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Youssef Rakha wonders whether the whole world is conspiring against his American Dream.
The National, 2009
It is October 6, and I have just found out I am not going to America. Something fell through with a story I was supposed to write; publication schedules changed, events became no longer newsworthy. For the longest timeit made sense for Egyptians not to go to America, and I had never been. But, once told I was going, I became excited about it.
October 6: so many things in Cairo are named after the one military victory against Israel that Arabs have been able to claim – on October 6, 1973 – since their first defeat 60 years ago. Why was my trip cancelled on, of all days, the Eid of Victory?
The obvious answer is coincidence. But the fact that I even asked myself the question is revealing. Could it be that Khomeini’s frequently quoted statement that “while Israel is the Lesser Devil, America is the Greater Devil” lurked in the backwaters of an Arab Muslim mind torn between the prosperity in Abu Dhabi and an increasingly unsettling sense of not belonging in Egypt?
The Egyptian in me clings to opposition to America’s most devilish ways in the region. In the time of Nasser, who presided with an iron fist over the most glorious of all Arab defeats in 1967, Egyptians had a good excuse for being cursed: their government refused to cow to an unjust world order. Since October 6, 1973, ironically, the same powers have flouted popular and intellectual discontent in its attempts to embrace both Devils, so to speak, as long and hard as they could.
After peace with Israel, after laissez-faire, after selling out (as socialist-minded dinosaurs continue to call it), there is no longer any excuse for being cursed. Ergo: every Egyptian born after 1973, myself included, has a birthright to his or her own American dream. It doesn’t matter if they seek to realise it within Egypt, in actual US territory or, like a sizeable number, in Israel. Wherever they go, the drive to pursue unlimited profit through the systematic destruction of the planet while urging others to protect the environment and refrain from nuclear development will always be theirs. So too the reward of a family living in a large suburban house with a huge entertainment system.
I waived such rights long ago, having chosen a career as a writer, where there will never be all that much material wealth to look forward to – no matter where I end up working. My very own American dream turns out to be much simpler: I just want to visit New York.
Notwithstanding the occasional bout of partial sympathy for Khomeini’s logic, through the years I have had many American and American-resident friends, and American books and films have added much to my sense of self. I feel silly having never seen the place with my own eyes. Citing one or two of my favourite American works of art would misrepresent the depth and breadth of my ongoing, practically lifelong experience of the country’s vital cultural history. Let’s just say I could not get rid of the knot in my stomach for hours after my editor told me that David Foster Wallace had hanged himself; all of a sudden this most American of contemporary authors felt like a close friend.
Admittedly, after 2001, in shock and fear of Guantanamo, it did not take much to give up my birthright. At the same time, I realised I had also not properly seen much of the Arab world, and I soon enough set out to explore it. I toured Egypt and made plans to scale the breadths of Sudan. America was out of sight and mind; a visit there, however rightful, felt unnecessary.
Then, one day in 2005, I was offered the chance to spend three months in New York through a writer’s residency programme. There was no per diem, but travel costs were covered and I managed to find a place to stay. Suddenly giddy with anticipation, I set about clearing things with the US embassy in Cairo, the residency providers and my employers, who agreed to give me time off.
In Cairo, the US embassy presides over a cluster of other US institutions that have turned a whole downtown neighbourhood into a practical military zone. Often, walking around there, I have been stopped by Egyptian police officers for impromptu interrogations. Moving through the otherworldly automatic security system that guarded the office I was visiting, I tried to imagine myself not in Guantanamo, but in the world’s must multinational hub – open-hearted, energetic and creatively charged.
A few weeks before I was due for my final interview at the embassy itself, my American accommodation fell through. On the same day, my boss took me aside to explain that, in light of certain major changes, I might lose my job if I left. And so, with the resignation of a true Arab who realises that Jerusalem will not be liberated in his lifetime, I had to go through the weary steps of cancelling the journey.
Shortly afterwards, when the Lebanese prime minister was assassinated, I heard Hizbollah’s secretary Hassan Nasrallah repeating Khomeini’s statement on TV: “America is al shaitan al akbar.” I looked up at the screen and, in the non-committal tone of a British MP seconding a motion that he does not really care about either way, I let out a “Yea!.” How was America responsible for Lebanon’s internal divisions? Who knows …
But having worked up the enthusiasm to go to America once, I was no longer afraid. I reverted from my post-September 11 “No way” to my pre-September 11 “At some point.” When this opportunity presented itself again, this time in Abu Dhabi, I was all too glad.
On the afternoon of October 6, I spent the afternoon trekking around town looking for the appropriate bank branch from which to pay my visa fees; I had to wait for an hour to fork over the requisite Dh500. When I got back to the office, my editor looked up from his computer screen: “We have a problem.” Here we go again!
Now, as I lie back and think of Jerusalem, it occurs to me there might be some kind of cosmic conspiracy designed to prevent me from realising my American dream: first September 11, then the lack of a host in an expensive city – and now adjustments in a publication schedule? Perhaps, as some superstitious Egyptians say to justify unfortunate turns of fate, it was God’s work – to save me – from Guantanamo, from a non-smoking hotel, from the fate of living as an illegal immigrant if I liked the place so much that I decided never to come back. Who knows…
Khomeini was not often right, but perhaps in this case he was on to something. Perhaps, all through my life, God has been conspiring to prevent me from associating with His archenemy after all.