Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Jacqueline Thurston: Time in Egypt, A Fulbright Scholar's Story

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 22, 2007



A friend, Meredith Sabini, introduced me to Jacqueline Thurston a couple of years ago. Then, several months later, I attended a presentation she gave about her experiences in Egypt on a Fulbright Fellowship. Thurston’s quiet intelligence and penetrating sensitivity made an impression. I left her talk wanting not only to talk more with her about her experiences in Egypt, but to see more of her own artwork, too. Thurston agreed to an interview and we met at her home and studio in Palo Alto, California.

Richard Whittaker:  I’m interested to hear what led to you getting a Fulbright Fellowship and going to Egypt in the first place?

Jacqueline Thurston:  Several years ago I was in Egypt on a vacation. It was a way of celebrating my birthday. I was at Luxor walking through the center of the temple, and I saw this extraordinary image. It’s quite beautifully preserved, but the image itself I found, for reasons that I still cannot articulate, inexplicably compelling.
     Most of my creative projects have begun in a very unformed, but very intense response to something of a purely visual nature. That’s true whether I’m making drawings or whether I’m making photographic prints.
     So I borrowed a camera from a friend I was traveling with and made a photograph. It was very inadequate in terms of representing both the beauty of the original and also the intensity of my response to it. I also had a similar experience in one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. I didn’t know who these feminine deities were and what their symbolic iconography represented, but I found that quite marvelous also.
     I wanted a vehicle for exploring these images. My original emphasis was to develop images of feminine deities that were embedded in very thoughtful, but poetic or lyrical text that would open up their stories. Because, while the images are absolutely amazing and memorable in and of themselves, I think they become richer when there is something about the role they play in the larger pantheon and cosmology. This is often true of my projects.
     Then I thought, “Well, I have taught for over forty years. I have a son and daughter who are college age. I don’t want to go to Egypt just to have a rarified, creative research project. I want a way to connect with the young men and women of Egypt who, as with my son and daughter, I see as the future of our time.
     So I developed a teaching proposal and I was very fortunate to receive the opportunity. I was very lucky when I was in Egypt and everyone says that I was very lucky. That was my experience. Noha, my guardian angel who works in the Fulbright office, said that she thought people—and this is not about the grant, this is about making the grant work, actually living in the culture—she said that Mohammed has an expression: “One’s good intentions are more important than one’s good actions”—because one can do good things without feeling. Noha said she felt people were responding to my good intentions, and I would like to think that is true. I went with what I feel was an open heart and an open mind.

RW:  You were deeply touched in Luxor by a particular image and that was part of the reason you were drawn back, to learn more about that image. I was wondering if there wasn’t a wish to learn more about that experience? There’s the outer and the inner.

JT:  One of my artist friends said something similar. He thought it was important for me to develop a dialogue with this figure and talk to her directly about what she means to me and why she spoke so powerfully to me. And I think that’s a more conscious articulation of a process that’s going on in a more internal way. That dialogue is always going on.
     Everything that’s in the grant proposal is absolutely true, but then there is another level or another area in which we are always exploring ourselves using the outside world as the vehicle. That’s a fundamental truth.
     So it’s profoundly important to me to know and understand something about myself at this time in my life with this project. These figures are providing me with an avenue to do that. And when it is deeply authentic, teaching inevitably has a larger, transper-sonal dimension. In my experience, as an artist, but also from decades of teaching, whenever we undertake a deeply interior private quest that we stay true to, then that material almost inevitably proves to be of interest to the outside world. We don’t have to make that happen. It does happen.
     What is quite wonderful about this project was the conscious part of me thought, “Oh, there will be an interest in the fundamental dimension of this ancient cosmology” and now what I’m sorting out with the images is that the feminine can’t be extracted from the masculine. Those two dimensions are interwoven within the depiction of the images and of course within the cosmology and the pantheon itself. That’s the tangle that I’m sitting with now. How to write about that? How to make images that allow that quality to be revealed? 

RW:  Many people have had the experience of going to Egypt and being profoundly touched by these ancient statuaries. I’ve heard a few accounts myself. What do you think that’s about?

JT:  [silence]

RW:  But first of all, do you agree with me?

