Monday, January 16, 2006

Good Eagle Woman

Encountering homeland security in Iowa City, Mona Prince discovers the dignity of speaking up against intimidation.

In a climate where the United States is seen as an aggressor enforcing her way and will on the rest of the world, I found myself excited last summer to be heading to America after being chosen as part of the International Writing Program (IWP) in Iowa City. My excitement stemmed from the fact that I refused to believe that the US, with one of the best constitutions in the world, where individual rights are cherished and defended, has lost its soul. Rather I wanted to believe that its current policy is an aberration that came to pass as a result of fears arisen after 9/11, and not a true reflection of what America is all about. I could not think of a better bridge to mend the widening gap between the image and true face of the Arab "other". As an Egyptian woman writer and academic, I wanted so much to show the true face of the other, transcending the stereotype that has been propagating in the US lately, wanted in my own small way to unveil that thick veil of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

I was officially invited by the US Embassy in Cairo and funded by the US State Department to participate in the IWP, an invitation I wholeheartedly accepted. I was delighted to be part of a programme that fosters mutual understanding, cross-cultural communication, and tolerance; to share and exchange ideas with, and learn from, the other international writers as well as our American counterparts in an academic institution setting at the University of Iowa where the programme resides.

I arrived in Iowa City and my first two weeks in the program was all I would have hoped for. I felt energised, thinking of many things I want to do -- material for my writings that would benefit from my stay in the US within the IWP. One of my major interests and ideas for a writing project was to visit an Indian reservation, get in contact with Native American traditional storytellers and learn about their spiritual practices. What unravelled after those two weeks was so much telling of the extent of the erosion of the American way as a result of the current administration's policy and how deep it has affected even the best of sanctuaries and defendants of individual rights, transforming academics and poets into big brothers driven by homeland security to charter the handling of their programmes.

I informed the programme director of my interest in visiting an Indian reservation and explained to him the reason behind my interest. His initial response was positive. So I took it upon myself to search for potential places I could visit and found one in a neighbouring state. I informed the director where I would be heading -- a short visit to Minneapolis to visit an Indian reserve. The e-mail response that I have received from the director was a total shocker in both language and content. I was threatened with homeland security law, informing me that I could not leave Iowa City and if I did I would be expelled from the programme and the United States. I was made to feel like a prisoner at best, a criminal at worst. At no point before or during my visit was I made aware of any rule in the IWP program restricting the movements of international visitors. Additionally, an immigration officer confirmed that there were no such rules. This incident and what followed thereafter made me think whether this response from the director was an isolated and petty exercise of power or was symptomatic of a bigger picture where homeland security and what it entails is starting to seep into the American system, reaching the gate of institutions that are traditionally viewed as strong voices for the preservation of the individual rights, voices against stereotyping and labelling of the "other". Are the fences of Guantanamo Bay slowly closing on academia, indeed on all of us? I abided by the director's decision and did not go to Minneapolis. Elation and excitement were quickly replaced by feelings of failure and depression. Guantanamo seemed just around the next corner.

After a few e-mail exchanges with the programme director, and a fruitless effort to get advice or help from the US embassy, I decided to break my silence and to speak out against the intimidation and abuse. I wrote several statements against the unprofessional and undiplomatic handling of my situation, while demanding at the same time an official apology, as well as to be provided with the governing laws by which writers should abide while in the programme. I sent all the official correspondences between the programme director and myself to all parties concerned, as this matter impacted upon all the members of the IWP programme. Not only was I severely criticised for speaking up against this injustice, I was repeatedly intimidated, offended, and threatened by the grave consequences that would be directed at me if I do not put an end to my vocalism, which I took to mean, "Shut up and take the abuse." The programme director, eventually, decided to terminate my participation in the programme because of the public statements I made, as clearly stated in his official letter. I was removed from all my scheduled public cultural activities and my funding was cut, leaving me with two days to evacuate Iowa City. The termination letter cited a US State Department decision that I have yet to receive.

After my deportation from Iowa City, I joined a group of African Americans who were evacuated from New Orleans after the Katrina hurricane. I felt for them and in some way felt part of them. What those evacuees told me in interview is a counter- narrative that expressed their concerns about how America was, to their minds, disintegrating from within, which has resonated very well with my own experience in Iowa. A different form of "homeland security" had been imposed on them, and their human and constitutional rights had been violated. During the current administration they had more than ever been marginalised, made to feel like they belong to a second-class America. They looked at the breach of the levy that flooded the city, their homes, as a symbol of the neglect of the current administration that is preoccupied with the "unjust" war in Iraq. They were forced at gunpoint -- fully loaded M16s -- to leave their houses while affluent white Americans were extended all necessary assistance and did not have to leave their homes. They told of being searched several times for weapons, as if they were terrorists in their own country. They were shipped in a plane, guarded by armed soldiers, without knowing their destination, to finally land as refugees in Omaha, Nebraska.

Before I flew back to Egypt, I was able to finally arrange a meeting with Native Americans. I met one of the five elders of the Dakota nation who still speaks the Dakota language and performs the spiritual ceremonies of his tribe. Contrary to what I have heard from the IWP administration, I was unreservedly welcomed by the spiritual elder and his family. I was offered a sweat lodge ceremony that is meant to purify the soul, mind and body, which was attended by other non-Native Americans. We were a mixed group of all colours and ethnic backgrounds. The ceremony began with an ancient Indian saying "we are all relatives." Following the instructions of the spiritual elder, we all prayed in our different languages for the good health and happiness of all people. The ceremony ended again with the same wise man iterating that "we are all relatives." After the ceremony was finished, all of us had a collective dinner at the house of the spiritual interpreter. Before I left the reserve, I asked if I could have an Indian name. They agreed, and a special ceremony was held for me the following day. The name that was given to me from the spiritual world was "Good Eagle Woman."

I flew back home empowered by the immense knowledge and experience I gained in the US. In spite of having the misfortune of leaving the programme earlier than planned, and being subjected to such unjust and unfortunate treatment from the IWP director, I remain enriched by the whole journey, by finding it in myself to stand up for my rights, to refuse to be intimidated into silence. When I was about to leave the US, I witnessed the emergence of voices that started to speak out against the war, against the erosion of what is great in the American system, against homeland security as pretext for silencing "other" voices. I will always remember the people that came to my defence; the refugees in Nebraska that hosted me when I was deported from Iowa City, and my spiritual enriching encounter with the Natives. As my journey came to a close, I came out of it flying like an eagle having broken free, resisted being bullied into submission, even under the pretext of "homeland security". I can't think of my journey to the US without thinking about the "Good Eagle Woman" as a symbol for resisting silence.


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