For those of you who follow this blog, my Twitter feed, or generally interact with me, you will probably know that I am about as anti-imperialist, post-colonial and post-modern as they come. As such, it may not surprise you that I often (and vocally) take umbrage at writers and commentators from the "West" who may choose to express an opinion about the lives and experiences of men and women in a way that either misrepresents those experiences, privileges their own backgrounds, experiences and narratives as a meta-narrative normative that is homogenous and one to aspire to, and/or elides relevant voices or experiences if they do not fit into their own perceptions of the matter under discussion.
So it was not without some disgust that I read this article that appeared on the Huffington Post, in which a white western woman has a conversation with a cab driver in Luxor, Egypt, that - somewhat incredulously - extends to discussions of sex and how the protagonist, a poor, "enlightened" Eygptian taxi driver, having been made aware of the pleasures of sexual intercourse with "sexually liberated" European women, was dissatisfied in Egypt, given the "widespread" prevalence of female genital mutilation. Hailing from the Nick Kristof / Thomas Friedman school of neo-imperialist writing, the writer as liberal investigator is basically nothing more than a misery tourist who, on the basis of limited interactions with the "natives", returns home triumphant and full of insight that we are to accept as absolute, factually accurate, and effectively the last word.
My disgust with the article, not to mention the high visibility it was receiving by virtue of being on a site like the Huffington Post, was matched by Sara Salem, a blogger that I have recently started interacting with online. Our shared opprobrium was quickly turned into a satirical discussion around the need for a new style of visa questionnaire to weed out such visitors to the non-Western world. (Ironically, most Western commentators, travelling on first world passports, do not require visas - at least short-term ones - to visit many of the countries they formulate ill-informed opinions about. This asymmetry of access, obviously, only works in favour of Western "tourists", unlike most intellectuals from the third world, whose global movements are closely curtailed and systemically restricted by international visa regimes.)
So here, in no particular order, is a list of questions that both of us felt would be appropriate to ask anyone looking to visit Egypt (or indeed any other country of interest to white Western commentators) to screen out ill-informed and poorly thought out articles of the sort that triggered our initial disgust.
- Are you, or have you ever been, an utter idiot?
- Do you enjoy saving people?
- Are you aware that Egypt is no longer a British colony?
- Please list, along with weight, any imperialist burden that you carry. Use additional paper if necessary.
- What are your thoughts on Thomas Friedman and Nick Kristof?
- Are you completely dismissive of your own privilege?
- Do you have fantasies of wearing a burqa while in Egypt 'to see what it feels like'?
- Do you like appropriating voices in your professional life?
- Are you aware that harems are a fiction of your collective white imagination?
- Are you, or have you ever been, an advocate for Ayaan Hirsi Ali?
- Are you aware that the term 'Mohamedan' is no longer in use?
- Do you believe that Islam is incompatible with Western values?
- Will you be asking locals why they hate you and why they personally carried out 9/11?
- Will you seek out meaningful human interactions, on the basis of which to extrapolate sweeping generalisations?
- Will you keep asking about 'Sharia' in a terrified yet knowing tone?
Feel free to send in more that you think might be worth including on our questionnaire!
(PS - Sara has since written an excellent rebuttal to the original article, which you can read here.)