Faruq sent me a frantic message, including a link to information about the Merneptah Stele, an inscription by the Pharaoh Merneptah describing a military campaign against Canaan in the 13th Century BC.
"The hieroglyphs that refer to Israel employ the determinative sign used for foreign peoples: a throw stick plus a man and a woman over three vertical plural lines. This sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic tribes without a fixed city-state," he wrote. "See! The Israelis have absolutely no claim to the land."
During the two hours I spent with Faruq during his Christmastide visit to New York, we briefly discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I made a disparaging comment about life in one or more Arab regimes, he responded, "Objective measurements of quality of life don't matter. It is a question of a people's right to self-determination."
"You don't care about the right of a people to self-determination!" I said.
He scrunched up his face and conceded the point. "I know, I know." His face brightened, and then he shouted, "Bring back Lord Kitchener!"
Since Faruq hates the British only slightly less than he hates Jews, Poles (and most other Slavs; maybe not Czechs and Slovenes, although they need to learn their place), Latin Americans, and Arabs, he must have really meant it.
"I just wish you were interested in some other Middle Eastern peoples. Why aren't you interested in the Copts? They are our living link to the Ancient Egyptians!"
"I am interested in the Copts! I would study the Coptic language if it was taught at a local university continuing education program. And I am very interested in the Armenians." I had recently made the acquaintance of a large, handsome Armenian who looked like Darius the Great. He had traveled to Israel to visit a friend who was working for a humanitarian organization in the West Bank. Needless to say, he was repeatedly detained and grilled by the Israeli authorities, owing to his thick dark beard and Palestinate countenance. Despite my best efforts, I have never been able to get the Israelis to treat me with suspicion, owing to my unrelentingly harmless appearance.
"And also the Maronites," I said.
"Ugh, Maronites: the lapdogs of the Israelis," said Faruq.
I assumed he was referring to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, depicted in graphic detail in the Israeli animated film Waltz with Bashir.
I made the mistake of watching this film on a Friday evening out on Fire Island. I did not feel like going out to dance shirtlessly and to drink carelessly afterwards.
"And, for the record, I concede that I am interested in Israel for a number of reasons, the main one being that I live with an Israeli. So I'm basically gathering intelligence for self-preservation. How can I know what he's saying on the phone if I can't speak Hebrew?"
"Yes, you need to be careful," he said. "He might tell you that God gave him the bedroom and that you need to sleep in the bathtub."
I have thoroughly enjoyed studying Arabic and Hebrew. I am sure I would be considered an Orientalist by people from my college, were the current Me plunked back there in 1987 through 1991: the heyday of racial identity politics. The white man, whether through well-intentioned bumbling or through sinister calculation, could only do harm to any countries or cultures outside of Europe. Faruq would be exempt, owing to his Egyptian ancestry. Any drop of non-European blood (European blood that had been rerouted through Latin America was also acceptable) elevated you to a privileged status where you were asked to "tell your story!" of oppression and humiliation and could respond with an angry "it isn't my job to educate you!" whenever a sinister or bumbling white person claimed they couldn't follow your argument. I knew a wealthy student from the Caribbean who changed his entirely German name to something Arabic during his sophomore year, since he told all of us that his mother was "of Arab descent". He adopted a grim, humorless expression and spoke bitterly of one time when his mother had been mistaken for a maid in a luxury hotel. I steered clear of him after that, lest I enrage his revolutionary sensibility.
Race -- meaning skin color -- was most important: sex, sexuality, and other identity markers were subordinate, although still of interest. I remember during my freshman (granted, this term was discouraged) year a group of women (all females regardless of age were "women", even newborns) tried to organize an event where they would sunbathe topless, to protest the blatant double standard that allowed men to throw flying discs without wearing shirts on the few warm, sunny days we had during the school year in northeast Ohio. But a group of African-American women quickly mobilized to protest the event, arguing that the image of an African-American woman without a shirt evoked a slave auction, and that true equality would come when men were forbidden from taking off their shirts in public. As an undisclosed non-heterosexual, I did not welcome such a vision of the future.
