Wednesday, July 6, 2011
The Question of Privilege
So I finally have the time to blog again-- now that I’m stuck in the apartment with food poisoning. I don’t know whether it was the ful and falafel sandwich from a very local hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the week-old pizza and dipping sauces that I faithfully enjoyed to the end (holy relics of my long-lost country’s cuisine), or just the fact that I rarely wash my hands between playing with the street children and eating the food they prepare for us in the desert. Regardless, I’m enjoying the break, despite the frequent trips to the bathroom.
Driven by hunger and my ancestral instinct to hunt and gather, I left the apartment mid-day today to forage for some food. In the course of my brief foray (the food poisoning has me on a short timetable), I saw a gattling gun mounted to the back of a pick-up truck, protestors camping in Tahrir square, and children sleeping in gutters along the side-streets. Then I found and devoured a McFlurry.
When we talk about third world countries, I see images of huts in Africa, nomads in the desert, or rural villages in South America. It’s disconcerting to see third world poverty and disorganization in a country where everyone wears jeans, owns a cell phone, and watches American movies.
During our first week in Cairo, I met one of the arsonists who set the National Democratic Party HQ on fire in Tahrir during the protests earlier this year. He’s my age, and he wants the same things I do: a solid education and the opportunity to work hard to build the future he dreams of. Due to forces out of our control, I found myself in America where I very much have those opportunities, while he was born in Egypt without the means for a stellar education at a time when a quarter of people 20-30 years old are unemployed.
How do I reconcile with the fact that while I'm on an all-expenses paid trip with my world-renown university, he is choking on tear gas and dodging rubber bullets because he has no hope for a better future in the world as he knows it? We were born into vastly different life experiences. The spectrum of possible reactions ranges from sickening guilt to ambivalent acceptance. Surely he protests for the right to the lifestyle I enjoy, so why not enjoy it? Yet in some way, I feel that that acceptance cements my privilege at the expense of his.
I like what our professor, Mbaye Lo, shared with us the other night. He said that as his father dropped him off for his first day of school, he told him, "this education is not for you to get a job, but for you to help those who cannot help themselves." The privilege I was born into has afforded me an education, like most of you reading this blog. The education we have does not denote any type of superiority and inferiority, but rather a disparity in opportunity. We may not be in control of where and what we're born into, but we are responsible for our ensuing actions. It is easy to come to terms with the third world from outside of it, but I invite you to consider how unsettling it can be from within.