Adonis Diaries

Archive for October 17th, 2015

No. She didn’t win the Nobel for literature

Egyptian writer and journalist Nawal Alsaadawi

The TV announced that a Belarusian woman author got it instead.

I don’t mind that critical political messages be attached to an award: (Dictator) Belarus President elected for 5th term

Though I think Egypt political system has been going through tougher times than Belaru to be considered as a timely

But Nawal could as well vie for the peace award

It has been half a century since a writer working primarily in non-fiction won the Nobel – and Alsaadawi is the first journalist to win the award.

Svetlana Alexievich

Image copyright

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Nawal El Saadawi, the great Egyptian feminist and writer, lives on the 26th floor of a biscuit-coloured Cairo tower block about half an hour by car from Tahrir Square.

Built in the 1990s, it seems much older, its forbidding brutalist exterior sprayed with wonky satellite dishes and precarious air conditioning units, its stifling lift threatening at every floor to judder permanently to a halt.

“No, I am not rich,” she notes, waving an arm in the gloom of her book-lined sitting room, which is shuttered against the noonday heat.

But then, since when were dissident writers in it for the money, especially in Eygpt, where copyright is, to put it mildly, tricky to enforce? “Publishers have always taken from me!” she says, her voice rising indignantly.

“But still, I am privileged even though I’m poor. I am in the 5%. I have an apartment and air conditioning. Some people in Egypt live in graves, and they’re the lucky ones. Some don’t even have a grave.”

Besides, she has come to love this spot. She has a view, her two children live close by, and here in Shubra, her neighbours are mostly Copts, a community she adores.

She feels safe for the first time in many years. The revolution has, she believes, protected writers like her, who in 2011 found themselves a focus for opposition.

“I’m surrounded by young people, day and night. Thousands of them. The government is afraid of the young, and they won’t touch me because they know I have the power of the young people behind me.”

Like many of the older leftists and intellectuals who joined the crowds in Tahrir Square in 2011, she simply can’t agree that General Sisi, who came to power on the back of a coup in 2013, is ruling as a counter-revolutionary, just as Mohamed Morsi did before him (it is an awkward fact that state killings and the numbers of government opponents languishing in prison are both dramatically on the rise).

“Not at all,” she says, stubbornly. “There is a world of difference between Mubarak and Sisi. He has got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that never happened with Mubarak, or with Sadat before him.”

Yes, she wanted rid of Mubarak. But she did not regard the elections that followed his spectacular fall as free and fair: in her view, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood bribed and deceived their way to power encouraged, she insists, by Washington and London.

(An unreconstructed Marxist, El Saadawi views pretty much everything through the prism of imperialism).

“No, I am not happy that Morsi is in prison,” she says. “I’m against prison. But I am happy that the Egyptian people, with the help of the army, got him out. We found him and his followers to be mad. As for Sisi, how he does now depends on the people. I don’t believe in individuals. He is only temporary. The people decide whether he works for them or not, and if he behaves like Mubarak, he is out.”

And counter-revolution or not, her profile has never been higher. In Egypt, her supporters have established a Nawal El Saadawi forum, which holds regular meetings in Cairo and elsewhere at which her books – she has published more than 50 titles in Arabic – are discussed at some length.

The international awards continue to pile up – at this point there are too many to count – and so, too, do the invitations to speak.

Later this month, for instance, she will be in the UK, promoting new English editions of several of her most important books, among them the novel Woman at Point Zero, which tells the story of Firdaus, a victim of sexual abuse who now awaits execution in a Cairo prison cell, and The Hidden Face of Eve, her classic analysis of female oppression in the Arab world (among its pages is a taboo-breaking description of El Saadawi’s circumcision at the age of six, an operation that was performed on the floor of the family bathroom while her mother looked on, laughing and smiling).

