Sunday, March 19, 2006

Egyptian Chronicles

AT GIZA, October 2001 (Ron Franscell)

Dawn Michelle Baude is a Fulbright Scholar and author living with her 9-year-old son for five and a half months in Alexandria, Egypt. Her "dispatches" take the form of 1,500-word essays on a variety of topics, which she then emails to friends and fellow travelers all over the world. They blend a scholar's observations, a poet's love of language and a true traveler's sense of the erotic. For security reasons, she doesn't blog her "chronicles," so I won't reprint any here ... except to say that her latest, "Pyramids," grew out of a visit to a speech by The Supreme Guide of the Council of Antiquities at the Biblioteka Alexandrina. Dawn wrote, in part:

But like a description of a piano concerto as a fixed scale of sound arranged in mathematical sequence, an empirical description of the monument omits more than it includes. Every time I visit the pyramids I am abashed at the sheer weight and mass of their physical presence, an experience that is felt rather than rationalized, almost as if the physical fabric of space could, at pharaoh's request, alter not only the perception of time, but also the perception of self.
Coincidentally, the pyramids drifted through my mind this week. I literally just returned from a brief trip to New York City, where I'd never visited for more than an airport layover. Walking my narrow path in the magnificent canyons of midtown Manhattan, I marveled at the enormity of that place, which was every bit as gargantuan as I had imagined.

My mind develops panoramic images of places I've never visited. These images are often larger-than-life because they don't just employ geography and latitudes; they also comprise great events and historic people. Great drama requires a great stage, does it not? Consequently, when I finally visit, these places tend to be, in fact, much smaller than I imagined. Dealey Plaza, the Murrah Building's block in Oklahoma City, the Parthenon, the World Trade Center's footprint, the Alamo, even the OK Corral ... none as physically colossal as I had imagined. (Dealey Plaza's intimacy was so startling that it dashed any flirtation I'd had with two-shooter theories ... a 12-year-old with his grandfather's misfiring deer rifle could have easily plinked the President from the Schoolbook Depository's sixth floor.)

Not so with New York City ... nor with Giza, where I visited a month after Sept.11, 2001. I'd flown into Cairo to take the pulse of the Arab/Muslim street, and to prepare to cover some international war maneuvers in the Sahara, while U.S. warplanes were bombing Afghanistan. The pyramids were ageless and magical. These were places that matched or exceeded my fancy (or my delusion.) I'll admit that I thought the Sphinx was much arger than its reality, but the Great Pyramids were as breathtaking as I thought they would be. The supremacy of reality or a failure of imagination? Maybe a little of both.

1 comment:

Michael Gillespie said...

Ms. Baude is either a brave soul, foolhardy, or worse, imo. My wife, Catherine, got her Fulbright award letter in 2002, an opportunity to live and work in Bahrain for nine months. To say that when Catherine applied for the grant we were both very much hoping for a chance to spend the better part of a year in the Middle East would be an understatement. But, by the time she got the offer, it was clear to us both that the Neo-Conmen were going to have their bloody war. The decision to turn down a Fulbright was difficult for both of us, not least because of the calls Catherine got from the embassy in Manama pleading with her to please reconsider. But we both realized that taking our two small children to Bahrain during a war in the Middle East was a non-starter. Way too risky. And by that time I'd learned that, sadly, the Fulbright program had been compromised by the spook shops. That's a matter of public record, by the way, despite the State Department's statement to the contrary. John Edward Tobin, a 24-year-old graduate student and Fulbright Scholar arrested by the Russians on trumped-up pot possession charges in 2001, was ultimately revealed to be a junior officer in a Connecticut-based Army Intelligence unit and had studied at Army Intel and language schools in California and, if I recall correctly, Arizona. It all came out in Connecticut newspapers. Of course, the Russians were persuaded to drop the espionage charges after they'd made their point. Scholarship and espionage have a long and intimate history, but you can be sure that that wasn't what J. William Fulbright had in mind when he created the program that bears his name. I hope Ms. Baude gets back to the States safely with her nine-year-old son and her integrity intact. But I have to ask, what the devil was she thinking when she took a nine-year-old boy on a Fulbright to the Middle East while Cheney-Rumsfeld and Company are busy reorganizing the region with air strikes and armored divisions? Did Catherine and I make the right decision? Hell yes the State Department wants to give the impression of normalcy, and the Fulbright probram is a way to do that, among other things, but I sure wouldn't let them use my children accomplish that goal. And DOS pulled all non-essential personnel out of Bahrain several months after our decison to turn down the Fulbright.

"In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effects." --J. William Fulbright, in a speech to the U.S. Senate, April 21, 1966