney, our Wisconsin shelter mutt, in our apartment building courtyard before bed. Last night it turned out the courtyard is the domain of the very territorial mother cats the guards feed. Lean and long-legged, Zamalek’s strays are a handsome, haughty bunch, not like the chubby housecats Tenney’s tried to harass back in the states. You see them leaping off of walls, skulking under cars, and slinking down the middle of the road all the time. I suppose there’s a reason I don’t hear many birds around here.

Tenney quickly found herself yapping and squriming on the end of her leash, her barks echoing LOUDLY through the courtyard as a gray-brown mean mother hissed and jabbed at her with some nasty looking claws. The dog was vexed, torn between her deeply-bred rat terrier drive to chase little furry things and the dawning realization that this cat could wreck her.

Thankfully, they didn’t get beyond threats. I ultimately had to pick Tenney up and carry her around the cat, who was persistently blocking our exit and hissing like machinery that’s broken in an expensive way. After this embarrassment, I took her out onto Mohamed Sakeb St., mildly worried that the assault rifle-toting policeman in his kiosk on the corner would yell at me (not knowing Arabic yet has left me painfully sensitive to any possibility I might give offense or break some rule).

I needn’t have worried. The street was nearly silent and free of cars (which is deeply strange for Cairo, especially on a summer night at only 11). As we turned right and headed up the block, an older woman walked by in the middle of the street. In front of an apartment building up the street, a trio of bawwabs (doormen) sat in kitchen chairs around an outdoor TV tuned at low volume to CBC, one of Egypt’s many satellite news channels. Above the Arabic crawl, an English logo in the corner of the screen screamed “EGYPT UNDER ATTACK” in bright red letters. Befitting this crisis, the screen was divided into six boxes with six different scenes from that day in Cairo. Three normal pedestrian streets, two streets (near Tahrir Square, as indicated by the pink Egyptian Museum in the background) blocked by tanks, one street full of pro-Morsi protestors milling about anxiously in yellow T-shirts featuring a hand with four upraised fingers.

Last week, over 600 (and likely far more) pro-Morsi demonstrators were killed when the police and army broke up a sit-in at the Rabba Adawiya mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. “Rabba” is similar to the Arabic for “four,” making the hand a punning sign for the killings. The Muslim Brotherhood had called for a “Friday of Martyrdom” that day, massive marches to avenge the deaths. Heeding warnings from neighbors and the US State Department, Kirsten and I had hurried home after our morning errands in Downtown, before afternoon prayers kicked off Egypt’s traditional marching hours. We needn’t have worried. The pro-Morsi marches were tiny compared to the previous week, and the soldiers and police prevented them from joining each other. There’s was lot of shouting and shoving and milling around, but no one died.

Commentators speculated on the collapse of the MB’s organizational ability, given that the highly hierarchical organization’s leadership is locked up and many of its most committed members died last week. Timothy Kaldas, an Egyptian twitterer I follow, probably offered the day’s best analysis:

On the Bawwabs’ TV, CBC had come all dressed up for a battle that didn’t come. State and private TV networks both have been hyping up the “War on Terror” (yep, that exact phrase) declared by Defense Minister El-Sisi with bombastic glee and much of the population has bought into it. Conversations with even very worldly and well-educated Egyptians have led to an uncritical endorsement of the idea that the MB (in nefarious league with some combination of Hamas, the USA, Qatar, the Europeans, Al Qaeda, and Israel) is behind all of the evils to befall Egypt and that the Army is only right to stamp them out. (I should add that I’ve heard many thoughtful and nuanced responses to the political situation as well, but that doesn’t make the conspiracy theories any less jarring). While Mohamed Morsi’s rule was incompetent, repressive, and bigoted, and the MB’s hands are not clean in the recent violence, it’s ludicrous to brand a whole political movement (one which was winning national elections a little over a year ago) as terrorists. It’s also silly to think that a newly emboldened security state will limit its repression to the MB. Many of the liberal and secularist groups now cheering on the generals might find themselves targets soon enough.

For now, events weren’t cooperating with the newscast. The six boxes weren’t showing a Egypt under attack at all, but a curfewed country under tight control, with daily life squeezed into the boxes set by the authorities. Even without understanding the newsreader’s Arabic, I couldn’t help but detect a note of disappointment in his voice. After all, there wasn’t anything else to hear on that street.

I may well be wrong about this, but I’ve noticed a weariness in post-revolutionary Egypt. Two-plus years of revolutionary upheaval, with its attendant economic collapse, massive demonstrations, crime, sectarian violence, and general anxiety have wrung Egyptians out. Conversations these days are never that far from politics, and political talk is tinged with sadness, the kind that makes typically voluble Egyptians go quiet, look at the table, and take a longer-than-usual drag on their cigarettes. There’s a sense that something’s been lost, that the huge hopes of the 2011 revolution (“BREAD! FREEDOM! SOCIAL JUSTICE!”) have been compromised, sold out, or killed. Last week, another Egyptian tweeter, Mosa’ab Elshamy, changed his Twitter bio to a line that breaks my heart: “Love was a country we couldn’t defend.”

Not to go out on a psychoanalytic limb here, but perhaps current Egyptian politics can be explained as a series of reactions to this loss. Some eagerly join the scapegoating of the MB, turning them into the sacrificial lamb on whom all the sins and failures of the last few years can but put (I should note here that the nickname given to MB supporters by their opponents is “sheep”). Others have lapsed into resignation, deciding that Egypt just wasn’t ready for democracy yet, or that any significant change is years away. “It’s going to take a generation,” said a colleague on her terrace the other night, as we watched the moon rise over silent Zamalek. “There will need to be a whole new elite. In the meantime, our young people want to leave, go abroad. This is a hard place to be young.” Some hold out hope that once the Army re-establishes order, the stage will be set for gradual systemic change. A bold few liberals and leftists say no to both Army and MB and experiment with new forms of activism. There’s a general anxiety about what kind of violent retaliation may come from the crushed MB and its allies. There’s already a low-level insurgency going in the Sinai. Will it spread?

For now, those anxieties seem out of place, a narrative waiting for events to fill it in. Egypt is in a relative lull this week, the Army triumphant, the MB in disarray. The curfew might be bumped back to 9 pm tomorrow. Daily life goes on in its straitened confines. During the day, the streets still bustle and the generosity, humor, and energy of Cairo can still be seen. Tomorrow, I start my orientation at AUC and I’m eager to see how that community of scholars and students will react to new school year in the midst of the latest crisis. I’m eager to hear the conversations emerging from this strange post-revolutionary moment.

But not at night. Tenney and I walked up our empty street until she relieved herself on a patch of dirt and we turned back around. No problem, no sound but the Bawwabs’ TV.

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