Curiously, religion was rarely a target of student activists. The scandals of the white television evangelists at the time were mocked, of course, but, I think that, because the majority of the world was (and is) religious, and because the majority of the world was (and is) composed of people of color, religion was respected as an important component of the culture of the oppressed peoples, even if those in the vanguard privately found this sigh of an oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world, and soul of soulless conditions to be an expression of false consciousness. I think there was also some vague understanding among students that the college had some religious origins and that this was somehow linked to the college's involvement in the abolition movement and in promoting the education of women, but most people weren't really clear on the details. The general anti-religion movement really gained momentum after the events of 2001-9-11, when leftists wanted to criticize fundamentalist Islam but felt white-guilty about it, and so broadened their critique to include all religions and religious movements without distinction, even when giving their books titles that specifically mocked Muslim expressions of faith (الله أكبر vs. God Is Not Great). If I had a United States dollar for every time I heard or read "All religion is equally bad!" I would be able to afford a very nice dinner in one of the fine restaurants in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, located on the southwestern corner of New York's famed Central Park.
Also, it's much easier to simply reject anything that falls under the rubric of religion than to actually learn about the differences between religions or religious movements or about religious history and philosophy, and it seems more even-handed. I have chosen to do the same for business, sport, finance, cooking, real estate, and most technology, although I am a fan of the wheel, fire, and several metals.
I was never entirely sure what motivated my fellow (this word was discouraged, as it was seen as sexist) students in their fervent commitment to social justice, or at least to the war against the evil white man. Most would probably have said sympathy and empathy for the victims of oppression, although those with person-of-color status could say they were doing it for their own self-preservation. There was also the thrill of righteous indignation, the appeal of which should not be underestimated. Few people wanted or want to be seen as racists (although I, as a white, was taught that I was irredeemably racist, by definition), and there were several times when I cried in shame during a reeducation session after having revealed my ignorance in some discussion about oppression. (I am grateful that I was not paraded through the campus wearing a dunce cap, although at the time I would have said that I was grateful for being paraded through the campus wearing a dunce cap, had I been so paraded.) Having the correct views on these issues also allowed you to climb the social ladder, where eventually you might get to sit in the vegetarian and smoking (sic!) dining hall with the most radical and fashionable students, who wore berets and big black boots and Palestinian scarves while they smoked and ate mung beans and boycotted grapes and talked about their seminar with professor Gloria Watkins, who became famous under the uncapitalized name bell hooks. I have to admit that bell is a pretty genius radical first name for a woman.
Oddly, other than Liz Phair and the current mayor of Washington (DC), the most famous person who emerged from my era was the girlfriend and eventual wife of the nebbishy head of the beleaguered college Republicans, an Asian woman who is now an ultra-right-wing syndicated columnist. Oh, the irony; it is actually much more common than you would think!
I don't remember much discussion of good and evil back in those days. The main way one won an argument was simply to state that something was offensive or that you were offended. No additional explanation was usually required, although this tactic didn't work very well when outside speakers were brought in: the small anti-abortion group invited a woman to give an anti-abortion lecture, and I remember students in the audience crying, since they had no way to deal with the blasphemy they were hearing from the pulpit. When the former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael gave a speech that included repeated attacks on "Zionists", there was also a lot of crying, as two oppressed groups were pitted against one another (something that wasn't supposed to happen, although many doubted that Jews were really oppressed). I was in a class where a well-meaning Democratic Member of Congress gave a speech in which he said that white families who objected to blacks and Latinos moving into their neighborhoods were just worried about their property values, and a female student (wearing big boots and Palestinian scarves and many pieces of revolutionary flair) jumped up and ran out of the room, choosing to sob in the hallway rather than to subject herself to such offensive speech.
One time I confessed that I didn't really understand what it meant to be offended, and I got a lot of incredulous looks. Again, I am thankful that I was not covered with badges of shame and put on display in the town square.
When I graduated from college and accidentally fell in with the Roman Franciscans, I remember being shocked to be around people who had something clearly underlying their altruism, even if "serving God through Christ in the poor" doesn't entirely hold up to logical scrutiny. Still, it made more sense than simply fighting against all kinds of oppression committed by the white man out of a sense of guilt (while all the time denying that it was guilt) and knowing that you could never successfully eradicate all of the terrible prejudices residing within you, or even any of the terrible prejudices residing within you, but understanding that it was your responsibility to continually work to do so forever and ever, world without end.
