Cairo Saturday Night Reflections

I am listening to Dresden Dolls and remembering when I thought Amanda Palmer held a lot of promise for the world music, sitting in my old apartment in Macon, GA, tired from first or second year teaching public school, pouring myself a gin with lemon juice, and waiting for my future ex-wife to arrive from home hawking payday loans on car titles.  One of my four cats would be curling around my legs.  I would only really be home on weekends as I taught night school at a community college and high school during the day, living in neither city, so I spent a lot of time in my car.  When I was home, I would drink to cut the stress and play with my cats.  I rarely saw Sarah, my wife at time, during the early evening as our working hours were sometimes in conflict.

Tired of the call to prayer and grading sixth grade papers, I go back to Bush’s America in light of Trump’s America.  Except in many ways, the dystopian elements of English speaking north America seemed consistent as I only lived in the states for one and a half years of Obama’s formal presidency, leaving in summer of 2010. I have watched it from abroad, largely unimpressed, working on different things, and becoming more and more radicalized.

Coming back to the states is strange. I enjoyed the time I spent in Utah.  The marches right now are both hopeful and limited. Hopeful in that many people care, but only in opposition. I am left with nostalgia of the personal, podcasting on MMT and Marxism or ancient philosophy, or the limits and promise of dual power.  I started this thinking that one I would be a literary scholar or a writing pedagogue, and now I have a different dream.

Mark Fisher died this week by his own hand. Mark was not a friend, but I respected him, wrote polemics both for and against him, and work with an imprint he helped put on the map.  I miss him.  I am only 36, and he was only 48.  He is gone.   Another in a litany of lost people I interacted with in the past year.  I faced my own morality two years ago, and could have lost Khristian, my partner of five years.

This isn’t going anywhere because I am not sure where I want it to go. The times are changing, and I am remembering other hard times. I have seen much, much worse since my years struggling in my twenties.

Here’s to the brave new world.  It was time for a change. It is always time for a change. It is coming for me personally, for the US politically, and for the world in myriad of ways. It always is, but right now, it is obvious.

 

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Dubai Reflections: Particles (Or Four Italians and One Iranian American)

-for Susan, Khristian, Darcy, and the world that almost was.

“Perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

On holidays I swear I hear an echo
You hold tight to it then you simply let go
Sure as you let those feelings show
They let you know that you are not alone

Speak now love to me of your return
It’s not how much you make but what you earn
Put your petals in a pile and watch them burn – Lampchop, “Kind Of”

A Prelude

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Taking a break, briefly, from my “Strange Death of Liberal Wonktoplia” pieces, because I am becoming more and more irate at the state of politics in the US.  If the increased instance of racialist violence and legitimate fear over rights seemed completely to be just rhetoric, I would just laugh it off but it doesn’t seem to be.  Furthermore, the liberal histrionics  around this have done more than not helped.  It has included doubling down same kinds of rhetoric, limitations of speaking, and pipe dreams that led liberalism into the current crisis.  Talk of succeeding from the Union is bubbling up from the same Californians who called Brexit racist.

Such middle class demons:  To quote the recently late Leonard Cohen, “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and maim, you want it darker?”

We kill the flame.

In part, I want to write about that flame we are killing and how it is smoldering my own vision of life.

A Context 

I am nursing a lung infection caught on a job-related trip to Dubai.  The city in the shadow of Burj Khalifa and the Burj al El Arab is like a colony on the moon.  You meet Emirati men at passport control in the ultra-modern airport in clean, freshly pressed looking keffiyeh and taub.  They are polite, but curt, and shuffle you into Dubai.  The entire city seems to have a new car smell, and overly polished look of a mall.  Chain eateries from all over Europe and the States are around, and so is high in shopping. There are currency exchanges everywhere. However, you quickly notice that most of the shoppers are not Emiratis and most of the workers aren’t either.  English and Arabic are both spoken, but more the former, and most of the workers are each convenient store seem Indian or South Asian.  Businesses with a more white collar tendency tend to have European, North American, and other non-Emirati Arab faces around.

There is something at once beautiful and dystopia about Dubai.  The Sultanate and the Emirates of the Gulf definitely have a history, but you would hardly know it.  Yet, like Yew’s Singapore, the trains run on time and are incredibly clean. There is little obvious crime. And aside from the encroaching desert, mocked my foundations and water features that abound, and the Gulf, there is something completely inorganic about Dubai.  Both wonderful and terrible, and utterly commercial.

