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Posted in: Feminism, Letters To Readers

Published on Aug 09, 2010 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for NewsRealBlog

Summer in the City, Summer in the Middle East


For more than forty years, when summer came, I always left town, either for long weekends or for the entire summer. In other words, I simply took my work to another location—to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, or to East Hampton, Long Island, where once I had a place, a pre-revolutionary cottage: charming, low-ceilinged, uncomfortable, absolutely authentic. Sometimes, I would travel to Europe and the Middle East.

I now see the loveliness of New York City in summer: It is lush and leafy, there are more fountains and parks than I ever realized and, despite the onslaught of tourists, fewer people are actually waiting in line for museums and restaurants. So, how does a working intellectual spend her time off? Well, here's how I just spent this past weekend.

First, I visited my beloved son and daughter-in-law and new granddaughter. Yes, they are reason enough not to leave the city for they are here and not traveling far. I saw two dear friends, each on different days.

Then, I turned to my beloved books, journals, newspapers. I no longer can keep up with them all; maybe there are simply more of them now.

Thus, after reading all my hardcopy newspapers, I began reading the New York Review of Books' hatchet job ("Righteous and Wrong") performed by Malise Ruthven on both Paul Berman and Aayan Hirsi Ali on behalf of Ian Buruma's and Tariq Ramadan's "honor." Yes, Ruthven makes some interesting, minor points, but he has malice aforethought; his piece is loaded with false moral equivalencies and heartless cleverness. I actually stopped reading it mid-sentence. The worst cut of all was made by the Review itself when it decided to place this five page heavy metal jacket attack at the back on pages 84-88; only the Letters to the Editor follow.

A review at the back of any newspaper is often, but not always, a sign of being dismissed, sent to the back of the class.

I was on the phone and email with an American woman who is trapped in an Arab, Muslim country, trying to get her American born daughter out. The matter languishes, time passes, rescue is nowhere in sight, the media is circling. Will they help, will they harm the matter? Hard to tell.

I tried to put out several brush fires concerning the greater versus the lesser importance of all those who cared about the Rifqa Bary case. This was exhausting.

For the record: Let it be noted that I hereby praise all those who wish to be praised for their work on this case.

In my many years as an activist, I have learned that when someone—a sacrificial lamb—has drawn the world's attention, that most of the do-gooders who approach, myself included, have their own agendas. How could it be otherwise? All of us may mean well, all of us may cause harm, few of us, even the most religious amongst us, are there for completely unselfish reasons. Some are, but many more are after some kind of religious or political "credit," and wish to use the sacrificial lamb to prove or achieve something else. No one is there for the sacrifice herself, no one knows her, she is a principle embodied.

I kept reading Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia by Penelope Tuson. It concerns the Victorian and early twentieth century-era women who traveled to Arabia, Iran, and India. This is part of my research for a new book and partly a desperate obsession of my own to travel to these places—something that I will never again do. It is far too dangerous, impossible for an American, a woman, and Jew to do.

Therefore, I did the next best thing. I saw three movies: Agora, set in 4th century Alexandria; Lebanon, set in an Israeli tank during the 1982 war in—you guessed it—Lebanon; and Cairo Time, set in present day Cairo.

I strongly recommend Agora, which is a story about violence and hatred in the name of religion (remind you of anything?). The costumes, sets, landscapes, interiors are breathtaking, as is the acting. The film is also about the burning of the library in Alexandria, a fact which has haunted me all my life. We have no definitive knowledge of when this occurred and who really carried it out. The film is mainly about the pagan philosopher, Hypatia, a supremely brilliant woman who taught science, astronomy, philosophy to the leading men of the time—and who was literally torn apart by an enraged Christian mob because she was an "uppity" woman and a pagan who refused to convert. Alas, this much seems to be historically true. In the film, she is, mercifully, knifed by her own former slave, who converted to Christianity, and who loved her. He does this before the mob can flay her alive, torture her in other ways, stone her.

What can I say about Cairo Time? Not much—oh yes, the views are also splendid, as is the acting, but it is a slight film about very little, about possibilities unrealized. I loved the coffee shops (all-male), the water pipes, the belly dancing (at a family wedding), the Nile—as for all else, it was not worth my time.

Ah, but it was a far cheaper and safer way of visiting Egypt.


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