Her opinion is much in demand. Everyone wants to know what she makes of Isis and the radicalised girls who join it; of the veil, against which she has campaigned all her life; of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

And if she sometimes sounds rather old-fashioned and autocratic – query her obsession with colonialism at your peril – she is also entirely fearless, striding where others still fear to tread.

“This crush (stampede) in Saudia Arabia!” she says, referring to the recent deaths at Mecca. “They talk about changing the way it [the hajj] is administered, about making people travel in smaller groups. What they don’t say is that the crush happened because these people were fighting to stone the devil.”

Her voice is full of disdain. “Why do they need to stone the devil? Why do they need to kiss that black stone? But no one will say this.

The media will not print it. What is it about, this reluctance to criticise religion?” Perhaps, I say, people worry they’ll be seen as racist.

“Well, religion is the embodiment of racism. All gods are jealous. People get killed because they are not praying to the right god.

She let go of God long ago, and never looked back. “These girls [who join Isis]. There is a lot of misery among young people. They can’t get work, they are poor and unemployed. But the nonsense they read about Islam and all that… I had to get educated, I had to divorce three husbands, and there they are: ignorant, brainwashed, reading about the [so-called] equality between men and women in Islam.”

She waggles a finger at me, today’s representative of the lily-livered media. “This refusal to criticise religion,” she says, sombrely. “This is not liberalism. This is censorship.”

Who is Nawal El Saadawi?

Her story has an epic quality, as if it were one of her own novels or one of those old and overblown Egyptian films.

She was born in 1931, in the village of Kafr Tahla, just north of Cairo, the second of nine children in what she describes as a more than usually “complicated” family. Yes, she was cut as a child.

But she was also encouraged to study. “I was brought up in two different classes: the poor peasant class of my father [a government official] and the upper bourgeois class of my mother, who went to French schools and wanted to ride horses and play the piano. My father came from the village. His mother went hungry to pay for his education, and it was his education and his ambition that enabled him to marry my mother. He was 30, she was 15.

Of course, my parents preferred my older brother. But he was spoilt, and he didn’t study, and was always failing, while I was good in school. So they began to support me. They wanted to marry me when I was 10, but when I rebelled, my mother stood with me.” She was, she thinks now, lucky to be a girl: “It was a handicap that pushed me.”

Her first dream was to be a dancer; she loved music, and she was beautiful.

But her father could not afford to buy a piano, so she turned her attention instead to reading and writing.

“I hated doctors, and didn’t want to be one,” she says. “But I was top of my class at high school, which meant that it was [almost automatic] that I would study medicine. I got a scholarship.”

She graduated from the University of Cairo in 1955, specialising in psychiatry, and returned to Kafr Tahla to work as a doctor, over the years becoming increasingly prominent.

In 1963, she was appointed the director general for public health education. However, her political activities were now beginning to work against her.

In 1972, she published Women and Sex, the first of a series of books in which she attacked the aggressions carried out against women’s bodies: not just female circumcision, but also the brutal rituals associated with society’s fixation with virginity (the same dayas [midwives] who circumcised children were often required to prove a girl’s hymen was intact on her wedding night). Soon after this, she lost her job, and al-Sihha [Health], the magazine she had founded three years previously, was closed down.

Was she allowed to marry for love?

“No, no, that’s the problem. My first husband was a great man, my colleague in the medical college. He was fascinating, and he was the father of my daughter. My father didn’t want me to marry him because he had gone to Suez to fight the British. But then [after Suez] the guerrilla fighters were betrayed, many of them imprisoned. This crisis broke him, and he became an addict. I was told that if I married him, he might stop his addictions, but he didn’t. He tried to kill me, so I left him.”

And husband number two? “He was a man of law, very patriarchal.” A snort. “I’m telling you frankly: I am not really fit for the role of a wife, you must be sure of that.” She divorced again.

My third husband [Sherif Hatata], the father of my son, was a very free man, a Marxist who’d been imprisoned. I lived with him for 43 years, and I told everyone: this is the only feminist man on earth.

And then I had to divorce him, too. He was a liar. He was having relations with other women.

