I have been unable to write what I want lately. Poems haven’t been coming as readily, polemics are more muddled, the long stalker of my dyslexia complicating my writing more than in the past. It is hard to explain why because, as a caveat, I am both a very private and very public man. In a way, I insist on a distinction between the public and private life that few since Hannah Arendt have encouraged, particularly in a time when artists’ and poets’ lives are considered largely the key to their work. In a time of confession and stand-point, of microblogging and self-polemic, I am both deeply attracted to and deeply disgusted by narcissism.
Poets who don’t merely naval gaze can become Stalins, Maos, and minor Eastern European nationalists though, and as such, the choice between emulating Anne Sexton or Ezra Pound becomes nearly a kind of posturing towards a lesser evil. The obvious answer is that one does not want to embody any of those traits.
Outside Cairo traffic bustles beyond my seventh-floor apartment on the edge of a mixed neighborhood in Maadi. This is Degla. It’s shaped like a D and is a mixture of Egyptian, Syrian, Chinese, Korean, British and American. The streets are anything but quiet, but it is largely safe outside of beggars from the local orphanage selling tissue paper or vendors selling flat bread, sweet potatoes or bananas. There is a seemingly ancient necropolis across the highway: an old Muslim cemetery with what appears to be sandstone houses, and beyond that a prison that we don’t take pictures of. Beyond that the rest of Cairo, some small stony mountains, and beyond the Nile in any direction seemingly infinite desert.
The regularity of my life is simple: the calls to prayer, the various honks of the busy street outside, the nearly ejaculatory rhythms of the occasionally verbal fight in the Masri Arabic ringing. Street cats and street dogs sorting through the trash before the locals pick it up and take it to Garbage city to be sorted. This is my life here. It is pleasant.
Comparatively to Seoul and District Federal in Mexico, two similar size cities I have stayed around my nomadic lifestyle, Cairo feels more sprawling, massive, and yet also more intimate. Neighborhoods feel like little villages. Locals who do not speak your language know you. Know your movements. Know when something is wrong. Other migrants and expatriates know you too, except that they often don’t approach you. The beggars too know your patterns
Sometimes as I walk home from getting groceries at a market—a grocery store or a souq—they will swarm. Saying “Mister” and then begging in Arabic. These are mostly orphans and old women. They touch me slightly as they beg, and generally accept a few pounds with thanks. Sometimes they want more and touch me until I give a stern hiss of “Khalas” (the “kh” sound rattling like a guttural and aspirated h)—meaning “it’s finished.” For new comers I am sure this intimacy is unnerving often. It seems a violation of our sense of bodily integrity, our space. Yet it reminds me of a vital pulse here. A way in which Americans and maybe even Europeans become skin starved. Not for sex, or even the touch of a lover, but just touch in general. It costs me a few Egyptian pounds a week, and the occasional harsh word in my broken Arabic.
This has been the rhythm of my days here. It also brings nostalgia on fast. Maadi is home to the Mexican consular residence and its Embassy, home to a large Korean community that seems tied to foreign development of Cairo, workers for Huawei and Samsung. I can get food that reminds me of Daejon, of Seoul, and of many of the important women of my life these past four years, including my partner.
This has been an element that has changed. It has rattled me. It has made it harder to write.
I first started to write this scene in the several-decades-old couch of an expatriate friend. She is from Northern Mexico, and was my colleague there. Recently, I helped get her relocated to Cairo so she could have same contract as a “foreign hire” and having her around has been helpful. My partner worked with her, and now that my partner is not with me, she ties me back to that world. To the desert of Northern, Mexico, and the dry air that was not as dry as Cairo but felt much closer to the sun. Indeed, I had been stewing in a gentle melancholy and deciding, after sitting there reading the introduction to Raymond Rosenthal’s translation of Levi’s The Periodic Table, that I had to write something even if I couldn’t write what I wanted to right then—or right now. I did not have the levity for a poem. My sarcasm too bitter for satire. My mood being just slightly blacker than before.
This is not Cairo’s fault. The coming of the Eid holiday and the return of the school year had actually help lighten my mood, but it was half-used white crayon upon a background of jet black ink.
Indeed, since resuming my job at the American curriculum international school I currently work at in Cairo, I have been unable to finish a single poem even if I had published a few older ones. I had been separated from my partner for all but two weeks of four months, and I had spend the first three weeks back in Cairo wandering as if I was a hungry ghost. I spoke to local Egyptian friends, but my Arabic is minuscule. I can ask for a taxi or order food, say good morning or goodbye, and know key words for anger, hungry, or happiness. I call local friends habibi, and know when to hold hands or hug male friends in ways that generally make Americans uncomfortable. But I could not hold a conversation in Arabic, particularly a conversation about politics, or my new unwelcome friend, cancer. I couldn’t talk about the street cats I watched daily, or my two Siamese who ventured with my partner and I from Mexico. In this isolation, a lot of angst-heavy poems came quickly, then they stopped. So then I concerned myself with the strained grammar of quickly writing “Marxist” polemics aimed a grouplets and micro-sects of Marxists in my “home” country.
