The Londoner sitting next to me on the plane asked if I had any Arab background--no, I'm just American with Italian and Cuban parents. He commented on how surprising it was I would ever study the Middle East.
At first, it was out of a desire to understand the news headlines and acquire some context around the war in Iraq. But after a year of strenuous Arabic study, I seriously questioned my motivations, and I asked myself the same question the Londonder posed: Why was I committing myself to learning a language and culture so distant from my own?
My comparative literature teacher laughed at me. As a young college graduate, she set off to Cuba--she was already fluent in Spanish (something alien to her British upbringing). And she fell enamored with the country and its writers. "How else are we going to engage with different people and come across new ideas?" My argument was rendered moot.
Coincendentally, or inevitably, I found out I had everything to do with the Middle East. Besides the most relevant and pressing ties--as an American, my country has shaped the life of the region for the past century--what was unexpectedly thrilling to study was the older history: European colonialism in North Africa and medieval Spain under Arab rule. These were potentially my ancestors--it wasn't so black and white. I too was implicit.
It might be selfish or ego-centric (or human) to seek out a narrative that ties your interests and work to some deeper personal level. A semester in Egypt will hopefully bring the region even closer--to a degree that might make it comfortable enough for me to wholeheartedly embrace Middle East studies as a vocation. As of now, I feel like I cannot make the decision (Is this what I want to do--professionally, academically?) until I visit and live in the region.
My extended family doesn't understand why I find debates on Islamic orthodoxy, sectarian politics and Arab pop culture fascinating. My housemate this past summer asked me why I would ever want to study a culture, a people that hates or rejects who I am--a liberal, gay, agnostic, (mostly) white American. He doesn't understand that I study the region, in part, because of the gross stereotyping that too many people like him commit. There needs to be a higher level of understanding of the the Middle East. Maybe then, we'll stop framing it as a monolith.
The unfolding of the Arab revolutions emboldened my interests--the region set itself up as a locus for debates on civil rights and fundamental freedoms. Here, I could ask questions concerning the universality of human rights and the nature of civil opposition. When the opportunity came to study in Egypt a little over a year after its revolution--How could I say no?
Yes, the next five months will take a toll--culturally, intellectually, emotionally. But I take solace from the opening lines of Susan Sontag's essay, "Anthropologist as Hero":
Most serious thought in our time struggles with the feeling of homelessness. The felt unreliability of human experience brought about by the inhuman acceleration of historical change has led every sensitive modern mind to the recording of some kind of nausea, of intellectual vertigo. And the only way to cure this spiritual nausea seems to be, at least initially, to exacerbate it.
I think a semester abroad is a good start.