That is not to say I did not like Dubai. I did. I could see why young people want to work and live there, but it definitely feels to have a darker side than its marbled floors indicate and a more generous side than its oversized malls would make apparent. In some ways, Dubai is product of the globalization and the reaction against it, and as such is remarkable in how impressive yet unremarkable it is.   If I go back to the Emirates, I would like to go less commercial areas to get a taste of what the country’s face to itself is.

Part 1: Heat, the desert, and my fear of driving 

Carlo ROVELLI

“IF you keep your heart soft, you will will find an entire of life of poetry”– Susan Atefat- Peckham inscribed to me the year we met in a copy of That Kind of Sleep 

Susan Atefat-Peckham and her young son Cyrus died in a bus wreck around Ghor Safi, Jordan in 2004 while on a Fulbright, the year after I got married the first time, too young, and went to work for an insurance company.  In 2005, my checkbook, a few of my notes, and a copy of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew were found in a overstuffed arm-chair in her former office where I would talk to her about poetry.  I worked with her and her husband Joel my senior year, and both said goodbye to me before they left from the middle east the day after I was married.  Susan and Joel was there first professors that became personal friends.

Susan’s advice to me has been seldom followed, and in a Holiday Inn Express, while the team I was coaching was asleep, missing partner, my second wife, who is in the states visiting family and fighting cancer, I couldn’t stop crying.  I have been adjusting well, building up small habits, focusing on my job, but as I began to cough from a lung infection I caught from a sick student on the airplane. I missed her.  I missed a lot of other people too. I feel like a particle let loose on the world, out of its quantum orbit, and flying wildly into some nebulous space.

The hardness of my heart was something that always bothered Susan.  She thought I was essentially a kind person, hurt by situations, and I didn’t think that. Rage was my prime whisky, to quote another dead poet, Alan Dugan.  In retrospective, Susan was responding to someone only ten years younger than her. Indeed, it is shocking to realize, that I have outlived her two years writing this. I have flown over the desert she died in.  Perhaps why her crept into my mind in the darkness of my hotel room, and I picked up Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a brief and poetic, but somewhat superficial introduction to modern physics.

Yet I hit on this passage, from the Sixth Lesson:

“…The difference between past and future only exist when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that colder.

So, again, why, as time goes by, does heat pass from hot things to cold and not the other way round?

The reason was discovered by Boltzmann, and is surprising simple: it is sheer chance. 

Boltzmann’s idea is subtle, and brings into play the idea of probability.  Heat does not move form hot things to cold things due to an absolute law: it only does so with a large degree of probability. The reason for this is that it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of the hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa. Energy is conserved in the collisions, but tends to get distributed in more or less equal parts when there are many collisions.” (pages 51-52, translation by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)

This was strangely conforming in that moment, thinking about Susan’s advice for me keep my heart soft, my partner’s struggles, and where I am going.  It’s like when I feel small and think of the curvature of the space itself.

How did I end up in the Dubai?   Or in Cairo? Or Seoul? Or San Francisco?  Or New York?  I was small town Southern boy who came from a strange background whose origins were obscure even to him, whose anger at the drug problems that taken a girlfriend and several friends by 21 was mounting, and whose intelligence was compromised by that emotional brokenness.

I felt like a particle because I was one, but while am not soft-hearted, I left it soften enough.  Indeed, when I speak of politics, I manifest an anger that strike even close friends as borderline abusive. There was beauty and openness to the world that I didn’t have before.  Yet that beauty can be snatched away at any moment.

Resentment can’t linger because your heat spills out in each collision. Save the heat for the collisions where it is needed.  Then I read more of Rovelli’s poetical reflections and used the bits of knowledge of mathematics I had to refocus, I had students to coach for Quiz competition in the morning, and I had done a good job of hiding my worries from them.

Part 2: Hyperreal 

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I woke up that morning, when to the hotel buffet breakfast, and got my morning ful madames –fava beans with tomatoes, onions and spices–and a chopped salad. My students chatted in a mixture of Arabic and English–more English than anything else–and after running my students through some drills, I started reading Umberto Eco’s Tavels in Hyperreality.

In early 2000, my conservative Hegelian philosophy professor assigned me that book when I was a sophomore. It exploded my mind, and I found myself coming back to Eco in general, and this book, in particular when I am feeling estranged and alienated, I go back to Eco’s reflection on the superficially of America.