Nowadays I worry a lot about doing the right thing, fighting the power, power to the people no delay, etc. I had dinner with a highly educated friend recently. I asked him to give me a learned hand with the paralysis I often feel out of fear of unintended consequences. "How can we do good when our actions will probably have negative consequences that we haven't anticipated?" I was thinking of how everything basically backfires, in the long run, and how we all have imperfect information and can't really know the outcome of our actions. Back in college, intentions counted for nothing, since the road to continued oppression of persons of color by the white man was paved with good intentions.
"Well, you would face the same dilemma if you tried to live in the most selfish and hedonistic manner possible, so unintended consequences shouldn't be a reason for inaction," he said. This reminded me of something I had heard the astrophysicist Janna Levin say regarding our lack of free will: if we don't have free will, we don't have free will to sit and do nothing anymore than we have free will to run down the street screaming -- whether or not all of our actions and thoughts were predetermined at the moment of the Big Bang shouldn't affect our lives. Still, what if the expected consequences of our actions are what determine whether or not we try to lead a selfless or a selfish life? Is it better to fail at hedonism or at altruism?
My learned friend and I had met because he wanted to make sure that I understood that the question of whether or not good and evil exist is independent of the question of whether or not God exists, although we became somewhat distracted by the quasi-Mexican food and drink, which I had to photograph for my young and attractive Israeli personal trainer, since he had asked me to document everything I ate over a three-day period, in an effort to assist me in my futile efforts to have a body like Jeffrey Donovan or Timothy Olyphant, who are among my aging role models and role models for aging.
Still, I worry about good and evil. Was Hamlet right, and there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so? I have heard that many young persons now think that all moral questions are relative, and that even killing someone in cold blood is only bad in relation to a culture that decides that it's bad. Against killing? Don't kill someone.
My ex-boyfriend Frank (an extremely high-quality individual) was and is a biologist and an industrial designer who, after years of thinking about it, decided that all environmentalist arguments were fundamentally about aesthetics. Even claiming that global warming threatened our survival as a species came down to aesthetics, in the end. Do all moral assertions ultimately rest on aesthetics as well?
We on the left generally make appeals for justice by telling stories of the pain and humiliation suffered by those without health care, those trapped in a refugee camp, those denied recognition for their loving relationship, those bashed and raped, those hungry and homeless. But we delight in the sorrow of our enemies who oppose us, we grab the timbrel and dance when they are tossed into the sea, we rejoice when the mighty and rich are put down and sent away, and we relish the sweet taste of their tears of unfathomable sadness. Can it all really be relative? Is it more honest to just pick a team and fight for it? This is the thinking behind many or most Israelis: they are fighting for the survival of their team; the survival of the other teams in the region is not really their concern. Pharaoh Merneptah thought in the same way.
Those of us who consider ourselves enlightened leftists have a somewhat contradictory view of all of this. We want to protect religious and ethnic minorities, but there are really only two valid levels of analysis: the individual, and humanity as a whole. I am surprised that more people aren't challenging the idea that genocide is something worse than indiscriminate killing: do we still believe in the value of the génos (γένος)? Aren't we all just individual consumers with a set of universal basic rights that we can adorn with culture and religion as long as we remember that all of that is just decoration? Yet this way of looking at the world seems fundamentally incompatible with our human nature and tends to result in a backlash of fundamentalism and ultranationalism where there is minimal soul-searching about what is right and what is wrong.
I have a strange memory from the early days of my time in New York, around 10 years ago. I was biking in Central Park with two persons from college (this memory is odd because I can't imagine riding a bike to Central Park -- I only have one memory of riding a bike through Manhattan, with Asaph, and it was terrifying). As we passed the Ancient Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra's Needle, which was given as a gift to New York by the Viceroy of Egypt when Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, one of my former schoolmates yelled out, "Stolen! Pillaged! That should be returned to the people to whom it belongs!"
To whom should it be returned? I wondered. To the government of the Arab Republic of Egypt? To the Copts, our living link to the Ancient Egyptians? What if a fundamentalist Muslim government took power in Egypt and decided to destroy all of its pre-Islamic monuments, blowing up the pyramids and destroying all of the obelisks? Would that be their right? What about the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan by the Taliban (Arabic for "two students", used illiterately by Afghans to mean "students")? Was that their right, given that they were the government of Afghanistan? I thought, although that hadn't happened yet.
Of course, Cleopatra's Needle wasn't designed for the weather of the northeastern United States, and after standing for 3,000 years in the arid Egyptian climate, it has disintegrated considerably after 100 years outdoors in New York. This outcome wasn't really anticipated.