Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Difference: What If Lady Liberty Had Landed in Egypt? 🗽 

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

I have 100 blogposts in my heart and head…and yet this one felt like a good one to begin with. It rambles into 10 different tangents…incoherent but somewhat connected in my own head. Thank you Simon, Kate, Paul, Alan, Chris.

I had been re-reading a letter I had written to friends after my first visit to Paris as a 16-year old. I traveled with a Polish colleague. No parents. It was an award we won for a business competition we had been part of. Long story.

While touring the Seine, we saw a smaller version of the Statue of Liberty. It’s hilarious how my phone automatically creates an emoji of Lady Liberty each time I write “liberty” 🗽 

I suddenly remembered this story. Of the history of that statue. Created by the French. Meant for Egypt. Ending up in the US. No, really. Read it. In that link. 

This symbol of liberty and freedom that the US uses so often was intended for Egypt, for the Suez canal. Would it have inspired liberty in Egyptians? But Suez wasn’t truly ours. They wouldn’t have been trying to inspire THAT. 

But see? There are a lot of differences here.

When France gifted it to the US, they were equal partners…maybe against England? And maybe because they supported each other’s revolutions? Against kings? Not Egypt. Egypt had been colonized by both the French and the British. The relationship was different. Suez Canal wasn’t fully Egyptian until years later. After fighting against everyone. And losing. Then winning (?) have we ever won anything, really? Except the occasional Olymic medal…

I had a fleeting thought. Canada and Australia. Commonwealth countries. Still connected to Britain. America….not. All of them instances where the white man eroded indigenous people and laid claim to land and resources. All of them prosperous now. Not the indigenous people. The white ones, mainly… And then Egypt and India and Malaysia. Colonized by the British, too, but the natives were not eradicated. Because they had had a history of trade with Europe and germs didn’t kill them? (thinking of Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond). Because a country like Egypt has been colonized so many times over we had figured out a way to make some sort of peace with it? 

In last week’s workshop on inclusive globally networked learning at DigPedLab UMW (read/watch – it’s worth it), someone wrote in the Google doc we used that their impression of Egypt was that it was multi-ethnic. That’s kind of true. Colonized all over the place and intermarried through it all. So that I have colleagues who are very dark and colleagues who are very blond and I am somewhere in between. And you know, for the most part, we don’t dislike our recent colonizers. The Arabs gave us Islam. The Turks gave us…uhh. Half our genes at the moment (even if we’re having problems with the whole brotherhood thing and all…but until recently those of us with Turkish ancestry took pride and loved Turkey still). The French gave our upper classes culture and language and architecture (probably).  The English…uh… Devastated lots of stuff, gave us a horrible bureaucratic government and educational system and still we strive to learn their language as our window into the world or else we…shrivel and die, basically. Egyptians, modern day Egyptians, for the most part don’t hate any of these. Well ok. Not big fans of Arabs. Because.. Toursits with money. Neighbors with influence. For the most part, Egyptians have at least love-hate relationships with them all. They love going to Turkey for vacation. To Arab countries for work. To America for pop culture. We stand in line to ask for a visa. You have no idea how humiliating this experience can be until you experience it. And then when I entered Jordan and they let me in without anything but a smile (while my American/European colleagues paid and stood in line at the airport? Priceless. More priceless? Two of em had Egyptian passports. They just thought using their European/American ones would get them through faster. Surprise! Somewhere in the world that isn’t the case. Minor minor victory. But we celebrate what we get. Like bronze medals).

I lost my train of thought there…

Lady liberty. The French folks who just banned Muslim women from wearing conservative dress at beaches in Cannes. Do they realize the statue of liberty they designed was meant to be an Egyptian woman? A peasant. Standing at the Suez canal (a beach) fully covered that way?

Just as it is oppressive for Saudi Arabia to insist on a certain dresscode for women, it is oppressive for the French to do so. What the dresscode is, is irrelevant. What is worse is the explicit way the French connected this to terrorism. Ugly. Low. Nonsensical, really. And unnecessarily inflammatory. I say this and I know some hotels here in Egypt wouldn’t allow this kind of dress at their private beaches. And we’re like..a Muslim country where many women dress that way. Even women of the upper middle classes. 

Are the French gonna argue it’s so no one harms the Muslim woman at the beach? If a Muslim woman fears her own safety in a foreign land she will find a way to blend in if she wants. I have worn wool caps and hats to cover my hair and my American-ish accent gives me a pass when I need it. But sometimes I would rather not. I wanna appear as what and who I am and take it. It’s usually not that bad. Just different to…not doing that.

Simon Ensor wrote a beautiful blogpost which is probably going to inspire 50 of the 100 blogposts on my mind…In one part of it, he said


How do we maintain a sense of belonging without denying that others different to us live with us?

I grew up in Kuwait (born there). I remember the day I learned the word multinational. It was in class. It was a British school and we were learning about each other’s nationalities. Half the class or more were Egyptian. A few were British (not all of them white). A few Palestinians, Indians, Pakistanis. A couple of Americans of Non-European descent. And our teacher talked about how Kuwait was so multinational. Notice: not a single Kuwaiti in the room. In later years we had maybe one. After 1990 in a different British school we had a few more in our year group….usually no more than 4 or 5 in a class of 25 or so.