JT:  I do agree. I was at a large dinner party when I first came back. There was a poet and his wife, a psychologist. She had a profound experience in the King’s Chamber of the great pyramid. I know it involved some dimension of being transported back in time, some sense that there were figures from the past alive in that space and that she was in communication with them. It completely changed not just the way she conducted her practice as a psychologist, but it launched her on a spiritual odyssey. Yes, one meets people who speak carefully, I think, and sometimes guardedly, but also very openly about an unforeseen experience that they have had in one of the sacred sites that has altered their experience in a larger sense.
     There’s a fragment of an Irish poem that says something like “you may break, you may shatter the vase if you will, but the scent of the roses will linger ‘round it still” and I think there is some sense that these sites are still populated by figures from the past.

RW:  That’s rather extraordinary, don’t you think?

JT:  Well, the sites are pretty extraordinary. Both my son and my daughter came to visit me while I was there and I was able to take them to these sites. I was quite surprised to see how remarkable my son found them to be. They are absolutely remarkable—just on the simplest architectural, engineering level without even thinking about the religious aspects. He responded to that immediately. I knew that my daughter would, but I didn’t know how my son would respond.
     And there are interesting parallels too, because the keeper of these sacred sites is now a Muslim culture with a very different orientation towards what is sacred and a very different convention in terms of dress and modesty. One of the ways in which Egypt is so extraordinary is that it’s remarkably complex and diverse and filled with paradoxes and contradictions. The fundamental contradiction is that you move through a Muslim culture that has become the keeper of this ancient tradition.

RW:  That is interesting. How much time did you actually get to spend in the presence of these monuments?

JT:  As my brother said when I described my project, “That’s a project for a lifetime.” And I’m starting late in my life, so not enough time, because I think that to begin to know these sacred sites requires a lifetime. I was in Egypt for four months, and probably two months of that time I spent, not continuously, among the sacred sites.

RW:  Did you have any experience of something beginning to unfold in any way? 

JT:  Oh, yes. When we were looking at the dioramas portfolio [an earlier series of Thurston’s work], I said that I had photographed one particular diorama eight times. So anytime that I return again and again—and it doesn’t have to be photographic, it could be drawing— anytime I return to the same area of involvement, there is another level or another layer that I can become engaged in. Sometimes it can be as simple as now that I know the layout of the temple, I can go and sit in the temple. I can just simply sit there. Particularly the Ramesseum in Luxor, which is a place I visited frequently at the end of the day. There weren’t many tourists and it was often quiet, so I could watch the clouds move across the sky and listen to the late afternoon call to prayer, and simply be
in that space. That was an important part of this experience.

RW:  What was it like?

JT:  I had the sense that it was possible to hear the stones sing, by which I mean I had a sense of the past coming into the present, the present folding back into the past. I know the call to prayer is not the sound that would have filled the site at that time, but it opened me to the possibility of some sense of there having been sound in those spaces. Now there is a kind of wonderful sense of gravity and a quiet emptiness when the site is not populated with tourists, but we know that song and music and ritual and cultic objects were part of the celebration of this space. So I could begin to imagine that experience. There was something having to do with staying in the space and watching the light change over the course of the time. That would have been part of the experience.

RW:  Yes. Did you get to revisit the particular statuary that had struck you so deeply?

JT:  Yes. I have hundreds and hundreds of images of Seshat at different times of day. When I go back, I’m sure I will photograph that image again. And I have permission to photograph in another tomb where there’s a wonderful image, another image I responded to, of Maat, who is a figure that stands for justice in ancient Egypt and which I had the opportunity to photograph many, many times also.

RW:  What’s it been like to spend all that time with that original image?

JT:  One of the difficulties is that there is so much to see, so the first trip one is trying to see everything. But when there’s the luxury of revisiting the same image or group of images, or the same site over and over again, it’s possible to really appreciate and respond to, and simply to notice—just simply to observe—the nature of the edges and the traces of the brush stroke that are left, the kind of powders that have been worked with. It’s similar to reading a poem one thinks one knows again and again and feeling both the poem entering more deeply into oneself, but also becoming more deeply attuned to its nuances and energies and rhythms and patterns.

RW:  I was talking with a woman who works as a conservator of ancient textiles and she talked about something—I think her phrase was “material knowledge.” She said that at times when she was restoring a piece, and she had to go into the absolute depth of it, the threads and base weave themselves, with utter attention in order to repair it, she often felt she gained some access to the people themselves who had made the item. Does that make sense to you?

