Welcome to Egypt by Dawn-Michelle Baude


Algammah considers this urhent massge

apologize to Allah from all soles which will be gone

no way during this severe facing

Oh God wi are sed

 

The call to jihad on the wall of Alexandria University of Egypt is a far cry from the fliers cheerfully exhorting, "Join Chess Club on Thursday!" or "Textbook Sale!" that I've seen plastered on campuses from one end of the world to the other. The poor grammar of jihad pains my heart, English teacher that I am, although the apology seems sincere. The young man or men who wrote the message apparently feels badly about having to kill everyone. Someone else has written a sloppy "fuck you" over the typescript. I can't decode what an Arabic scribble says.

"Ana modarrisa hena—Fulbright," I tell the armed guards at the college gate. I am a  professor here.

The guards look incredulous. "Secretary?" the younger one inquires.

"Professor," I reply a little too sharply. "Fulbright."

I expect a glimmer of recognition, the way a candlewick awaits a flame. The Fulbright is well known in the Middle East and usually commands respect because of the quality of the scholars associated with the program. I assume in other countries, in other cities, even Cairo, the first day the Fulbright professor arrives at the university there'll be some sort of welcoming committee, perhaps a reception with the university deans. Everyone will smile and shake hands, sip apple juice and nibble on pastries tasting of honey and nuts and roses. At the American University of Beirut, when Fulbright scholar Evelyn Shakir came to campus, we arranged all sorts of activities—parties, dinners, lectures, round-table discussions. But that was Lebanon. This is Egypt. I already know there won't be a welcoming speech. No buffet.

"Fulbright?" the guard at the gate asks again.

The line of students behind me coagulates into an impatient column. I squeeze next to the wall so that the students can maneuver around me, a stick stuck in the current. They speak to the second guard, a stern man with pocked-marked cheeks, while I'm left with the puzzled young man trying to do his job. He was probably hired by his uncle or brother-in-law. His uniform is neat, but worn, probably a hand-me-down. The collar is, of course, frayed.

"I-am-a-Ful-bright-pro-fes-sor," I slowly repeat to the first guard.

He smiles. "Ful. Bright?"

"Professor."

"Ful. Bright?"

"Fulbright Professor."

'''You. Ful. Bright."

Experience with non-native-speakers-of-English has taught me that, like rush-hour traffic on the George Washington Bridge, this kind of conversation can last a very long time. I'm not in the mood to give a language lesson on the sidewalk outside the university gate—I'm supposed to be on campus conferring with my new boss. I clear my throat in a kind of impromptu drum roll.

"The Fulbright Commission is an organization affiliated with the government of the United States of America designed to facilitate cultural exchange between nations in order to foster greater understanding in the hopes of securing mutual political and commercial advantages that benefit the long-range goals of member nations."

My little speech seems to work. The guard's eyes have a glazed look. Now he'll find someone else better equipped to deal with me, someone who will hopefully understand why I'm here.

"Passport," the guard says.

I hand it over, along with my Egyptian residency card.

We both stare at my ID.

"See?" I point to the card. "U.S. Fulbright."

Wrong move.

"CIA." the guard decides.

I reply to this twaddle through gritted teeth. "The Fulbright is not CIA."

The theory that any person vaguely associated with the U.S. government is on a covert mission to overthrow Islamic nations plagues the Middle East like mosquitoes plague the delta. The really paranoid folks argue that everyone who is American is a subversive agent. I guess it's easier to make blanket assumptions than it is to investigate the countless threads woven together in the fabric of reality.

The guard holds my card close to his face, looking for clues.

I try to help. "Fulbright scholar," I emphasize. "I-am-a-scho-lar. I study things."

"Why you study here?" asks the second guard, who has been drawn into the conversation. He frowns.

"No—I mean I teach!" I cry, flailing about in the quicksand of my own stupidity.

"You teach? You study? What?" The older guard is pleased with his cleverness.

"I teach." No way am I going to attempt to explain the relationship between the two—it's tighter than Spandex. "I am here to teach."

The second guard takes over. "You are Christian?"

"No. Yes."

No, I do not characterize myself as Christian. Yes, I was born into a household where people read the Bible.

