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An Ode to Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”

The Poor Poet

Virginia Woolf had written about women needing space and the means to think and create. This means the time and resources, in order not to have to work – nor be obliged to be a housewife, and be able to have the time needed to create.

For a man, it is different, he is, in many ways, born with the world laid down before his feet.

Of course, I must take into account Virginia Woolf’s positionality, a white woman during the early 20th century. The intersectionality of this gendered realisation largely neglects race and class, however, the point holds true nonetheless. A black woman will find it harder to have the time and space to create than her male counterpart, while an upper-class woman would similarly have more societal obligations and roles dictated by society that are not forgiving to her own needs and wants, than her male counterpart.

“The poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance… a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”

“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf

I now have my own space. A charming, unique little flat with its own feel, I realised living in one’s own place – to curate a relationship with it, is to care for it, and it, in turn, will take care of you. I can’t help think longingly about the day I have my real own place, a place under my own name, not paying rent to anyone else, where I can design the walls, the bedrooms, the structures, the stairs.

Why is it so much easier to prioritise the everyday chores, the societal obligations – to see this and that person, to pick this and that up, to run this and that errand – rather than the things the heart wants, the yearning to create? Although, the yearning for love, acceptance, companionship are also things the heart wants.

I suppose life is a long journey to find the balance, or perhaps it is an everlasting dance between the two. To create, to leave one’s impact, to be the best one can be – in whatever it is one deems important, and then the other. Yet for others it seems people are content with the latter, without the aspect of creating. There is no real need to create, they are satisfied with supporting themselves and their family, being a good person, having a stable life not having to worry about resources, and a stable job.

Then there are the rest of us, the creator-yearners, perhaps, I should name us.

The struggles of the creator-yearners are seldom understood and are inevitably rare in their individuality. 

I have to water myself, my own needs, my own yearnings, my need to create, and to prioritise them, because society won’t.

I hope this little flat will give to me what I want to give to it – what it needs. When I moved in, the pipes were leaking, only a screw was sticking out of where the doorknob should have been, lightbulbs were missing, the kitchen had parts caked in dust and soot, dust covering entire parts of the place – it hadn’t been cared for.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.”

“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf

I am privileged to have these material things needed, but one must take care of them.

To have this, as such a young age, is undoubtedly a privilege, a privilege that many women lack. Once this room of one’s own is attained, there is no excuse, there is nothing standing in the way.

Instead, there is the fear, that my very need and want to create, my very yearning, will be my demise. Just as Sisyphus carried that meaningless rock up that hill, day after day, meaninglessly, he gave meaning to his life, but what if I am unable to carry my rock up every day, as it seems meaningless, more often than not? In the end, I may crumble from this pressure, this self-driven pressure and expectation to truly be someone.

And yet, in the face of the Strangeness of the Universe,

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf

I don’t want to be Woolf’s imagined Shakespeare’s sister – Woolf’s genius literary device of a metaphorical woman, imagined, as Shakespeare’s sister – who was equally as talented as William Shakespeare himself, but, alas, will amount to nothing, forgotten in the dust of history,

“…it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. […] She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.”

“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf

Judith, never stood a chance.

“For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began, according to Professor Trevelyan, almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom?”

“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf

Woolf wrote this in 1929, almost 100 years ago. Although certain things have changed, technology has progressed, the geo-political nature of international relations has shifted, pandemics have come and gone, climate change has worsened, yet the very difference of societal obligations and its treatment of women still remain, in its core essence.

Since we are little girls, we are held more tightly and bound more strictly to societal’s expectations as a daughter, as a sister, and later on, as a wife, as a mother; our own personal desires held to a lesser degree of importance than those of men.

To be a woman, in a man’s world, is a hardship unique to women throughout the centuries. To have a room of one’s own, is a privilege indeed, one that those of us lucky to have must make good use of.

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Will you?

Will you?

Will you grow, evolve, and transgress

past the endless societal obligations

like the boundless waves of a sea

and transgress, into eternity?

past what our mothers and fathers have drilled into our heads

our heads that were once

filled with play-things, toys and pacifiers

we replaced these with books, games and school

then with bullying, jealousy, and mimicking’s of

what we thought was love

mimicked from the screens that follow us

wherever we go

replaced by drinks of solitude

cigarettes of despair

numb our chattering minds

chattering away the mumuring, “grow, evolve and transgress”  

replaced by what they call “adulthood”

and solitude in the most crowded of places

will you transgress beyond these?

transgress beyond all these societal hands, molding us

beautiful shifting, shapeless, figures –

of which we were molded to fit into

since the idea of the creation of us was first transmitted

from neuron to neuron

in someone’s brain?

