Friday, June 05, 2015

Categorising Ourselves And its Price

The recent controversy surrounding Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a transsexual has brought up some extremely important issues in human interactions in general for me. A good friend posted an article by Nuridden Knight looking at a comparison of the issues body image and self love for black people and for transsexuals. I personally would not have made those comparisons, but then I am about as WASP as they come in terms of my externals and have always enjoyed the benefits of belonging, at least as far as surface characteristics apply, to the privileged class in this world. I think that she has made some excellent points in this article and the viewpoint interests me because I have never been able to view the world as black/white even with shades in between because I was raised to believe that the colour of a person's skin was one of the least important attributes of that person. It was an issue that was never brought up in our family, although we had very few friends who were persons of any sort of colour other than vaguely pink partly due to my father's job as a Navy scientist (this was in the 50's and 60's) and partly due to where we lived. But considerations of colour or ethnicity were also not applied to Hispanic families in our area either and to even parrot a word of discrimination was to bring the wrath of the parental units on us.

My first boyfriend when I was growing up was of mixed race and ethnicity and it was a massive shock to me to encounter people's animosity to us as a couple in the early 60's. I moved to Canada in my early 20's where "black" people were from the Caribbean for the most part and very different in culture from the "black" people that I'd known in the US, which to me validated my parents' teaching. After all, how could the attributes of "black" people be so different if they were determined by skin colour? My late husband was Egyptian/Sudanese and the reactions of people in Louisiana to him when we visited New Orleans in the 70's was at once hilarious and horrifying. He was sporting a fairly impressive afro and was pretty dark from a lot of time in the sun, but as the nephew of the first president of Sudan he had no preset option for being of a lesser status due to the colour of his skin or the curl of his hair, and people we encountered, who on seeing him initially as "black", generally were very taken aback at his complete ignoring of that category in his interactions with them. Happily, he was a charming individual and things never got difficult, although it was extremely unsettling to a lot of people there in Louisiana. So the binary of "black" versus "white", while as a couple we probably exemplified it, was simply not workable.

I've always felt that while we see sex as being a are either a man OR a isn't really. That word "or" is a dangerous one. While working in Vancouver as a cocktail waitress to put myself through university, I was lucky enough to meet a number of transsexual individuals who while they might look like a man or a woman externally definitely gave off the "opposing" vibes, but how opposing were they in reality? As I grew older I realised that just as one's personal mannerisms were not a binary, neither were one's sexual preferences. For women sliding across sexual preferences can be easier than for men. After all, as mothers we are as loving to our sons as to our daughters, or at least we should be. It is quite natural to us to hug other women to comfort them as it is to hug men, and the division between simple interpersonal caring and loving sexual behaviour isn't a fence but a pasture or sometimes a forest.

Perhaps because men have not been so much a part of the parenting/nurturing culture in western society, it is easier to see their sexuality as binary, but it is also a continuum...or there wouldn't be so many strong male bonds. Despite being married and having children, I know that I have characteristics that might be labeled as male, and here in the villages of Egypt, I have indeed been called a "man" as a compliment (which I find rather odd and sometimes uncomfortable) because I am happy to be living on my own, running my farm, and taking responsibility for my people...and because I don't scare easily or back away from a confrontation when I feel I'm right. But is that really the behaviour of a "man" or is it the behaviour of someone who is simply certain in my own role, responsibility and power within my community and family? As well, I've been blessed with many nurturing, gentle male are they womanly or even, gasp! gay? Not at all. They are, however, more complex and interesting individuals than those who block away that aspect of the personality.

Life is so much simpler and less taxing to us when we categorise our world into little boxes, but in reality we dribble outside those boxes all the time. Living without our category boxes is infinitely more work. We actually have to pay attention to the individuals with whom we are interacting and see them in their glorious complexity. This takes time that modern society and human laziness often would like to avoid, so we categorise them. But what happens when we don't avoid the reality? Our world is so much larger and full of possibility and promise. With my work with our veterinary/farming charity that operates out of my farm, I have gotten to know the villagers, both men and women, as well as their children, as individuals rather than as inhabitants of that large box of "fellahin". There are those with whom I really enjoy spending time, others that I could cheerfully toss into the nearest canal because they refuse to open their eyes and ears to new ways of caring for their animals and families...but this is to be expected. Not all humans, dogs, birds, horses, or cats are enjoyable companions for every individual, and there is usually someone who likes the individuals that I do not like.