Oh, the complexity of the patriarchal character. He wrote books about gender equality, and then he betrayed his wife. Ninety-five per cent of men are like that, I’m sure.”

Is it hard to be a divorced woman in Egypt? “If you are an ordinary woman, it is. But I’m very extraordinary. People expect everything of me.” She laughs heartily, her nimbus of white hair bouncing up and down in time to her breath.

All the while, she continued to write – Woman at Point Zero was published in 1973, and The Hidden Face of Eve in 1977 – and the state continued to make her life difficult. It was inevitable that they would one day come for her, and eventually they did.

“It was 6 September, 1981. I was in my old apartment in Giza, alone. The children were with the father in the village. I was writing a novel when I heard a knock on the door, and then the words: ‘Open up! Didn’t you hear the president’s speech last night? We are the police.’”

Sadat, it seemed, had announced that 1,000 dissidents would be arrested, that they would be “smashed”. El Saadawi tried to stay calm. “I was frightened, my heart was beating wildly, but I’m very obstinate. I asked them if they had a warrant, and when they told me they did not, I replied that I could not open the door. They disappeared for half an hour. I put on my shoes, and I got my key and bag, and I was ready. When they came back, they broke down the door: 30 of them, very savage. They pushed me out into the street, where there were 10 police cars. I could see my neighbours peeping out of their windows, all very frightened.”

At the prison, she shared a cell with 12 other women: some were Marxists, others was Islamists. “They were crying all day and night because they thought Sadat was going to kill them. But I was sure of myself. Every morning, I did my gymnastics. I danced, I sang. One of the prostitutes who came with our jailer to bring our breakfast smuggled an eye pencil to me, and I wrote my memoirs with it on toilet paper.”

She had a feeling that everything would be all right – and so it proved.

On 6 October, Sadat was assassinated. “We knew this had happened, because we had smuggled in a small transistor. When we heard, the Marxists all knelt and prayed, and the fanatical Islamic women who considered dancing a taboo took off their veils and danced. But we had to pretend we didn’t know [to the guards]. We had to act normal, to hide our happiness.”

Four weeks ticked by. Eventually, she was taken to see the new president.

“Suddenly, I was in front of Mubarak. He invited some of us to his palace: he chose 20, of which two were women. I was one, the other was a religious woman. I thought I was being taken to another prison. They didn’t tell me I was going to be released. He sat with us for two hours, and then he told us we could go home. But I was angry. I said I was going to sue the government. You can’t hold someone for three months who hasn’t committed a crime, who doesn’t know what has happened to her husband and children, and keep her in conditions that even animals wouldn’t live under, and then just say: go home. No! You must be accountable. I was the only prisoner who sued the government, and I won my case and millions of dollars, though I never saw them.”

What happened after this? She shrugs. “I went on as before. I wrote exactly what I wanted.”

This time, the government took a different approach. She was allowed to live at home, but she was effectively isolated.

Her work was censored, threats were made against her life. She was included on a “death list” that was published in a Saudi newspaper.

One evening, she even heard her name during the call to prayer: “Nawal El Saadawi should be killed,” said the muezzin. Mubarak sent guards to her house, ostensibly to protect her. But she knew better than to take this at face value. People like her were often murdered by their so-called guards. “My husband said: you have to leave, and I am coming with you. So, we went into exile.” For the next few years, she taught at universities in Europe and the US.

But she couldn’t stay away for ever, and in 1996, she returned. “Mubarak was still insisting Egypt was a democracy. But I could see the situation. He paid people to stand against him. It was a facade. So [in 2004] I decided to stand against him.

The government was frightened because I was very popular, and they sent the police to my village, where I was having meetings, and they went to every home and they made threats: if you are a teacher, they said, you’ll be dismissed if you support her; even prison was threatened. So then I declared I was boycotting the election.”