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Deciding to stay in Egypt during COVID-19 as a Chinese-British Woman

COVID-19: The unasked for mirror of humanity and the individual.

On Monday March 16th, Egypt announced it would close all the airports for two weeks. As a 24-year-old British-Chinese UK citizen, I decided to stay in Egypt during the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic is a testament to humanity and the unasked-for mirror of ourselves. 

When remnants of the coronavirus began circulating world-wide, I began feeling a bit self-conscious, or perhaps paranoid doing my grocery shopping or walking on the streets- were people looking at me differently? I prepared myself for going into work the next day.

Being born to a British father and Chinese mother, and being an outsider seen as different with an assortment of ranging perceptions in different countries, is what I have been dealing with my entire life. My identity is what other people perceive me as.

Uber drivers would ask me “Corona?” and I would feel insulted, but, afraid of any repudiation, hurriedly replied back in Egyptian Arabic, “la, ma3ndish Corona” (“I do not have Corona”). It wasn’t necessarily meant to inflict harm, but it was harmful- to perpetuate this idea that not even just Chinese people, but those remotely resembling what their perception was of the Chinese race, are a direct cause of the Coronavirus and therefore able to be blamed and have anger projected upon.

Thoughts such as, “Was that a hint of fear and suspicion in her eyes?” began running through my head. I did get the odd joke, “Hey, stop eating rats”, general coughing in my direction, or complete exaggerated horror and repulsion if I happened to cough.

Worried about my mother, who is widowed and lives alone in Shanghai, and who had been self-quarantined at home as the entire country shut down for over two months, I held all these fears to myself.

Having grown up with Chinese as my second language, going to international schools with all expats for the 8 years I lived in Shanghai, I never felt very close to my motherland. At age 11 I moved to China for the first time in my life with my parents, to complete middle and highschool before I was to leave for University in California. I have been through shameful years of my life where I was arrogant as being half-British and as being perceived as a foreigner in China, feeling a disconnect to the Chinese people and China as a country.

I was entirely disconnected from my motherland’s history, culture, people, economy, politics, government- until I hit the age of 20 when my father passed away within the span of 4 months from a very rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I underwent transformations since then and am still undergoing them, including having more awareness for societal issues, and having an increased awareness for my lack of connection with my motherland. However, despite this change, I never felt such a connection to the Chinese people, my Chinese side, and the country itself until now.

While the rest of the world carried on, without much sympathy or sorrow for what the Chinese people were going through, I worried and held it in my heart. Not only was I hurting for what the Chinese people were going through, but all Chinese immigrants all over the world. I began hearing stories from ethnically Chinese friends in different countries, seeing occurrences on social media, and I dealt with the odd racist comment myself.

One South-East Asian woman here in Cairo said to me one day,

“I’m sorry, but I hate the word Chinese now.

I was shocked but covered it quickly,

Why? I asked calmly, while attempting to smile.

“Because, me and my friends, everyone thinks we are Chinese, and the places we live is not so good, you know, and people laugh at us, and tell us to get off the bus if one of us is coughing- they make us feel threatened all the time now.”

A few weeks into the lockdown, I was taking an uber and the driver asked me, “anta feen?” (where are you from). I usually said, “I’m British and Chinese.” This time, instinctively, almost without thinking, I said, “I’m British.” He gave me a glance in the mirror but I knew if I said I was also Chinese it would jumpstart an entire conversation I most likely wouldn’t want to have.

Yet, we must appreciate that there is a retaliation against the discrimination and the seemingly innate selfishness inside all of us. After the video of a Chinese man being kicked out of an Uber in Cairo, and filmed and leered at by other passerby’s and unable to get another car, a post began circulating around the Egyptian online communities condemning the way this man was treated and showing solitude with this man:

“عندما تنظر للآسيويين على أنهم “فيروس كورونا”، فلا تستعجب عندما ينظر لك أحدهم على أنك “إرهابي”!

When you consider Asians as “Corona virus”, don’t be surprised when someone considers you as a “Terrorist”!

#لا_للعنصرية
# No_to_racism

And so, during the month of March, the country began to both prepare for and respond to the quickly escalating pandemic. I felt a wave of comradeship, one of that I’ve never felt before- of an entire country going through a struggle, collectively, at one time. Although I am not Egyptian, I feel as though I am part of the struggle here. I have been and will continue to go through all of the steps with my fellow Egyptians.

