Rewriting the Story



What has happened in Egypt, and what is still happening there today—people seem to be seamlessly pouring in and out of Tahrir Square—feels very personal to me. I’m a Palestinian-Egyptian-American (though lately I’ve been finding myself proudly saying I’m an Egyptian-Palestinian-American). My grandfather was one of the group of Free Officers who, in 1952, marched to Montazah Palace—where I would one day go swimming and later make out with my first boyfriend—and instructed King Farouk to leave Egypt forever. I was told this story often as a child, and I felt proud of it. Only later, on my visits to Egypt as an adult, did I begin to question whether that was really the last needed revolution in Egypt, or whether it ultimately did the Egyptians any good. My grandfather died a year-and-a-half ago. It feels today like a symbolic death; a passing away of the old guard to make way for the youth of Egypt who have taken their fates into their own hands.

It also feels personal to me because as an Arab-American, and as an Arab-American novelist, part of my daily activism has to do with writing about Arabs and Arab-Americans in ways that break both Arab cultural taboos and existing Western stereotypes. I treat my characters as human beings, deserving of flaws and dignity and a real future. And yet, the story that surrounds me, the story that persists in the media and in some literature today, is that Arabs are dangerous; that Arabs are savages in need of squashing or children in need of saving, or both; that Arabs are a violent people who don’t deserve to shape their own destinies—because they would elect terrorists. (Look at all the fear-mongering that happened the first days of the revolution, and that persists in the media about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.) That’s the story that I fight against every day when I sit at my desk, and so it thrills me and moves me in ineffable ways that Arabs have been seen on televisions and in newspapers and websites everyday for weeks protesting peacefully for their rights to self-rule, dignity, and freedom.

One of the most amusing moments in the protests came when Mubarak’s regime claimed that the protesters were paid agents from the West; people who didn’t really want to protest or have an organic, authentic desire for change. The same rhetoric is being used in Libya, when Qaddafi calls his protesters “drugged cockroaches.” It reminds me of the letter my father wrote me when he officially disowned me over writing what he deemed a “dirty book.” Someone must have paid me or influenced me or convinced me, he said, to write about sex and masturbation. He could not fathom that I would want to write about these things because they are authentic interests of mine; that I genuinely choose to go against the silence that was prevalent in my upbringing surrounding sexuality.

Now, when I try to write about this new Egypt, I think, I‘m just a fiction writer, what the hell do I know? But it’s precisely women and fiction writers such as Ahdaf Soueif and Nawal el-Saadawi who have been reporting from Egypt and participating in protests. Nawal el-Saadawi was called a few days ago by Al-Jazeera “The mother of the revolution.” She was arrested under Sadat and exiled by Mubarak. In spite of all this, she still managed to agitate against and help outlaw female circumcision in Egypt a few years ago. She also “symbolically” ran against Mubarak in 2006. In an interview last Wednesday, she said she was putting together a list of female activists she wanted the movement to consider for President of Egypt.

Women in Egypt faced daily sexual harassment under Mubarak and their legal rights were and continue to be limited under an archaic family law. When I was there in 2007 I swore I would never go back, because of the way men treated me on the street. In a recent poll, 83% of Egyptian women say they were sexually harassed in public. I think this poll shows how serious the problem is, and I have a personal theory now that 17% of Egyptian women are shut-ins.

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