Why I do what I do…لماذا أفعل ما أفعله
Writing. Throughout junior high and high school, I used to hate the word, the action, and even the thought of it. Now older (and one hopes wiser), I’m come to recognize its value as not only a means of communication but also a means of forced reflection. (I hope this post accomplishes both these ends.)
It is not uncommon that when meeting for an Egyptian for the first time my knowledge of the Arabic language becomes a prominent topic of conversation. After the surprised complements on my linguistic proficiency and the brief exchange of pleasantries, the question is dropped: Why do you study Arabic?
For much of my time in Alexandria, this question stumped me but I eventually developed an answer. While I am interested in Middle Eastern politics, I do not study Arabic for research purposes. While Arabic may make me a more competitive applicant on the job market (or so I hope), I do not study Arabic to get a job. Instead, I study this beautiful – and a times extremely frustrating language – to increase cultural understanding between Arabic cultures (and their Western counterparts.)
Cultures, peoples, and religions do not fit into a thirty second sound bite or a 500-word newspaper column (or even blog post for that matter.) Nonetheless, politicians, religious figures, journalists, and everyday citizens persist in this endeavor. Regardless of their intentions (benign, malicious, or otherwise), all trade nuance for stereotypes and generalizations. By combining a predefined agenda with the selective reading of current events and historical texts, intellectual schemata are constructed on the basis of a minute subset of groups’ memberships and then all members are forced into them.
The results are frightening: All Muslims are violent, freedom-hating terrorists bent on destroying America. All Americans are immoral neo-colonialists who steal oil to aid the Jewish conspiracy of world domination. All Jews are racist Zionists who indiscriminately kill Muslims to advance the dream of annexing the “Holy Land” in its entirety. Using these stereotypes, fear and hatred are cultivated and once they have enslaved their target audience, they unleash it to meet a desired end. The result is a Jewish settler walking into a Palestinian mosque and opening fire on those inside. The result is September 11, 2001. The result is the rising Islamphobia and the ten years of hate crimes and social marginalization it has imposed on the American Muslim community. Regardless of the stereotype-induced action, the outcome is the same: the deaths and sufferings of innocents.
Thanks to studying Arabic, I have developed a passion for breaking down stereotypes and replacing them with a respect for the dignity of all peoples. It is an uphill battle. Stereotypes are not fought with logical, nuanced arguments but emotional, personal interactions. Only once respect and trust have replaced hate and fear will individuals cease adapting individuals to fit their intellectual boxes but rather adapt their intellectual boxes to fit individuals.
While living in Egypt for over a year (albeit a noncontiguous one), I had a number of conversations on stereotypes with Egyptians (many of whom I now consider to be my friends.) Over the course of such conversations, I have watched the destruction of some of the stereotypes from which I suffer and perhaps helped to destroy some of the stereotypes from which they suffer.
I have written the above intellectual discourse to calm my nerves and gather my thoughts after a conversation with a random Egyptian on cultures and their stereotypes left me discouraged and shaking with rage.
Thankfully both are now gone. To many at home, I am an innocent young man blinded by his orientalism. To many abroad, I am an innocent American duped by the Jewish conspirators. In either case, I’m proud of it.