We often imprison ourselves in certain enclosed areas for weeks on end- from home, a grocery store, a bar, our workplace- but we never feel as though it is prison, until you are told you cannot leave it. The moment the government announced the airport will be closed for two weeks and there will be no incoming or outgoing flights, I felt trapped. The British Embassy line was jammed that entire night. The next day was surreal, as I was running around frantically asking the foreigners I know here if they were leaving, it seemed about 60-40; most had managed to book flights, some through connections they had, and a few were staying.

I knew the flights would be booked up fairly soon, but I didn’t jump on my computer to go on and try to book one. Why did I choose to stay? I suppose, because of the people and the feeling of camaraderie in Egypt. April 12th was the last repatriation flight for British citizens from Egypt. I spoke to the British Embassy on the phone at long last, but decided, once more, to stay, and not to leave.

In the past few weeks, stories of the revolution have resurfaced. Gossip and pondering of whether or not there will be a curfew implemented, similarly to the one that was imposed during the Arab Spring 9 years ago. Stories of what the curfew was like, events cancelled, what it was like to spend all the time indoors.

A son, who, injured in the revolution, was in the hospital, and his mother feigned illness to pass through the military blocks implemented during the curfew. A woman giving birth during the revolution. A child born in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, in the smoke of revolution.

An Egyptian friend frankly told me upon a conversation regarding the rapid escalation of the pandemic in an effort to calm me down,

“Egypt will survive. We are still struggling from the revolution, our economy is still struggling, we are still clawing ourselves up out of the hole of poverty. We will not let ourselves fall to this virus, simply because we cannot afford to.”

As another Egyptian friend told me,

Egyptians are like cockroaches. Did you know, Egypt is the only country that was never entirely rebuilt?”

Those around me, almost all have blind faith in the authority to implement the necessary actions and to make the right decisions in an effective and timely manner.

These conversations brought me back a few months ago, when someone said to me,

“You are not Egyptian, but you know why you love Egypt. Me, I’m Egyptian, and I have no idea why I love my country. I just know I do.”

The Egyptian government has, thus far, taken many pre-emptive measures, even being praised by the World Health Organization. On Thursday March 19th, the Egyptian Cabinet announced a partial curfew being implemented, with most shops being closed by 7pm everyday, with the exception of necessary services like pharmacies, hospitals, supermarkets, and home-delivery services. On Tuesday March 24th, the Egyptian Government announced in addition, all shops and malls will be closed during the weekends (Friday and Saturday) with additional curfew implementations. 

To be a part of something with so many people is surely overwhelming. This is what I see all people doing throughout or lives and all the people that came before us- to build something greater than themselves, whether it is a legacy in a career, through art, through family, etc. To be part of something greater than ourselves.

COVID-19 acts as the unasked for mirror, reflecting our inner fears, thoughts, and inhumanity as individuals and as a species. The reflections are infinitely complex, both beautiful and daunting. There is a pool of disappointment and empathy felt for the hardships people are undergoing now, but this pool is contrasted by a glow of admiration and gratitude towards the retaliation of discrimination, the global solidarity through social media as well as on a smaller scale- through communities and families, the efforts of inter-national help, and the efforts of the medical and science community. 

COVID-19 asks each of us, as many of us are social distancing and practicing self-quarantining:

What is your identity?

Do you hide from yourself with the distractions of your everyday life? Is the fastness and speed of everyday life a mere distraction from your true self?

COVID-19 is bringing to light what it means to be human. As we struggle to stay home without the daily distractions of life, similarly to when Kafka’s Gregor in Metamorphosis wakes up, horrifyingly, as a large insect, having to forcefully and suddenly forego the motions and distractions of daily life- we are suddenly confronted with ourselves, and the absurdity of life itself. 

Egypt is, to me…

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Egypt is, to me, a blind man standing calmly on the side of the street waiting for someone to help him cross over. Within 10 seconds, a boy ran over and held his arm to help him across the busy street.

Egypt is, to me, when I was stuck in an elevator and before long half the building was trying to help me.

Egypt is, to me, an old lady falling from exhaustion and heat at a bus station and 5 people running over to help her up.

Egypt is, to me, when I fainted on the subway from heat stroke, a man jumping out of the subway at my stop to give me his water and the security guard running out to get help.

Egypt is, to me, my Arabic teacher inviting me to her house and cooking for a whole day for me.

Egypt is, to me, a country of love. A developing country, you can see the strings of things attached together, a country with many hardships- but through it all, people helping each other through love.