She moved to her current flat in 2009, and from the moment she arrived, she sensed things were going to change sooner rather than later. “It was always filled with young people who’d read my work. Small demonstrations started, against Mubarak’s son at first, this idea that the presidency could be inherited. Slowly, slowly, the idea of revolution was propagated until… we moved to Tahrir Square.”

We’ve already talked about the revolution, and the coup that followed it. But how does she believe that it, and connected events elsewhere, have affected the position of women in the Arab world?

The Hidden Face of Eve, published almost 40 years ago, was shot through with an optimism for the future that seems misplaced now (she saw the revolution in Iran, the Marxist government in South Yemen and the struggle of the Palestinians as agents for the liberation for women).

As a campaigner against the veil, it must dishearten her that more women are covered now than in the middle of the last century. “Well, the veil is a political symbol,” she says. “It’s also a fashion. Some women who wear it, they wear tight jeans, they show their thighs and their breasts and their stomachs.” But then she can contain herself no longer. A wail goes up.

“Something has happened over the last 45 years. The brains of women and men have been ruined, ruined! Doctors, even university professors, are veiled.” What about FGM [female genital mutilation]?

When she wrote her book, 90% of girls in Egypt were cut. But the government made the practice illegal in 2008. Is that number now beginning to fall?

“No, it has stayed the same. You can’t change such a deep-rooted habit by passing a law. You need education. The law was passed to satisfy the west. They wanted to cover that disgrace, not to eradicate the practice itself. You have to change the minds of the mothers and fathers and even of the girls themselves, who have been brainwashed to accept it.”

How long will it take to change attitudes? “It depends on the courage of writers. But it will come.

Fifty years ago, when I opened my mouth, you couldn’t speak against it. Now you can.

Even some religious figures are saying it is against Islam.”

Not that she thinks the west can afford to be smug. For one thing, she believes religious fundamentalism is on the rise in all faiths, everywhere. For another, she regards nakedness and veiling as two sides of the same coin.

“No one criticises a woman who is half-naked. This is so-called freedom, too. The problem is our conception of freedom. Men are encouraged neither to be half-naked, nor veiled. Why?” She gives me a fierce look.

“Liberate yourself before you liberate me! This is the problem. I had to quarrel with many American feminists – Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan – because I noticed that many of them were oppressed by their husbands, and then they came here to liberate me!”

She contemplates me, beadily. “Do you feel you are liberated?” Tentatively, I nod my head.

“Well, I feel I am not.” Another look. “The problem, by the way, is not Egyptian men. I have Egyptian female friends who married British and American men, and they lived in hell. Maybe your husband is very good, but theirs weren’t. Egyptian men are not violent relative to American men. They’ve been conquered by colonialism, so they’re not so full of machismo.” She sighs. “Well… It’s a battle, but we shouldn’t be miserable. Now, please, eat a biscuit.”

A silence opens up between us. The air conditioning unit beeps and falls quiet, and there follow a few moments of drama as, alarmed, she tries to get it working again. Then she turns her attention to returning me to my hotel.

In the two hours since my arrival, the lift has packed up. It’s all quite complicated. Having summoned a young man by telephone, she entrusts me to his care, and he leads me up one flight of stairs and through a dark service corridor which takes us into an adjoining tower, in which, one floor down, there is an operational lift.

When we get to the bottom, he walks me to the Corniche, flags a cab, and hands his mobile to its driver. The driver listens silently, before passing it to me. On the line is – I can hear her before I put it to my ear – El Saadawi. “I’ve told him how much you are paying, and I have taken his number, and if there is any problem, he will be in trouble!” she shouts. “Please ring me when you get to your hotel so I know you have arrived.” And then she hangs up, abandoning both of us – the driver, admonished before he has even begun, and me, feeling like a small child – to the endless honking traffic.

