Tag Archives: International Development and Social Justice

Expats, Locals, and the Space in Between

In these last few days, I’ve met several expats living and working in Egypt. Some of them, like me, are doing development work, or are trying to give back to the communities in which they live. This, on the face of it, is good. Wanting to give back and help people is an admirable inclination. Not everyone shares it. In general, I very much approve of the impulse to do good.

And yet.

When you go out into the world to “help people,” you need to be careful. If your purpose is simply to pat your own back about how good a person you are, it shows. And if you consider the people that you are helping to be fundamentally different from or inferior to you, that shows also.

Yesterday, I went into a fair trade gallery with an Egyptian colleague. The expat lady who owns the shop immediately, on hearing about my project in Egypt, exclaimed “that’s wonderful!” and proceeded to tell me how nice and rewarding it is to work with Egyptians, and they’re so lovely, and so grateful, and it makes you feel so good to know that you’re doing something good for them…in the tones you might use to talk about working with multiply disabled children. The main difference being that the people I know who actually do work with multiply disabled children don’t talk about them that way. She mostly ignored my colleague, who has a degree in Egyptology and speaks fluent English. Every now and then she would include him in her conversation in the way that one might invite a child to contribute a few words in a group of adults.  And she spoke so much and so fast that I could barely get a word in edgewise to even things out.

My colleague is a quiet man. When I asked later what he thought of this woman, he said only that she had been helpful, which was entirely true. She gave me contact information for several other organizations in the area that might be good for my organization to work with.  And her work in fair trade is truly exemplary. She provides women in inaccessible villages around Egypt with a source of income by helping them design things to be sold in her shop, and her shop has some of the highest quality and most unique souvenirs I have seen. She is helping people, and doing it well. But the way she spoke to my colleague, and to her Egyptian employee, was so paternalistic that it really put me off, and I’m sure that my distaste showed to some degree though I did my best to hide it.

Interactions like this one (sadly, this incident is not isolated) make me incredibly angry. How do you manage to speak condescendingly about intelligent adults, in their own presence, as though they were not there? As if they didn’t understand your words? How do you do it, and how do you think it’s okay?

I have to believe, or at least I choose to believe, that people who speak and act in this manner do so unconsciously. That the bias is subconscious and the paternalism is unwitting. That if they actually realized they were causing offense, that they would behave differently. But it’s hard to speak to people about bias, about the ways in which they’re getting things wrong, particularly when there are a number of things that they’re doing right. No one wants to be told they’re being condescending and possibly racist.  It’s hard to raise the issue without creating offense or alienation.  It’s difficult to know what to do. What to say.

I was raised to believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I try to behave towards people in a way that reflects this. I am absolutely certain that I do not always succeed, that there are times and places and people that bring out the worst in my character and bring the biases that I have tried hard to overcome into the foreground. But I try to make these instances few and far between, and I try to be aware of them, at least, when they occur.  I try to treat all people with respect. (Friends who are reading this, please do let me know if and when I fail. I won’t like hearing it, and I’ll probably hate myself a little, but it’s something I need to know).

Expathood is difficult. You’re miles from home and anything familiar, the people have different customs and culture from your own.  You’re bound to notice these differences and form opinions on them. But “different” does not mean “less than.” It does not mean “wrong.” And it’s never alright to treat someone badly, just because they’re not similar to you.

 

 

 

Sexual Harassment in Cairo (#indecent exposure)

This evening I started to write a post about the wonderful day that I had exploring Cairo. I went horseback riding around the pyramids of Abu Sir, visited the peaceful Ibn Tulun mosque, and drank strawberry juice by the lake of Al-Azhar park. That blog entry was rudely interrupted, however, by a disgusting case of indecent exposure.

I was sitting on my balcony with my computer, minding my own business, happily blogging, when a man in the building across the street and a few stories down started gesturing at me. I ignored him. A few minutes later I looked down, and he was pantless and masturbating, lifting his hips and gyrating them in my direction, looking straight at me.

I went inside. I closed the blinds. And then I sat and wondered: what the hell should I do?

To say that I was disgusted is an understatement. I’m fairly used to verbal harassment and catcalls on the street, but this is a whole different ballgame. It’s an overtly sexual exposure of flesh. It needs to be reported. But to whom?

I’m in a foreign country, and I don’t know the rules. In the US I would go to the police, but I don’t know the local number here, my Arabic does not include the vocabulary for an incident report, and I’m not convinced that a sexual harassment charge would be taken seriously by the police. I could report it to my male coworkers, who might take upon themselves to beat the guy up for me, but that seemed rather excessive.

So I got out my camera.

I have a lovely DSLR, with a telescopic lens. And I went back outside and took a closeup of the bastard.

He’d put his pants back on, by this point. But he looked scared when he saw that I was taking pictures, which told me it was the right thing to do. Then I took my camera down to reception, talked to the guys behind the desk, told them what happened, and showed them the photo. They said they’d talk to the police and to the relevant building manager.

Back upstairs, in my now-functionally-windowless room, I filed a report on the  Harass Map, where women in Cairo report instances of sexual harassment.