The Greener Grass

The wealthy little boy sat

Uncomfortable in his blazer and tie

He stared miserably out of the schoolbus window

His outlet into what he thought was freedom

The poor boy sat

In his tattered and dirtied clothes

On the back of a truck

He stared miserably back

At the wealthy little boy

Wishing to have his life

Sinai

Drifted into a dream

The sea gurgling next to me like

A newborn baby

The dome

peppered with stars, witnessed

Shooting stars flirting-

A rip in the canvas

And another one… and another

I could not help but ask

To the sky:

What are you?

 

———————————————–

 

August 8, 2019

Nuweibaa, South Sinai, Egypt

 

Inspired by a first time falling asleep underneath the stars and a first time seeing a meteor shower.

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A Call for Pedagogical Reform

 

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“Renaissance in Person” by Rick Steves

From what we know, formal education, in other words, the practice of a group of students learning together in a designated space, has existed since ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient India, and ancient China. Education systems flourished differently according to the culture and place it existed in. After all, nothing is produced in a vacuum. In Western Europe, cathedral schools flourished during the Early Middle Ages from as early as the 500’s CE, while in the Islamic world madrassa’s (Arabic word for “school”) flourished from the emphasis on knowledge. Madrassa’s were separate from the mosques, where learning and religious activities were conducted.

Yet education was not accessible to all levels of people in society until the 19th society. The industrial revolution led to a rise in demand for education and an educated workforce. Education became available to the poor masses, producing a prototype for the modern global education system existing today.

State-owned education originated in 19th century Prussia (today’s Germany). After the Prussian army was defeated by Napoleon, the Prussian aristocrats installed the first ever compulsory education system, believing their defeat was rooted in lack of education, or discipline.

Gradually, education underwent a series of global synchronization, which can be understood through three main peaks of expansion: the Colonial Era, the World War, and the Cold War.

Education Systems Today

There is a fundamental crisis in our global education system. Today’s global education systems are primarily designed in the form of disciplinary learning. This method of disciplinary learning constrains the learner into a number of commandment that must be the underlying basis and start towards analysing and examining the subject matter within that discipline.

Let us look at the topic of war. War has always been a part of the human condition, and so, if history has taught us anything, it is that wars will continue to be a part of societies. Which discipline should be used to study war?

An International Relations student would examine war from its perspective on nation-states, how they engage in intra-state and inter-state wars, preventable measures for war, post-war paradigms, how wars impact and shape the nature of global political relationships. Meanwhile, a sociology professor would examine war from a macrolevel level, the patterns of war making, including how societies engage in warfare, the meaning that war has in society, and the relationship between state structure and war making. A historian would examine war from a historical point of view, simply an archival take on the list of wars, its impact on history, and is beneficial to all other disciplines. A political scientist would collect and analyse the data of wars to extract plausible conclusions. An anthropological perspective of war and violence may focus on the sub-group of the military – their norms, values, and so on. An economical approach would reveal patterns and conclusions regarding the relationship between the economy and wartimes- whether this be a correlative or cause-and-effect relationship. Linguistics and/or English Literature would focus on examining the roles of propaganda and language in warfare. Psychology would shed light on what are the psychological causes and effects of warfare.

In order to attain the most holistic understanding of the subject matter, there needs to be an analysis of war from each of these disciplines. The International Relations student would end up having a completely different perspective on war than the Sociology student, and so on and so forth. What if you put them all in a room- how much could they learn from each other, wouldn’t the collective outcome of all their perspectives and methods of analysing and examining the same subject of war lead to a more holistic understanding and therefore beneficial and useful in application to, for example, finding and implementing solutions to post-war conflict or in methods of preventing interstate or intrastate wars?

Revolutionising Pedagogy

The concept of interdisciplinary studies has its origins in the 18th century, today it is most widely seen in America’s liberal arts colleges. As American educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey wrote in his The School and Society book, Chapter 3, “Waste in Education”:

“We do not have a series of stratified earths, one of which is mathematical, another physical, another historical, and so on. All studies grow out of relations in the one great common world.”

Therefore, “all studies are naturally unified”.

This argument pushed for changes in mainstream pedagogy through the likes of John Dewey, Ralph Tyler, and Benjamin Bloom through enabling a more interdisciplinary-curriculums to exist, today it is far from being the primary form of education systems provided to children.

This would require collaboration amongst educators. Indeed, it is more than implementing changes in how students select their topic of study for university, but indeed, a revolution of the very nature of how education systems are set up to examine the world around us. In order to ensure collaboration of professionals within their respective fields, talks and meetings should be set up across cities and in university programs to first introduce this concept of an interdisciplinary education and its importance to understanding what is, naturally, a variant world that requires variant disciplines to study it.

