Because Dreamers of the Day is set in Cairo in 1921, several readers have asked what I think about current events across the Middle East. My observations are no more informed or significant than those of any other random American watching CNN or listening to NPR, but — for what they’re worth, here they are.
I find myself thinking of the 1770s, when the frustration and anger that led to our own revolution was building. Governance took place at a great distance. There was no way for ordinary people to affect decisions that affected them. There was a parliament but from colonial perspective, it was just an echo chamber for the king’s pronouncements. That king was, intermittently, bat-shit crazy; even if you could have known that he had porphyria, you wouldn’t have felt any better about being ruled by someone who talked nonsense for hours and hours, and who had to be bound and gagged periodically by court physicians. So, for good reasons and base ones, with high-minded and self-serving motives, led by men who’d studied classical Greek democracy and the ancient Roman republic, captained by those whose literacy was generally confined to the Bible, the American colonists declared themselves independent, and backed that declaration up with years of war against the greatest land and naval power on earth.
In Dreamers of the Day, anti-British protesters in Cairo shout, “A bas, Churchill!” and T.E. Lawrence tells Agnes that “Ever since Napoleon, it’s been traditional to riot in French.” Today, the chants are in Arabic. Home-grown tyrants are the objects of this anger and contempt. A fever for self-determination is sweeping a region that has been colonized, meddled with, exploited, and warred over for millennia. If for no other reason than that, I’d like to see us stay the hell out of it, though it is heartbreaking to hear weeping men’s voices on the radio pleading, “Help us! Help us, America! We have only sticks and rocks! Help us!”
Leave aside the fact that the United States is currently fighting all the Middle Eastern wars we can manage, which are also two more than we can actually afford. I still find myself remembering that the Marquis de Lafayette and Prince Tadeusz Kosciuszko came to America to fight for liberty, equality and justice, but the French and Polish governments did not send us troops. And a good thing, too. Our revolution remained our own. Our constitution is our own. There were no outsiders to blame when things went wrong, and we earned our own self-respect along with our independence.
Frankly, we were very damned lucky Britain was busy at the time, and perhaps in two hundred years, citizens of the Middle East will look back on this time and reflect that it was lucky the Europeans and Americans were too broke to get involved! But the fact remains: “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And with each passing year, with every election cycle, with each new struggle to expand civil liberties, Americans continue to “test whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
All that lies before the extraordinary Twitter revolutionaries of the Middle East. Nation-building is a task they have rightly claimed for themselves. I am humbled by their courage and wish them well.