Catharsis


I recently caught a TV screening of the new(ish) version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and it reminded me forcefully of the power of the word. It also drove home a point that I make constantly as a historian, namely that the context in which a book is read and the state of mind of a reader goes a long way toward what one will take out of a reading, or remember. For instance, There was a description in Gatsby toward the end, which I had missed or rather not noticed particulary when I read the book, but given all that I’ve been through in the past couple of years jumped out almost immediately this time. It was a description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and it went like this:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Replace careless with callous and to me that passage sums up  a couple of former colleagues (or for that matter the entire institution) as nothing else can. For I know first hand what it is to be subject to the “smashing up” described by F. S. F. Nearly two years later, I’m still picking up, or attempting to pick up, the pieces while those callous Tom and Daisy equivalents go on blithely with their lives, wrecking still others, no doubt. I could go on, I suppose and wallow further in dregs of bitterness (to pick up the words of another American classic: “I am big, I contain multitudes”) but I think I’ve already given them more rent-free space in my blog and brain than I should have.

One of the reasons for my recalling the last post which had been sitting in my drafts folder all this time, is the big news that is sure to be dominating the news in the US… the termination of one big O by another big O. And while I think this news brings closure to many, even if we did not personally lose any loved ones on that fateful day the twin towers went down, and even applaud the acheivement, I am once again less than impressed with the American reaction.

So am I being a knee-jerk self-hating American in my reaction? A terrorism or Islamic apologist? Critical for the sake of being critical? None of the above. For my own sake, I’ll try to clarify why I’m reacting negatively to what is essentially a positive outcome. It has to do with what i consider the complete loss of perspective inherent in these successes and the need for self-criticism and housekeeping rather than the unbridled self-righteousness that I’ve been seeing in the aftermath.

My reaction goes back to what I consider the American tunnel-vision regarding itself and its position in the world. So yes, Osama needed capturing or killing. 9/11 was an act of utter horror and I certainly do not buy into the various conspiracy theories afloat about it being masterminded from the inside in order to raise anti-Muslim sentiments in the world. (That is absurd, and the idea very self-referential. That is, only someone who would actually consider such an extremely deranged act could even think that someone else would use such a tactic. Fundamentalists, extremists and those of similar ilk).

That said though, I would have hoped that the Americans would realize and admit their grave errors in dealing with this problem over the past decade. Instead of course the mood is egregiously self-congratulatory. That editorial in New York Times by .. who was it now.. oh yes, Maureen Dowd… about the need for revenge? Please!!  The guy is dead! Beyond our reach. Nothing we do can hurt him anymore. Get over it. Besides, he is just one man. Even worse than her column though, much worse, was the implied justification for torture. Excuse me? Precisely what information did we get about Osama via torture?

Meanwhile mistakes, costly to human lives, are being ignored or glossed over. My main point of contention for instance, the Iraq War. How in the name of anything logical does Osama’s capture justify our invasion of Iraq, wreaking terror in the region in name of the war or terror?  No wait .. that was the initial excuse.. then it shifted to WOMD and then to bringing democracy! to the region. Arrrghgh. Elsewhere of course, we continued to support the regime in Pakistan (forget about the right to democracy of the people there or their WOMD because heck we finance that and besides, without it India would be a larger threat to our identity as the arbitrators of democracy in the world!!!!) and only worked on covert operations there, even though  there was so much more evidence for Al Qaeda and religious extremism in that part of the world. But why go after the the Oklahoma bomber close to home when you can destroy Washington State on some flimsy excuse. (That comparison is just to give a sense of the geographic absurdity of the Iraq War).

Somebody (many bodies actually) were comparing this to the death of Saddam. Something I find offensive. At least Osama was a clean kill.  I was no fan of Saddam’s, but the second-hand way in which his execution was engineered and then attributed to the will of the locals still makes me cringe and leaves me feeling unbearably dirty in a I-need-to-wash-my-hands sort of way .

I am aware that this rant is disjointed and rambling – I am reminded of Donna Leon’s description of her protagonist’s wife as a woman of leftist but chaotic politics –  but I hope my main point is somewhat clear. War is always horrific. And even in incidents with decisive outcomes like bin-Laden’s death, there are no winners. Everyone loses something.

Sunday, Feb 13… Reading my last post, I can’t believe how the moment determines the mood. I was so elated then to have gotten the job, that the reality of leaving Egypt never hit me. Especially since I had known coming in that AUC was a terminal 3-year gig. But 3 became 4 (which I confess I regarded as a personal defeat albeit one with perks) and then 4 cut down to 3-1/2 because of the offer from Yonsei. And now reality is biting big time! I am sitting in the airport with this giant lump in my throat, unable to cry but feeling oh so blue! …

Feb 19th…

Well, I interrupted my lament for pleasanter activities such as chatting with friends and boom! It’s a week later and  I’m in Seoul after a 2 day detour in Istanbul which was instructive and interesting and may prove yet to be fruitful. Seoul is freezing cold, in comparison to both Istanbul (which was plenty cold in its own right) and Cairo naturally. 3 full days in (I arrived Wednesday eve.. nearly night) I’ve fought jet lag, discovered many small and inexpensive places with great eats, paid a brief visit to the main campus of my new employers – where I will NOT be teaching – and lets see… what else? met a few of my new and very pleasant colleagues.

Am missing Egypt like crazy still, and I daresay the intensity will pass, but really I need to chronicle the last few weeks there before the immediacy of those memories fade. A blow-by-blow account of the revolution which I was privileged to witness is certainly in order and I will write about it. What a time to have left. But at least I listened to my inner voice and delayed the departure until the 13th for which I’m sooo…. grateful. Not only did I get a few last extra days with everyone (and if start naming them I will start blubbering…), but I also got to experience first hand, the stepping down of Mubarak. Talk about a (nearly) bloodless coup! I am proud, so proud of the Egyptians for what they’ve achieved and in such exemplary fashion. I’m truly privileged to have been a part of it albeit as a sympathetic foreigner.  And be it on vacation or insh’allah in the capacity of a visiting scholar in the years to come, I will, to quote Schwarzanegger, be back.