Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Eighteen Days: A Revolution, Surrealism and Jetlag

Sitting back here in Alexandria trying to fend off the jetlag that seems to have engulfed me and taken over my entire being, I am trying to sort out the past three weeks to see if I can capture what has been going on both in Egypt and in Washington, DC. A daunting task, I’m afraid, but I am willing to give it a whirl.

After my last posting, I spent another week in our nation’s capital where I was wined and dined by friends from as far back as my high school days. I would have gained several pounds had I not been walking everywhere and taking the Metro across the city. As each of my friends asked me about how things had been in Egypt and how I felt being back in the States, the only word that I could come up with consistently was “surreal”. Perhaps it was the jetlag again, or maybe it was just the juxtaposition of leaving a world in chaos and arriving in a world of order. I think it struck me most one evening when I was walking home from the Metro up a DC street and I realized that it was quiet…almost deathly quiet. No honking horns, no prayers from a minaret, no people yelling, no dogs barking or cats yowling, no babies crying, no vendors seeking used goods, no trams rattling or train whistles blowing or any of the constant background noise that is Egypt. In fact, there was virtually no noise at all except the heels of my boots on the concrete sidewalk. And why would there be? It was 10 pm on a weeknight, and everyone was safe and snug in the house settling down for the night. I now know how Dorothy felt-- I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Adding to the surreal nature of the experience was the sense that I had been here before, but in a very different context. I used to live in DC and I pride myself in knowing all the Metro stops (except those in Maryland, which don’t count), how to stand to the right on the escalators, how to use a Metro card, that the Mall is not where you shop and that you really need to add NW or NE to an address if you want to get to the right place. And it’s not the expat repatriation thing. I have visited DC several times from my homes abroad and experienced what it feels like to have this town not seem quite like home anymore. But never have I felt so out of place and so profoundly dazed by being in the US. Perhaps it was because this was an unplanned trip, somewhat hurriedly put together? Was it because of the underlying uncertainly of what was going to happen to Egypt? Was it simply that the differences between my life in Egypt and my life in DC are so much further apart on any number of levels that I couldn’t reconcile them in such a sort amount of time. Or, is it just that I was so jetlagged that I never found my chi? Probably a combination of all of the above.

So, while Hosni Mubarak was playing a game of political “chicken” with the people of Egypt, I stayed dazed and confused in DC reading three newspapers each day (Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal) and checking the live feeds from Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN, trying to make sense out of this revolution. I’m not sure I have been successful on that front, and as everyone knows, the initial thrill of removing an unresponsive, abusive leader is only the first step. In talking with my students here in Alexandria, the sense of euphoria is still with them and they are rightfully proud of this youth-generated, social network supported revolution. However, they are not so good at coming up with what the next steps will or should be and have difficulty imagining how things will be different. While many of the newspapers articulated the events of the past few weeks as the “birth of democracy” I am reminded that birth is a very difficult, painful and messy process and most of us would do well to stay in the waiting room smoking a cigar until it arrives…and hope that there are no major complications.


  1. Excellent yet disconcerting commentary, dear friend. Disconcerting because I sense that you may never declare yourself a Washingtonian or Arlingtonian again, a reality that startles and saddens me. I've put up with the wandering Smiths (and the recent Smith diaspora) for many years with the expectation that my best friend might one day come "home" again. I'm not ready to accept that D.C./Arlington may never be home again for the Smiths, and impromptu family dinners and long Sunday morning walks or runs will not be in our future. Waaah!

  2. The Pura Vida lifestyle is not an easy one to embrace for a Gringo either but it seems to be a better alternative than upset Muslims trying to create change without thinking about what they want the end result to be.

  3. It was wonderful to see you. Sharon is right that we miss you dreadfully, but what fun to come and visit you. I send you the recipe for the brussel sprouts that you loved.


    Brussel Sprouts A la Sur La Place February, 2011

    Melt butter. Saute minced shallots, halved tiny brussels sprouts and thinly sliced leeks (I would use 4 shallots, 2 leeks, and 16-20 sprouts) with garlic, ½ tsp sugar, and thyme. When the sprouts are browning on their cut side, add some chicken or turkey broth (turkey will give it the deeper flavor that we had). Toss with cherry tomatoes and salt & pepper. Roast until just tender. Top with bacon bits. Yes, you can just keep them stewing in the pan.