Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Negotiating Self in Diaspora: Historicizing Faiza Shereen's Play the Country Within

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Negotiating Self in Diaspora: Historicizing Faiza Shereen's Play the Country Within

Article excerpt

Distance from Egypt was like distance from self.

Faiza Wahby Shereen's play The Country Within had its premiere presentation on Sunday, November 17, 1991. The play had been written several years earlier but was put "away in a drawer," (43) as Shereen herself points out, until she was asked about it by members of the Arab-American Association in Cincinnati. The cast was made up of members of the Arab-American community. They included Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians and other Arabs, as well as American spouses and children. (44) Although the majority of the actors had little or no prior stage experience, the play was a great success, thanks to the efforts of experienced African American director, Charles Holmond.

Like most other Arab diasporic writing, The Country Within revolves round issues of immigration and integration, the forging of a mediated identity and the legacy of the homeland, carried over the years, within the self. As the experience of the three generations of Egyptian immigrants to the United States unfolds before our very eyes, the dialectics of confrontation, negotiation, and integration with the new host culture would seem to repeat a pattern that strikes deep into the history of Egypt itself, recalling two centuries of violent antagonism as well as of profound attraction.

Throughout the history of Egypt, the cultural encounter with the West (to use such ah inadequate but handy umbrella term) has taken many shapes and forms, culminating in the experiences of Egyptian emigrants to Europe and the United States after 1967. The historical roots of such encounters in the modern period are generally understood to go back to the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, when after centuries of Ottoman rule (45) and virtual seclusion from the world, Egypt found itself at the cross-currents of European interests and competition. Such a meeting/confrontation had far-reaching implications and results, including the emergence of interest in Ancient Egypt, the establishment of Egyptology as a recognized and highly respected field of study, as well as the publication of the celebrated Description D'Egypte. More importantly, however, the French campaign was perhaps the first instance in the history of modern Egypt when the long process of negotiation with an outsider culture started, necessitating a redefinition of national identity and culture.

The student missions sent by Mohammed Ali in the first half of the nineteenth century to Europe (particularly to France) carried the meeting/confrontation a step further. (46) Now instead of a military confrontation in which Egyptians found themselves at a definite disadvantage, the students/scholars that went to Europe for education were hugely impressed and attracted by the advanced social and political structure of the host culture as well as by the enlightened discourse supported by the system. These young intellectuals tried to play down the confrontational aspect of the meeting between their own indigenous culture (basically Islamic in character) and Western culture as they came to experience it at first hand. Renowned figures such as Rifa'a Al Tahtawi (1801-1873), Mohammed Abdu (1849-1905), and later Kassim Amin (1863-1907), were men nurtured on Arab/Islamic culture. Their experience of living in France led them to believe that Egyptian society would benefit immensely from applying some of the facets (though certainly not all) of French culture and society, while keeping the integrity and soundness not only of Arab culture but also of the Arabic language.

Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the British occupation of Egypt fomented resentment against Britain, though it could not in any way eradicate the attraction of European culture and social models, which were thought to need adapting before they could be successfully imported and implemented. The history of the educational system in Egypt during this period is testimony to the paradoxical situation in which Egyptian intellectuals found themselves. …

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