JT:  Absolutely. One of the tombs closed to the public that I was permitted to enter is unfinished. The original drawings are there, foundations for the paintings, and being just inches away from those brush strokes just exactly as they were laid down thousands of years ago is very intense. I did feel the hand of the artist, the hand with the brush. I can see where working on the piece of fabric—if you were continuing the weaving or building on that original pattern—that could put you directly in touch with the hands of the craftsman. You’d have to be in order to keep from ruining the original piece.
     There was a show in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which has been rebuilt (it’s a beautiful new building), that some people objected to because there were modern re-creations of some of the fabric remnants that are in the various collections. But I thought they were quite wonderful. There was a beautiful snowy—no other word will do—white linen garment. It was festooned with gold coins about two inches apart and because it was a re-creation, it was absolutely flawless. It gave me a basis for appreciating the magnificence of the pageantry of the royal families and the priests and priestesses wearing these remarkable garments. There was another garment they had re-created, but were incapable, using contemporary weaving techniques, of approaching anything that was as fine as the one from the past. So they had done a silkscreen version of that pattern. But yes, that makes perfect sense.

RW:  That’s very interesting. You said that at times, being so close and looking so attentively at the brushstrokes and feeling the evidence of the hand, that this was very intense. Can you say what that intensity was, at all?

JT:  I think there is a shift from being an observer to being a more engaged, passionate witness to the experience. I do think that with music, with movement, but also with visual images it’s possible to have an experience of merging briefly with images. It’s not an experience that I can sustain for any length of time because of its intensity. It’s an experience of infinity, really, in the finite moment. But once that’s passed, I’m still informed by the experience.
     I actually found—and this was during a period where I was working very, very intensely—that I had to stop for a few days. I didn’t want to stop, because I had this wonderful opportunity, but I was absolutely exhausted mentally and emotionally. So I took two days, very quiet, doing things I hadn’t allowed myself to do, sitting and having coffee and looking over the Nile and watching the sunset. I needed that time to absorb the experience of the expeditions I was making into the tombs.

RW:  You remind me of an experience I had at an exhibit at the de Young Museum several years ago of ancient Egyptian artifacts—a wonderful exhibit. There was a little wooden head and a little chair, minor pieces among all the other amazing objects, but these two pieces penetrated me in a way that removed the four thousand years between us. For a few moments, I reeled. I really couldn’t bear holding that reality of time, of the four thousand years, and the living immediacy of these pieces. It was simply too much to bear somehow.

JT:  That’s very articulate and beautifully said. It encapsulates, perfectly, the experience. It takes physical, emotional, psychic energy for that experience. I think it’s exhausting. When that experience occurs, it’s very, very demanding.

RW:  I utterly relate to that. I was simply not able to hold that much—that much Reality, one might say.

JT:  I don’t think that any of us can. I think there is something painful and poignant about that experience. But then we can remember the experience, but we’re remembering it, we’re no longer in it. There’s a certain kind of sadness because we can remember, but we don’t actually step right back into it. [We sit in silence for awhile.]

RW:  With your portfolio of the photos taken in museums, you had written that “the taxidermist had placed an obstacle in the way of death.” Would you say more about that? In a way, it could connect with all of the ancient Egyptian statuary. What did you mean with that phrase?

JT:  Well, one thing that was so intriguing to me about this scientific inquiry was that I felt there is an unacknowledged metaphysical inquiry underlying the scientific inquiry.

RW:  Now whose inquiry is this?

JT:  Mine, but also the natural history museum’s inquiry, which involves this extraordinary process of going to another continent, in the case of the diorama, showing the lion tribe as it exists in Africa. So it’s necessary to travel to another continent, take the lives of the entire pride—the lion, the lioness, the cubs—and bring that material back, and whatever other material is required, to make the environment and restore it as faithfully as possible to a living presence. Underneath that scientific inquiry, which has to do with describing the nature of the creature and its habitat and its day-to-day life, I think there is an unconscious plea for immortality.
     The taxidermist and the individuals involved in making the dioramas in the natural history museums were making something that was both mortal, but also immortal. It seemed that this was very close to the religious practice of ancient Egypt—trying to place an obstacle in the path of death. Trying to create an image that would live forever, that would participate in a realm where there was time beyond measure.

RW:  Beautifully put. I feel that we’re talking about things that are so profound that I’m wanting to have space just to sit quietly. I don’t know if you’re feeling that.