Her best-known works in English translation

  • Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960, 1980; translated by Catherine Cobham, 1989)
  • Searching (1968; translated by Shirley Eber, 1991)
  • The Death of the Only Man in the World (1974; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1985) Published in English under the title God Dies by the Nile
  • Woman at Point Zero (1975; translated by Sherif Hetata, 1983)
  • The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1977; transl. by Sherif Hetata, 1980)
  • The Circling Song (1978; transl. by Marilyn Booth, 1989)
  • Death of an Ex-Minister (1980; transl. by Shirley Eber, 1987)
  • She Has No Place in Paradise (1979; transl. by Shirley Eber)

The book caused controversy and outrage when it was first published in Egypt, where reviewers called it a “slanderous piece of fantasy” and part of a “hysterical chorus of Fe-men attacks”.

Nawal has also been critical of her home country’s government, leading to a period of persecution – in which her telephone was bugged and she was banned from making public appearances.


Century old Principles of Political Economics:

As valid and relevant as can be

1) Wealth depends on intensive production coupled with high frequency turnover for trading the products and services

2) The price of any commodity in kind and quality should match and be lower than competitions

3) The methods of manufacturing, division of labor, salary, working hours and capital investment are directly linked to the export activities

4) The tendency of importing at credit because the merchandise are cheaper than when produced at home inevitably will ruin the industrial base and infrastructure. If the nation is unable to export as much as it import then its economy is functioning on credit and accumulating sovereign debt

5) The larger the State shares in industrial production the higher the cost of production

6) The level of Demand and Offer (availability in the market) indicates the level of inflation and cost of living

7) The cost of living cannot be balanced by a simple increase in wages and salaries. If the export activities slow down then the cost of living will increase.

8) Reduction of working hours in an impoverished small country will Not generate any sustainable capital for investing in necessary infrastructure

9) Countries that lack natural resources in energy and minerals for exchange with other resources has to focus its production on goods and services that do Not require a lot in natural resources and can be readily exchanged in external markets. For example, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Israel, Singapore, Ireland, Dubai…

10) Once a people put higher weight on mystical and fictional belief systems that would be a strong indicator that the economy is faltering

11) The only time a currency should be devalued is when export activities are lagging.

12) The internal market can function with currency at fictional value for a period. On the medium-term, if export activities fail to generate hard currencies then the national currency will increase the cost of living by slow production activities and shrinking investment prospects.

13) Linking the currency to an external hard currency is subjecting your economy and finances to external political dicta

14) Taxation that requires the citizens to divulge financial facts outside what can be retrieved from public records is doomed to fail.

Citizens are no fools: They know that declarations are used as political tools to subdue and intimidate political opponents.

You know the drill: “You declared this and that and they turned out to be false claims. You are a liar and untruth worthy…)

There are a very few nations that voluntarily accept to officially declare their financial and wealth status: They are under the strong impression that their political system refrain from political revenge or vengeance.

Any serious investigation will reveal that you cannot do politics without using and abusing State data and documents to get at the political opponents.

15) States have to reduce and restrict laws on what is considered as Illegal Activities. Otherwise:

One: Capital will be siphoned out of the nation to the other wealthier nations

Two: The state public servants at all hierarchy and ministries will have a field day cooperating with mafia corporations. Investigations will be sidetracked to insignificant Illegal Activities that do not add much to the economy

Three: The number of public servants for financial investigation purposes will grow out of proportion with reduced training and specialty skills sessions.

Four: Unless the focus is Not on investigating the public servants whose wealth is out of proportion with their earning, then mafia activities will spread unimpeded.

Fifth: It is the investigation of public servants that lead to the money trails of the corrupt political and monopolistic enterprises.

Sixth: The crime organizations targets public servants at all hierarchy levels to spread corruption and disturb the democratic decision process. When corruption is the norm in all institutions, particularly, justice, police force, municipalities, parliament… then democratic systems are faced with the worst ugly hydra  of all times.

16) Lifting the bank secrecy on accounts that are lower than the average middle class earning is tantamount to spreading a climate of insecurity in any investment.

Note: Any validated Nobel Prize theory in economics are but corollaries to the Principles of Political Economics. All these scientists are doing is to mine the huge available digital data and submit them to statistical analysis software.