In many ways, Eco’s writing here reflect Baudrillards, but Eco seems less bombastic, more calm. In a sense, more true. So on the bus to the competition, I hit this passage:

“In other words, to see if through these cultural phenomena a new Middle Ages is to take shape, a time of secular mystics, more inclined to monastic withdrawal than to civic participation. We should see how much, as antidote or as antistrophe, the old techniques of reason may apply, the arts of the Trivium, logic, dialectic, rhetoric. As we suspect that anyone who goes on stubbornly practicing them will be accused of impiety.”- Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality ( William Weaver translation)

The secular mystics meets the secularized piety. Prayer rooms in giant malls, Islamic banking and halal industries, and teaming poverty in most of the “Islamic” world. Looking out at Dubai, one gets the feeling that we have seen the transition into the end of an antiquity. The world changing faster and this seems the product of hubris, and while I tend to discount the most apocalyptic. Eco was writing about America, but now even the Emirates resembles the kind of malls that US itself largely doesn’t have.

The relationship to the Rovelli is clear: The simplicity of the universe is daunting, and the reality of reality seems more slippery. In such time, we tend to value our commentary and chatter.

Indeed, in absence of meaningful community, one sees retreats into nebulous ideas of tribes.  Hyperreality is not just the authentic fake, but the fake authenticity in response to it. Constant discourses on whiteness or construction of identities, and the response to that is to insist on the material of reality of the community between people who do not know each other, and do not enact except on wires.

If an election between a celebrity wonk-political agent and a celebrity real estate mogul, both largely famous from legacies that they didn’t actually create, and watching different disadvantaged groups rush to either as if they represented “them” proves how little reality there is this.  Indeed, Trump and Farage claiming to represent a rebellion against elites while in a gold elector is about as rich as pretending that a career politician who cut her teeth supporting Nixon somehow cares and knows the plight of working black families is beyond laughable.

Yet the worse of it isn’t political.   On the internet, there are more space for counter-cultures than ever before, yet they seem to constantly collapse in relationship to the larger culture.  Jacobin lamenting the lack of socialism in comic hero movies instead of really looking at movies of deeper substance.  There is an opportunity cost here, and that opportunity cost is withering of the political imagination to reified categories like “whiteness”–again, if the almost all white middle class Huffington Post editorial board writes another editorial beginning “Dear White People,” my jaw might clinch enough to drip blood.

The entire spectrum of criticism of the mediocre by the mediocre.  Authenticity itself inauthentic.  Forced.

Looking around Dubai?  Who is a local? What is real Dubai culture?  Capitalist water features?  Sharia courts while trophy wives of business men sun themselves in bikinis between brick walls while women in niqab walk just beyond.

It is so unreal, it is more real than real. Eco was a prophet, and it seems almost too apt that he died this year.

Part 3:  Passions 

220px-Leopardi,_Giacomo_(1798-1837)_-_ritr._A_Ferrazzi,_Recanati,_casa_Leopardi.jpg

After shaving a beard down a bit, sending my team to bed, and making myself an evening cup of tea, I took at a book I purchased at giant mall underneath the Burj Khalifa. The largest English language bookstore I have seen in the middle east is in that mall, and has all the charm of a mall bookstore, but with books from the US, UK, and the Arab world, it was worth pursuing.

I have a book addiction and thus don’t allow myself in book stores that much. Indeed, this one was massive, although I have been to bigger used book stores in Utah and New York, but since two students asked me to purchase a book for them since they left their dirhams at hotel and had used their pocket money on dinner.  I agreed since I knew that could pay me back and who was I not to support at ninth grader request to read.

Going through the stacks, I found Giacomo Leopardi’s Conti, Zibaldone, and Passions. I have been pursuing both Conti and Zibaldone, but Passions was new to me.  More pithy aphorism and reflections collected at the end of Leopardi’s life, they were like a condensed form Zibaldone.

Reading an article on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, impressed with his attempt to funnel the oil and natural gas reserves into Emirati infrastructure and education, but bemused that most of the wealth still seemed primarily from resource extraction,  I came started reading Tim Parks’ introduction to Passions and came across this quote from Zibaldone,

The most unexpected thing for someone entering into the social life, and very often for someone who has grown old there, to find the world as it has been described to him, and as he already knows it and believes it to be in theory. Man is astonished to see that the general rule holds for him too. (quoted in Passions, Parks translation and introduction, page viii-ix)

Even a great man like Sheikh Zayed has trouble overcoming long term probabilistic trends. Like Rovelli’s description of particles, greatness is against all odds and often forced upon the normal individual, but the probability is still weighted towards the mediocre and forces outside of even a great person’s control.