JT:  Yes.  [After a break we resume.]

RW:  You were reflecting on some things you’ve been reading recently by a German Egyptologist in an effort to expand your thinking about these Egyptian God figures. And you were saying…

JT:  My goal in the writing and the image making is to make the images feel like living presences so that they are not National Geographic documents. At the same time, I hope to preserve the complexity, but make it comprehensible in a way that I don’t think exists now, in terms of writing about the deities. The Egyptologist’s idea is that there isn’t a simple merger of two deities. The two exist separately, but one may be embedded in, or reside inside the other without, in any way, altering the original form. So this embedding of one deity within the other means that there are two deities residing in the same form and within the third deity they create—along with their original sources. All of that exists simultaneously.
     Thinking about it, I felt that in some ways the deities in the cosmology reflect, in their complexity, our own current human understanding of how complex we are. We have multiple parts to our personalities and we embrace that. So we can be teacher and grandmother and aunt; all of these are interrelated. We might even be a soccer player and a gardener. So when I began to think about the deities in that way, instead of feeling overwhelmed and confused, I felt that this deity is unfolding and embracing another dimension. It doesn’t have to stay contained in its original dimension. There is something in the Western mind that rises up against this complexity and wants the iconography to be simpler, wants to contain this sort of generous overflowing proliferation, or explain it as an inevitable result of many small towns over a 3500-year period of time. Those are factors also.
     There is something in the temperament of these people that not just allowed them to embrace, but to create this cosmology.

RW:  You touch on something. It seems an inherent effect of intellectual ideas that they are reductive. Some idea becomes current and suddenly everything is recast in terms of this new idea. All else is thrown out. So when you said you didn’t want to compress this overflowing life into an idea, it reminds me of this tendency of the intellectual function which, left to itself, reduces everything to some descriptive calculus and suddenly, whatever doesn’t fit just disappears.

JT:  That’s why I love this quote by Winnicott where he’s talking about the nature of paradox. He says that paradox must be accepted, tolerated and not resolved. Somehow when we encounter a paradox we want to resolve it. And when and if we do that, we no longer have these opposites co-existing.

RW:  Do you think that visual arts can serve as another modality of representing something about the world and experience that’s not so reductive?

JT:  Yes. And I immediately think of two artists whom I think of as having been my teachers although, of course, I’ve never met them. One is Magritte and his work is full of these wonderful conundrums and puzzles. And then I think of O’Keeffe’s work. One of the enigmas that’s so compelling in her work, which we don’t often write about, is that the pieces themselves are generally rather small. But they are wonderfully spacious, visually and psychologically. They always feel very big. Sometimes it’s startling when we encounter them and see how small they are, but they still are spacious visually.
     So I think the pictorial language can embrace a wonderful wide range of possibilities and potentialities and interweave naturally and organically the dark and the light, opposites.

RW:  When you think about it for a moment, the experience of living includes so much more than thoughts. It includes all the senses. And we seem to be a bit biased in the direction of thoughts, if I can put it that way.

JT:  We think that ideas are neutral and rational, but my experience is that we feel passionately about ideas. The intellect is always potentially fueled by feelings. So it’s an illusion to think of them as dispassionate. People have died for ideas, are dying for ideas.

RW:  Yes. And the automatic response is “and for dogmas.”

JT:  Exactly. So the ideas need to be sifted through for the passions that fuel them and the feelings involved. But now that I am officially retired and am beginning to teach in other ways and in other places, one thing I don’t miss is the disconnection that we were just talking about between the image, the heart of the nature of the image, and the artist’s connection to that—the way that can be altered and intellectualized to the degree that we lose the experience of the authenticity and the core of the image. So I don’t miss that aspect of the academic life.

RW:  When did you retire?