Stop asking where I’m from: Ask where I’m a local

Do you want to know where you are a local? It’s a three-step test:

What Taiye Selasi calls the three “R’s”: Rituals, Relationships, Restrictions.

Last year, I went on my first book tour. In 13 months, I flew to 14 countries and gave some hundred talks.

Every talk in every country began with an introduction, and every introduction began with a lie: “Taiye Selasi comes from Ghana and Nigeria,” or “Taiye Selasi comes from England and the States.”

Whenever I heard this opening sentence, no matter the country that concluded it — England, America, Ghana, Nigeria — I thought, “But that’s not true.”

Yes, I was born in England and grew up in the United States.

My mum, born in England, and raised in Nigeria, currently lives in Ghana.

My father was born in Gold Coast, a British colony, raised in Ghana, and has lived for over 30 years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

For this reason, my introducers also called me “multinational.” “But Nike is multinational,” I thought, “I’m a human being.”

 Patsy Z shared via TEDxSKE|By Taiye Selasi
1:22 Then, one fine day, mid-tour, I went to Louisiana, a museum in Denmark where I shared the stage with the writer Colum McCann. We were discussing the role of locality in writing, when suddenly it hit me.
I’m not multinational. I’m not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept? (A fiction concept)
It’s a question that had been bothering me for going on two decades. From newspapers, textbooks, conversations, I had learned to speak of countries as if they were eternal, singular, naturally occurring things, but I wondered: to say that I came from a country suggested that the country was an absolute, some fixed point in place in time, a constant thing, but was it?
In my lifetime, countries had disappeared — Czechoslovakia.  Appeared — Timor-Leste.  Failed — Somalia. (To name examples)
My parents came from countries that didn’t exist when they were born.
To me, a country — this thing that could be born, die, expand, contract — hardly seemed the basis for understanding a human being.

It came as a huge relief to discover the sovereign state. What we call countries are actually various expressions of sovereign statehood, an idea that came into fashion only 400 years ago.  (City-States claimed themselves sovereign States since antiquity)

When I learned this, beginning my masters degree in international relations, I felt a sort of surge of relief. It was as I had suspected.

History was real, cultures were real, but countries were invented.  (Only geography is Not invented)

For the next 10 years, I sought to re- or un-define myself, my world, my work, my experience, beyond the logic of the state.

In 2005, I wrote an essay, “What is an Afropolitan,” sketching out an identity that privileged culture over country. It was thrilling how many people could relate to my experience, and instructional how many others didn’t buy my sense of self.

“How can Selasi claim to come from Ghana,” one such critic asked, when she’s never known the indignities of traveling abroad on a Ghanian passport?”  (Actually, most citizens of this world suffer these indignities of getting visas)

 If I’m honest, I knew just what she meant. I’ve got a friend named Layla who was born and raised in Ghana. Her parents are third-generation Ghanians of Lebanese descent.

Layla, who speaks fluent Twi, knows Accra like the back of her hand, but when we first met years ago, I thought, “She’s not from Ghana.” In my mind, she came from Lebanon, despite the patent fact that all her formative experience took place in suburban Accra.

I, like my critics, was imagining some Ghana where all Ghanaians had brown skin or none held U.K. passports.

I’d fallen into the limiting trap that the language of coming from countries sets — the privileging of a fiction, the singular country, over reality: human experience.

Speaking with Colum McCann that day, the penny finally dropped. “All experience is local,” he said. All identity is experience (if you relate to this identity),” I thought. “I’m not a national,” I proclaimed onstage. “I’m a local. I’m multi-local.”

See, “Taiye Selasi comes from the United States,” isn’t the truth. I have no relationship with the United States, all 50 of them, not really.

My relationship is with Brookline, the town where I grew up; with New York City, where I started work; with Lawrenceville, where I spend Thanksgiving.

