Monday, May 02, 2005

Confessions Of A Privileged Daughter

So, after 20 hours of travel, I finally arrived on the day of Sham An-Naseem, the Egyptian spring festival that looks a lot like the commercialized American version of Easter (with colored eggs and all but without the Jesus stuff).

On the plane, I read two books, one of which was Tim Wise's "White Like Me - Confessions of a Privileged Son." It is a book by a white man who discusses the advantages bestowed upon him in America simply by virtue of being white. Before you poo poo about the book, that's not what this post is about. Well, kinda.

As distinguished from most African Americans who don't have a specific country of origin to which they can point and occasionally visit relatives, I am a person of color who does. And, here in Egypt, in contrast with America, I am a privileged daughter -- not because of skin color, but because of my family's class status. This is not meant to brag, It actually upsets me.

I did not stand in the insanely long and chaotic line at the airport to clear customs -- my family knows a guy super high up who took care of everything in 5 minutes. Wham bam thank you mam! I didn't even have to fetch my luggage - there is a poor guy who earns the equivalent of a $1 (if that) who is excited about the prospect of making some cash. When I treated him with common human decency, he seemed genuinely surprised and complimented my uncles on my good upbringing. We should be complimenting him on his good upbringing.

From the airport, we went to gramma's house. At the basement level of most buildings in Cairo lives a poor family that earns a living by doing shit for richies upstairs. And, they earn that living until the day they die. Fatima, who lives downstairs from gramma, is probably my mom's age and has been carrying my bags up the stairs since I was a kid. She has kids who are more or less my age, have little education, and will do the same if and when I have kids and they come for a visit. It's not that Fatima and her offspring are stupid -- perhaps they are. More likely, however, they had the misfortune of being born into a bad lot. Which makes me wonder how the soul/family lottery got me into the family that doesn't buy chickens live to fatten them up to one day eat for dinner. Seems quite arbitrary to me. Sure my family is smart, blah, blah, blah, but starting with smart parents with basic means and the skin color or status society values doesn't hurt a damn bit either.

Here in Egypt I feel like a white person in America would feel if he or she had a conscience. It is hard to take pleasure in overindulgence when people around you are literally starving. And here, the rich overindulge. My cousin, a spoiled 19-year-old who will be the first in the family not to go to college, sits at home listening to hip-hop, demanding the latest MP3 player, which I unwhittingly brought for him upon request from my uncle. If my cousin was poor, he wouldn't have a computer, he couldn't refuse to put effort into anything because laziness among the poor means death by starvation and my uncle wouldn't be forking out lots of dough in hopes that a tech school where computer skills are taught will do the trick.

I then went to visit some friends who, at midnight, threw together a meal that would take me a couple weeks to prepare. And proceeded to deride me until I tried everything at the table (I still don't like baba ghanoog). I was sent home with enough sweets to keep me sugarfied for at least a couple weeks.

It is a little past 5am. Jet lag, several neighborhood cats in heat and the 4:35am call to prayer from the half a dozen mosques that surround gramma's all conspired to ensure that I would, at best, get a short nap. At least the weather is nice. The remainder of the day will be spent listening to family members decide which elitist club to take me to to impress me. They will then try to guilt me into eating like a gluttonous Louis XIV while the people at the bottom of the building scrounge dinner.


At 8:38 PM, May 02, 2005 , Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

so i wonder why you would continue to live in Los Angeles? is it because its one of the few places where you don't have to constantly experience the jarring justaposition of global poverty to your priveledge and can at least feel like a part of the humbled, quivering masses...even if most of the masses here are unaware of their relative wealth and access to resources. but where else can a fairly intellectual professional exist without feeling the pangs of rich (wo)man's guilt? in a city that attracts people with an predliction for opulence that is so grand and unfettered, that we modest millionaires appear to blend into the crowd. (by the way, our effort and toil, over time is worth millions to the economy, so since it is our resource to barter with, i say we are millionaires).

keep the reports coming. hunter thompson is dead...

At 8:58 AM, May 03, 2005 , Blogger bombsoverbaghdad said...

"But for the Grace of God, there go I."

Many people atribute their success to "hard work" or "character," but, in truth, they were the scions of rich families that lived off the backs of others for decades. I often wonder why I've been blessed with the material things I do have. Why, for example, was I not born a poor Hawaiin or Brazilian? The important thing is not to worship material. Take the bus from time to time and keep things in perspective. Give away all your leftover food, clothes, etc.

International travel opens the sensitive American to what real poverty looks like. Harlem's got nothing on the favelas of Rio. Poverty in America is nothing compared to poverty in other countries. But what amazes me is that most Americans would travel to Egypt and not even notice the poverty. I have (white) friends that just got back from South Africa, and, in the midst of an hour long diatribe about the trip, they didn't even mention the townships or Nelson Mandela. All they wanted to talk about was wine and hotels. I was offended, but I understand that they are just OBLIVIOUS--so I let it go.

Keep the dispatches coming. No pics??

And II, please write a book soon. Your words dance like magic on the screen.

At 10:16 AM, May 03, 2005 , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am glad to see that privilege has not made you delusional. You can still see the obvious and separate it from what is commercially important. I don’t know if that is your upbringing, i.e., your parents’ decisions or personal choice. Either way, poverty is invisible to the privileged which includes people of color. I recently watched a movie I had not seen in years. Not for its artistic value. No academy awards. But for it commercial shock value. It was called White Man’s Burden starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta. At the end, the blacks pity the whites for their poverty stricken means of living. Your note reminded me of that. The only difference is that people of color are doing the harsh things and providing inhuman conditions to those who look identical to them. The crime of privilege is substantially social not race. Egypt does not seem to be any different.

At 1:27 AM, May 07, 2005 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having lived among dirt poor burmese and thai people, I can add this much: poverty is a relative term. People in the Thai countryside live with a dignity most people of urban priviledge have never known. Strong familial and village wide support networks, meaningful rituals, and little envy between them. This is not what you see in city slums of course. But city slums are not all there is to poverty.

At 9:25 AM, May 18, 2005 , Blogger chad said...

You should not be "upset" because of your privileged life. You are not some opulent greedy self-absorbed tourist. You are sensitive to those who live in want, and because of this sensitivity, you will use your resources to help them. You will never feel that you have done enough, but that is the burden of having a tender heart. You will remain conflicted about how much of yourself you give away for the rest of your life. It may be less than some, and it will be more than others, but just be thankful that you feel the conflict. The truly lost soul is the one who feels no connection to other people’s suffering. The lost soul is the one who can categorize everyone else as “other” (the other race, other religion, other social class, other education level, other nationality). Those people have hard hearts that are too calloused to feel anything real. But your heart is tender enough to feel the pain of the “other” people. Some people will respond to that pain and conflict by becoming more calloused themselves. They will try to put blinders on, because they love their privilege, and the conflict threatens their privilege, but I’m confident that you will not do that. It’s evident in your writing that you desire to feel more -- not less. You do not love your privilege, but you should not despise it either. It’s merely a blessing that allows you to have more than others, but also to help more than others.

Your privileged conflicted brethren,

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