Monday, January 10, 2011

The Language of War and Peace

I find myself very subdued these days, and not simply from the aftereffects of the ubiquitous flu virus that has apparently engulfed most of the world. Being forced to "take it easy" and to stay indoors for a while to get rid of the pernicious bug, I've had more time to read the news online and think about things that are going on in the world. This is not very cheering. I was horrified to read of the bombing outside the church in Alexandria just before the Coptic Christmas. There have been incidences of violence before that have had aspects of religious issues, but the idea that a suicide bomber might want to target a church was never really considered by anyone, I suspect. News that Muslims went to the churches at Christmas to show solidarity and in hopes of deterring further violence helped quite a bit to restore my sense of the Egypt that I have always loved.

But the problem of religious divisions is not new and it isn't going away any time soon. Various members of the Egyptian community have been thinking, speaking and writing about what is ailing our country in this regard. A blog on Arabic literature summarized the thoughts of Egyptian writers on the topic, and Global Voices posted a translation of an Egypian blogger's thoughts on the subject. He notes that he is soon to become a father and vows that his son will not grow up in a country with the same issues of distrust between Muslims and Christians. BikyaMasr posted a report of governmental and society support for the Christian community, but notes that many issues of contention are not likely to be addressed or solved any time soon.

With the recent shooting of a US Congresswoman and a judge, among others, in Tucson, Arizona, discussions of who and what is to blame for such an action have flown over the internet. I find myself seeing far too many similarities between the founding issues of the killings in the US and in Egypt in the use of language. Keith Olbermann on MSNBC called everyone in the US to task for the ease with which people use words and images of violence in political discussion these days, the prevailing culture of violence expressed on television shows, in the news media, and even in games for children. I've never been one for strict prohibition of games with guns (especially when having refused to buy them for my son, I found him "shooting" one of his buddies with a sneaker as a four year old) and I don't think that my kids' fondness for shooting zombies on an XBox during their odd bit of free time has made them into potential mass murderers. But I do have to wonder about the current fondness for zombies, vampires and other ordinarily rather frightening topics as entertainment on television. A bit of a thrill is one thing but hour after hour of being chased by the undead week after I the only one who finds this a bit odd? I'm highly relieved to note that the previously mentioned offspring prefer such things as Dr. Who.

I had a lovely Coptic family here at the farm last week. They had come from Australia, Germany, and the US for a famly reunion in Egypt. As one might expect among a group of sixty-somethings, conversation naturally ran to comparisons of the Egypt that they had left about the same time I moved here and the Egypt of today. While there were things that we could agree on that seemed to be improvements, discussion of the recent bombing found us all agreeing that there was a greatly heightened sense of differences among Egyptian communities and extremist stances than we had been accustomed to in the past. But, then again, we all agreed that we noticed this in communities in other parts of the world. I found myself realising that I simply didn't categorise my friends by their religious beliefs or affiliations. For me, it isn't relevant information, and my guests noted that this had been the case in their relationships in Egypt before they left. They were quite saddened to think that it had become relevant for people.

Five years ago I wrote about Dr. Leila Ahmed's autobiography, A Border Passage, in my blog. Aside from it being a marvelous book, I was struck by the difference in Egyptian society that she described before and after Nasser's revolution in Egypt. Many people I've spoken to have commented on the multilingual, multinational, multireligious nature of the old Egypt. Could some of the changes be due to the introduction of new words that were brought in to describe this country and the concepts that they suggested? During Nasser's rule, the name of Egypt (at least in English) was changed to The Arab Republic of Egypt (after the United Arab Republic of Egypt, Syria, and Libya sort of fell apart). I find the term "Arab Republic of Egypt" to be something of a conundrum. In the first place, Egyptians aren't Arabs. They never have been and probably never will be. They are Arabic speaking natives of North Africa...not the same. They are Egyptians. And then you have that magic word "Republic"....that sort of still remains to be seen. But by using words like "Arab Republic", my sense is that it makes a fertile ground for some divisive qualifications to be made. It's sort of a chicken and egg question, I guess and I don't pretend to have any brilliant answers, only questions.

I honestly don't know if we can roll back the violence of language to stem the violence of action. I hope that we can. I think that the world now is too complex for most of us to comprehend in its entirety, but at the same time seems often to be so small as to be encroaching on our back porches. Finally, I suspect that our Egyptian blogger has the right idea. We must each do the best that we can to make our part of the world right for our children and our neighbours. Speak softly and with love.
copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani