Friday, April 4, 2008

An Essay on Identity

I believe that the question of identity is fundamental to human life. If we as individuals and societies do not know who we are, then how can we look forward? I never thought of who I was until I came to Cairo, Egypt to study for a year. In a country with a radically different culture, religion, language, and society than mine, I know I do not belong. I enjoy living in Cairo for the most part, but deep down in my very roots, I am not part of this community, and I have come to realize that I never can be.

Halfway through the first semester, when the daily stress of Cairo wore me down, I looked for something to comfort me. I saw images of America: the rich colors of a New England autumn, the rustic farmhouses of the Midwestern plains, and the vastness of the Great West. I identified with these images, and they were comforting, but why? I needed something more, and I picked up John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, what I consider the greatest and most authentic American novel. In front of a backdrop of the Depression era, Steinbeck articulates the great American story: moving West. It is the quintessential image of America, but Steinbeck does not paint rosy pictures of the dream. Instead, he questions the values, assumptions, and sacrifices of the American dream by setting his story in one of our country’s darkest hours.

Reading a classic American novel in Cairo was a transformation of my identity; I came to realize who I was. I was an American, and more than that, I developed my concept of what an “American” is.

Every county, every people, has a struggle. Struggles can be wars: the Revolutionary War, when we asked ourselves if liberty and freedom could rule as the laws of men; the Civil War, when we were forced to decide between unity and division and answer existential questions of our nation; and World War II, when our men and women went overseas to fight a battle that was not about land or wealth but about principle. These were times when our nation looked deep into its soul and asked itself, “What are we doing?” and in doing so, asked, “Who are we?”

But struggles are more than wars. The Great Depression questioned the very concept of the American economic dream. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought a revolution with words and inspiration, and ultimately with his life. Free-spirited college students rioted on campuses against the Vietnam War and the cold, concrete establishment of American foreign policy. At times America was angry with itself, and we are angry now.

We are Americans because our challenge is that we can challenge ourselves. American citizens are not necessarily proud of their country, but there is a difference between patriotism and criticism. Criticism can be patriotic, but blind patriotism is never critical. How then can America move forward and go West towards its dreams if we do challenge ourselves to improve?

To me, being American means I have the right to challenge my country, criticize my leadership, and protest against my establishments. Our country is defined by the challenges we have faced and overcome, and I can relate with these events and movements. I never saw the anti-war riots at the University of Michigan, but my father did. I never experienced the struggles of the Great Depression, but my grandmother did. The grandparents of her generation bled on battlefields of the Civil War, and several generations before that, 56 men sat together in a hall during a hot Philadelphia summer and codified their beliefs for a nation.

On Sunday, massive protests will fill the streets of Cairo in what could be one of the largest demonstrations against the Egyptian government in history. It is unknown how big the protests will be, but regardless, this is an Egyptian struggle. I will observe these protests, and I will write about them in this blog, but I will not identify with the cause. This is not my struggle, and it will not shape my identity. But for Egyptians, they will struggle, they will fight, and they will come to realize that these protests are part of their identity. What form that will take is up to them. It may simply be another failure of a weak civil society, or it could be the beginnings of a legitimate revolution against the corrupt and unjust government apparatus.

As I finish up the last few months of my academic year in Cairo, I realize how this experience has changed me. While I expected to learn a great deal about Egypt, this country provided a lens for me to analyze myself in a relative way not otherwise possible in the United States. What I’ve come to realize is that I learned a lot more about America than I did about Egypt, and in learning about America, I learned about myself. And that is something I never expected.

1 comment:

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