Sunday, November 09, 2008

American ...again and at last!

The years of my childhood were marked by shortages in the then socialist, self-reliant Egypt; by patriotic songs; by adults fearful of arrests; by stories of torture so everyone watched carefully what was said. The wars with Israel were also very dominant in my childhood, with the thunderous sonic booms of the Israeli planes and the horror of hearing them, after the bombing of an elementary school not far from Cairo by the Israelis, which killed some 250 kids just like me. In the seventies Sadat lifted Egypt from the soviet sphere and the October 1973 / Yum Kippur war with Israel restored Egyptian self confidence. The backlash against the failed socialist experience of Nasser and the complete defeat by Israel in 1967 came in the shape of an overwhelming “return to religion”. Islam became the solution and the fights of the girls in families shifted from being allowed to wear shorter skirts to being allowed to take up the headscarf. Universities saw a rise of fundamentalism. Islamist run student unions banned parties and cancelled concerts and, by the end of the seventies, Egypt was out of state imposed socialism and into the beginning of societal imposed fundamentalism.

I came to California almost 28 years ago. I loved the spirit of America, the easy going nature of the people and the diversity and tolerance. I had a well paying job before I came to America and was lucky enough to have been able to afford my first car, paid for with my own money earned before I came to America. I was not an economic migrant. As a twenty something, I waded into California’s young culture of the 80’s. I admired Ronald Reagan’s toughness on Russia and rejected big government but I hated Reagan’s shenanigans with Iran Contra and Robert Bork. I loved Reagan, still do, but I wanted the truth out as I later listened to the Iran Contra hearings on NPR and Pacifica Radio. Amnesty International was the first charity I contributed to. The stories of torture have always had an impact on me and the work of Amnesty International to stop it meant a great deal to me; still does.

In the late eighties I moved to Ohio and became an American. In the citizenship interview the examiner questioned my belonging to Amnesty International which I defiantly defended. The examiner had made a comment about Amnesty International helping illegal immigrants in Arizona and I still remember telling him that Amnesty International volunteers work on behalf of people in other countries not their own. I was relieved when he smiled and said: no problem. A few months later, I went to a big ceremony; I became an American; I registered Republican; I wore the flag pin and was truly proud to be an American. Being an American to me was a choice … it was not my country right or wrong. I had my idea of what America was and I was happy to belong to that, I bought in and I wanted to be an American.

I married another immigrant, from a different culture, and she too became an American. We eventually settled in Massachusetts, except for periods when I lived and worked in Asia and Europe. Mostly, my family remained at home. Yes, home, the US became home fully in every sense of the word. My Egyptian identity was always there and my ties with Egypt and family were always strong but America was my adopted country and I was comfortable with an Egyptian American mix and my kids growing up American with British & Egyptian heritage.

September 11, 2001 changed America for the worse. The American flag as a symbol changed for me. Foreign owned gas stations and restaurants put many American flags everywhere to protect themselves from backlash. I became more active in the Arab and Muslim American communities to help those less fortunate than I am. I wrote, I spoke at schools and churches, played a small part in revitalizing a community organization and became even more active in dialogue across faith and race. Gradually, I saw America change to something I liked less and less. The double speak of the 1960’s in Egypt was arriving in America ...the religious fundamentalism was taking over. I was horrified by the media and ordinary people maneuvering to avoid using the word “occupation” in Iraq. I was scolded by my wife and kids for going on a flight wearing a T shirt that said American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee in Arabic on a flight from Boston: I saw joy in the face of waiter in New York serving me coffee and commenting on the T Shirt in Arabic.

Most of all I was dismayed by Bush altering his job description from defending the constitution of the United States to defending the people of the United States and using this as an excuse to damage the constitution. The torture, the illegal detentions, the horrible practice of sending people to be tortured overseas given the clinical name “rendition”, the double speak, the racism. The damage to the US flag, the petty patriotism of my country right or wrong! The standing up in baseball games to sing God Bless America. The frightening religious fundamentalism that is mixed up with this fake patriotism to justify acts that can’t be of God or of the Constitution, all of this gradually led me to ask one big question of myself …do I still want to be an American? Is this me? Gradually I took refuge in my part of America, Massachusetts, New England and the North East which has pretty much remained sane as massive swathes of the country got caught up in phony, damaging, religious patriotism with racist and supremacist undertones.

