I was four years old when, while visiting a relative at his home, he urged me to eat some food. He told me playfully, as children are often told: “Eat, you donkey.” But, according to my mother, I didn’t.
I found it strange that he was asking me to eat in this way. I walked out of the room in tears and wanted to leave immediately.
This is a story that my mother tells in order to evidence what a good job she did of raising me, to demonstrate how she managed to instill a moral consciousness in my young mind. Perhaps, also, she is urging me to be better mannered, as I was in my childhood.
My memory of this incident has become established in my mind based on the story she told. But, over time, I’ve embellished it a little. I imagine our host’s home in Wadi Houf, in Helwan — the house from which my family later moved. I think of the relative in his younger years and imagine how he might have spoken this command to me. I think of how I must have felt; shouldn’t my younger self have instinctively gone to my mother or father instead of wanting to escape from the home where we were guests? The story, then, must have been somewhat exaggerated, for no other purpose than to make it memorable.
Raising children is dependent on instilling ideas in them that are reinforced by stories like this. We may not even be able to recall many of these moments, some of which are fabricated by parents to make a point. They are narrative creations that present a clear moral message based on love and fear, often carrying implicit thoughts that parents would rather not tell their children directly.
For our part, we often believe the stories about our childhood out of a desire to understand ourselves. And, when it comes to raising our own children, we try to start with an approach that we presume is more modern, intelligent and loving than the version against which we rebelled. We create our own stories, with a new set of moralistic and pedagogical goals.
On becoming a father, I began to be more accepting of things I had previously despised. I now believe my mother’s story, not because it necessarily took place, but because it reflects her own vision of raising children. I find her to be a storyteller of some kind in her telling of such anecdotes.
I remember how my mother and father were always careful not to curse in my presence and to take care I didn’t insult anyone. This partly explains why I refused to be called a donkey, and forms the raison d’être for my mother’s story.
Now parents ourselves, my wife and I ask our child not to use words that insult other children. We don’t want our child to be known as one who uses insults. As we raise him, we try — for his benefit — to adjust the way we speak. But it’s difficult.
Speech is not a uniform text that is evenly distributed. Life is complicated, and entails a lot more spontaneity than one can prepare for.
We have often taken liberties, improvised, rebelled and made mistakes. There have been words inopportunely spoken that were followed by regret or misunderstanding. There have been expressions that were not properly formulated when articulated.
Speech is not simply an expression uttered by an individual. It is informed by upbringing, awareness and our experiences; it is charged by intertwining cultural backgrounds, and a history of potential misunderstanding and misinterpretation in which we bring our nerves under control through discipline.
Language is boundless. Speech is fueled by a need to express ideas and create new meanings. The more we dive into the meanings of words, the more we encounter unfamiliar terms and expressions. Some archaic words may be more accurate than those in current use, yet we have neglected them until they have become obscure, even to native speakers. Spoken language is transferred from parents to their children. It is in this way that we become integrated into a community of thought.
With the passing of time, words are adjusted and reformulated before they are coherent enough to be enshrined in history. But the question is, for whom should they be coherent? This is one of the reasons why we approach history with cynicism. We read it over and over and continuously reassess it.
Matters become even more complicated and confusing when we move from thinking about the individual or the family to the community or the nation.
Do all Egyptians, more than a 100 million people, agree on which issues are acceptable to address and those that are unwelcome? Do we agree on an approach for addressing these issues? What form does this agreement take? How does an individual feel that they belong to a specific group or community, and at the same time follow its set of implicit, and to some, opaque, rules?
In our homes we teach our children not to say certain words. But we also rebel against some or all of the teachings of our own parents. We often take more liberties in speaking to one another when our children are asleep.
Recently, my mother started using some of those words that she forbade us from using when we were younger. My grandmother, though, had often used words my mother refused to let us speak. Listening to my grandmother make an angry phone call was more dangerous in my mother’s mind than anything we might have heard or said playing in the streets. Both my mother and grandmother, despite the generational gap, eventually became much more liberal in their choice of words.
When we use swear words, or those considered by some to be vulgar, we denounce a certain order. We make a decision to step out of certain acceptable decorum and to speak out of turn.
But we also abandon and declare war on social hypocrisy.
The use of such words is a risky adventure, one that could escalate into a violent fight as we are rebelling against the foundations of group speech and what has been normalized as acceptable or not.