"No Christians."

"I was born Christian," I blurt. "I'm secular—I mean I don't go to church."

"Born Christian."

I feel like I'm about to explode. "Lord—I'm a Fulbright scholar! I teach here! At Alexandria University! I am guest faculty!"

"Guest," echoes the first guard. Hospitality is taken very seriously in this part of the world.

I see an opening. "I am a guest teacher," I explain. "I'm supposed to meet with Dr. Fahkry, Head of English. She is waiting for me."

"English teacher," the young man decides.

I smile. Like a flashlight in the fog, an identifiable beam is shining through.

"Who is doctor?" continues the older guard.

"Fahkry—Dr. Fahkry."

"She is Christian," he says.

"No."

Wait—"Fahkry" might be a Copt name.

"I don't know if she's Christian!"

The guards confer between themselves while I watch the students sidle through the gate. By now, they aren't even pretending to check student IDs—it's me they're interested in. I wonder who just stepped onto campus. Probably the author of the call to jihad posted a few feet away.

"They think you're a missionary," says a veiled girl as she goes by.

I cringe. Being a missionary is worse than being CIA in my book. At least the CIA operates under the mandate of democratically elected officials; the agency is subject to oversight and constant scrutiny.  Eventually it's held accountable for its actions. The missionaries, on the other hand, are rarely in the public spotlight. They fly under the radar, cloaked in the Word of God. They ruined the life of one of my best students in Lebanon, and no one ever knew.

"You teach Christians," the older guard decides.

"No!" I protest. "I teach Muslims."

Wait—that might be the wrong thing to say.

"I teach Christians."

Ditto.

"I teach anybody!" I shout, exasperated. "I teach anyone who wants to learn! Animists, atheists, occultists, Buddhists—anybody!"

"What do you teach?" he asks.

"English," I sigh. "I teach English."

We pause a moment to let the information sink in.

"No Bible," says the younger guard, his eyes bright. It's the most interesting morning at the campus gate that he's had in a long time.

"No." I shake my head. "No Bible."

Sincerity, in my experience, often wins out, and it does this time, too. Maybe we often communicate in ways words or even CAT scans can't measure. Maybe the way we believe in what we say has more value than what we're actually gabbing on about, as Socrates observed so very long ago.

The older guard motions for me to follow him onto campus. Groups of students mark my progress across a sunny plaza as if I'm a strange species of fauna wandering into their territory. The stares are less insistent than on the street, but still sharp with curiosity. One thing about being a khawagaaya, you never pass unnoticed.

In a pleasant building nestled in the shade of banyan trees, the guard points to a chair in the hallway. I take my place, wondering why I'm being confused with a missionary. Me? A woman who supports everyone's right to believe or disbelieve in the god(s) of their own choosing? A woman who has spent a huge chunk of her life looking at sacred objects, from the dusty remains of ceremonial flint right up to the cultish hot-tubs of Arizona? My own spiritual beliefs are more private than my taste in lingerie. I'd never push my beliefs on anyone, much less create an elaborate ruse. In my experience, deception, like the water in the exhaust pipe, eventually backfires.

It did with Mahdi. I can still see that kid now—a plump young man with a quick sense of humor and gussets sewn into his pants by an apparently accomplished tailor.  A few weeks after classes began at the American University of Beirut, I ran into him sitting on a bench in the campus gardens. He had a sticky pile of jelly donuts before him, an anxious look on his face. Purple goo oozed onto the plate. "What on earth are you doing with all those donuts, Mahdi?" I asked.

"If I lose weight, I'll be drafted into the Syrian army. I have to keep it above 90 kilos."

Mahdi was a born journalist if ever I saw one, able to summarize and interpret new material at the click of the screen. And his sentences, when he worked on them, were as clean and tight as guitar strings. He was a cheerful presence in the classroom, had lots of friends, and set an example of excellence.

"I had pizza with some nice people from Texas," he wrote in his last mail. "They formed a circle around me and prayed for Jesus to enter my heart. It was weird. Two of the women prayed so hard they cried a lot. They gave me a Bible. I don't know what to do."