In this way, students would be able to build their own interdisciplinary pathway. This would be done by choosing their own pathway to examine the subject matter. For example, in order to study global warming- anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, and geologists would need to come together and share ideas and lenses to examining the subject of global warming.

An interdisciplinary approach to education would also revolutionize the student’s role in the process. Promoting John Dewey’s criticism of the student as a passive-learner, this would instead promote the student as an active participant in a back-and-forth process with the teacher. This would open an entire new area of thought, for solutions to conflict, new ways of thinking by looking at traditional topics that have been studied in a more rigid and constraining manner.

 

 

 

My Experience as a Non-Muslim of Ramadan in Egypt

My first Ramadan experience was in Egypt, Om Al-Donya, Mother of the World. Ramadan occurs during the 9th of the 12 months of the Islamic Lunar Calendar, and so it occurs on a different date every year.

I’ve found myself becoming much kinder and sympathetic as a person, during the time of Ramadan. This is primarily because I’m surrounded by people who are fasting and who are thirsty, hungry, weak- and are all not complaining, but doing it willingly and gladly. I’ve noticed I’m more sympathetic to people, being more polite than usual, etc. I was pondering this as I got into an uber, feeling quite good about myself but simultaneously quite sorry for them (perhaps this is Eurocentric of me), then I caught myself – why don’t I treat people to the best of my abilities usually? Why is it that during Ramadan only am I the most considerate I can be?

However, I suppose this is one of the many benefits of Ramadan. It is a time of cleansing oneself of one’s own impurities. Even though I am not a Muslim and so I am not fasting, it is affecting me very much. Having to alter my days and times to the millions of people fasting for Ramadan, who are going by the times of the rising sun and setting sun, is extremely refreshing. It seems everyone around me is going back to our roots – as mankind used to live – not by the time we monitor with our man-made clocks. Because of this, the Muslims fasting for Ramadan don’t sleep as much – in fact, I’m not sure when they sleep during Ramadan, and I’m not sure they know when they sleep either…!

In Egypt, the normative rules here are all lifted up and others are quickly put in its place during the month of Ramadan. The days before Ramadan were surreal to me, with everyone constantly talking about it, and large supermarkets like Carrefour becoming an absolute nightmare of human traffic-jams, with many products disappearing off shelves as people go and stock up on food for the month of Ramadan. After awhile of this, we finally reached the first day of Ramadan, I remember being a bit shocked at seeing the transformations of people I knew. Everyone was tired, looking at me with tired eyes and tired smiles, not speaking as much as usual.

It is OK to drink and eat in front of Muslims fasting, as they understand if you not a Muslim you would not fast, yet one should try to refrain from that as much as possible – simply to be considerate. When the sun sets (around 6.30pm now- “now” being the beginning of Ramadan), the streets become eerily empty, as everyone is eating one of the two meals of Ramadan, Iftar (الإفطار), with their families or friends. You can almost feel the millions of people in all directions around you waiting for the evening Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer), which signals the sun has set and the feast can begin. Suhoor (السحور) is the second meal during Ramadan, which must be eaten before the sun rises (at around 5.30am now). For suhoor one of the most common, traditional and popular dishes is ful and ta’miya (fava beans and Egyptian falafel). Some eat at midnight, and then sleep, waking up to pray during suhoor (which means around 4.30 am – before the sun rises) but not eating.

Pregnant women, elderly, sick people, women menstruating, young children, and other situations whereby you may not be physically able to fast – are all exempt from fasting. Perhaps around the age of 8 or 9 children may begin fasting, introducing them to the concept first by 4 hours or so, and then increasing the number of hours as they grow older.

Ramadan is a time to focus on family, loved ones, friends, and prayer. Some people I know would go to mosques everyday, and live there, just cleansing themselves of human impurities. During Suhoor and Iftar friends and family are often invited over to each other’s houses for feasts.

There are three layers of cleansing during Ramadan:

1. Fasting of Al-Shari’ah (Jurisprudential Fasting)

Fasting from food and drink, intercourse (even if married), is the easiest, as it is the physical, external layer.

2. Fasting of Al-Tariqat (Ethical Fasting)

This focuses on things considered Haram such as gossiping, swearing, non-Islamic dress, and so on.

3. Fasting of Al-Haqiqat (Mystical Fasting)

The last layer only a handful of people in the world can do, which is very deep meditation – a state of detachment from anything other than God.

If you talk about Ramadan, you must talk about the TV shows during Ramadan, and the food. Let’s talk about the TV shows first. Millions of people sit in front of the TV for much of the day during the days of Ramadan. Although everyone troops off to work each morning, not much is done – as everyone is bone-dead tired and weak. When they come home for Iftar, millions of Egyptians (Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country), settle down in front of the TV and wait to break their fast. In some districts, the streets become populated with people sharing food at night, with all the shops opening all throughout the night, and people awake throughout much of the night. In other areas, friends and family are invited over to each other’s houses, as people settle down for the fast in the evening.