I was very hopeful with Howard Dean and then John Kerry in 2004 but was deeply saddened when the reactionary anti constitution (and thus truly Anti American) wave took over and Bush won the popular vote by some 3 Million votes. Then a new face arrived on the scene, a black man even more articulate and intellectual than John Kerry and Howard Dean energized the masses in 2007 and 2008. This sounded very promising, there was hope again. I voted for Obama in the primary and, while he lost in my Massachusetts, he won my city. The era of adoration for the “Forrest Gump for President” could be coming to an end. Obama did not need to wear a US flag lapel pin to show that he loved America. Obama is not afraid of showing that he is an intellectual. Obama understands, admires and respects the constitution ….hallelujah and Allah Akbar...Finally someone I relate to has a real shot at winning.

I never much liked John McCain, but his choice of Sarah Palin was brilliant for my purposes …this election could really help me solve my identity crisis. Palin’s addition to the ticket made the choice very clear between Obama and Biden on the one hand and McCain and Palin on the other. Will America choose tolerance, freedom and democracy in action or will it choose this pseudo religious, supremacist patriotism? Will America vote on hope or fear? Will America vote for intellectual power and knowledge or a folksy inward looking hockey mom? I very much wanted Obama to win but most of all I wanted the result to be clear … a clear win for either side.

Americans born in America are more American than I am in certain respects and less in others. For them the process maybe is more emotional and possibly a tad tribal, for me the process must have a bigger intellectual side to it. I chose to be an American, not because I didn’t have another choice, not because of economic or other factors … I chose America because of what it meant to me 28 years ago, because of my memories and because of its spirit. I don’t believe that America is always right and that America is exceptional just because God blessed it. America is only exceptional by its tolerance and by the people’s rejection of tyranny and totalitarianism. Reagan’s words of freedom being “one generation away from extinction”, invoked by Sarah Palin in her debate with Biden, are so true, but wrong sided coming from her.

I voted and went back to work in Europe. I found a big election night party in Paris, so off I went and was in the middle of hundreds in a massive street party. Me wearing the official Obama campaign shirt and lots of French people and few Americans, the results came pouring in...PA goes for Obama and North Carolina and Ohio are leaning this way... I jumped in a taxi and went back to my hotel and as I watched CNN in my hotel room with more returns coming in, the tears rolled down from my eyes. America is back... Americans had a choice, a clear choice and have chosen a law professor who talks in complete sentences and nuances over folksy charm and supremacist ideas. For the first time since 2001, I will get my flag out again …. It is a proud flag that represent ideas of peace, of equality, of tolerance, of progress not the flag of conformance that says: don’t torch my gas station, America the beautiful not America the ugly. I went to work, in a suit and tie with my eyes red from lack of sleep, clutching my sweaty Obama shirt and showing it off... I am again truly happy with my choice of being an American.

Later in the evening as I watched the news and saw Jesse Jackson in tears I realized that the intensity of my feelings was nothing compared to those of the great grandsons and granddaughters of slaves. I can only imagine what it must feel to black Americans and I am thrilled for them. I remember in 1983 going to a country club in Montgomery, Alabama for a dinner and after sitting down the host suggesting we go elsewhere. Later my colleague explained to me that it was because of my non whiteness that the host decided to go elsewhere, after receiving looks I had not noticed. I looked down on the peasants from Montgomery and was not very bothered ….with the passing of the years, I recalled this experience again and my tears flowed again in happiness for Jesse Jackson and for black America... For me America is back but maybe, for some, America has finally, at last, arrived. One day I hope the words “Founding Fathers” will also include Martin Luther King because surely it was his dream that we are all witnessing now!

November 9, 2008


Anonymous said...

Dear Ayman,

I decided to break my self-imposed ban on wading into the blogosphere moshpit to tell you how much I was moved by your very personal and poignant narrative of your journey to American citizenship. Being an American, I believe, is an ideal not a duty. I am always struck that those of immigrant experience seem to grasp this...often more perfectly than a natural born citizen.

Having known you throughout your entire American experience I was still moved by your story and waht it reveals about us as a society....and still a beacon of hope.

It has been said that at the end of the journey we return to the place we started only to know it for the first time. (okay I butchered that quote)

Thank you for sharing your personal journey of discovery.

Now about that whole Reagan thing........


H said...

Very interesting. Regards from Argentina and... 4 more yeard!!!

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