JT:  Well, theoretically my last semester was the fall of 2006, but I came back from Egypt with an extraordinary opportunity. I have an invitation from the executive director of the Soliya Foundation to participate in a web-based American Arab University exchange. We will be the first West Coast based university to participate. There are five American Universities and five Arab Universities. There will be from 12 to 15 students in each class. They meet with one another using the Internet. As they talk with one another, they can see one another. I think of the program as having to do with a major in perception. Each week they look at the material they’re seeing in the news and what we are seeing in the news and talk about what that means to them.
     So “timely” is not quite the right word. It will be a window into the Arab world, into the young men and women of the Arab world. And with the University’s new Global Studies Foundation program, they are going to sponsor the class and I’m going to teach it.
     The opportunity came about by a chance encounter in the Luxor airport. When you’re in Egypt, these events are different. They’re seen as fated. I was stranded in the Cairo airport because there was a desert sandstorm and I met a young woman from Pittsburgh. What are the chances I’d meet another American from the city I grew up outside of? She was flying to Luxor and was being met by a professor at South Valley University in Upper Egypt. She needed to communicate with him, so she used my cell phone. So I was talking with him, too. When I met him, he said, “Come to South Valley University and do a presentation.” He’s actively involved in the Soliya Project and he recommended me based on the presentation I did for his students.

RW:  South Valley University?

LT:  It’s in an area tourists don’t go to, so I was very interested in going there. He is an extraordinary rich, complex individual and is a devout Muslim. He’s interested in an exchange that will facilitate understanding between the two cultures. He has a project called Litarafu based on a quotation from Mohammed where Mohammed talks about why there are differences, why God made different beings. He uses that Koranic text.
     What I’m most pleased with is that it was not one of the relationships that the Fulbright Commission, who have given me wonderful support, made.

RW:  So let’s stay with this serendipitous arrangement. Now you were in an airport?

JT:  I was in the Cairo airport. I mean even as I imagine listening to the tape I can imagine the experience getting flattened out. I was stranded, because of a sandstorm, in the major airport, trying to get to Luxor.

RW:  A sandstorm was raging?

JT:  Yes. Outside. I was early. I’m always early and there was this one other American woman, and we started talking. It’s interesting about the choice of words because you see in that part of the world, it wouldn’t be serendipitous, it would be fated. I was intended to meet her, so that through her I would meet Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery. His name means, I believe this is correct, “in service to the true God.”

RW:  That’s an important thing you bring up, that in that part of the world this would be regarded as fate. Does that mean here in the West, this is something that we can’t regard a little more seriously?

JT:  I’m not so sure I can answer that, but when I was there the phrase insha’Allah (God willing) is always in a sentence when you make an arrangement to meet someone. So I began to think about what is it that Egypt has to teach me.
     Here we would say that we’re either meeting, or we’re not meeting. But there, everything is dependent on God’s participation in this plan. So what I tried to do about midway through my experience of being there was to try to actually sit inside of that phrase instead of just using it. I was using the little fledgling Arabic that I had as much as I could. So this was an event where I felt very much that there was fate (or Jung might say synchronicity), and that I was intended to be responsive.
     It doesn’t mean that having met him, everything fell in place easily. We had to work at making arrangements for me to come back to South Valley University. That took energy and imagination. So it doesn’t mean that everything will work out, it only means that a door opens. If one is responsive to the door opening, there is the possibility that something very remarkable or important can flow in that space.
     When I first came back I had one experience that was somewhat similar but, interestingly enough, it felt very different. I was at the cleaners picking up some clothes and talking with the owner who was Persian about having been in Egypt and the woman said, “Oh, the TA from my Arabic class is from Egypt.” It had a flat, non-emotional, mechanical feeling to it, which it never would have in Egypt. In Egypt it would have been “Ohh, The TEE A from my class is Egyptian! You have to meet him!!”
     But I felt I should follow through in that moment, anyway. He became my Arabic tutor for about a month and a half. He was here on a Fulbright as a student for nine months. We developed a very rich, very thoughtful, substantive friendship and we are in contact with each other by email. He’s outside of Alexandria now and when I go back to Egypt, my hope is that I’ll be able to stay with him and his family. That would put me outside of a major metropolitan area in what I assume would be a village in the delta with a very wonderful guide and, as I reflect upon this, I am once again reminded of the fragile set of circumstances that led me to him.

RW:  I’m really struck by the way you put your finger on the flatness of how the information was conveyed here and how it would have been conveyed in Egypt. I wondered if you wanted to reflect any more about how that example reflects two different cultures? And perhaps reflects something that is missing here, or sacrificed by our Western life style. 

