In the ethnography,Veiled Sentiments, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod expressed the inner frustration and conflict that she experienced while living with the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin tribe in the Northeastern deserts of Egypt. Abu-Lughod is an American-born, American educated feminist with “modern” sensibilities and tastes. Yet she found it necessary to conform to the rigidly conservative and pious standards of the Awlad ‘Ali in order to get the social “in” that was crucial to the success of her fieldwork. Her position within the community was particularly tenuous because of her single status—-no woman of her age should be unmarried and without kids! She wrote, “I had failed to anticipate that people as conservative as the Bedouins, for whom belonging to tribe and family are paramount and the education of girls novel, would assume that a woman alone must have so alienated her family, especially her male kind, that they no longer cared about her.”
By leaving her Western garb behind for the traditionally conservative veils and long dresses Bedouin attire, she began her entrance into the inner women’s world of the Awlad ‘Ali. But it wasn’t just her style that changed. It was her bodily being. She began to comport herself in a way that was totally contrary to the self that she performed in her Western home. She was no longer the bossy Harvard educated, feminist Abu-Lughod. No. She was part of the background, a quiet Bedouin daughter who dutifully completed the domestic duties relegated to the private sphere. She reminisced, “I became part of the backstage when we had company, found myself contributing more to household than I wished, and half my own chores. Men occasionally shouted commands at me and felt free to get me up late at night along with the women and girls to help serve tea to visitors.”
Was she forsaking her identity as an independent lady when she was performing a subservient role as Bedouin daughter? Was she not being genuine with her adoptive Bedouin family when displaying such conservative piety? Was she being honest with herself in her ability to act out contrasting identities?
I’ve had a similar experience of identity alteration (clash?) while living with my grandfather in Seoul, South Korea this past August. When in his domain of the house, downstairs, I found myself acting completely different from the Andrea that resided upstairs. Downstairs I was quiet, dutiful, and always ready to serve tea, cook food, or attempt to peel the skin off of fruits (an art that any good Korean housewife ought to master). I was quieter and took heed to acting more graceful (Andrea in real life is the biggest klutz, ever). I too began to wonder if I was acting “fake” with my grandfather. Was this obedient Andrea a huge farce? If you catch me on my A-Game on a Saturday night, you’d definitely say yes. But it isn’t that simple, it wasn’t just a carefully thought-out act of filial piety. Downstairs, I really wanted to perform a subservient identity in order to show my respect and love for my beloved grandfather.
My experience in Korea revealed the extent to which I perform and juggle multiple identities on the Amherst College campus. On a Monday at the WAMH radio station, I play the part of angsty hipster who finds little more pleasure in the world than chilling to some underground tunes. On a Tuesday evening on A-level, I play the part of the Amherst nerd who wants to maintain a competitive GPA that will give her the chance to apply to grad school. On a Wednesday afternoon in Pratt Pool, I play the part of Amherst jock who truly finds a strange sort of ecstasy in the pain caused by an elevated heart rate, oxygen deprivation, and unbelievable muscle fatigue. On a Thursday at Rao’s, I play the part of a wannabe feminist intellectual attempting to philosophize about the nature of gender performance and intersubjectivity, as it relates to identity politics. On a Friday in my cloud castle (a.k.a. my room), I play the part of hermit who would rather choke on several knives than indulge in the company of anyone. On a Saturday, I play the part of the out of control partier whose memories fade in pace with the plastic handle of Rubinoff that is inevitably emptied by 11:15 PM. On a Sunday evening, I am the quiet lover, too shy to press for real answers.
As you can probably surmise, many of my identities clash with one another. How can I reconcile my role as Amherst varsity swimmer with my role as feminist when many of the swim team’s traditions are decidedly against female empowerment? Better yet, how can I call myself an empowered woman when I can’t even tell my lover to sac up and tell me what he really wants? Can a feminist even use the term “sac-up”? What kind of rager hates being social? Or how about the hipster Andrea who really enjoys puffing on the proverbial magical dragon. The gradual build-up of carcinogenic soot on the inner linings of my lungs is certainly not conducive to fast-times in the pool. The contradictions go on and on.
I am left confused. Worse, I am left confused and feeling a like a phony, and everyone hates phonies. And what happens when I decide to let-go of one of these identities? Does the larger self still function with a crucial component gone?
Derek, I’m feeling you.
And Eminem too. Kinda.
So, in conclusion, I will leave you with a poem by Fernando Pessoa, a remarkable Portuguese poet famous for his “heteronyms,” poet beings created from the depths of his vast imagination. Each heteronym was given distinct physical characteristics, biographies, writing style, religious beliefs, philosophies, and personalities. Even more fascinating, these heteronyms interacted with and influenced each others work, including Pessoa’s.
“I Don’t Know How Many Souls I Have”
I don’t know how many souls I have.
I’ve changed at every moment.
I always feel like a stranger.
I’ve never seen or found myself.
From being so much, I have only soul.
A man who sees is just what he sees.
A man who feels is not who he is.
Attentive to what I am and see,
I become them and stop being I.
Each of my dreams and each desire
Belongs to whoever had it, not me.
I am my own landscape,
I watch myself journey–
Various, mobile, and alone.
Here where I am I can’t feel myself.
That’s why I read, as a stranger,
My being as if it were pages.
Not knowing what will come
And forgetting what has passed,
I note in the margin of my reading
What I thought I felt.
Rereading, I wonder: “Was that me?”
God knows, because he wrote it.
24 August 1930