It’s a few hours later. The reception desk called to tell me they’ve reported the man, and to be careful. My facebook friends have offered to send care packages of tasers and pepper spray. (It is moments like these, a thousand miles from home, that I am truly grateful for the internet).

And now.

It’s 11pm, local time, and I’m back outside. The man’s windows are dark and shut. Maybe because of the report, maybe just because it’s late and he’s gone to bed. I don’t care. Because I have a balcony, with a view of the Nile and an illuminated mosque, and I’m damn well going to use it. And no pervert with a penchant for self-exposure is going to keep me cloistered indoors for long.

Update 9/13/11

The man was at it again the following day, so I took some more pictures and caught one with his hand on his crotch. I took it directly to the hotel manager (who wasn’t on the premises the night before). He then got into a big fight with the manager of the other building, who got into a big fight with the pervert. The pervert’s windows have been shut since then.

I admit, I feel a little thrill of victory now, every time I sit outside.

On Passports and Privilege

I sent in my application for a new passport today. Passport, passport card, expedited service fee, certified mail…$240 in all. Knowing that in a few weeks I’ll have a shiny new passport with 52 pages, valid for another ten years, with no greater hassle involved than some paperwork and a trip to the post office…priceless.

I’ve just read the courageous article by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, in which he reveals for the first time his status as an undocumented immigrant, and how that has affected his life. His story shows that, contrary to popular diatribe, undocumented immigrants to the US do, in fact, contribute in many positive ways to the country. He has a career in journalism of which I am in fact quite envious, has obtained a highly prestigious writing prize (shared with his co-authors who helped cover the Virginia Tech shootings), and has to all accounts lived that fabled story of the American Dream.

But he can’t get a passport.

The paperwork that I find simply annoying is to him insurmountable. The routine paperwork check at the beginning of each new job that for me is just an irritating step on the way to a paycheck is to him a source of constant anxiety. But he, an immigrant who has spent the bulk of his life inside the US, been educated here, worked here, paid into social security, supported the economy…he is in no way less deserving of a job or documentation here in the US than I am.

I am lucky. To have been born in the country in which I was born, permitting me to live and work here, obtain a passport, and have virtually no barriers to international travel. I did absolutely nothing to deserve such luck—it was simply an accident of birth. As is the situation of Vargas.

In the current set of debates about immigration, the greatest amount of vitriol seems to be bandied about by people who are demographically similar to me. White people born into middle-class backgrounds in conservative states within the US. The thing that most of these people don’t seem to think about, when prating about how immigrants are bad for the country, is that they themselves are the descendants of immigrants. Is it really so easy to forget?

My family came to this country a little over a hundred years ago, on boats hailing from Ireland and Italy. They joined the ranks of countless other immigrants at the time, some of whom came over on regular passports, many of whom did not. Every single new group to come over faced hostility: my Irish ancestors were faced with “no Irish need apply” signs at pretty much every business establishment that was hiring, and actually pretended to be English just so that they could get jobs. My entrepreneurial Italian grandfather named his business Modern Pharmacy, because the Piantanida Family Pharmacy just sounded too damn Italian. He also thought that immigrants were destroying the country and stealing honest peoples’ jobs, and by “immigrants” he meant everyone except for Northern Italians like him.

We haven’t made much progress, as a society. At this point, the distinctions between Irish and Italian are largely forgotten, despite being quite vehemently defended in the 1920s, when each European ethnicity was seen as being an almost-separate race, and Eastern and Southern Europeans were considered undesirable. Now that the descendants of most of the various European ethnicities have all been here for a while and inter-married, this kind of discrimination seems preposterous. At this point, we talk about “American” as though it were a unilateral identity…but the common dialogue still seems to see it as a white identity. It is not.

How do we define what it means to be American? Vargas is attempting to change the dialogue with his organization Define American. He’s talking to people, collecting stories. Trying to get people to think about what “American” really means.

America is a country of immigrants, regardless of how long ago those immigrants may have arrived. “American” is my college roommate, born in the US to Mexican immigrants, now working on her PhD in engineering. “American” is my Muslim friend from Tanzania, currently teaching at a university in Florida. “American” is my Filipino fencing coach, my African-American professor of social policy, my Ukrainian-born professor of Russian language and literature. I could go on. Every single one of these people is just as much an American as I am. Some have regular American passports, some have green cards. Some may be undocumented, I don’t know and feel no need to ask. All have a right to be in this country. All have a right to try to live the American Dream.

 

 

 

 

 

False Identities, Allies, and Legitimacy

This week, two prominent lesbian internet figures were revealed to be American men.  Amina Arraf, the supposed Syrian blogger, was revealed to be Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old heterosexual American man studying in Edinburgh. A day later, the editor of  the American lesbian news site Lez Get Real, was revealed to be a 58-year-old man named Bill Graber using his wife’s name as a pseudonym.

Wow.

There have been other similar cases of people writing under assumed identities to talk about certain issues. Fake memoirs are nothing new, and it shouldn’t surprise us that in the age of the internet, fake memoirs have turned into fake blogs. Motivations vary, I’m sure. At least in the case of the two blogs in question, both authors swear that they had the best intentions at heart, that they wanted to draw attention to an issue that they felt was really important, and felt that they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t write from within the community.

