Rewriting the Story

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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.

Female protesters saw Tahrir Square to be a kind of utopic environment where women had a voice and were not sexually harassed. A friend of mine in Cairo says there’s now a man down the street from her house who holds up a sign all day that reads: “Men: Do not harass the women of your country.” But unfortunately, revolution is not a light-switch. When Mubarak stepped down, it did not mean that rapists instantly disappeared from the streets–see what happened to Lara Logan for example–or that respect for women was turned on as quickly as a song. This is a long process. I hope the women and activists of Egypt do the work to ensure that all of society there, including women, will be treated with dignity and respect.

I am reminded now of a tweet I saw the other day from a Filipina activist who was remembering her own country’s people power revolution in 1986. Moments later, a teenager replied to her in a tweet, “What happened? Where did we go wrong?” The activist tweeted back, “We did not realize a revolution goes on and on and on and must be nurtured 4ever. U make me cry with your question.”

Women in 1919 in Egypt were told to go home after the revolution, just as American women were told after WWII that their help in factories was appreciated but that they needed to get their aprons back on and head to the kitchen where they belonged. Activists are watching very closely to see how or if women will figure into the new Egypt, and I hope they keep watching and also that they are inspired by their participation in their own revolution to continue to elbow their way in.

What is happening across the Arab world today, literally today, this frenzy of concurrent demonstrations in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen–what we are seeing, feels like a new Pan-Arabism to me, different from the one we saw in the ’60s. This time, it’s not foreign entities and agents the people on the street are protesting, it’s the very story they’ve been told: that they are a chaotic and savage people that need the iron fist of a decades-long government for their own good; that they don’t deserve dignity or freedom because they would squander it; that they are violent and infantile.  Arab men and women the world over have stopped believing this story about themselves, and in doing so, have shown the world that the story was never anything more than a fiction.

Read “Loosely Based” from the July-August 2010 issue of Utne Reader, where Jarrar reflects on the perils of writing about family

Randa Jarrar is the author of the critically acclaimed novel A Map of Home. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, and The Progressive. She was chosen to take part in Beirut39, which celebrates the 39 most gifted writers of Arab origin under the age of 40.

Image by monasosh, licensed under Creative Commons.

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