Politics is both my passion and my anti-passion. There are a variety of reasons for this, but a key is that I have largely rejected the political spectrum of American liberalism—most American politics, even conservative politics, being some variety of liberal or another. The alpha and omega relationship to that set of American political thought had taken root, and I favor an older, and frankly more coherent but particular, Marxism that does not even parallel most of the Marxist thought today. Indeed, I rejected Woodrow Wilson for Amadeo Bordiga and a largely forgotten worldview of a Leninism that could have been, but wasn’t.
Perhaps this is why I watch so many Pasolini films, and argue with translations of Gramsci without little more than a cursory grasp of Italian deduced merely from a knowledge of Spanish and exposure to Latin.
In some ways, I am a child of broken languages, and past dreams.
My passion thus moves more from that of touching a lover to that of a passion play. Passio, to suffer. Pain. Lately, my long duree view of history and political thought seems more in place in a Cairo Cafe among a mixed form of professors than in memes and screeds that act as degenerated polemic.
I have been trying to formulate an opinion and argument about the disintegration of older communist and Marxist sectlets from the 1970s and 1990s, and the formation of new micro-parties and tendencies out of the ashes of #Occupy and the current fervor of #BLM. Trying to congeal the undifferentiated mass of #hashtag activism into something more in line with pre-1914 or Karl Kautsky. These parties see an opening made by Sanders and frustration with the Democrats to make a tactical electoral push to build a mass party. When I sit down to arguing with this with my knowledge of history, I come up with both sides of the ledger filled. To borrow a capitalism metaphor, the accounting makes it hard to pick sides. I have no clear argument on over-arching trends, infinitely weighting more and more historical esoterica or knowledge of demographics or the past failures of Marxist parties, or the naivety of hacktivism and hashtag-activism in the first instance. I have nothing more to say about this than “wait and see,” or “trust, but verify.”
It’s hard to make compelling blog-posts or polemics on that.
So I shall, after all there is an ocean and several North African deserts between myself and North American even if the currency exchange is felt world-wide. My “homeland” and I feel increasingly distant. It has been six years since I left the States, a marriage, and the overbearing humidity of Georgia.
This brings me to the first lines of Levi’s “Aragon” chapter, in Rosenthal’s lyrically direct translation into English: “There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe.” What is inert? Why inert? Why the “so-called.”
My disillusionment with ups and downs of student visions of revolutionary politics being one well- known gas. It is documented on blogs, in podcasts, and my somewhat sporadic polemical battles. It is, however, only one such gas and not the most important one.
My partner has cancer, fairly advanced, and has returned to the states and her family to undergo treatment. She left several months ago. During the summer, my mother and I drove from just beneath the Appalachian mountains in my home region of central Georgia, dipping into a continents width of diners and truck stops, to drive to tip of the Rockies to see her. The great land mass of corn and soybean in the center to keep us company. Then I quietly got on a plane after a few weeks there, and flew to Cairo via Rome.
I spent a day in unexpected overlay in Rome, got a few meals, and some decent wine.
This has been hard for me to say, and because the such inert gases are hardly “inert.” I have had trouble speaking about this publicly. Sometimes coyly hiding the existence of the entire affair, and others blurting it out in vague details without any sense of situational awareness. Furthermore, our life together has always been in transit. Meeting the second year in Korea after a year of dating around, we immediately started traveling together. We had only been apart for a few weeks in four and half years prior since we met in a central train station in Seoul. I had slept beside her on a wooden cot in a hospital in Daejon, and she was with me when typhoid closed my bowels off in Mexico, sleeping next to me on a couch and helping nurses dress the surgery wound of around 30 staples.
She is fighting this without my help. So I am without her, and while there is still an “us,” an “ours,” and a “we,” this is a limbo that isn’t easy because her voice is her, and our two siamese cats sometimes seem to looking for her in my Cairo apartment. This this fainter world and the limbo it engenders devours my sense of protocol. The rhythms of Cairo, in all their chaos, and memory of women— romantic and not, mostly not—keep me focusing, almost ironically, on her because it reminds me why people are important. Why touch is important. Why silence’s sound is not entirely welcome.