Looking at the question of how we accept the variety of individuals in our world whether it be through the lens of colour, sexuality, sex, gender, or social class clarifies the same issues at stake here in Egypt with the tendency of many to divide Egypt into social classes. We have the wealthy, theoretically educated (since they have financial and social access to "good" schools) and we have the poor and uneducated who have been told that they cannot be judges because their father was a farmer or trash collector. "City" people ascribe attributes to "country" people that don't necessarily fit in the actuality of individuals in these categories. And the opposite is also true. "Secular" people ascribe attributes to "religious" people that are equally without a good fit. Recently I've had groups of women who wear niqab bring their children out to the farm because my staff (who are mostly men other than myself and my housekeeper) are considerate and will stay away from the garden so that the women can enjoy the air without the black veil that they choose to wear in public...and they are well-read, well-travelled, interesting, questioning women, fascinating to talk to and very enjoyable as companions. Once you lose the category of Darth Vader clones, they are marvelous people. I do not necessarily agree with all that they believe but I do find them to be people with whom I am happy to spend some of my time, and I feel that I have been enriched by this interaction. The important point here is to appreciate the differences and enjoy them rather than to block because of them.

In her article, Nurredin Knight talks about learning to love herself as a black woman and accepting her entire being as what she is and what she should be. She questions whether sexual reassignment surgery is such a good idea. Wouldn't it be better just to accept on a societal level that just as there are people of different heights, weights, colours, athletic abilities and so on, there are also people of different aspects of sexuality and gender? When my children were young, one of their favourite books was called Leo The Lop and it was about a rabbit who had floppy ears who felt that somehow he wasn't normal because his ears didn't stand up like other rabbits. This is, of course, an oversimplification of a massive issue that touches every aspect of human endeavour. What is "normal" anyway? Much of the sectarian strife in the Middle East is rooted in the idea that there is only one "normal", just as sectarian issues in North America, while not necessarily expressed in religious terms, are also. One group can not decide that it is "normal" but no one else is. In this world, we need to lose the categories, all of them, and look at people as individuals who are individually kind, productive, inclusive, and honest...or they are not. And individually as people they should be part of our lives...or not.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

June 5, 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

On Bombs

Yesterday I was greeted on opening Facebook, one of the best sources of information in Egypt, by a post by the daughter of a close friend saying that the police had shown up in a very timely manner to take care of what appeared to be a bomb near their apartment building in Maadi. She had been contacted by a neighbour who informed her of the arrival of the police and her boab (the doorman to the apartment building) told her that someone had seen something near the large electrical box on the corner that had wires and looked very suspicious, so the police had been called. There subsequently was  a small boom, then a larger boom, and the problem seemed to be sorted.

Today her mother called me before bringing a friend visiting from Finland to see me here at the farm and we were talking about the incident. Naturally, everyone is very happy that the object had not blown up the electrical connection or caused any injuries, and she was very happy that she and her friend had been at the beach at Ain Sokhna, thus missing the excitement. I asked if there was any further information about what exactly was involved and what had  happened. She told me that while the object had looked suspicious, as far as she knew there was no official statement that it had been a bomb. Apparently the police brought along a big metal box into which they placed the offending object and then performed a controlled detonation. It might well have been a bomb, but now it is in a thousand bits, so it would be hard to tell. On the other hand, she pointed out that the piles of garbage that were usually surrounding the electricity box on the corner were now gone, so perhaps it was a plot by the neighbourhood to get the spot cleaned up. As usual, no one really knows.

There are odd homemade bombs going off in various parts of Egypt, this we do know. Today one went off at Carrefour in Alexandria killing one and injuring six. Most of these are aimed at the police, much like in the 90's when the police and Islamists were in an informal war. Most of us who live in Egypt do our best to avoid the police or government buildings if it is at all possible (also like during the 90's), but then we try to avoid them most of the time since contact with the government and police is almost never very pleasant. I have to go into the dreaded Mogamma (the abyss of state bureaucracy in Tahrir Square) sometime soon to renew my residence visa, but I keep putting it off simply because I don't want to go there, not out of fear.

Yesterday, while this excitement was going on in Maadi, we had a couple of families at the farm with their children to play in a wading pool and romp with dogs and baby goats. Neither family was particularly concerned, though one had been redirected when driving near the site of the bomb that cleaned up the corner electrical box. I'm sure that somewhere in Egypt people are very worried about all this, but to be quite honest, I don't know them. Most of us accept the fact that much of this falls into the "Shit Happens" category that we really can't do much about in our daily life. You take reasonable precautions, pay attention to the news, and get on with your life. Many people say that they'd rather deal with the odds of these random bombs than the possibility that some unbalanced individual might decide to shoot them over some imagined slight or something.  Death really is one of the unavoidable things in life, so losing time worrying about it doesn't seem terribly logical.

copyright 2015 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, January 12, 2015

Catching Up To Myself

The last few months have been a whirlwind of strangeness in the Middle East. I keep up with the news on my Facebook page for friends who have lived here and perhaps left but who are still interested in an area that is a weird kind of black hole in the normal media. People hear about either the most irrelevant or the most horrific things that might happen here, but when you live in MENA (short for Middle East/North Africa) the real news runs the gamut from things that make you laugh out loud, although not nearly often enough these  years, to things that are simply hard to believe. This range is normal everywhere, of course, but to people who are not getting MENA news from fairly ground level sources, only the really huge stories manage to force their way to the surface of television or newspaper news.

