I have contemplated doing the New Years Resolution thing. It is a nice ritual, but we often fall short and slip back into our vices within months, if not weeks. One New Years Resolution I had was to be good to myself. I haven’t done a very good job, but I have been treating myself better than I have in the past few years. Or maybe I’m feeling less beat up because of a complete turn around in my academic career. 2006 was a rough year for me, career-wise and personally. Today I ran into a professor who has been supportive of me work and continually encouraged me to keep fighting the good fight. He said that something must be wrong, because I looked happy. I looked happier than I had in the past two years. I think happiness is relative. But I’m going to try to be happy. And when times aren’t happy, I’m going to embrace the hardship, loneliness, and pain. Riding through those will make me stronger and during those times, I will draw closer to the Creator.
What lies ahead for me during 2007 seems like a scary and seemingly impossible journey. My journey will span a year or two and will take me to Egypt. Going to Egypt for so long is a big leap for me, but I’m committed to going. It is something that I knew I would have to do since 2002 when I decided to take this path. Going abroad is essential for my career as a researcher and scholar. Historians of Africa pride themselves with the emphasis on fieldwork. I will earn my stripes as a legitimate scholar. Going out into the field means living amongst the people you are studying for extensive times. Historians of Africa are in many ways similar to anthropologists. Years ago, anthropologists spent years, sometimes 4-5 years in the field. Great historians like Jan Vansina and Steven Feierman spent years in the field and are both trained as anthropologists and historians. They became fluent in the languages and cultural repertoire of their subject populations. (But for me, I am a member of the community that I am studying. For anyone that hasn’t noticed: I am of African descent and I am Muslim. So my research directly relates to my identity meaning that I have more of a stake in my work. I am transformed by my work and my identity transforms the meaning of my work. )The average Africanist spends 10 years getting their degree. Becoming an Africanist often entails language training in another European language besides English, such as French and German and an African language. We draw on various disciplines and sources to reconstruct past lives and events. We use ethnographic studies, collect oral data through interviews or collecting poetry, oral histories, epics, stories, and songs. We visit archives set up by colonial and state governments. A historian of Islamic Africa requires the skill sets of an Orientalist scholar who can master Arabic texts, European languages for colonial and state archives, and a ethnographic skills of an anthropologist. Stanford provides funding for 5 years. There is university funding for the 6th year. Fortunately for me, my research subjects speak modern standard Arabic. My research focuses on race in Muslim societies and I will be examining a communityh of West Africans in Cairo. I am taking a leave of absence for language training and research, which means my degree can take 7-8 years.
But who wants to be in their early thirties, during the prime of my life abroad surrounded by strangers? I’m not really happy with what that means in my life right now. Often, I think about what I’m putting on hold to go there. It extends my studies. It prevents me from establishing roots or real connections here. It in many ways leaves me vulnerable and alone. Being a woman in the Middle East is not very easy. There is less freedom to move, more chaos, cultural misunderstandings, and increased vulnerability. Then, there are all the people who see me as a walking visa, a ticket out. Sure, I have a few friends that live in Cairo, but I’m going to be far away from my family and people who have looked after me for years. I’m also trying to brace for a new flavor of racism, the Middle Eastern type. Sometimes, when I think about the journey ahead, I already feel the homesickness. I can imagine the loneliness, since I remember how alone I felt in Morocco at times. I can also feel the culture shock coming on. On the other hand, a huge part of me is relieved to be leaving the Bay Area, this isolated pocket community. I’m tired of the weird incestuous nature of both the graduate and Muslim community here. I’m restless and want to do something and be exceptional. I want to master Arabic, which I have been studying for almost four years. I want to pay my dues as an Africanist and maximize my field experience. I want to be around spiritual and good-hearted people. Sometimes I don’t mind the break from the struggles of being black in America. But really, I want to be around people who make me want to be a better person. Here, I find myself agitated, but not stirred, shaken, but not moved. I would like to surround myself by exceptional people who inspire me. Maybe there will be people like that in Egypt. The people I know who are there are good people. I hope there are more like them.
My mixed feelings about traveling and living abroad really reflect my acknowledgment of the benefits and sacrifices of undertaking this endeavor. I still have a long road to go to finish my degree and many obstacles ahead. In order to finish in that time, I must write and research expeditiously. I must be focused. I have to focus my energies, doing away with frivolity and nonsense. This is why I have extricated myself from chaotic and distressing situations and relationships. I must be good to myself and follow some of my unwritten New Years resolutions in order to take on this task.
I don’t think I’m going to find what I’m looking for in Egypt. But I do think that I’m going to have one piece of the puzzle figured out. Then it will be on to figure out the next stage. But everything I’m doing right now is preparing me for that. When I come back, I will be different. But I’ll also come back hungrier to finish my Ph.D. and ready to do the damn thing. Cairo is more real to me in my dreams. Sometimes those dreams feel more real than my reality here. Today, I spoke with a jewelry vendor. She said that I spoke of Egypt like I’m already there. While Summer is still far away, I’m there somewhere in Cairo.