I forget when the last time was that I engaged in a heated verbal exchange. I have developed a tendency to withdraw from such situations into my head, and to think more. I live in the protection and warmth of social hypocrisy. I became, personally, no longer capable of handling insecurity. I would rather be on the safe side and not subject myself to any threats. I have come to prefer my encounters with people to take place within the boundaries of tact, even if they are marred by lies. Am I simply trying to belong? Are my rebellious years behind me?
The group imposes penalties on those who stray from its rules and foundations of speech. We see this in confrontations with family members and in the legal penalties imposed when speech lands some people in court. The group presupposes the existence of rules for speech — but this is impossible.
Even within a single family, while its members might agree on some rules of permissible speech, individuals may not always adhere to these rules.
A group that speaks the same language often polices its members. It raises “well-mannered” individuals, who, in turn, raise others in line with the foundations and morals of the group.
In my childhood, eight seasons of The Wanis Diaries, beginning in 1994, were shown on television. I recall how excited our families were about it. They praised the performance of Mohamed Sobhy, and equated his work to art that’s superior to everything else.
The series best exemplifies how a group comes to lay down the rules of speech. In fact, I can find no better example than that provided by Sobhy, playing protagonist the Wanis, in his defense of society’s values and morals.
Wanis claims an all-encompassing knowledge. He has no uncertainties and shows zero accountability. He doesn’t question whether following an authority of societal morals, despite all the differences and diversity inherent in that society, might cause anyone harm. He has no qualms about the effects of his actions on freedoms or privacy. He only promotes the ideas that uphold his distinction and superiority, and support his incessant virtuous arguments.
From early on in the series, Wanis’ parents realize that, as they raised their four children, they were also learning new things, and somehow being raised anew themselves.
As the series — written by Mohamed Sobhy and Mahdy Youssef — progresses, Wanis increasingly uses religious language to instill his morals and values in those around him and the audience, emphasizing the need for solidarity in tight-knit families. He calls for respecting the elderly and disciplining children without violence. Wanis visits the sick and is friendly with his neighbors. However, he often interferes in their personal affairs and shows no regard for their privacy. His behavior sums up the morals of this era.
None of the characters in the series addresses relations between Muslims and Christians, appearing, in this regard, to uphold the state’s perspective on religiosity and the avoidance of clashes or debates between different religions. It does not venture into any contentious issues, such as the existence of other minorities, extramarital relations or any other such topics.
Wanis works as a legal adviser, starting his own practice, and later becoming known as the lawyer Wanis Abu al-Fadl Gadallah.
This seems fitting, when I think of how lawyers insist on disciplining us through the lawsuits they bring against artists and writers. We used to think this sprang from a desire for fame. Yet, it seems that they have a sincere desire to discipline those perceived to stray from society — those trespassing on its implicit boundaries.
Dramatically speaking, Wanis is a weak and miserable character who is easy to mock. In reality, however, there are many like him who seek to fully control everything in our lives, as much as we seek to control our children.
We embark on creating order in our current homes based on the perceived issues of our previous ones. We come up with justifications for how we raise our children that are in line with our beliefs and worldviews. We experiment with what we believe are the best decisions in certain repetitive situations, as well as in those that take us by surprise. The conservatives, on the other hand, aspire to become our role models — not out of love, but out of loyalty to their own worldviews.
I wonder if they want to hold the world captive to a specific moment — a world run according to a parental vision.
The stories of our mothers and fathers tell us that life was better in the past. The problem, however, is that the conservatives don’t want to abandon their desire to replicate this past, down to the last detail: to be parents themselves and return to this past.
Longing for our childhoods in some ways is quite common. We share this, even with the conservatives among us. Many of us are nostalgic for our family homes and the simplicity of our childhoods. We long for the safety of that world in which we knew how to handle matters. If we needed anything, we’d ask our mothers or fathers for help.
We trust in this world that we imagine our parents manufactured for us. We imagine that the entire world is run according to their views. This isn’t the world, however. This is our nostalgia for the way we were raised. Over time, and with consecutive experiences, we have had to abandon this naïve perception — or so we assume.
Within a group context though, things are different. The group ascribes to an image manufactured by parents to keep their children safe — to arrange a beautiful world for them.
The conservatives in the group hold on to the stories their parents told them in their childhoods about the world — even if this world exists only in their stories. The young still don’t know — even though many of them are now fully grown up — that these stories were only fabricated for pedagogical purposes.
In any case, we only have two options: either to integrate with their worldview, or to experiment, and have the courage to admit our faults to our children.