Mahdi's email distressed me. I worried for his safety. And I was angry. How could those stupid missionaries from Texas corral my best AUB student? What gave them the right to mess with the life of a happy and successful kid? A Christian conversion for Mahdi would damage, if not permanently wound him, both psychologically and emotionally. It would force him to break all ties with his family, friends, culture, and nation. It would even risk his life. Mahdi may have been going to school in Beirut, but as a Syrian national the charge of Islamic apostasy carries the death penalty.

"Have you ever heard of the Crusades?" I wrote back to Mahdi with a brusqueness I still regret. I advised him to immediately speak about the problem with his parents, kind people he'd brought all the way from Damascus to Beirut to discuss graduate school with me.

I never heard from him again, but I worry about him still. The curtain probably went down on the idea that he could go to grad school in the US after that. They likely pulled him off the stage in Lebanon, too, keeping him safe at home in Syria where his pro-Western views would collide with an abundance of anti-American sentiment. No wonder the officials at Alexandria University have to be careful—the missionary group Mahdi got involved with posed as educators, giving us all a bad name.

So I wait patiently in my chair, studying the nostalgic engravings of the desert on the opposite wall. Caravans. Lone Bedouin. Egypt likes to recall simpler days when tribes fought over wells, not verses from the Qur'an. I wait some more. Eventually my credentials check out and I am led to a little office where the chief security officer takes my picture and assigns me an escort.

It is a short walk to the Humanities Building, co-ed students observing me every step of the way, 80% of the girls in some sort of veil or full-on abayas, 10% with their faces covered, and 10% with bare heads. Alexandria University, I surmise, is predominately Muslim. Next, the guard passes me to a man on the first floor entrance, who leads me to a totally veiled woman who takes me up three flights of dimly lit stairs ("No elevator," she says) to the office of Dr. Fahkry, the Head of English.

Though we've spoken on the phone on several occasions, Dr. Fahkry and I are meeting face to face for the first time—or so I think. She is an attractive woman with a sparkle in her eye, dressed like female professors around the world in a conservative pantsuit. Her head is unveiled. She wears a tiny cross on one of her necklaces. She is Copt. I've always wondered why Copts advertise their religious devotion in a country where they have outspoken enemies. It would seem to be safer to go under cover. But then, they'd be admitting defeat.

"You haven't changed a bit!" she smiles. I must have blanked, because she adds, "I was at the lecture you gave here a few years ago—at the American Cultural Center of Alexandria. It was on the Modernist poet … H.D."

I remember that lecture. I spoke about H.D.'s defense of visionary consciousness, dwelling perhaps too long on the incident in which she claimed she saw the goat-god Pan on the island of Capri. After my lecture, a Western businessman marched up to the podium. He was wearing a suit and a tie. He exuded a no-nonsense air. "The same thing happened to me," he said. "I was on Capri, and I saw Pan." He was relieved to share this information.

"Please, please—have a seat!" says Dr. Fahkry. She is a practical woman. First, she tells me which building to go to when I need the bathroom, because there is no water in the English building (I already know I have to bring my own tissue paper). Then she tells me that there is often no electricity in the building, either.  I have to supply my own chalk for the board—there are little stands outside the campus walls where you can buy a stick at a time. I am to teach one class in the Humanities Building on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and hold a Tuesday evening seminar in my home.

"My home?" The class can't meet here," I half-observe, half-ask.

"Electricity," she says. "It's not safe on campus."

I wonder what that means: it's not safe. "Is it safe to have the students in my home?"

She explains the evening seminar is with graduates in the English program, all wonderful, delightful girls. "They're very excited about your being here," she beams.

Well…. OK.

"There's no books, though," she adds. "The library books were sprayed with an insecticide too strong for people."

I ask her how I am going to teach classes without books.

"The students photocopy the text, eight book pages to a sheet, and read the text with magnifying glasses—like this." She holds up a photocopied page with lettering the size of bug feet. I'd have better luck reading the prints left in pollen.

"The magnifying glasses are also for sale at the stands outside campus—I'd pick up a few."

She pushes a folder full of photocopies across the desk. Little rectangles of text, the size of train tickets, are carefully laid out on each sheet.