Even when we are the exception that proves the rule, we still find the weight of probability upon us. Contingency after contingency and all teleology factors are developments from otherwise stochastic developments.

Leopardi feels haunting to me.  Born in the conservative papal states and pessimistic like a conservative, he still understood the Enlightenment and science more than most.  His writings seem like Montaigne having a conversation with Nietzsche. Even in some ways, a precursor to Stanislaw Lem as much any other, but the framework, the dizzying erudition, the classical mind.

It felt surreal to read in the shopping mall in desert on the coast with the Persian gulf. Yet Leopardi himself lived in a time of upheaval.  Perhaps he lived to see beginnings of the modern world and formation of Italy, and yet his writings already see the problems that would arise from it:

Just about the strongest inducement to suicide is self-loathing. Example: a friend of mine deliberately went to Rome intending to throw himself into the Tiber because someone somewhere had called him a nobody. My own first experience with self-hatred provoked me to expose myself to all kinds of danger—to kill myself, in fact. How amour propreworks: it prefers death to admitting one’s worthlessness. And so: the more egotistical you are, the more strongly and continually you will feel driven to kill yourself. Meaning: love of life equals love of one’s well-being, so if life no longer seems of value, etc. – Zibaldone

Conversely, yet confirming of this: one of my beloved friends lost her brother this year. 36. My age, two years older than Susan when she died, but far too young. She was depressed, and even engaged in lots of self-damaging, but suicide seemed too narcissistic for her.  Instead, she stabilized herself in the life of others.  Leopardi could see the development of modern narcissism.  Indeed, in countries with high suicide rates, it is social shame as much as depression that prompts it.

Rarely do you see suicide among the urban unemployed in Cairo or Lagos, or the poor women in a village in Oaxaca.

It is the absurd amount of self-regard our own modern alienation gives us that makes suicide an absurdly common way for modern people to die.

Leopardi was a ruthless particle, and realizing he was set loose, wrote about it unforgivingly.

Something about that brings a wry, tired smile to face. Indeed, Plato said the unexamined life was not worth living.  Leopardi answers:

Noia is plainly an evil: to suffer it is to suffer utter unhappiness. So what is noia? Not a specific sorrow or pain (noia, the idea and nature of it, excludes the presence of any particular sorrow or pain) but simply ordinary life fully felt, lived in, known; it’s everywhere, it saturates an individual. Life thus is an affliction; and not living, or being less alive (by living a shorter or less intense life) is a reprieve, or at least a lesser affliction—absolutely preferable, that is, to life.-Zibaldone

Part 4:  Fundamental Elements

“This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

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Reading so many Italians in the desert, but Primo Levi comes back into my mind. Of the most likely suicides I know, Levi’s is the most baffling in that it doesn’t fit Leopardi description of narcissism nor did it seem to come out of reprieve from physical pain.

My students won their match, I packed the trophy in my carry-on, and took it back to Cairo. I delivered it this morning, hacking out a lung, and coughing yellow phlegm into a napkin.  I was sent home.

The night before I had come home, and a taste of Levi’s life hit me.  Slightly delirious from exhausting and the bronchitis developing in my chest, I saw my two siamese cats welcome me home.  My friend’s son had fed them while was I gone, but they missed me as they always seem to when I travel and leave them to others care. My apartment is “our” apartment–mine and my partner–even though I moved out of the one we lived in together over the summer because it was too large for just me and saddened me with its emptiness. Yet in this second,  I thought Khristian would welcome me home.  I awaited for a second before realizing she was literally an ocean and two continents away.  For second, nothing in the house seemed like mine, seemed to belong to me, seemed to be anything other than random.

It is the awareness of that chance moves us, and that we don’t know where we are going. We are not without will or anchor, nor are we JUST particles in a void, moving from heat to cold in time.  Yet we are not NOT such particles either. We self-overcome but in doing so are still subject to forces beyond any of us.

Levi leaves me with a thought that got me through that night:

“If it is true that there is no greater sorrow than to remember a happy time in a state of misery, it is just as true that calling up a moment of anguish in a tranquil mood, seated quietly at one’s desk, is a source of profound satisfaction.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

A life of poetry isn’t the only life we lead, and it is hard and sometimes requires hard people–hard men and women–to go beyond the vague poetry of our dreams because life is so contingent. Yet that is the reason to soften your heart sometimes because even hard people eventually lose all their heat, all their energy, and no longer exist in time.

Cairo Reflection 1: Levi/Levity

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.

