Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Cairo Trilogy

I'm reading the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. It starts in Cairo of World War I. At this time, Egypt was occupied by the British. Many of us remember when Lawrence of Arabia came out in the early 1960's. At that time, the concept of Britain ruling Egypt did not seem all that unusual. In fact, the rule of other peoples by Westerners was as ingrained and as acceptable to our sensibilities as segregation was in the South before 1956 (I recall the separate rest rooms and water fountains in the department stores for the "colored." And, for sure, blacks had a separate Church. Still do, I think. Irony there!).

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. The mind set that tolerates America ruling Iraq is deeply ingrained. The most cogent discussion of the Western attitude towards the East is, IMHO, Said's "Orientalism." The fact that the Universities of the East do not study "Occidentalism" is not coincidence. Since the age of European exploration, we in the West have considered ourselves exceptional. Manifest Destiny does not just describe the American West.

Many years ago I used to visit the grandparents of a college classmate who lived on Beacon St. in Boston. The husband was a physician and had been with the Australians in Egypt during WWI. He had been in a mess tent when Lawrence of Arabia had passed through. (I have a picture of Ike I took in 1957 at Valley Forge when he was within spitting distance. Of course nobody spit, we respected him. I also saw Kennedy at the Army Navy game in 1961. He had a great tan. Only after he was killed did I learn that he had Addison's disease, probably iatrogenic. We brush with history, but I digress.)

Mahfouz in "The Cairo Trilogy" repeatedly refers to the Australians as being uncultured and crude. I have no doubt that the soldiers from Australia were as described. They were, after all, one generation up from transported convicts. The Moslem culture of the Egyptians that Mahfouz depicts is light years away from the sheep grazers of Queensland in concept and practice.

The idea of foisting the American ideal of democracy off on the the people of Iraq is fraught with peril. Those who are proponents of this policy, and I assume that it is our president, though one is never sure any more what he is up to, should first understand the culture that underlies the Iraqi people. I certainly don't and I am pretty sure that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer don't either.

[By the way, Cheney goes hunting every Fall about 5 miles from where I'm sitting. Am I scared shitless? You bet.]


markfromireland said...

With your permisssion I'd like to link to and quote this wholesale in a forthcoming posting.

Dr. C said...

Jez, Mark, sure. I'm honored.

Redjalapeno said...

I read Midaq Alley a couple of semesters back, for an English class, another book by Mahfouz.

In April, we will have a book discussion event with a one Shahwali Arezo.

He was born and raised in Afghanistan, and with help was smuggled out when the Communist Party seized control in 1978.
He found his way to Virgina and educated himself, and is now a gastroenterologist with a private practice.

He is writing his autobiography and about the details of his life during the Communist takeover, and what it did to his family.
I'll be sure and post as much as I can about the discussion once it has concluded.

Dr. C said...

Thanks, RJ. I can't say that I find Mahfouz fun reading but it does give one perspective. Would be interested in hearing about Shahwali. I thought you were a technocrat. Sounds like you're a polymath.

Redjalapeno said...

He is a difficult read. I had a little trouble with the endless supply of names.

BTW, I prefer 'scatterbrain'.