On catastrophe, the Arabic alphabet, and gratitude

Recently I flew from Alabama to Egypt to begin my job as Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo.

This was my first time on a plane since March, when I flew to Egypt to interview for the job. At that time the world was just beginning to recognize that Covid-19 was already everywhere, not just in China and Italy. My visit only lasted for a few days, but a lot changed during those few days. On the flight to Egypt, only a few people wore masks; on the flight back, half or more of the passengers wore masks. I didn’t have a mask (at that time their effectiveness was still being seriously debated), but I did have hand sanitizer and used it obsessively every five minutes or so.

On my recent flights everyone, including me, wore a mask. I used hand sanitizer, too, but less obsessively than before. It felt like a new normal: far fewer people in the airports I visited than previously, but definitely some people; many stores and restaurants closed, but some open; PPE distributed along with the usual pillows, earbuds, etc., at the beginning of each flight.

I arrived to find my new apartment in Cairo stocked with some essential food items such as bread, eggs, rice, and breakfast cereal. Between those and the Clif Bars and trail mix I had brought with me, I knew I wasn’t going to starve. I was hardly in the mood for a big, elaborate meal, as my stomach felt traumatized in the way it always does after hours and hours in planes, trains, and automobiles. But I knew I was going to have to work out how to order food soon, especially given that I must self-quarantine for 14 days.

I had been told that nearly all restaurants and grocery stores in Cairo deliver. However, I soon encountered a problem: all the websites I looked at, including that of Otlob (the Egyptian version of Grubhub, etc.), required a mobile phone number to register for delivery. There was supposed to be an Egyptian SIM card waiting for me upon my arrival, but due to a mix-up it wasn’t there. I have a landline, but the websites all wanted to confirm my number via text message and offered no alternatives. Plus I couldn’t figure out how to use the landline.

Eventually, thanks to my attentive and generous AUC support network, and fortified by a couple eggs I managed to boil (after working out how to turn on the gas for the stove, and finding a pot), I solved the landline problem and found a restaurant I could call and ask for delivery. Here, then, was my second hot meal in Cairo:

Here is a closeup of one of those Ranch Dressing containers:

As of right now I know essentially no Arabic at all. I can say “hello”, merhaba, and “thank you”, shukrun. I worked a little bit on learning the alphabet around the time of my visit in March using this book, and I had hoped at least to have mastered that by the time I moved here. But a series of catastrophic events prevented this.

The English word “catastrophe” is a transliteration of the Greek word katastrophē or (in Greek characters) καταστροφή, which combines the preposition kata, whose root meaning is “downwards”, with the noun strophē, whose root meaning is “turning”. Etymologically, then, a “catastrophe” is a “turning downwards”. The standard Greek-English lexicon Liddell-Scott-Jones cites as one use of this word a line near the beginning of Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, the last of the extant Theban plays that include Oedipus the King and Antigone. Oedipus has just arrived at a sanctuary of the Eumenides or Erinyes in Athens, and he prays to those goddesses for help in accomplishing a good katastrophē biou, literally a “turning down of life”–i.e., death. When Sophocles wrote this play, he was around 90 years old and surely thinking of his own katastrophē biou; perhaps he made a similar prayer at the same sanctuary. If so, the Eumenides answered it, inspiring this great master of Greek tragedy with one of the greatest of all his plays.

One of the catastrophes that delayed my learning the Arabic alphabet was the Covid-19 pandemic. Although thankfully I haven’t contracted the disease, for about a month I remained glued to the news in a kind of horrified, grief-stricken paralysis, reading about all sorts of amazing and wonderful people dying far too soon. There was also the catastrophic turn from being a person who walked to work each day and could explore a giant city by subway anytime I wanted, into a person confined to a tiny apartment that I could leave only rarely and fearfully. Another was my move out of NYC–my home for the past seven years–down to Alabama, and then to Cairo, to which I could take only a few familiar possessions, mainly clothes and about 2% of my beloved library of physical books. Another was the collapse, in the midst of all this, of a relationship that had given me stability for the past four years or so.

All of this was tough, to say the least, and left me somewhat lacking in the courage necessary to confront a new alphabet of 28 letters, each with 4 different forms, many indicating previously unfamiliar sounds, written in cursive (never my strong suit) and from right to left.

As Oedipus at Colonus illustrates, humans facing catastrophe have often turned to religion. The Arabic language is intimately bound up with the religion of Islam. So during one of my layovers, I downloaded an audiobook version of the Qur’an (in English) and began to listen.

Here is the very beginning of the Qur’an, the Surah called Al-Fatihah, repeated by Muslims in daily prayers, in the translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem:

“In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy! Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, Master of the Day of Judgment. It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed, those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray.”

Hearing these words brought me to tears. I couldn’t continue to the next Surah; I just listened to that one over and over again.

I have always believed in the existence of a “straight path”, that is, a path of feeling and action that is somehow right while others are wrong; and I have always sought fervently to follow that path. I don’t know all of the characteristics of that path, and I probably never will. But I have learned some of them. One is gratitude for all that I have been given–and that is everything: health and physical capabilities; the family that has continued to love me even when I have hurt and disappointed them, and that I know will never stop doing so; the teachers such as Coach Walker, who taught me math, physics, and that it was okay to think for myself, and Mrs. Margene, who taught me Latin, and Carter Philips, who taught me ancient Greek, and so many others; people to whom I have been close and who continue to care for me though we communicate only rarely; the wonderfully friendly community of humans at AUC, who have with great care, attention, and good humor shepherded me into my new home; the plants and animals who have given parts of themselves, or their whole lives, to feed and clothe me (too often, sadly, under cruel compulsion); the dogs who, in their excitement to see me (and anxiety when I do something that looks dangerous, like jump into a large pool of water), have made me feel cherished; the cicadas, katydids, frogs, and birds who this summer in Alabama bathed my meditations in their songs; the Tennessee river, who brought my great-great-grandmother to Alabama on a log raft, and who has given me and my family so many joyful memories over the years; the Nile, that great lord among rivers, who has given life, stability, and wonder to humans and other creatures for many thousands of years, whom I have admired and wondered at from a distance since I was first told of it as a child, and whom now I am privileged to meet face-to-face.

All of these are great mercies; not only have I done little to deserve them, I have only begun to appreciate them as they deserve.

If gratitude is characteristic of the straight path, then ingratitude, I believe, always incurs judgment. That at least has been my experience: there is no greater pain than to realize the unspeakable beauty and worth of what one was given only after it is gone. Yet, inshallah, as long as you have breath, it is never too late to turn from feeling you don’t have enough of whatever it is you want, to feeling overwhelmed by the mercy of being given so much when you might have been given nothing at all.

It is in that spirit that I hope now to approach the Arabic alphabet, not as a stressful obligation, but as a gift.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

7 thoughts on “On catastrophe, the Arabic alphabet, and gratitude

  1. I am not sure my comment posted, but this is beautiful! So well thought out and so beautifully written. I am excited and encouraged about your new adventure. I think you are well prepared for it, that in spite all the negative things you have deatl with, you are at such a blessed place spiritually, you will meet each challenge as it arises. Stay hydrated, stay safe and take care of yourself!

    Blessings, Nanmama



  2. Wonderful read! I can agree Arabic is not easy. Looking forward to read about your next adventure in Egypt

    More importantly … how was the pizza?


  3. Very best wishes on the move and all the adventures and confusion that that likely entails. Deepest empathy on the end of the relationship. Will be plugging for you to have a safe and successful fall!


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