What makes America home for me is not my passport or accent, but these very particular experiences and the places they occur.

Despite my pride in Ewe culture, the Black Stars, and my love of Ghanaian food, I’ve never had a relationship with the Republic of Ghana, writ large. My relationship is with Accra, where my mother lives, where I go each year, with the little garden in Dzorwulu where my father and I talk for hours. These are the places that shape my experience. My experience is where I’m from.

What if we asked, instead of “Where are you from?” — “Where are you a local?” This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.

Tell me you’re from France, and I see what, a set of clichés? Adichie’s dangerous single story, the myth of the nation of France?

Tell me you’re a local of Fez and Paris, better yet, Goutte d’Or, and I see a set of experiences. Our experience is where we’re from.

So, where are you a local? I propose a three-step test. I call these the three “R’s”: rituals, relationships, restrictions.

First, think of your daily rituals, whatever they may be: making your coffee, driving to work, harvesting your crops, saying your prayers. What kind of rituals are these? Where do they occur? In what city or cities in the world do shopkeepers know your face?

As a child, I carried out fairly standard suburban rituals in Boston, with adjustments made for the rituals my mother brought from London and Lagos. We took off our shoes in the house, we were unfailingly polite with our elders, we ate slow-cooked, spicy food. In snowy North America, ours were rituals of the global South.

The first time I went to Delhi or to southern parts of Italy, I was shocked by how at home I felt. The rituals were familiar. “R” number one, rituals.

Second, think of your relationships, of the people who shape your days.

To whom do you speak at least once a week, be it face to face or on FaceTime? Be reasonable in your assessment; I’m not talking about your Facebook friends. I’m speaking of the people who shape your weekly emotional experience. My mother in Accra, my twin sister in Boston, my best friends in New York: these relationships are home for me. “R” number two, relationships.

We’re local where we carry out our rituals and relationships, but how we experience our locality depends in part on our restrictions.

By restrictions, I mean, where are you able to live? What passport do you hold? Are you restricted by, say, racism, from feeling fully at home where you live? By civil war, dysfunctional governance, economic inflation, from living in the locality where you had your rituals as a child?

This is the least sexy of the R’s, less lyric than rituals and relationships, but the question takes us past “Where are you now?” to “Why aren’t you there, and why?” Rituals, relationships, restrictions.

Take a piece of paper and put those three words on top of three columns, then try to fill those columns as honestly as you can. A very different picture of your life in local context, of your identity as a set of experiences, may emerge.

 So let’s try it. I have a friend named Olu. He’s 35 years old. His parents, born in Nigeria, came to Germany on scholarships. Olu was born in Nuremberg and lived there until age 10. When his family moved to Lagos, he studied in London, then came to Berlin. He loves going to Nigeria — the weather, the food, the friends — but hates the political corruption there. Where is Olu from?

 I have another friend named Udo. He’s also 35 years old. Udo was born in Córdoba, in northwest Argentina, where his grandparents migrated from Germany, what is now Poland, after the war. Udo studied in Buenos Aires, and nine years ago came to Berlin. He loves going to Argentina — the weather, the food, the friends — but hates the economic corruption there.

Where is Udo from? With his blonde hair and blue eyes, Udo could pass for German, but holds an Argentinian passport, so needs a visa to live in Berlin. That Udo is from Argentina has largely to do with history. That he’s a local of Buenos Aires and Berlin, that has to do with life.

Olu, who looks Nigerian, needs a visa to visit Nigeria. He speaks Yoruba with an English accent, and English with a German one. To claim that he’s “not really Nigerian,” though, denies his experience in Lagos, the rituals he practiced growing up, his relationship with family and friends.

Meanwhile, though Lagos is undoubtedly one of his homes, Olu always feels restricted there, not least by the fact that he’s gay.

Both he and Udo are restricted by the political conditions of their parents’ countries, from living where some of their most meaningful rituals and relationships occur. To say Olu is from Nigeria and Udo is from Argentina distracts from their common experience. Their rituals, their relationships, and their restrictions are the same.