JT:  It’s not networking. Networking is very self-centered and has to do with ambition. It’s more a discovery that there is a relationship and the relationship springs from the heart. It puts me in the relationship of being the sister to Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery very quickly. Ahmed and I were not certain, because of the tremendous age difference, if I was his sister or perhaps his mother [laughs]. Normally I would be his sister. It puts you in a relationship of being kin to one another.
     I was in the train station in Cairo, which is a huge, old, old structure and I was taking the train from Cairo to Alexandria. I was walking across a long courtyard and I noticed there was a very simple woman dressed all in black walking slightly ahead of me. We were both carrying a lot. We were both traveling and she was carrying a big box tied with string and she had to put it down periodically because it was too heavy. My first instinct was to help her carry it. Then my mind stepped in—I don’t know in Arabic how to offer help and perhaps she’ll think that’s awkward, but then I drew up beside her. She put her box down, and I just reached over, picked up the other side. She didn’t even look at me. We just walked side by side, two women carrying this heavy package up the steps, across the courtyard, into the center of the train station. Then she put the package down and she turned around and she looked at me. I mean she really looked at me. Then she put her hand on her heart, and they bring their hand out from their heart towards your heart [demonstrates this gesture]. She held it there, and then she disappeared.
     I was left deeply moved—no one has ever thanked me so beautifully. There weren’t any words and we didn’t need any words. So I thought what does it mean that we don’t touch our heart and reach out to the other person? And it’s because, for the most part, I don’t think we speak from the heart. We speak from a more cerebral intelligence. But for them, the intelligence is in the heart. And it brings tears to my eyes.
     Ahmed, the young man I met indirectly through the dry cleaners, told me that Americans asked what he thought about them. They don’t like what he tells them: "You have this big quick smile. It comes and then it’s gone, and there’s nothing else there.” I do think we’re outgoing and generous and optimistic, but in that moment when we are talking with one another, we don’t pause. We talk at one another. We don’t really talk with one another and let the moment unfold and flow back and forth between us.

RW:  That’s a very touching story.

JT:  And this feeling is also in the language. Although it has very strong throat sounds, the language is fundamentally poetic. For instance, one of the men who drove me when I left Cairo to go to Luxor, said, “Oh, all of Egypt will weep for you when you are gone.” [laughs] Has anyone ever said that to me? Here we say, “I miss you.” But there, in Arabic, one says, “You have left me in the desert.” In Persian, I think it’s “My heart tightens.”

RW:  I wonder if you have any thoughts on this big issue of Islamic fundamentalism? Did you study Islam at all? Or do you have a new understanding having been in Egypt?

JT:  I did a presentation for a very large group of over two hundred people at South Valley University and there was a question and answer period. It was probably the most intense experience I had while I was in Egypt. I didn’t see any of the questions before they were put to me. So I had to answer, as a single individual in the heartland of Egypt, for the actions of the U.S. One of the questions I was asked—and these questions were asked with great feeling, great intensity—was “What do you know about the Muslim religion?”
     I answered with a story. One day I was leaving my flat in Cairo. As I went out the door, it was the mid-day time of prayer. In front of the building, on a prayer rug, were three different men with their shoes, of course, to one side. One was a policeman who had walked from his station across the street. Another was the boab for the building, a simple man who took care of the building and watched over who went into the building. He lived in the garage underneath. And there was a businessman in a suit. They were all on their knees with their foreheads touching the prayer rug.
     I realized in that moment that this was a scene taking place throughout the city, something we would never see here in our culture. The practice, five times a day, is like the breath of the culture. The practice cuts across social classes in a way that would not happen here. These three men came together because they were at the same spot at the same time.
     Another experience I had was… I was in Cairo during the time of the publication of the Danish cartoons. When I talked with the Fulbright students, who were fluent in Arabic, for the most part, they said, “Oh, we haven’t asked anyone about that.” I thought, well, I’m going to ask. I’m here. So I asked Galila who was my Arabic teacher at the university and I asked one of the men who drove for me—two very different people. But I think what I want to say first is that we don’t have experience through the news of moderate Muslims. The majority of the people are moderate Muslims. They feel that any awareness of their existence is not part of our perception. When I was there a bombing took place in a small village, one of the resort villages, and everyone who I met was outraged. They all said the bombers were not true Muslims.
     There are differences between our cultures; they seem obvious, but they’re subtle at the same time. The point of the story about the cartoon is that the practice of the Muslim faith does not permit any depictions of the prophet. There are no images of the prophet. So the theoretical idea of the freedom of the press, in this example, can’t co-exist with this tradition. So their tradition had been violated. I don’t know if I said that very clearly. The place in which we stand here in our tradition has to do with allowing all images to exist and co-exist. That’s an idea that has no relevance when you’re sitting in the core of the Muslim faith, which does not permit any images of the sacred individual.
     It was an extraordinary learning experience for me. It would not have been prudent to speak of freedom of the press because immediately I would have stepped outside of that circle which had to do with respect for the tradition.
RW:  Right. Well, it’s interesting to consider our own famous phrase “one nation under God”—that “under God” part, how does that resonate nowadays? We have a huge divide between our own fundamentalist Christians and then non-fundamentalists of all stripes. So I think we’re terribly polarized there. There’s a fundamentalist view about that and on the other end, there are views entirely lacking in any respect whatsoever for such an idea. And then, what or who are our Gods today?