I can't resist asking the obvious. I'm from America, after all.  Directness is one of my assets.

"Why not photocopy one page per sheet? So it's easier to read?"

"Cost."

"So that's why I can't order books?"

"That, and censorship."

Censorship was a problem in Lebanon, too. Some of the articles were cut out of the newspapers before delivery.

Moving on, I ask Nazek what I'm teaching. I can't tell from the photocopies. I don't have my magnifying glasses yet.

"'Contemporary British Novel' and 'American Literature from the Civil War to World War I'." She folds her hands and leans over the desk.

"Now, some pointers."

I'm all ears.

"Avoid discussion of religion at all costs," she says. "This is very important."

Let's see…. Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorn. Teaching 19th-century Americans without discussing religion is like trying not to discuss war when reading Red Badge of Courage or evolution when reading Darwin. Wait…. I'm probably not supposed to discuss war or evolution either.

"No religion," I repeat.

"No religion," she repeats.

It might be the beginning of a mantra.

"No religion…. But Dr. Fahkry—."

"Nazek."

"But Nazek, if the texts I'm reading all have to do with religion," I blurt, "then I don't see how to avoid religion."

"These students are young and naïve," she says.

"I assume they're interested in religion."

"That's just the point." She smiles. "You're not a believer, so you don't understand what we're up against."

I feel my cheeks coloring, the way a teabag colors tea. First the guards want to keep me out of the university because they suspect I have strong religious beliefs. Then my new boss wants me to avoid all discussion of religion because I don't have any religious beliefs.

"I'm interested in how the religious mind works," I begin. "I've read the Epigraphia, the Qur'an, the Bible, the Upanishads, Buddhist-whatever…."

I want to reassure her that when it comes to the sacred, I'm on hallowed ground, or at least an observer in the precinct.

But Nazek isn't happy. I can tell by the way her lips have flattened into a thin line. Do I detect a slight quiver? I should just do what she wants me to do and not make waves. I know that. But I can't stop myself. Lord—I should learn to stop myself. I thought I was at a university, for heaven's sake.

"As a Fulbright Scholar, my job is to encourage cross-cultural dialogue. And isn't that what a university is for? Isn't it a place where you come across new, unfamiliar, even disagreeable ideas?"

 "Do not discuss sexuality or love," continues Nazek as if she hasn't heard me. "Do not discuss your private life. Avoid any reference to political figures or to politics in general. Remember: these students are easily shocked."

I look at the alabaster paperweight on her desk, the one engraved in Arabic. I wonder what it says.

"We don't want any problems." Nazek's eyes meet mine and hold them. "America isn't very popular at this time."

She suddenly looks weary and I feel sorry for her.

"I see."

The US State Department has brought me to teach in an institution where the cultural exchange I stand for and have dedicated my life to, everything I want to share and give, the lively repartee which is the reason I teach—all that, all that and more, the very fibers of my being, I suppose—isn't wanted.

"If I were you," Nazek offers a wan smile, "I'd be careful."

I find my way out of the building alone—the escorts are apparently a one-way affair. I descend the stairs slowly since there're no lights. But it's bright enough to read "American Studies Library" on the double wooden doors on the first floor. I flinch as I go past, wondering what the toxicity inside the library is doing to the books, wondering if the poisons could seep out under the doors, through the walls. I've never heard of "spraying" books to kill insects…. Maybe the works were sprayed with toxins on purpose to keep kids from having access to English-language materials? To sicken the scholars? To literally poison the ideas? Maybe that's another reason why the department photocopies texts until they're unreadable, so that no one casually knows what the English department is up to, at least without a magnifying glass.

Now I'm no longer the target of conspiracy theories—I'm propagating them myself.

As I step out of the Humanities Building and cross campus to the gate, I'm of course conscious of all the stares. I don't care right now. Really I don’t .

 


Dawn-Michelle Baude is the author of several volumes of poetry and commercial books, including "Finally: A Calendar" (Mindmade 2008). In 2006, she was awarded a Senior Fulbright Award. Although she lived in Europe and the Middle East for over 15 years, she currently makes her home in New York where she is writer-in-residence at The Storm King School.