Of course, when we ask, “Where are you from?” we’re using a kind of shorthand. It’s quicker to say “Nigeria” than “Lagos and Berlin,” and as with Google Maps, we can always zoom in closer, from country to city to neighborhood. But that’s not quite the point.

The difference between “Where are you from?” and “Where are you a local?” isn’t the specificity of the answer; it’s the intention of the question.

Replacing the language of nationality with the language of locality asks us to shift our focus to where real life occurs.  (It is your accent that define your locality: The kinds of idioms that are readily used among your local acquaintances)

Even that most glorious expression of countryhood, the World Cup, gives us national teams comprised mostly of multilocal players.

As a unit of measurement for human experience, the country doesn’t quite work. That’s why Olu says, “I’m German, but my parents come from Nigeria.” The “but” in that sentence belies the inflexibility of the units, one fixed and fictional entity bumping up against another. “I’m a local of Lagos and Berlin,” suggests overlapping experiences, layers that merge together, that can’t be denied or removed.

You can take away my passport, but you can’t take away my experience. That I carry within me. Where I’m from comes wherever I go.

I’m not suggesting that we do away with countries. There’s much to be said for national history, more for the sovereign state. (It is wars that created nations, the kinds of military disciplines that soldiers were submitted to)

Culture exists in community, and community exists in context.

Geography, tradition, collective memory: these things are important. What I’m questioning is primacy.

All of those introductions on tour began with reference to nation, as if knowing what country I came from would tell my audience who I was. What are we really seeking, though, when we ask where someone comes from?

And what are we really seeing when we hear an answer?

Here’s one possibility: basically, countries represent power. “Where are you from?” Mexico. Poland. Bangladesh. Less power. America. Germany. Japan. More power. China. Russia. Ambiguous.

It’s possible that without realizing it, we’re playing a power game (Passport is the definition of power belonging. It is the most enduring Colonial power game. If you were a colonial power, your citizens can travel anywhere instantly without the visa procedures), especially in the context of multi-ethnic countries. As any recent immigrant knows, the question “Where are you from?” or “Where are you really from?” is often code for “Why are you here?”

Then we have the scholar William Deresiewicz’s writing of elite American colleges. “Students think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan — never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.” (Even among professionals, the question “Where are you from” is critical)

I’m with him. To call one student American, another Pakistani, then triumphantly claim student body diversity ignores the fact that these students are locals of the same milieu. The same holds true on the other end of the economic spectrum.

A Mexican gardener in Los Angeles and a Nepali housekeeper in Delhi have more in common in terms of rituals and restrictions than nationality implies.

Perhaps my biggest problem with coming from countries is the myth of going back to them.

I’m often asked if I plan to “go back” to Ghana. I go to Accra every year, but I can’t “go back” to Ghana. It’s not because I wasn’t born there. My father can’t go back, either. The country in which he was born, that country no longer exists. We can never go back to a place and find it exactly where we left it. Something, somewhere will always have changed, most of all, ourselves. People.

Finally, what we’re talking about is human experience, this notoriously and gloriously disorderly affair. In creative writing, locality bespeaks humanity.

The more we know about where a story is set, the more local color and texture, the more human the characters start to feel, the more relatable, not less.

The myth of national identity and the vocabulary of coming from confuses us into placing ourselves into mutually exclusive categories. In fact, all of us are multi — multi-local, multi-layered.

To begin our conversations with an acknowledgement of this complexity brings us closer together, not further apart.

So the next time that I’m introduced, I’d love to hear the truth: “Taiye Selasi is a human being, like everybody here. She isn’t a citizen of the world, but a citizen of worlds. She is a local of New York, Rome and Accra.”

Note: I have problems with my locality. I have spent many years in many cities and towns but never managed to get a proper accent to any of these places or managed to link up with many acquaintances.

I agree that if we can define our locality then we can feel more secure and at peace with oneself.




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