I became a news addict in 2011 when during the revolution/uprising/disturbances/readjustment in Egypt when the divergence of reality from the broadcast was so amazingly huge on television here and initially I found myself becoming impatient with the slowness of the updates on the major networks covering Egypt. I'd signed up with Twitter years before and followed a few friends who were luckily for me good journalists. I began working my way down to street level activists and journalists in order to see what was happening in Egypt in a more timely fashion and to see where it was being reported. Then came the work of trying to make sense of patterns to understand what events meant and to try to guess what might come next. I have to admit that I'm not the best guesser in the world, but it has been interesting to try. I realised today that the work I've been putting into my Facebook page has seriously cut into my blogging, along with some reasonable anxieties about posting anything political in the modern Egypt...and these days EVERYTHING is political in some way. I decided to post something, opened Blogger to write and found the post below. It's about four months old and sadly enough it is still timely. It's winter in Egypt now and nights are cold but today the sun was warm, friends stopped by the farm to visit and in general life was good. I think that is the most important thing to remember when life at large looks pretty frightening. Just back things back down to a manageable scale, like a garden, a kitchen, a walk with a child, a game of ball with a dog, and it isn't nearly as frightening but it is just as real, in fact, perhaps more so.

I woke up this morning to the sound of bird song and the beautiful wind chimes that I brought back from the US this last trip. The air is fresh and cool, the sky blue with those wandering puffy white clouds that signal the onset of blessed autumn in Egypt, with its relief from the relentless heat of the summer that simply drains every shred of energy from your body. I came out to my desk and turned on the computer after the inevitable crash of a late night power failure and Twitter was the first tab to open for me. I found this tweet from Hussein Ibish, who is someone whose comments I've learned to pay attention to:

Hussein Ibish @Ibishblog
. @hisham_melhem best article yet - and he's written some really great ones - but this is truly superb

So, sipping on a glass of water, I opened and read one of the best and worst articles on the ills of the Arab world that I've ever seen. I'm not sure what to do now. I feel as though Hisham Melham has summed up all the monsters that have been crawling around in the darkness at the back of all of our closets here in our turbulent part of the world. And having examined them we are left to try to shut the door and pretend that somehow keeping them in the closet will be enough.

The saddest part is that, while this sums up the Arab world's issues pretty clearly, it doesn't look beyond that part of our entire battered, bruised and bleeding human world, which seems to me to be almost as much a hopeless case. All of the concerns of fundamentalist sectarian issues are equally present in the "West" with religious leaders pushing political carts that are loaded with the baggage of the corporate leaders of what currently pass for democracies in Europe and North America. Africa is seething with equally damaging issues while being attacked from within by one of the most frightening diseases humans have seen in a long time, Ebola virus, which while it may not decimate human populations, will most certainly decimate economies. China and the far east are struggling with both economic issues and similar sectarian battles, however little we pay attention to them. The only area that seems relatively free of these damaging religious/sectarian/political feuds looks like South America, but this area has been pushed hither and yon by corporate pressures stemming from the north including the drug trade and who knows if they can bring themselves to a position of stability and leadership in a world that seems to totally lack both. Years ago when my ex-husband and I were looking for a haven from the insanity of the Vietnam war, we thought of New Zealand, at least partly from a wholly selfish view that it has some of the best trout fishing in the world, and aside from its rather unfortunate tendency of late to massive earthquakes, it is still seeming like an odd haven of sanity and peace. Heaven knows that Australia is writhing with its issues of why a country of immigrants who treated the indigenous population with massive brutality should deny haven to the next wave of immigrants.

I'm sure that there are pockets of peace and sanity in the world. There always are. There are happy farmers' markets taking place throughout the world where people can forget that they are being pushed to purchase and eat food-like objects that will ultimately harm their health so that some corporation can count their imaginary wealth. I can get on one of my horses and meander through the fields out here greeting neighbours who are planting cabbages and clover. There is a ground level reality that can sustain our hopes that life is worth living and perhaps it's just best not to look up the food chain too far. I think I will be doing some gardening today.

copyright 2015 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani