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Nostalgia, Excuses, and Starting Over

This post was originally published on May 1, 2013. If you would like to comment on it, please go here.

I began eatbees blog at the end of 2006, after returning to the U.S. from three years in Morocco. At the time, since I had friends in both places, I felt that I might be able to serve as a bridge between the two cultures, “Western” and “Arab-Islamic,” that were too often (and still are) portrayed as incompatible or even at war. I wanted my friends in the U.S. to know that Arab and Muslim youth aspire to democracy, personal dignity, freedom of thought and self-expression just as we do. Equally important, I wanted my friends back in Morocco to keep the faith that despite outward appearances (these were the worst of the Bush years) we in the West hadn’t abandoned these ideals.

I wanted my blog to show that conversation was possible, something I knew from the many rich discussions I’d had about politics, religion, and culture during my time in Morocco. It was an experiment, and during its heyday, 2007–2009, it proved to be a great success. Thanks to the many new friends I made as a blogger, often young Moroccans (or Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians…) who were blogging themselves, we tackled subjects like whether Islam can act as a progressive and democratic force, whether traditional identity is compatible with modern ideas of individual rights, and how (even then, four years before the Arab Spring) internet activism can enable young people to engage in critical thinking and challenge the “red lines” of the authoritarian state. I deeply appreciate the exchanges we had then, in which a community formed that supported and enriched each others’ efforts. Quite often, a theme raised on one blog would be taken up and expanded on other blogs in a web of interconnected commentary and debate. Many of the people I met then, online, ended up becoming friends in the real world when I returned to Morocco in 2009. But for all its richness, that era died out — and since those days, I’ve struggled to feel the same motivation for blogging I felt then.

One thing that happened is that many of my friends from that era simply stopped blogging, and they’ve stopped coming here to comment on new pieces I write. Their blogs are either updated so rarely as to have gone into a coma, or they’ve disappeared altogether. Of course, I’m as responsible for this failure as anyone, as a glance at my archives will show — my blogging has slowed dramatically in the past three or four years. Another problem, which isn’t really a problem at all, is that events have caught up with us, and leaped beyond us. Instead of merely speculating about the possibility of change in the Arab world, now we are living it, with upheavals in many countries that are far more dramatic than anything we could have imagined in 2007. Journalists also cover the Arab world very differently today. It’s no longer just about the way the Middle East impacts the security of Western states (though it’s still too much about that) — the media have finally figured out that history can be made in the Arab world, by and for Arabs, just like in Latin America, Asia, or anywhere else. So what we were trying to do as bloggers is maybe less necessary now. People no longer need to be persuaded of what we were saying, because those who went into the streets took it out of our hands. Certainly it’s out of my hands as a Western observer — and in the hands of Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Syrians, and all the rest.

Another point I want to make is that as a blogger, at a certain point one has to make a decision. Either one is going to “turn pro,” become an “authority,” or keep doing what one is doing as a purely personal venture. Nearly all of the bloggers I follow regularly now are the ones who’ve gone pro. Either they are working journalists who keep blogs as part of their work, or they are academics who follow social, political, and economic trends regularly and in depth. A few are activists who’ve made a name for themselves, and made the leap to being full-time policy voices. I might, at some point, have had my own chance to “turn pro” — but if there’s anything I’ve been consistent about throughout my life, it’s that I’m not an expert on anything — especially not a place as rich and complex as Morocco, where I wasn’t born and raised, and don’t have any kind of special insider knowledge. As a teenager I used to hate “experts” who set themselves up to talk about the very things they know least about. In the field of Arab or Islamic culture, such people are called Orientalists — and I’m damned if I’m going to Orientalize my time in Morocco, because Morocco is not my sphere of expertise, it’s my everyday life, and these are my friends. So, paradoxically, since returning to Fez in 2009, I’ve found it harder to talk about Morocco than when I was away, because it’s too real, too intimate, and too mundane. If I see kids with smart phones in the local café, does that mean there’s an “emerging Moroccan middle class”? If I see a street protest, does that mean “Moroccans are losing their fear”? I’ll leave that to the objectifiers, the specialists, the “experts” real and imagined. This blog will have to remain personal, if it is to continue to exist at all.

That said, I apologize for not writing here more often in recent times. I realize I still have friends who come here occasionally to learn what I’m up to, or to discover my thoughts on this or that — and they’re bound to be disappointed if, as is the case now, I haven’t authored a new post in several weeks. For this, I have several excuses. In our era of instant communication, where the world’s news stories are updated online from minute to minute, there are times when I get so caught up in chasing all the latest developments, and examining the new leads, that I have no time left over to write about what I’m reading. Besides, there are others who do that for a living, so if my readers really wanted that information, they could get it for themselves in the same way I do. I’m thinking about events like the new Egyptian constitution that was approved last year in an atmosphere of extreme political tension, or the controversy around the selection of Chuck Hagel as U.S. Secretary of Defense, or the recent elections in Israel and Italy, or the selection of a new Pope, or the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent hunt for the suspects. When, in the past, I’ve tried to comment on events like these as they happen, I’m often embarassed by what I write just a few days later, because by then the rush of events has made my initial reaction look foolish and incomplete. Perhaps in the future I’ll just throw up a few links to whatever stories I’m reading at the moment, as I’ve seen other bloggers do, without even a word of commentary, and let you, my readers, follow them if you like. It pains me to do this, because I like to explain what I’m thinking, but in this busy world, who has time to stop and explain?

Besides the difficulty of keeping up with events, there are other reasons why I don’t update my blog more often. One is that, obviously, I have a personal life that takes priority. If someone close to me is experiencing pain and difficulty, that takes a toll on me that makes it hard to focus on blogging until the situation is resolved. In a similar vein, if there is happiness around me, my instinct is to jump in and live the moment, rather than set that aside for an abstract pleasure like blogging. Beyond that, I’ve found that I can’t always vent my feelings, be they good or bad, in a public place like this, because they involve other people who may cherish their privacy. So I edit out a good deal when I write here, and I don’t like to do that, because I’m a fairly transparent person by nature. The result is that I stick to abstract subjects like politics that don’t touch me directly, which gives an incomplete picture of what really matters to me. What I care about most are people — people as unique individuals — and this blog began as an effort to reach out to people in new ways. Yet paradoxically, blogging takes me away from the people I care about, or they take me away from the blog. I still haven’t found the right balance between self-exposure, which makes writing real, and the abstraction needed to make what I say matter in a lasting, universal way. Occasionally I feel like I’ve hit the right balance — as in In or Out? which explores my conflicting impulses toward engagement or isolation, or Women: Parasites or Saviors? which asks where misogyny comes from — and these are among my most popular posts. I’d love to do more of this kind of writing, but all I can say is, I’ll try. The flash of inspiration doesn’t always come when I need it, nor do I always have the time.

So where do we go next? For a while, I was thinking of wiping the slate clean. I would take all my old articles offline, and start over with a new look and new themes. The focus would no longer be on current events, but rather on culture and history. Perhaps I would talk about the books that I’m reading, like Paul Bowles’ The Spider’s House, or Khalil and Dimna, a fable from ancient India, or Utopia by Ahmed Tawfik, a nihilist’s view of near-future Egypt. I would talk about the films that I’ve seen lately that interest me, whether old (Heaven’s Gate, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Battle of Algiers) or new (Enter the Void, Road to Nowhere, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Headless Woman). I would talk about the relation between psychology and propaganda, as related in the documentary Century of the Self. I would mention the music I’m listening to, from Carlos Gardel to Fela Kuti to Joy Division, and the trips that I’ve taken, to the Dades Gorge in southern Morocco, or to the Mani Peninsula in Greece. I might throw in a few photos, along with descriptions of where they were taken and what they mean to me. I might even offer some poetry and short fiction. I would describe the researches I’ve done on the reign of Edward II of England, or the White Lotus movement in Yuan dynasty China. (Just recently, a friend asked me if Voltaire had provided “elite justifications” for slavery, and I researched that too, finding to my shock that it’s more true than you might think.) I would write posts that start from nowhere and go nowhere, and expose thoughts that to an outsider must seem arbitrary, chaotic, and fleeting. Above all, eatbees blog would avoid the news of the day, and instead offer a glimpse of my broader enthusiasms, however whimsical and opaque. The blog would take on a new identity, and become something entirely different from what it’s been until now.

On reflection, I decided that I can do all that without wiping the previous blog from existence. It’s one thing to make a fresh start, but I owe it to those who commented here in the old days to keep a record of what we did then. Many of those articles still attract readers, either because they are linked from other sites, or because people find them in web searches. Besides, even if I start anew, there’s no guarantee, despite my best intentions, that I’ll update the blog any more often than I have in the recent past. I’ll still be just as busy as I am now, and as easily distracted — and writing will be just as much work. Better to have a solid foundation, then, of past articles, than start over from zero. If I did wipe the blog clean, the site might remain empty for a long time! If I leave the past work in place, however, and keep plugging away, then over time the tone of the blog will change naturally on its own, and people will see that change for themselves. No reason to get too dramatic about it.

I do want to express here, however, my intention to do something different, and strike off in a new direction. And in this, I hope you will help me. First of all, we have to return to the days when comments were frequent, and the commenters (you) talked to each other. So if you’re out there, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally comments on blogs, please take the time to leave a comment on this post. Maybe you just want to say hi! Maybe you want to give me a push to post here more often — and in that case, the best way to do that is to tell me what you want to hear. Do you want pictures of mountain goats? My poetry translated into Arabic? A list of my favorite rap songs? Stories of paranoia and drug addiction in Reagan’s America? Shocking images of babies thrown from towers into the jaws of crocodiles? An examination of Brahman and Atman and how this relates to Gnostic Christianity? A discussion of dark matter? Links to articles about Fernando Pessoa? Whatever it is, just tell me, and that will be our starting point. Don’t worry, I’m not desperate — I’ll only follow your suggestions if they make sense to me. I already have a life, and I don’t need whatever attention this blog brings. But I do enjoy a good conversation, and I’m curious about you, so I’m leaving the door open to see who walks in. Leave a note!