JT:  A part of what was so challenging about my experience of living in Egypt is that I went with very specific creative ideas that had to do with image making, writing, and also with some very specific ideas about a contribution I could make in the context of teaching about the nature of metaphor, and suddenly I was in the midst of enormous cultural, political, religious issues for which in many ways no one is ever completely prepared. I sorted my way through this larger morass one relationship at a time. I think this is at the core of the Fulbright experience. The experience of being thanked in the middle of the train station from the heart, for instance. And Galila, who’s a very well-educated woman who was teaching Arabic at the American University in Cairo, who between her last class and the time we would meet, would take fifteen minutes to pray. My host at South Valley University interrupted our dinner together to respond to the call to prayer. In those moments I realized that the response to prayer is woven into the fabric of the day.

RW:  How did that impact you, being in a culture with that kind of relationship with a religious dimension? I mean, in any personal way…

JT:  The most profound experiences for me were with the warmth and generosity of the people. And I miss that.

RW:  You’re going back.

JT:  insha’Allah.

RW:  I wonder if you have other stories of your experiences with the Egyptian people?

JT:  Before I did a large public presentation I had a couple of hours with four to eight young women. It began with one of the women asking me what I thought of and she touched her head scarf, what I thought of the hijab.
     I always tried to answer the questions that came to me in a truthful way and I said, “What so impresses me is how beautifully each of you are dressed.” And this is true. Egyptian women dress beautifully. Then I pointed to a little hair clip she was using to hold her scarf in place, and I said, “This is so beautiful with its flower.” And she took it off and gave it to me. If you praise something you may immediately receive it as a gift. Each one of them had to give me something. Another girl took her black and silver bracelet off and she put it on my wrist, “I want you to wear this.” It was very simple and from her village. Someone else had a chocolate that she gave to me. Someone else had a pencil. As you moved around the room, [laughs] there was an urgent desire to give me something! I thought, again, I know that my students care deeply for the work that I do with them and I feel deeply respected by them, but we do not have this tradition of gift giving that occurs spontaneously in the moment. That has something to do, once again, with a friendship that puts you in the relationship of being a member of the family. I become, not the visiting Fulbright scholar, but a sister who is among my sisters and they are sharing with me what they have to share.

RW:  That’s quite profound.

JT:  In that moment, they really wrapped themselves around my heart. I wore this on my way back and for many days afterwards, trying to hold onto the experience [hands the bracelet to me].
     I had worked very hard learning how to introduce myself in Arabic. I intended to do that. But when I was suddenly faced by hundreds of young students in this huge auditorium—there was a television camera and lights and a microphone and a variety of accoutrements that were absolutely foreign to me—I panicked. I thought, “I can’t do this.” But another part said, “But this is why you learned these phrases.” So I swallowed deeply [laughs] and I hoped I wouldn’t humiliate myself. And I said [speaks a phrase in Arabic] It means, “I don’t speak Arabic very well, but I am honored to be here.”
     They applauded. I don’t think they stood up, but it felt like they did. Once again, the response was so warm and it was so immediate. It has to be remembered that in many ways, I represented The Other or The Enemy; what I heard was that when the U.S. invaded Iraq, they invaded Egypt. So for them to separate me from my country of origin and to respond so warmly for such a small thing was very touching.
     It’s wonderful to be part of a culture that functions the way ours does; it’s efficient and well-organized and at the same time, while I appreciate this and feel at home, I feel not as deeply seen here as I felt when I was a stranger in another country.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine 


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