It was 1999. Hitchhiking home from ancient St. Anthony’s Monastery in the Egyptian Eastern Desert, I had made myself a couple of brand-new friends. From the merry band of Coptic pilgrims, a bunch of youngsters timidly inquired if they could be my friend. I said “Sure” and that was that. There was Girgis, or George, Myriam, and Hannah, if I remember correctly. Myriam wanted to marry me, no doubt about it. George just wanted to hang out, and inquire about job prospects in Belgium. Hannah didn’t leave a stone unturned pointing out how singularly unimpressed she was with me and everything I represented. Together we rode the metro, ate kushari, and frequented St. Marc’s Cathedral, and the Muallaqa or hanging church, labeled so for its uncanny ability not to sink into the swamp underneath.
At some point George introduced me to an uncle who ran a market stall in Attaba square. “My fried from Belgium,” George beamed. The man scoffed. “Mustashriq!” he spat. I knew the word, and nodded. “Yes, I’m an orientalist.” George whisked me away, a scrap of a smile covering up the brouhaha. I didn’t, however, know the actual meaning of the word. I loved the orient, studied it. What’s not to like? Somehow I hadn’t yet heard of Edward Said, renowned Palestinian scholar, who’d redefined the term to connote a Western imperialistic attitude toward its quaint, child-like subjects. In a contemporary incarnation, scholars hauled into TV studios to explain the Arab spring, are heard bemoaning Arabs’ lack of democratic traditions, the unique entanglement of Islam and politics, or, most painfully, the uneducated masses’ need of a strong hand.
The charge, once leveled, is difficult to refute, threatening to void any critical conversation between ‘westerners’ and ‘easterners’. A radical overhaul is needed, not of the dialog, but of the entire frame within which it takes place -or should take place. First and foremost, there is no such thing as ‘the’ West, let alone ‘the’ East or Middle East -whatever the kids call it these days. The two cultural spheres are interwoven to the point that you cannot understand one without the other. One of the reasons I studied Arab or Islamic history, in addition to the rich heritage per se, was to gain a broader, more accurate understanding of my ‘own’ history, warts and all. Some things can only fully be appreciated from the outside. Ask any astronaut peering down on earth from orbit. That said, over the years I have come to appreciate the ‘East’ not as outside, but as part and parcel of the same cultural and historical stream.
And yet, Sinai juxtaposes a somewhat bewildered ‘European’ with a world that is at once the scene of cynical interests and semi-mystical confrontation. The latter is not presented as diametrical to a rational west. The picture, both in the fictional ‘Sinai’ and the real world, is rather muddled, from American evangelical rapture-seekers to Machiavellistic Egyptian generals. The story presents an esoterically-inclined foe that chooses nefarious action over intellectual fancy. She -indeed- exemplifies a German Weltschmerz of unaccomplished, in this case religious rather than nationalistic, aspirations. Three seemingly identical faiths worshipping an identical God quarrel. Like 19th century Germany’s unfulfilled promise eventually a darker, rationalistic streak takes hold. A claim to human mastery over nature and historical events and yes, righteous destiny, seed ominous plans. There is no west, and there is no east. Only the crazy things people do.