I’ve started going to the grocery around the corner more frequently. They carry fresh milk and most of my other staples, and they’re open after dark unlike the supermarket I used to frequent. The cashier there is enchanted by an American who speaks Arabic as well as I do, and he always engages me in conversation.
Tonight he was very pleased to my attention the prosecution of former president Mubarak. “There’s going to be a real trial, with a judge, and they’ve given him an attorney. They’re giving him his human rights!” As if to say, after all the years he denied us our human rights, we’re better people than that.
Then he said, getting serious, “You know, America talks all the time about human rights, but they don’t really mean it, do they? As soon as they want something from a leader like Mubarak, there’s no more talk of human rights.” I agreed with him, and clearly that wasn’t the response he was looking for. “Really? You know this?” Of course, I agreed, governments are inherently selfish institutions. “And Americans know this?” he wanted to know.
Of course, that’s where the conversation gets tricky, isn’t it? My friends and family know that America is not the paragon of democratic virtues it claims to be, that it operates both domestically and abroad in ways that don’t always serve the rights and interests of the people effected. Jon Stewart’s audience knows this, and those who listen to NPR and watch PBS and stream al-Jazeera. Unitarian Universalists know this, and MoveOn.org members know this, and Peace Corps Volunteers see this.
But do “Americans” know that their government, for its own self-interests, is propping up evil despots and oil barons and CIA stooges and oppressive states who are willing to torture for the US Government? How do I answer that question?
It begs another question, too, that’s been on my mind for a couple weeks now. When I go back to America, how do I answer the inevitable questions about what “Egyptians” or “Jordanians” or, worse, “Arabs” and “Muslims” think about America, about democracy, about freedom, about terrorism, about revolution…? As if any of those terms represented a uniform monolithic entity that had one opinion about anything!
They’ve been chanting on Tahrir Square since last night. I don’t know what they’re chanting, but there are a lot of them, and they’re very enthusiastic, not about to back down until they’ve got everything they demand.