Soups are important during Ramadan, as they are usually had first before eating to ease their way into food and to break the fast. Having drinks first are another way to break the fast. An Egyptian traditional Ramadan drink is Amar El-Din, made out of dried apricots and olive oil. The main food itself usually consists of a carb meal, like rice, pasta or mahshi (anything stuffed with vegetables) with some form of animal protein, like meat, chicken, or fish. Desserts are also an important part of Ramadan food culture. Some of the most loved Egyptian desserts during Ramadan include but are not limited to Mohalabeya, Konafa, Baklava, basboosa.

Other customs of Ramadan include:

  • The traditions of the Fanoos (الفوانيس, “lanterns”). They are hung all over restaurants, shops, people’s houses and apartments. Normally brightly coloured, either lit up with a candle or lightbulb, they make anywhere you look more colourful. This is specifically for Egyptian Ramadan, however.
  • Reading the khatma, which represents a full reading of the Qu’ran over the month. There are 30 chapters, fitting for one a night for the approximately 30 days of Ramadan that vary by one or two days every year.
  • Charity. Although this is one of the five tenets during Islam, all the five tenets are exemplified and focused on even more during the Holy month of Ramadan.

Every Muslim I’ve talked to that is fasting is happily doing it for ربنا (“rabana”, our Lord), and doesn’t complain. After having studied and read about Ramadan so much, it is infinitely more rich and beautiful when witnessing it all around you, for miles and miles. About 24% of the world is Muslim, which means that a large portion of almost a fourth of the world is currently fasting. That’s something to think about.

And so, رمضان كريم (“Ramadan Kareem”) – literally translated to “Kind Ramadan”, but when said to someone it means, “I hope Ramadan will be kind to you” or “wishing you a kind/generous Ramadan.”

The Ethics of Man: Ethics in an Age of Capitalism

Before civilisation, man was first, a primate, second, a creature with consciousness- able to philosophize, to enjoy materialistic commodities, to enjoy the productions of the industrial revolution, to be able to create – art, culture, the very thing that differentiates us from all other living beings on earth. But today, in an information era, as man has evolved where famine, war, and plagues are no longer problems created by nature, man faces wars that are political wars, famines in regions because men made conscience decisions that led to entire societies collapsing and thousands of people starving (seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ireland, Syria, Yemen in the past few decades, just to name a few) – it is hard to say, are we first, a primate, or are we first, conscious beings?

The basic needs for survival are rarely an issue for an overwhelming majority of the population globally- shelter, food, and water. This gives us the opportunity to imagine, theorise- granting us the ability to be able to create beyond our capacity – technology, transportation, AI, the internet, etc. Millions of people today no longer have to worry about nature’s disasters as much as in our hunter-gatherer times, the dangers of the wilderness, nor need to wonder when it’ll rain next for crops to grow, and so on, as we did daily when civilisations first began to sprout. The immeasurable amount of knowledge we have today on how the earth is built, the technology we’ve built to extract resources much more efficiently, has allowed us to become first and foremost, a conscience, thinking, being, And so, we must question the ethics of man, beyond our primal needs. Therefore, there is an urgent necessity to examine the ethics that base our ideologies and structures that so shape society.

The earth’s resources are enough for all, however there has always been an extreme inequality within the distribution, traditionally the dichotomy of the global north exploiting the global south was a practical explanation- maintaining much of those in the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia in masses of poverty. We are no longer hunter gatherers, living in small societies where tomorrow’s food is not certain. From “what will I eat tomorrow?” it is now “when will I be able to buy the next iPhone?” Having gained the ability to harness the earth’s resources (oil, coal, plants, animals, land, and slowly – wind, tidal and solar energy), capitalism is the global dominating way of life.

I call it a way of life here because it inflicts every part of human life- our ideologies, our daily routines, how we interact with others, how things are structured. Capitalism is an ideology based on the ethic of man to be efficient. Within this ideology, it is considered “good” and “right” to be efficient; to work an 8-hour day job, to contribute to the economy. And then the economy produces more products for us to feed off of, as we become more and more distracted by mass commercialism and entertainment reaching new levels of addiction, consistence, and convenience of use. To not contribute in the system of capitalism today is almost impossible, one would have to live in the very few areas of the globe that is not dominated by this ideology and unpopulated. It is unnatural to not be a participant in the structures of capitalism today, as it has become normalised, and in a way, natural, for humans today to be efficient, as a being existing within the structures of capitalism.