Adventures in (not really) travel blogging.. or why I don’t try to write a popular blog

Over the past six years I have lived in different countries and kept private journals, wrote poetry about moving, learned tons of trivia about communists uprisings, Korean peasant revolts, and the long relationship between NAFTA, the PRI, and the cartel wars in Mexico.  I have learned about the absolute perils of Japanese cyber-bidets, the myriad ways a bathroom may not work, and how to avoid falling until the wet floor in a Turkish squad toilet. One learns to walk in ways that one doesn’t accidentally telegraph either pick pocket me, I am totally too daft to know” or “I am a creepy American or European sex tourist, and I am totally not fighting my obvious balding and weird post-Christian guilt in the areas of some ‘exotic’ sex worker I am boring into an early grave.”   (Side note: Both are generally achieved by traveling with a partner).

Everyone writes about traveling, some people blog about traveling, and before my partner was diagnosed with cancer, we used to watch hours of these things to get tips and make fun of bad advice.  Or to mock make-shift half-assed anthropologists who mistake a few tourist insights into “deep knowledge’ of the culture.  Of course, I always sound like I too have “deep knowledge” of the culture, but this is mainly from pretending to know some of the language and drinking (coffee or alcohol depending on where) with locals. In fact, if one wants to learn a language, meet cool people, and have allies so you don’t deny–learning backgammon or Goh or chess and drink with locals.  Eat the local food, and deal with the cholera later.  (Honestly, you probably won’t have to deal with cholera, but then again, I did nearly die of typhoid once, and have taken month long courses of antibiotics from over-zealous love of street food).

It’s the call to prayer here, which you learn to enjoy in the middle east.  It’s more melodious than sand, and has more rhythm than the local hustling and bustling in the streets, gesturing, and engaging in the street theatre of negotiation. You’ll probably learn how to be earnestly OVER dismissive or defensive of your home culture–particularly if that culture speaks English as the first language.  You will bore your friends with you endless prattling about “real <insert place here>” and fail to realize that traditions you learned are probably only two generations old anyway, and the local folk wisdom is probably, as Hobshawm used to tell us, invented tradition anyway.

Although you really can see where that guy got Trotsky in the head with a pickaxe in Mexico City.  It’s generally less busy than Frida Kahlo’s house after that Julie Taymore movie anyway.

This is why I don’t travel write very often: people got pulled into the exoticism and think you are showing them the truth: the Ur-form of local authenticity, which you better not get too close to for fear of cultural appropriation call-outs when you return to states.  People will think you are being helpful by telling people where a kahab house is just off the beaten path of the Egyptian market in Istanbul saved you a few lira, and you got bahlava way cheaper.  Of course, by the time the viewers get there, your video has gone viral and the prices are jacked up.

Or that time you helped destroy the local economy of a small village in Guatemala by overtipping taxi drivers and making service industry pay more than being a local doctor, leading to the precipitous in locals receiving medical training.

So travel, write about it, and love it.  But don’t pretend to be offering anyone some insider knowledge, because if it works, you may be undoing the very thing you love and if it doesn’t, you may just be a jackass, overcoming a cocaine problem, and writing about food in future countries snidely.

 

Views from Egypt: Saqqara, Dashur, Memphis

Taking a break from the long essays, I wanted to post from my travels.  While there are a million travel blogs all over the world, I travel extensively. In the past five years, I have been to South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Mexico, Southern Mexico, and Cairo.   It is one of the perks of the job I have chosen to do: I make a middle class living at much lower pay than I could in the States, and I get to travel all over the planet.  This has been crucial to changing my thinking in the past five years, even if the internet lessens the alienation (and thus the impact) of travel.

Today, my partner and I went to outskirts of Giza with a group of Americans and two Egyptians to ancient capitals of KMT.  Here are some pictures for your enjoyment:

Woman making street bread outside of Mat rahina (Memphis).

Woman making street bread outside of Mat rahina (Memphis).

The funeral Temple at Saqqara. The oldest known cut stone structure on Earth built by Imhotep.

The funeral Temple at Saqqara. The oldest known cut stone structure on Earth built by Imhotep.

The alabaster Sphinx at Memphis.

The alabaster Sphinx at Memphis.

Memphhis

Memphhis

Statue of Ramses the II

Statue of Ramses the II

The Red and Bent Pyramids of Dashur

The Red and Bent Pyramids of Dashur

Step Pyramid of Djose r

Step Pyramid of Djose r

Ramses II at Memphis

Ramses II at Memphis

Step Pyramid at Djoser

Step Pyramid at Djoser

Memphis

Memphis