America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

How To Tell a Story About Another Place

The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Laura Mills. She recently returned from volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!

Despite the flurry of midterms and thesis deadlines that hit us right before our trip to Egypt, the Kony 2012 video was something no one could quite avoid. It spurred virulent debate across the country, raising questions about how to portray the suffering of others and how to galvanize support for tragedy.

Strangely enough, this was something constantly on my mind before my trip to Egypt: I had never been to the Middle East before, and I was terrified that I would simplify things by bringing home a shorthand, fun-size version of my experiences. How would I tell my friends about the city? Was photographing children in a poor neighborhood wrong? Was it better or worse that I looked away from beggars outside our shiny tour bus? I wanted to show people both the National Museum and the barefoot man atop the fruit truck who tossed our driver an orange; both the delicious kebabs we had eaten and the pick-up truck piled with unconscious cattle, their necks swaying nauseatingly with every lurch of the vehicle. But how does anyone strike that balance?

I still don’t know the answer to the question, but I’ve found out something else instead: the hardest (and yet most wonderful) part of writing and talking about Cairo has been capturing the joy and the hopefulness of people there, not the difficulties they face. The people we spoke to were proud of their democratic accomplishments, excited about the upcoming presidential elections, and truly believed in the prospects of civilian government in Egypt. When I told this to an analyst at the NGO where I work, he was bemused. He was armed with all the analysis that gave him a more tempered, pessimistic outlook, and he only had a few words for me after our talk: “You must have spoken to a very particular group of Egyptians.”

And I won’t deny that my experiences are limited and unrepresentative, and that I was only there for a week. But I still believe that the only point of traveling to another place is capturing what is illogical, magical, and transcendent—everything you can’t get in the pages of a newspaper or a yearly analytical report. Nothing could make me forget the Egyptians’ hopefulness, their happiness, and their joy, and I’ll never stop rambling about it, even (or perhaps especially) to those who don’t want to believe me.

This year, I read Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Dead House for the first time. This semi-memorial piece can arguably be labeled a work about human rights—it captures the harrowing experiences of men in a Siberian prison camp for the average reader in Moscow. But much of the beauty of Dostoevsky’s work lies in his emphasis on the small, daily joys of the prisoners: they delight in hot ginger bread, they put on a play at Christmas, they give affectionate pet-names to the animals that wander into the prison yard. And it is these small joys that not only make life livable, but also make these men fully realized and truly human characters to readers back home.

Egypt is no Siberian prison camp—there are definitely a lot more things to be happy about in today’s Cairo than in 19th-century Omsk. But Dostoevsky’s work taught me, in whatever small way, how to attempt a truthful rendering of a people and a land that are so casually distanced from daily life. People are people anywhere, with both their suffering and their joy. And all I can do is write about that with as much honesty as I can muster.

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One comment on “How To Tell a Story About Another Place

  1. Spiritual World Traveler
    March 31, 2012

    Good for you for choosing to see the good… We are fed enough of what’s wrong through the media!

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