Religion here, directly coincides with capitalism. Capitalism is founded on the basic assumption that efficacy is first and foremost. Religion is based on differing ethical values – those that focus on faithfulness, community. Capitalism, is not inherently a natural force, but rather, the commodification and result of the creations from the 18th century industrial revolution and today’s technology, stripping us of independent thinking, of community, and of faith. It is the same contradiction of faith and science. Yet it is the ethics behind these ideologies and practices that differ. Hallaq (2013), in The Central Domain of the Moral, refers to these mutually exclusive ethics as the “I” struggle versus the “Ought” struggle. The “I” struggle is that of capitalism, of modernity – an individual struggle to become successful, efficient, and to contribute to the society. The “ought” struggle is that of religion, to pray, to follow the correct rituals, to have faith, to be kind, and to be one with the community.

We are conscious, thinking creatures existing without knowledge of how we came to be or why. The tragic paradox of man’s creation (the paradox being that we are born as a species without knowing why or how, yet are curious, self-aware creatures by nature) will always lead to differing ideologies, social structures and systems of beliefs. Thus it is vital to look at the ethics that these ideologies, social structures, and systems of beliefs are founded on and shaped around. Each of these societal structures or systems of beliefs are attempts to answer the question of what is “ethical”, what is morally “good” for Man; how certain ideologies have materialised into the physical realm through implicated rules, expectations, and norms.

One such thing we must consider is this: Is there a single universal ethic or moral we can all agree upon? While the idea of moral universalism is just, it is not practical nor is it capable of becoming a reality as it directly coincides of what it means to have multiple humans. The concept of duality, is inevitable in the presence of men. Men are diverse by nature, as there being two bodies and two minds is different than if this were one body and one mind. With many bodies and many minds, there will be an array of ideas, beliefs, personalities, and therefore actions that are carried out as the result of these ideas or beliefs or personalities. Therefore, how can every single human, state, nation, or society, believe in the same ethics? The essence of moral universalism is therefore unsound and goes against the very definition of men.

However, men there are plenty, and diversity therefore arises in the beings that think. And so, to attempt to convert others to one’s own religious beliefs, is just as impractical and illogical as attempting to spread one’s own ideologies- apparent in the West’s quest to conquer the world through the claim (whether true or not) of spreading democracy and materially, capitalism. Yet just as it is in man’s nature to be diverse, it is also in man’s nature to attempt to understand the self through an understanding of the other. Therefore, each man will find those he is more similar with than those he is not. Therefore, groups, societies, nations, states, tribes will form, as men are plenty, and smaller groups will form. And these groups will have ideas that directly contradict one another, dissimilar ideas that may coexist simultaneously, and ideas that are similar in their nature. Therefore, the age-old conflict between the global north and global south is but, in a way, natural, just as is the battles of science and religion, the West and non-West, between religions, and between nation-states and before that, warring societies.

The Complex Nature of Arab Nationalism and Islamism in the Arab World

While the concepts of the “nation” and the “state” have long been present, the “nation-state”, is broadly agreed upon within International Relations community to have been “codified”  by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.[1] Regardless of whether non-Western polities would have adapted the nation-state concept themselves in time, colonial powers crudely instilled the concept in the Middle East, with much of the Middle Eastern map drawn by Great Britain and France as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement after Ottoman rule of the Middle East.[2] Therefore, Arab nationalism has been a force of unity for the Arab people, from opposition to the Ottoman Empire, then to the colonial powers of Europe, and then to US hegemony. As “nationalism” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “loyalty or devotion to a nation,” [3] “Arab nationalism”, then, is not quite the same as the nationalism one might think of in the West. The nation Arab nationalists are devoting to has historical, political, cultural, and socio-economic differences than the nation of Western nationalists, and therefore, will be, according to Anderson, imagined in different ways.

The school of thought that sees Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate, mutually exclusive identities and phenomena identifies the perceived failure of Arab nationalism with the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war. In this case, the nationalist projects that were rampant in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and across the Arab world in the early 1950s, were overtaken by a surge in Islamic sentiment.[4] The collapse of the United Arab Republic in 1961 that caused Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser to suffer, as the leader of the “Arab nationalist march,”[5] is seen as another turning point from a nationalist era to an Islamist era in the Arab world.

