Hiraeth: A Crisis of Place
ah. I am sitting writing this in the dark of a neighbourhood power cut, some of the first of those predicted for the summer months here in Egypt. Feels familiar from my stay in Lebanon.
But really what am I doing here? The last couple of days I lost my sense of place. Which, when you’re in a foreign country and are not here for ‘travelling’, means more than just losing your way on a map, it feels a lot like losing your mojo.
It began by slowly making me miss home, which is not something I normally do, ever. I can look at pictures and talk to friends and family and appreciate it all, but mostly never actually miss it/them so much that I wish I were actually there. But here it is, this strange feeling of envy over European summers spent having a beer in the park with friends, walking and cycling in *gentle* heat, admiring the sea, mums cooking, watching old films with Granny, clubbing, big dinners etc etc. Bleurgh STOP
What’s actually important is what is behind this crisis of place; why am I suddenly asking myself “what am I actually doing here?”.
I came to Egypt because an idea for a project sprang into my mind inspired by the incessant news coverage of the ‘Arab spring’ and a personal story that spilled over into my life for at least a year of the uprisings. Initially this story seemed so pure, coming from a place deep inside and bubbling up conveying the excitement of the toppling of Mubarak, and an iota of the indescribable feeling of unity and strength that marked the 18 days after January 25th 2011. I was hooked and as his life in connection with the uprisings unfolded over the year following, I was pulled into the wake of events by his continued story telling, emotions and displays of strength, anger and defeat.
I have felt this confirmed since I got here; most Egyptians I have met are very proud to be Egyptian and they know what it means to be Egyptian (to them at least), confirmed by the world applauding their bravery and collectivity in toppling their dictator. As a foreigner in Egypt I am daily asked “where are you from?” because I am quite definitely not Egyptian-looking. I have always, and always will, found this really irritating. What does it matter where I am from?! I am here. I am a person. You can engage with me without knowing! I will not answer just so that you can say “Wales = Ryan Giggs” or “Wales? You mean England”. I am just another person living in Cairo.
What is an amusing observation is that proportionally, there aren’t really that many non-Egyptians living in Egypt, so I do stick out like a sore thumb; but if I were in London (the nearest comparison to Cairo) I would NEVER shout out to someone on the street, “where are you from?”. Not only because its none of my business, but also because the UK is far more multi-racial and therefore who knows who’s a ‘tourist’ and who isn’t. Anyway, the point is, this constant questioning of where I am from started to get through to me. “Where am I from?!” I begin to ask myself; the obvious answer being Wales. I then ask myself “What am I doing here?!” as I am not here for the travelling experience, I am living here.
Outside of the UK or connecting with non-British people always brings out the patriot in me. Leaving your country, and constantly having to tell people where you are from does that to you. And for me, it was especially important to make it clear that Wales is a separate country from England, and that separation is not just a line on the ground, that there are defining characteristics of Welsh people and culture that mark us out as different from the English. That I can do pretty easily; there’s the Welsh language of course, there’s people’s chattiness, there’s some traditional foods, there’s the story of English occupation in various guises, there are the fables of the Mabinogion, love-spoon carving, sheep farms, Welsh gold etc etc (oh wait and Tom Jones).
A favourite quote of mine is:
“To be born Welsh is to be born privileged; not with a silver spoon in your mouth, but music in your blood and poetry in your soul.”
[a common paraphrasing of the original verse in a Brian Harris poem]
And wasn’t that drummed into us in from the ages of 5 through to 11 as we annually prepared for and competed in the Eisteddfods in every school in Wales; progressing (or not) to county level Eisteddfods until maybe you got to perform in the National Eisteddfod in one rousing poetry-reading, harp-playing, clog-dancing, disco-dancing, song-singing, choir-competing event. Duw Duw, she’s done us proud.
Yet if I were to adopt the UK persona, which befits my passport, where does that leave me? What ‘place’ am I from then?
British stereotypes over here extend from one ridiculous extreme to the other:
either we are posh Etonians who speak with the Queen’s English and have a connection to the embassy by some old boy or another, or we are overweight, scantily dressed middle-aged women marrying Egyptian men half their age and drinking a lot in the Sharmel Sheikh or Hurgada resorts. Both make me squirm inside and just want to sound like an idiot and say “I’m a citizen of the world. Get over it.”
Before I started ranting there was a deeper point to writing this. Firstly I have always felt that my generation of Britons, and those coming after me, have lost a sense of national identity. Not because of migrants and not because of our multi-culturalism, but because we don’t connect to where we were brought up anymore. We don’t spend time learning about our heritage and our environments. We don’t connect with our old people, our grannies and grandpa’s who have stories to tell and wisdoms to impart, because they are in old people farms where they can’t bother anyone. We don’t know where our food comes from because we all shop in supermarkets and import a huge portion of our diets. We don’t live in connected communities where people speak to each other and help each other out. We don’t connect within our own families even – many families eat separately and/or in front of the TV or their individual TV’s in their respective rooms; so they live parallel lives from the same base but not really with each other.
The sum total of which is thousands of young people, in their most formative years, drifting in a sea of exams and ‘big decisions’ without a sense of where they fit into the world and the environment they inhabit. Without sounding like a luddite, because I realise the benefits of the internet every day, existing online is not the same as existing offline or outside of the TV’s perimeters. I call this a crisis of place, and this time its collective, not just Isabel in Egypt.
It is no wonder then that we have a huge deficit in people caring about how they affect their natural local and global environment by not understanding that without natural resources and ‘nature’ in its most stereotypical forms, from the birds and the bees, we could not survive on this planet. Is it any wonder also that I feel this massive gaping hole of young people realising their own agency. They don’t seem to realise that they, with their able, or less-able, limbs and breathing lungs and functioning brain can DO things beyond just stepping into ready made jobs and life structures which they didn’t put any thought into constructing. We are lazy citizens disconnected from people and place which affords us luxury of doing and living as we want without changing a thing. That scares me.
It is also what attracted me to Egypt. In one cataclysmic moment, Egyptian people realised their agency. They went from under a dictator to on top of one and over the other side, and they did it alongside each other, in critical mass, realising their collective agency.
And so I am here.
This desire to make change for their improved future is what brings me to try and offer one possible set of solutions or vision for a stronger Egypt, to contribute to the transitional dialogue, which currently severely lacks policy development. Everything is ready for the provisionally titled ‘Zero Carbon Egypt’ project, we just need the moolah, the $$, the swag; and the potential failure to get the funding is what perhaps is drawing out my crisis of my place here in Egypt. All being well however, its just a temporary glitch for me; and the wider UK picture, is a challenge for me to work on when I get home.
But this is home for now.