Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Freedom Along the Banks of the Nile

Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it. ~ Malcolm X

During my freshman year at the University of Kentucky I studied Arabic. I believe that I made that choice because during the summer after high school graduation I read T.E. Lawrence’s huge book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I had also read a biography of the explorer and Arabist, Sir Richard Burton. In my imagination I was riding camels in the desert and dining with sheiks and entertained by belly dancers.

My instructor, an Egyptian named Mohammed el Assel, whose mother was one of a harem, scared the crap out of me.  There were only four in the class: a woman from New York, two Iranians (“We are from Iran; however, our ethnicity is Persian”). We sat in those school chairs with a half desk attached. Professor el Assel would walk behind the chairs, looking over our shoulders as we transcribed our lessons. He always carried a sawn-in-half broom stick as a sort of swagger stick; when he noticed a mistake one of us had made, he would slam that stick on the back of our chairs making a horrendous noise and vibrating the chair and us down to our toes.

Alas, I never learned to speak Arabic—perhaps because of all that rattling on my brain from the numerous times el Assel cracked the back of my chair.  I did manage to learn to read/translate a bit of Arabic; with a dictionary I still can. Of course, with a dictionary I can still translate all of the other languages I’ve studied—Latin, Hebrew, and Greek—too.   

I told you all of that so I could share since. From 1964, when I began the study of Arabic, until today I have had a special interest in the nations that speak the language. I have studied their histories, cultures, and religions. (Yes, dear hearts, all of the people who speak Arabic aren’t Muslim).

One of the many conclusions I read was that Arabic/Muslim countries were not good candidates for democracy. Only Turkey and Lebanon have come close to having democratic governments. The founders of modern Turkey developed a constitution making it a secular state; through the years Turks have worked hard to keep it a secular state. Poor Lebanon remains a democracy although the situation is so complex trying to figure who is who is rather like trying to figure out the characters in a Russian novel.

That said, I am beginning to change my mind based on recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. Corrupt and dictatorial régimes are being challenged by the people. Democratic governments are being established. Three is no hint of theocracy to undermine them.

I believe that the catalyst for this change—this explosion of democracy—is the ability for people to communicate with other people around the world via social networking, emails, tweets, etc. No longer can the propaganda arms of a nation tell its peoples that the citizens of another nation are hate mongers reading to destroy them. No longer can tyrants undermine a people’s natural drive for freedom.

There are many stories I could share about how communication with a person in or from another land or culture has opened my eyes to truth beyond my own ethnocentricity. But now I simply want to celebrate the people in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen and wherever freedom is beginning to bloom! And to note that if we—you and I—are willing to act, we have the ability to communicate and learn good things with and about peoples all over the world.


  1. Nick, you possess more wisdom than most yet so often, you write words founded in good old common sense. I am guilty of looking at the situation "over there" with a feeling of being removed. I keep my eye on my household and pray that God's will be done within it and then, the world. Thank you for calling me to open my eyes, heart, and mind to the desire of Egyptians for freedom.

    Be blessed sir.

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  3. Well written Nick, it is so clear that democracy must come from the people themselves, because when it is enforced it takes much much longer(Irak, Afganistan),or does not work at all (Persia the Sjah-Iran). I do hope that the governments to be will be wise and work with their people and i hope that the man but espessialy the women in the Middle East will have the change to taste what we so often take for granted: Freedom
    Love Elka