Egypt postcard

Sipping a Pepsi, people watching while Ibrahim — who lives and, apparently, scams tourists in the oasis, maybe 20 years old — fools with my iPhone, comparing it to his Nokia. He tries some of my music, but that experiment ends quickly. At some point he asks me what my work is, I’m a university professor, what do I teach, philosophy, what is philosophy? Ibrahim’s English is disarmingly good, so I tell him it’s the historical and contemporary reflection on abstract but seemingly fundamental human questions: the ultimate nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, what it would be to live virtuously and morally even if we don’t normally or often reach that goal, the meaning of life. That sort of thing. But over several different tries in different formulations, he remains completely uncomprehending. I try a different tack. “Have you heard of Plato, Aristotle, Confucious?” Negative, though he repeats the names in perfect unaccented American English. Now I’m stymied and chagrined, at a bit of a loss. Desperate bid: “You know Greece? Athens?” I pantomime the roof, pillars and steps of I don’t know rightly what, the Parthenon, I guess. He nods, “Greece, yes,” there are several people looking at us now. “Um…,” I stand up with my left arm across my body, hand on right shoulder like a toga and my right arm and hand palm up in the air like I’m giving an important speech, then in a theatrical deep voice, “…ORACLES say that we must wait for the alignment of the stars, but REASON tells us…” and I trail off. Ibrahim’s eyes grow wide, “oh, yes, yes!” (I quickly sit down.) “Yes, philosophy, I understand now. But it is very hard, isn’t it?,” he says. “Umm, yes, I guess so, yes.” Later I wonder whether he thinks philosophy is pathetic community theater or something like that.

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