“So where are you from?”
The Egyptian customs officer stared me down. There’s no way “Ahmad” was actually American.
“Jordan,” I told him thinking it would be a safer answer than Palestine.
I wasn’t that surprised when I was the last person from our group to get through customs in Cairo. The picture of myself donning a full Salafi-style beard on my passport doesn’t really help my case either.
There were many reasons I was excited for Duke in the Arab World, not least of which was the subject of our study: “Religious Citizenship: Religion and Civil Society in the Arab World.” This was a topic that I had already given much thought and that hits very close to home, however, I never gave it proper academic attention, much less with the added experiential learning of a study-abroad program in the hands of Duke University.
With official announcements of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy’s presidential victory still fresh in the ears of every Egyptian along with every concerned global citizen (or conscious cosmopolitan), I still have more questions than answers when it comes to “religious citizenship.” These questions surpass the specifics of the fate of Egyptian constitution or its parliament or the role of SCAF, but larger questions surrounding formation of cultural and political identities and what that means on the local, regional, and international scales. During my time here I kept up with Greece’s parliamentary elections as much as Egypt’s presidential one (and that has nothing to do with my being a Classics major). Observing Greece negotiate regional and international pressure towards austerity measures while leftists in Cairo’s Arab African Research Center expressed similar anxieties reminded me of the global nature around questions of citizenship.
I was also reminded, however, of the importance of difference. In class we made a distinction between the terms “global” and “cosmopolitan”. Global tends to wipe out difference in the name of universality. Cosmopolitan respects difference. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that citizens can share the world entering into ethical relationships of mutual respect enriched by their differences. Egypt is no Greece for sure, even if they both have to handle the question of what national sovereignty actually means in the face of international lending agencies. And Egypt is no Qatar, despite any linguistic, cultural, or religious similarities. Each country has its own institutions, history, and societal formation that warrants its own detailed look.
Some people look towards difference and come to similar conclusions as Samuel Huntington: there’s a “Clash of Civilizations” awaiting us based on uncompromisable cultural differences across the globe. My lived experience as an Arab-Muslim-American made it impossible to buy into such a reductive narrative. In that sense being a “walking political problem” (how one individual I encountered on the trip described me with regards to my Palestinian heritage) provides a first-hand insight into questions of citizenship, longing, and belonging that may not be as apparent to others who find themselves more comfortably settled. As I grew up in the States and found world events and local contexts making it harder to find any real sense of belonging, various routes presented themselves to me. (1) Assimilation, this is where I ignore the fact that Ahmad contains a letter unpronounceable to most English speakers and erase any differences (linguistic, religious, cultural, racial) for the sake of fitting in (2) Alienation, where I hold onto whatever I perceive to be my “true identity” in the face of an undesired outside culture and find myself alone as a result or (3) the option where I accept the complexity of identity and the world that doesn’t operate on simple oppositions.
In order to make sense of the complexities of the world, however, requires serious study. My own feelings and experiences with citizenship and belonging can make for a good blog post, but an academic class has more in mind. How do we empirically and analytically answer the questions at hand? What does the history of Egypt’s institutions have to tell us about prospects for its post Jan 25 future? How does Qatar, a monarchy with a mere 20% native population, position itself as a global player despite lack of democratic reforms and without an over-reliance on fossil fuels? During our time here, we explored questions like these through reading, debate, discussion, and interviews and to come up with simple answers would be to betray the whole process. We did end up, however, with a more astute eye for the key questions and an awareness of the significance of world events on our own lives.