I am sitting in an internet cafe in Casablanca, Morocco, preparing to fly back to New York tomorrow to start playing music in various cities on tour for a month, and I am chatting with various travellers. In the past week, an extended detour through Morocco on my way home, I’ve met many: from Australia, Sweden, England, Hong Kong, and the U.S. They have saved up a sum from working and their trips are all much more ambitious than my own; some are on a 6 month trek throughout the whole world, while others have been going for longer and don’t plan to stop. They seldom spend more than a week or two in any one place, and thrive on the constant feeling of being somewhere new. They make friends for the day wherever they go or find a local to take them around and eagerly highlight their Lonely Planet guides, trading tips on restaurants, sights, and bars.
Whenever I say I just came from Cairo they are excited to tell me that they have been, and that they had a wonderful time at this or that place. They are curious about how I weathered several months there, and I say it wasn’t so different from their traveling, and then feel a little strange saying it. Was it so different from travelling? Did I really dig into the country in a way skipped by the cursory glances of a backpacker?
If I did, then I would say that the intensity of the experience did not come from merely being in Cairo, or merely being in an “American” school, but from the constant flip between them. As I described in other posts, my hearing, my sense of smell, and my sense of touch were all places of learning as they and I spent eight hours a week on a bus, countless hours in a sterile desert college campus modeled on American ideas, and less plentiful, but no less important, hours crammed in microbuses, waiting in lines for cheap food, and sweating in dusty taxis. Cairo is a city divided into various clashes of values, lifestyles, and economic comforts (or lack thereof) and in a way I feel like a saw a few of them. I sweat a few times and was berated by taxi honks a few more, ate dinner in fancy restaurants and commuted in nearly-collapsed microbuses, fought off tourist-hagglers and tried to speak in Arabic to cab drivers. My time was neither romantic nor mundane.
Most of all, I feel like I learned about “America,” or the idea of it, in my absence from home. Some of the other American students dealt with Cairo in various ways, all of which reflected their own biases and predispositions, and they often became a mirror for my thoughts about my own projections. Without meaning harm, some of them made Cairo out to be what they wanted it to be; an exotic place where “America” must fight for its reputation against its ideological opposite, trying to convince the “Arab street” (as so many articles call it) of the virtues of “American liberty.”
The last week of classes, several articles in the school newspaper disclosed the Egyptian students’ disaffection with America. For them, mostly from privileged backgrounds and benefiting from America’s role on their campus, the U.S. is a place whose culture they enjoy but whose politics and foreign policy they despise, whose values they appreciate and whose arrogance they criticize. Upon reading these articles, the American students, offended by a perceived defamation of their own country, donned red ribbons of solidarity with the U.S. and wore red, white and blue. They interpreted the ambivalence of the Egyptians as hypocrisy (ambivalence and hypocrisy being flip sides of the same coin), and were enraged.
As one might imagine, I didn’t wear the red ribbons and hated what they represented, but it makes sense that these Americans would be so offended. Just like the Egyptian students, they were ambivalent seeing how America’s internal values are transfigured abroad, how we export some of our culture but also our arrogant prescriptions. They didn’t want to seem hypocritical, and so they covered their ambivalence in strident pride, as we are all inclined to do now and then.
And so I’m back in the U.S., about to drive through a great deal of it, and I wait to remember where this ambivalence came from.