In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willing, a Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo. The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative. It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.
The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”
She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper. She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.
The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.” This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education. In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible. To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.
Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes one story is all it takes to “make wise.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.
What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:
Our first task in approaching
Is to take off our shoes
For the place we are approaching is holy
Else we find ourselves
Treading on another’s dreams
More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”Max Warren – 1963
I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.