Lazy I: Signs in the sand

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

John Nagy

I’ll speak for myself: I’ve done a poor job paying attention to North Africa and the Middle East during my lifetime. I suspect this is true of most Americans, but I shouldn’t presume.

I know I wasn’t expecting the news from Tunisia last month. Now I can’t look away. I’m listening to radio reports, reading blogs and news coverage online, and wondering about trouble in such places as Tunis, Cairo, Manama, Tehran. Now it’s Tripoli and Benghazi, cities whose names I’ve known since boyhood. Back then, stretched out on the living room floor, I passed hours assembling map puzzles and rereading National Geographic’s terrific Our World atlas for kids.

I knew every capital of the world and the names of most currencies. I pledged myself to a lifelong mission to visit every country, colony and territory. My mother bought me a tablet of drawing paper and a box of Crayola’s finest 64 — I used every leaf and crayon fragment replicating the flags of the world freehand, going through spools of tape while plastering them to the walls of my bedroom.

But the Middle East and North Africa that had looked so benign in the pictures soon held little appeal. Fair or not, news from the region wasn’t encouraging. I was 6 when the Ayatollah chased the Shah from Tehran. The hostage crisis that followed was my first tip that the world might not be an entirely hospitable place. When fanatics murdered Egypt’s Sadat, I was 8 and old enough to watch TV and meditate on hope and despair at the same time. When truck bombs destroyed the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 American servicemen, my mother recalled her visit years before and reassured me that the once glamorous international crossroads might someday become that again.

By this time, my prejudices were forming. I faithfully read the weekly newsmagazines, trying to make sense of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Iran-Iraq War, the rantings and lethal gambits of a man named Qaddafi (or Gaddafi or Khadafy, depending on what you were reading). I couldn’t.

So I tried to ignore the Middle East. Again, fair or not. When the Egyptian man who’d called for Sadat’s assassination turned up again as the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, I was a lovesick undergraduate. Remember the Cole? My oldest child was barely a month old. I prayed for the families of the dead and injured sailors, shook my head and moved on. Then September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made it impossible to ignore that vast and complex region, its history, its religions, its repressions anymore.

That doesn’t mean I understand it.

It seems outsiders never have. Reading The Creators, Daniel Boorstin’s sweeping popular history of human imagination and handiwork, I learned yesterday that “pyramid” comes from a Greek word meaning something like “wheat cake.” “Perhaps,” Boorstin speculates, “the Greeks thought that from a distance the pyramids looked like cakes resting on the desert.

I turned from Boorstin to my rounds of news sites: Libyan rebels marching on their thug leader of some 42 years — we’ll go with “Qaddafi” — in Tripoli; loyalists slaughtering protesters. The thug leader’s son says all is calm; the thug spins tales of al Qaeda lacing milk with hallucinogens. In Egypt, the military arrests two former ministers of the deposed government. In Bahrain, Morocco and Yemen, royals and presidents gauge how to retain power. Meanwhile, the president of Iran behaves as if he’s just been dealt a pair of aces.

What does it all mean? What happens when tyrants quit the field? How do Tunisians define “democracy”? Egyptians? Libyans? Where is Islamic fundamentalism in this? Some demagogues furnish quick answers that drip with apocalypse. Others more soberly debate in terms defined by historic European models of revolution and regime change. Is this like 1989? Or more like 1848?

At lunch I return to Boorstin, who is explaining that the Egyptian word for pyramid may have meant “place of ascension.” At dawn, he writes, the sun’s rays first touched the pyramids at their tops “long before . . . the humbler dwellings below.” Sun-god kings, buried within, could protect their people in death as they had in life. “And what better image than a true pyramid, spreading symmetrically from a heavenward point, like the rays of the sun shining down on the earth?”

In these days, there is no king in Egypt. When the sun rises on the pyramids, across the Sahara and throughout the Middle East, it may mean something no one is yet ready to put into words.

See a sampling of commentary by Notre Dame Professor Emad Shahin, an authority on Islamic law and political reform in the Middle East.

John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at