The ever-changing intellectual landscape is a phenomenon that I discussed with the Egyptian novelist and linguistic professor from the American University, Cairo, Reem Bassiouney. A creative writer who consciously interweaves the issue of dynamic identity and more specifically, the constituents of Egyptian identity in her writing.
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The notion of identity in general is a focal point of Reem’s writing, which she was happy to discuss when we met. The dynamic nature of identity, especially what is viewed as a homogenous identity, like the Egyptian one, is an underlying presumption that Reem aims to reveal and embrace. This was made evident when the long list for the Booker Prize Award was released and most of the Egyptian and Arab authors were living in the West.
She commented on this phenomenon by saying: “I believe that this indicates that people are hypermobile, and it is to be expected. It is a good thing and should be viewed as an addition rather than a threat. In my field of social linguistics, this is called super-diversity. It will definitely impact the intellectual landscape but in a positive way.”
The notion that an identity is an open discursive effort that can be impacted with various influences is an understanding that should be normalized and accepted. The illusion of a “pure” or “authentic” identity that doesn’t assimilate the differences within itself holds the inherent potential of leading to fundamentalism. From that respect we must delve into the historical roots of diversity so that we can get to a modern understanding of who we are appealing to our cosmopolitan past so that we can strive to a more open present and future.
For Reem the path to manifest this idea must include various governmental and nongovernmental institutions that present history in a tangible way. “There needs to be an effort from the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education to teach history as a tangible living experience. This can be done through studying different approaches and methods of reading different historical accounts, since history isn’t one. It can also be accomplished through visiting the monuments that are scattered within Egypt. This will make history more tangible.”
The author believes that if we can unite our efforts, as individuals and institutions, together we can salvage history from the state of oblivion it currently dwells within to being a lived experience. History shouldn’t be studied as a monotone narrative as it is being currently taught in Egypt, rather as a conversation within a past that impacts our current lives. That we should perceive our past as a foundation for our present. Hence, we should understand it in a way that privileges the diversity that once existed over the uniformity that is now assumed.
The “super diversity” that Reem believes emanates from a state of hypermobility will enrich the stories that are told about being Egyptian or being Arab. Not only that but it will also put into question the foundational parameters that encircle identity itself. Identity will no longer reside within the dwelling place, perhaps it will be removed altogether from geography. Being Arab, Egyptian, Muslim, Coptic will be less based on geography and more on historical affiliations.
Nevertheless, one can only wonder if this newfound understanding of identity which is only based on the heart’s desire and yearning rather than physical grounding will result in some problems. For one identity that is divorced from physical reality, from the geographical situatedness, will appeal to an idealistic notion rather than a realistic one. This in return might create a generation of young adults who feel a sense of affinity to their homelands but no actual bond to the reality of their homes. The inherent danger within that scenario is that we will have a new generation of Arabs or Egyptians whose connection to their countries are based on the narratives of the past without a meaningful bond with the present.
I believe that this physical alienation from the original country of origin will definitely have some bearings on the Arab individual. I admire Reem’s optimism and can see her reasons for perceiving the positive influences of super diversity. Nevertheless, I can see some parallels between the youth who can’t see how the beauty of our diverse past resulted in our current present, and the one who is jaded from his/her physical presence. We must maintain our connection to the land. A land where the past is painstakingly present on every corner inviting us to witness it in all its glory. Reem Bassiouney herself is an example of how the past can articulate itself within the present.
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