But here is a trick. Being majority Egyptian did not make us dominant in many ways. Sure, occasionally, at high school level, the school would make adjustments to meet needs of Egyptian University entry requirements. And Egypt dominates Arab TV, film and some music.

But for the most part as an Egyptian in Kuwait you weren’t a first-class citizen. There were Kuwaitis. And there were Americans and Europeans. And before 1990 there were Palestinians (no longer after 1990 because..you know, they kinda supported Saddam and stuff). Egyptians were ok if they were white collar (doctors like my parents or engineers or bankers or such) but there were also Egyptian blue collar workers. Same applies for Indian and Filipino people at the time.

When Chris Gilliard talked in a hangout about the importance of conversations with people who were “not us” (see wonderful follow up post by Kate Bowles) I realized how privileged I was to have grown up in that kind of environment where 

  1. I regularly interacted with people who were “not us”
  2. I still had a large enough community of people who were like me to feel grounded and build some sense of  Egyptian identity 
  3. I could see power dynamics even as a child and learned how to be the proud type of Egyptian people would respect and not to think less of myself or my kind just because others did. And although we who grew up in Kuwait use a derogatory expression “typical Egyptian”, I believe most nationalities have a similar derogatory term about their own people as if the speaker wasn’t one of em. I have caught people who have lived in Egypt their entire lives saying that expression and it makes me wonder “and what makes you think you are any better?”
  4. I knew people of different nationalities and colors. I learned early on that a Filipino woman could be a nurse or a doctor or my dad’s friend’s wife whom he met in England… Or she could be someone’s nanny/maid. Possibly a university-educated maid who needed the money but you could have deep intellectual conversations with (I learned so much from my nanny…it felt like we were friends…but that’s naive of course). I learned the same of Indians and Pakistanis, for example. I also learned that someone can be English or European and an idiot but for some reason Arabs looked up to them because they were blond. It’s ridiculous really. 

And you realize you are measuring yourself, your people against an external yardstick that isn’t from within your own culture. You align yourself with your Western education, your English language, your American pop culture and it makes you feel you are better than others. We are all hybrid in that sense as Homi Bhabha recognizes. Not many “pure” (or typical) Egyptians, really. Not many.

In her post, Kate wrote

the US dominates to the point that we forget we’re not thinking our own thoughts.

Today I was reminded of that when I read this wonderful primer: Committing to Diversity When You’re White. And you know what i realized? Good for me, I am so careful to read people of color and women and to have those people on my Twitter feed and more importantly, DM. I read novels by diverse writers. Of course white people are diversity for me, too. Or at least difference. But you get the idea. And when I lived in the US I gravitated towards books by Indian, Pakistani and Afghan writers. But the shameful thing? It’s that I don’t read many Egyptian or Arab writers in Arabic. Wtf? I can read Arabic. Just easier for me to read English. Quicker. As i explained to a colleague. I can’t speed read Arabic and I can’t really understand academic Arabic well. I forget that I may not be thinking my own thoughts. It’s time to change that. 
You don’t want to be so externally focused that you lose your own sense of identity and self that way. I mean I don’t think I have lost it, but I realize I am missing something.  I have known this for years and yet have done little to change it..save writing articles for Al Fanar so they also get translated into Arabic (they won’t let me translate my own; my style isn’t good enough apparently). I recently wrote an article in Arabic. From scratch. Yay. I had to think slower to write it. Not a horrible thing, I learned. 

For most of my life I have been educated or employed by English or American institutions. By doing so, I position myself with the dominant as a postcolonial, subaltern. I gain power by putting myself in spaces where I will always be less powerful. It’s… Complicated. Because not doing so would give me even less power and less capacity to change the world and my own context in the ways I want to.

So back to the issue of difference. Not all differences are equal.  There is value in conversing with people who are just different from us in some way or another. But it is an entirely different thing to make intentional decisions to open up lines of understanding with those who are marginalized or silenced in some spaces. To allow ourselves with our own intersectionality to be voices in some spaces and listeners in others. It may seem counterintuitive but sometimes a safe space for the silenced means we need to silence ourselves and listen. Or help others slow down and listen. Or sometimes even accept that the silenced prefer not to speak and we find a way to try to empathize anyway. With the “Other”. Until they become someone we care about as a person and no longer a token representing a group of people who are “alien” to us. 

As Sean Michael Morris said in his keynote at DigPed UMW (also in writing here):

All stories are equal. All stories matter. This is not how we get to hear stories we need to hear. This is not how we amplify silenced voices.

We amplify silenced voices by listening. By making space for them to speak. Not safe space, necessarily, daring space. Because it’s never safe to speak.


And also this quote is one I use a lot because it is just so powerful:

We [the minorities] and you [the dominant] do not talk the same language. When we talk to you we use your language: the language of your experience and of your theories. We try to use it to communicate our world of experience. But since your language and your theories are inadequate in expressing our experiences, we only succeed in communicating our experience of exclusion. We cannot talk to you in our language because you do not understand it. (p. 575 in Lugones & Spelman, 1983)


Right after publishing this post I come across this video about education . All speakers are male. All white except for one Sal Khan. How can that be a good product? So lacking in diversity it’s glaringly obvious.

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