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Charlotte A. Hu
- Publié sur Amazon.com
In Egypt, I met an extraordinary American.
"I was born in New York, but have only lived in pockets of it. In Paris, I lived in all parts of the city - on the Right Bank and on the Left, among the bourgeoisie and among les miserables, and knew all kinds of people from pimps and prostitutes in Pigalle to Egyptian bankers in Nueilly. This may sound unprincipled or even obscurely immoral: I found it healthy. I love to talk to people, all kinds of people, and almost everyone, as I hope we still know, loves a man who loves to listen," he said.
"The perpetual dealing with people very different from myself caused a shattering in me of preconceptions I scarcely knew I held. This reassessment, which can be very painful, is also very valuable."
His name is Mr. Baldwin, and I cherish this new acquaintance because his ideas have had such profound impact on my views of Egypt. I wanted to know the people, but as I reach out for them, sometimes, I'm shocked by what I see. I see people sleeping on the concrete patios along the Nile - many of them have migrated from the farmlands because they can make more money for their families if they work in Cairo. But desert nights can be bitter cold in January, and it cuts my heart. Yet, Mr. Baldwin's message is well heeded. The same problems of inner city growth that come with development in Egypt also came with development in Britain one hundred years ago. American inner city schools and slums still reflect this challenge.
Would I have walked into the slums of Chicago if I were there? Would I have strolled through the southwest side of Kansas City or east St. Louis? Would I have walked into the anti-developing city blocks of L.A. if I were in America? Of course not. So why is it that traveling abroad opens my eyes to poverty in America? Why couldn't I see it when I was there? I don't know why this happens, but James Baldwin was right - absolutely right when he said that this reassessment, which can be very painful is also very valuable.
I have been told that the housing shortage in Egypt provided the impetus for many people to move into the spacious mausoleums in the old city graveyard. The international visitors call it, "The City of the Dead," and tourists go there and gawk at poverty creating a makeshift freak show out of human suffering. Then I learned that the housing shortage in Los Angeles provided the impetus for many people to move into mausoleums, but no one goes to gawk at them. In fact, there seems to be a kind of American denial that such things could ever happen in the land of milk and honey.
As I hear of people talking about human rights violations in Egypt, I think of the title of James Baldwin's book: Nobody Knows My Name. I think of James Byrd who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck. I think of the threats of millennium violence that frightened black American families so much that they bought guns and stayed home for the New Year. I think of the tiny city in Texas who voted Spanish as their city's official language and then received death threats from all over the nation. Of course, if you asked any American about human rights violations, they would tell you that this is something that happens in China or Africa. It's a painful realization that it might happen in MY country. Growing up in the American school system, I came to idolize Abraham Lincoln's courage and George Washington's integrity. The universal ideas of human value and dignity that we believe to be inalienable are not, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so wisely told us, being applied universally in our country. These facts go against the ideals and values of our nation - they don't support the concepts of the free and the brave.
"It is a complex fate to be an American," Henry James observed. James Baldwin awakened me to that complexity in a way so subtle, so gentle and yet, so powerfully painful.
He awakened me to the hard realities of the American people, most of whom will never read or digest his work. They would dismiss him. But his vision is not to be dismissed. His writing illustrates that the responsibility of this future lies in the hands of blind people. People who refuse to see American neighborhoods and American people for what they really are. We can't improve until we accept the starting point. This lofty ideal of what we should be and blind obstinacy to what we are is killing us.
"Europe has what we do not have yet," Baldwin said. "A sense of the mysterious and inexorable limits of life, a sense, in a word, of tragedy. And we have what they sorely need: a new sense of life's possibilities."
Egypt has what we do not yet have - a clear and present sense of unity - an admiration for sacrifice for the whole of the group - the nuclear family, the extended family, the community. And we have absolutely nothing that Egypt needs, except, if you ask the younger generation: Nike shoes. In fact, this is precisely what Egyptians do not need. They do not need the destructive, greed-inspiring and greed-glorifying economic development of the West.
"In this endeavor to wed the vision of the Old World with that of the New, it is the writer, not the statesman, who is our strongest arm. Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have tangible effect on the world." - James Baldwin