MacMaster says that “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground…I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

Similarly, Graber says that “I didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man.”

In a great satirical article, one white male blogger responds by pointing out that “If you really have something unique and important to report on, your white male-ness will not get in the way of your being heard. In most cases, it will be an advantage, as bylines and television appearances testify every day.”

Seriously, people. Let’s get real. When you write as someone else, and pass it off as your own life experience, that’s a form of fraud, and it actually damages the cause that you’re writing about for several  reasons.

The first reason is that when a supposed figurehead of a particular group is outed as not being a member of that group, it calls into question the legitimacy and authenticity of everyone else who is writing from within that group. If Blogger  A is False, then why shouldn’t Bloggers B, C, D, and E also be False? Those remaining bloggers then have to work twice as hard to prove that they are who they say they are, and readers are left wondering if, since one public identity was fabricated, some or all of the information written by that person was also untrue.  And while both MacMaster and Graber seemed to think that they were nobly “giving voice to the voiceless,” they were not.  It is both dangerous and presumptive to think that people belonging to geographically or culturally distant minority groups are voiceless. They do have voices. Odds are they’re speaking. Are you listening and paying attention?

The real LGBTQ activists in the Middle East are now in danger as a result of the hoax being revealed. Several of them took risks to identify themselves in an effort to save their supposed lost compatriot. Daniel Nassar, a Syrian gay activist, says that “I used to use my real name as a handle and a picture of my face as an avatar. Now, I’ve been forced back into the closet online. Amina’s arrest may have been made up, but now the threat feels all too real.”

Another Syrian gay activist, Sami Hamwi, fears that this high-publicity hoax could cause Syrian authorities to crack down on gay activists. “I think they will not wait until the blogger is famous or well-read to seek them out,” he said. “[And] arrests in Syria means actual disappearing.… No one can hear or know about the arrested people, sometimes for decades.”

Both of the aforementioned activists use pseudonyms, but they are otherwise who they say they are. They don’t use their real names, because they don’t want to be arrested or killed. Salma, a writer for the Queer Arab magazine Bekshoos, was in touch with “Amina” prior to the hoax being revealed. She says that “I understood what anonymity meant to her and I know what it means to us. I expected a fake picture and even a fake name; I did not expect a fake personality all together.” She continues:

“Sadly Mr. MacMaster with his hoax delegitimized the voice of so many Arab, specifically Syrian, bloggers. He spoke on our behalf without having the right or legitimacy of doing so, while delegitimizing our voice in the process. So I would like to thank you for stepping on our feet, experimenting with our lives, opening the eyes of an oppressive system to our existence, and most of all thank you for lying to us and tricking us into believing you.”

 

Delegitimizing people who are actually on the ground is a very big problem. But there is also another reason why assumed identities are damaging. Both MacMaster and Graber said that they cared deeply about the issues they were blogging about, and wanted to be taken seriously. They felt that in order to be taken seriously, they had to try to write from the inside of those issues. Functionally, they were saying that it’s not actually alright to be vocal about an issue unless it actually affects you directly as a marginalized person. That being indirectly affected by your observations of marginalization from the outside is not valid. That being an ally is unacceptable, and doesn’t count.

In other words, even though they claimed to be trying to publicize issues of lesbianism, in the US and in Syria, both through their actions indicate that no one should actually be interested in lesbians and/or Syria unless they were actually lesbian and/or Syrian. Taken to its logical conclusion, this same train of thought tells us that no one who is male should care about women or vice versa, that no one who belongs to any one racial or ethnic group should worry about what’s happening to members of another ethnic or racial group, and no one in any given country should give a damn about any other country.

That’s dangerous. That’s a problem.

Historically, gaining allies in the dominant group has been a very important step for minority groups to gain their rights. Part of the success of the women’s movement came from men telling other men, “hey, I’ve heard what the women are saying about the limited opportunities they face, and they’re right. We should try to help them.” Part of the success of the Civil Rights movement came from white people in America saying, “hey, racial discrimination is real, and it’s wrong. Let’s see what we can do to help.” Part of the success of the current gay rights movement in the US comes from straight people saying, “wow, it doesn’t make sense for gay people not to have the same rights that we do. We should try to change that.”

Allies have a role. Their role is to create more allies. Their role is to increase the number of people who care about a particular issue towards a critical mass, so that social change can actually take place. So if you care about gay rights and you’re not gay, that’s great. If you care about racial equality and you’re white, that’s awesome. If you care about any issue that directly affects someone from a different demographic, but doesn’t directly affect you, congratulations. You recognize that injustice exists, and that it affects people, and you want to change it. That’s good. But don’t try to create the change by pretending to be something or someone that you’re not. Be honest about who you are, and why the issue is important for you. Talk to the people who are directly affected, and help their voices reach a wider audience. Claim your status as an ally, and recognize that it is an important one, and that it is legitimate. Because when you deny that you’re an ally and try to speak for someone else, it doesn’t just delegitimize the people you’re impersonating. It delegitimizes you.