Monday, January 21, 2013

Out of Chaos

"You know, although it's crazy and loud, it all somehow seems to work," Jenn's dad comments, his voice barely audible over the din of a thousand car horns as our taxi stubbornly inches its way through the congested streets of downtown Cairo. I squint my eyes a little, breathing in the insanity, and retort, "No it doesn't! It doesn't work at all." We have been in traffic for about an hour and traveled less than ten miles. To be certain, we will probably (insh'allah) reach our destination eventually. In that sense, he is correct. His optimism is refreshing, if slightly optimistic.

 There is a natural tendency, arguably a compulsion, for people to seek and recognize order when we are confronted with chaos. We want to to make sense of information and sort it into a meaningful pattern. It is calming. Writers take it another step, needing to explain the order that they have found - to show off how simply and succinctly we can tame the madness into a (possibly humorous) story.

And so here I am in Cairo, one year later, punch drunk from the fight and still searching for that one knock out analogy that will satisfy my own desire for order as well as my writer's need to share it with you. Life in Egypt is frustrating and I want to pound some sense into it. But the chaos here is strong and the best that I have been able to do is to take small jabs at it while I duck and dance away from the jarring blows of insanity that this mixed up town provides.

The ancient Egyptians believed in a concept called ma'at. Ma'at is the natural balance and order in the universe. The ancients believed that it was essential that ma'at be maintained. They had a cool Goddess whose sole purpose was to keep the ma'at. They constructed a highly advanced civilization, complete with a complex written language and awesome architecture thanks in part to ma'at. They built the pyramids. But that was a long time ago and as far as I can tell the ma'at, like so many temples, has been covered with sand and buried by the chaos of the desert for many years.

Modern Egypt is a different story. It lacks structure and is very noisy. Sometimes it seems like twenty million people are all talking at the same time. These conversations are loud. It is hard to tell when people are angry because people are always shouting. And yet, for all of the yelling, people are remarkably indirect in what they are saying and very little ever seems to get accomplished. Egyptians tend to take it all in stride, having long since abandoned ma'at. They are generally quite good natured, laughing as loudly as they yell.

Back in the taxi, Jenn's folks try to decipher the incessant honking that is a constant, looping sound track to life in Cairo. They are not the first to suggest that there is a genuine, symbolic language to the hooting, a code that can be interpreted. I have heard Egyptians make the same claim - that all of the beeps and rhythms have specific meanings, like some sort of brain wrenching Morse code. I don't believe this either. The honking is more like the barking of dogs than words. There is intensity and tone, but not consistent language.

Thinking of finding order as a fight might be a little too intense and counter productive, like pounding a square peg into a round hole. I can blunt the edges and bully my own simplifications into words, but it will not solve the problem of finding the hidden order - the ma'at that already exists.

And so I increasingly find myself standing by the Nile and staring at the water. Perhaps I have been trying too hard to find ma'at and not simply allowing it to be revealed. Do you remember those posters that were so popular a few years back? The ones where a pattern or image was hidden in the pixels. In order to see it, you had to stand a while, slack jawed, while your eyes unhinged from the apparent randomness. After some time you were able to look beyond the picture to some place in the distance where you hoped to see the simple, perfect image of a flower or a sailboat.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of balance, the Koreans incorporated THE symbol of balance, the yin-yang, into their flag. Yet today, Koreans have the highest rate of suicide among developed countries. The country has come so far, so fast, things are almost necessarily out of balance. It seems as if people today equate balance with laziness, stagnation, and malaise. If you aren't pushing your limits (physically and mentally) you aren't trying hard enough.