Here it is viewed that the dwindling of Arab nationalism with its strong rhetoric in anti-imperialist sentiment is believed to be due to Britain’s departure from Egypt and Iraq, the Arab states who had “espoused the ideas of Arab nationalism” suffering the humiliation of ’67, and the gradual shift in power to the more conservative states, which has resulted in an era where “Islam became a way for people to address their grievances from an authentic, respected viewpoint.”[6] The “sun set on nationalism” and “rose on Islamic militancy”, as radical Islamists challenged governments throughout the region, such as the Baathist Iraqi government in the 1970s, the Baathists in Syria in the 1980s and the secular Algerian leaderships in the 1990s.[7]

Yet the idea that Arab nationalism died and was replaced by Islamism relies on the assumption that Arab nationalism and Islamism are merely contradictory, and is a fallacy that suffers from oversimplification. It neglects the history of Islam, the Islamic movements that helped shape the political discourse and Arab society much before the 1960s, the decline of Ottoman and Persian power and how this affected the role of Islam in the Arab world, and so on. Instead, understanding Islamism as a part of the wider “Islamic phenomenon” allows one to acknowledge the deeply complex nature of it, with expressions such as al-ba’th al-islami (Islamic resurrection), al-ittijah al-islami (Islamic tendency) and al-sahwah al-islamiyyah (Islamic awakening); commonly used to refer to the Islamic phenomenon and portraying the cyclical nature of it.[8] The Islamic phenomenon is an intrinsic part of Arab society, thereby inevitably intertwined with each part of Arab society, including Arab nationalism.

Chouraqui uses Descartes’ Discourse on the Method to argue understanding Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate and opposing ideologies confuses the concept of origin with foundation.[9] In this sense, the origin of both these movements have similarities: an anti-West dynamic against the colonial European powers and then US hegemony, while the foundation of these movements, in other words, what these movements consists of, differs – as, while Arab nationalism embraces Western ideas, Islamism fundamentally rejects Western ideas and values.[10] Historically, the two have co-existed, overlapping, and been used by the other for their own aims. Islamism has been used to strengthen nationalist sentiment, such as through Al-Azhar as a unifying ideological tool.[11] Another instance of the two overlapping are the Iraqi Baathists, a nationalist force who held a deeply complex relationship with Islamic forces – in 1993 beginning to embark on a Return to Faith Campaign (which ultimately aimed to emphasis Islamic identity) and in 2003 collaborating with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would later on become Islamic State, and thus, “by 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies.”[12]

The Egyptian Arab Spring witnessed Islamists, liberals, conservatives, all united in overthrowing the Mubarak regime. Tahrir Square was not split by sectarianism nor by ideology, as “inside the field no one asked about religion, no one cared. All Egyptians…all protesting, all united.”[13] Despite this unity disintegrating after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, the unity during the revolutions and uprisings prove the two may work together in ways nationalism in the West and Islamism have not. The widespread suspicion that Nasser had approached the Muslim Brotherhood at some point in his life for a national cause further shows a larger phenomenon whereby Islamist and nationalist groups in the Arab world hold the potential to aid each other.

As Arab nationalism and Islamism are not mutually exclusive, then the argument that rising nationalism has a purely fundamentally contradictory relationship with jihadi terrorists as Islamist forces is faulty and proves oversimplified. The relationship between rising nationalism and Islamist fundamentalism is not necessarily purely fundamentally contradictory. While ideologically Arab nationalism and Islamism seem to be contradictory, with one rooted in transnational goals and the other in national, in practice this has not been the case. Therefore, the relationship between the two entities are deeply complex in the Arab world.

[1] Benno Teschke, “Theorizing the Westphalian System of States: International Relations from Absolutism to Capitalism”, European Journal of International Relations 8 No. 1 (2002), 6, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066102008001001.

[2] Tarek Osman, “Why Border Lines Drawn with a Ruler in WWI Still Rock the Middle East,” BBC, December 14, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25299553.

[3] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Nationality,” accessed July 23, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism.

[4] Dorothy Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism as a Unifying Factor in the Middle East,” (Dissertation, Boston College, 2007).

[5] Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 167.

[6] Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism,” 88, 98.

[7] Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, 296.

[8] R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 4.

[9] Nathanael Chouraqui, “Are Arab Nationalism & Islamism Two Sides of the Same Coin?” E-international Relations Students (2016). Received from: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/02/are-arab-nationalism-and-islamism-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, “The Baathists: How Saddam’s Men Helped Islamic State Rule,” Reuters, December 11, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mideast-crisis-iraq-islamicstate/.

[13] Nermeen Edrees, “Egypt: Inside Tahrir Square,” Global Voices February 4, 2011, Accessed July 23, 2018, https://globalvoices.org/2011/02/04/egypt-inside-tahrir-square/.