Yet, my life is not all nostalgia nor all the thinking about women some kind of narcissistic misplacement of longing and loss. Until I was an adult, most of the closest friends were women, and even as an adult, even small interactions have been meaningful. Sharing poetry with a Professor of Italian I knew that I respected and wished I had known better, who later I corresponded with, she encouraging me to keep writing poetry at a point when I considered quitting. I never told her that or how important it was. I still see her on social media sometimes and that encouragement brings a smile.
I feel guilty going to cafes, keeping up with friends, going to Korean restaurants, drinking the local beer, living my life because I know she is at home battling the disease. I am not that there. I can’t. I maintain our insurance, and aid with my money, but I must work. I work an ocean away.
I see the green neon of mosque out my window. It reminds of the red neon crosses rising above Seoul. The tenements and the Mission district in my hometown of Macon. The broken “Jesus Saves” sign of my childhood, flickering like a bar add for some national beer brand. This is the conflation and collapse of highly complex memories.
Narrow streets, broken concrete, and dust. Always dust. Naked light. I walk past those beggars again. I smile, give a few pounds, and watch a young couple walk. A young woman in a pink hijab pets a street cat and a local Chinese cook lays down some scraps for the cats. I fear that she might be poisoning them for a second, but she pets them as well and I feel slightly ashamed for my lack of charity.
I know my partner is improving, and so the bleakness dwindles a bit. I think about crying with a college friend who was one of few people I went to college with left in my hometown. I cried on her shoulder. I had barely cried in six years, and never in public. Even in my divorce and losing my job, I had only broken down once. She tolerated it, and even understood it. She had lost a family member close to her, and she welcomed me waltzing back to the States and temporally into her life with my problems, my fears, and my past. She asked if I started ranting about politics and arcane texts of Marx, would it be a sign I was better or worse.
A dangerous habit of expatriates is that all kinds of illusions, ideologies, and gods can fill the longing for a culture, for a home. Perhaps that is why the extremists have almost more clout in a diaspora. In my diaspora of one, I remain the child of rootless cosmopolitans, but without the comfort of that singular identity. It is, however, a real privilege to see the world.
The physical universe seems obstinate, quarrelsome. As I remind myself my drama is both infinite and tiny. Like the number line between 1 and 2, there are infinitely more infinities between 1 and 100. As an Egyptian friend says to me “the flood comes,” and he also means that the crops come after. Wait and see. The gases may catch flame. You never know what will be burned away and what will burn bright. For Levi, a chemist as well as a poet, and for myself, a poet and nomad who puts food on the table by teaching, we both aim to make something about of the stubborn materials, the treacherous gases, and the random acceleration of our lives.
The flood always comes, so to speak.
So Cairo seems to drain me and give me life—the city of millions with a few dozen traffic lights. The more I see of it, the I see the teeming layers of cultures, Shiite and Sunni, Nubian, Greek, Muslim, French, British, Arab. The closeness and hospitality and the brashness and bargaining. It all comes into the view for moments and flits away. I feel like a foreign particle, bouncing around its corridors, colliding with beggars, Salafists, young novelists, tour guides, Copts, Muslim feminists, liberal idealists, Europeans on holiday near the Red Sea, the increasingly dwindling amount of tourists. The hodgepodge of a world that both wants to embrace modernity and is also, rightly, distrusting of that very same worldview.
I suppose I am equally ambivalent and so I feel the pull.
The other day, I was invited by my Mexican friend to the Consular Residence of Mexico for dinner in honor of Día de la Independencia de Mexico with the Grito de Dolores recitation and imported Mexican food and spirit. I collided in thinking it was like the same celebration I had been to in Seoul, so I found myself standing between an Egyptian and a Dutch general, in a polo shirt and seersucker shorts. Listening to the ceremony of the Mexican community in slightly accented English as it was lingua franca as I struggled to keep up with my colleagues’ Spanish conversation.
The gases we find ourselves in are unexpected. I found myself speaking broken gringo Spanish in Egypt. Drinking mescal and dining on mole poblano as an honorary Mexicano. I have never felt more American. Even in my first weeks in Korea when very scrap of English drew my attention.
Travel changes you, but it isn’t vacations or sightseeing or braying at the poor for their inability to travel that does it. It’s the situations you find yourself wandering into, being forced into, and how that makes even your home alien.
I wanted to share the moment with so many different people. So many different friends. My partner. Former lovers. Friends. I wanted to show everyone how weird the world is when you open yourself up to the background noises and random occurrences, but it was that same randomness that kept me from being able to share it with them in the first place.
Levity is what I needed to write. In lieu of it, I wrote this to find my levity again. To find my gases. To keep going, because, if Levi is any indication, the lack of fuel to keep colliding can run out when you least expect it.