When I studied abroad in Egypt last year, I went to see Judith Butler, the famous feminist philosopher, give a lecture at the American University in Cairo. I didn’t have any idea of who she was at the time, but since she was the guest speaker for the annual Edward Said memorial lecture, I figured she must be a pretty big deal. But this story isn’t really about her, because I was the real hero that night. [Disclaimer: the following story may be unpleasant to some readers. Proceed at your own discretion.]
My friends and I arrived at the campus early enough to grab an empty row of seats comfortably far away enough from the eager, short haired lesbians in the first couple rows who were loudly discussing Butler’s latest book like they had memorized the book review snippets on the back cover. Dark wood panels intricately carved with Qur’anic inscriptions cozily encased the Edward Said Hall. Five minutes after the lecture was scheduled to begin, it became so crowded that people were sitting on the floor in the aisles, and everyone was asked to move into a bigger hall. On one hand, I felt bad for Judith, seeing how they had so grossly underestimated her appeal. But more so, I was upset for myself because we had to settle for lousy seats in the huge auditorium.
I hate being stuck in the middle of a wide row, with people hemming me in on every side. It was hot and dry in Cairo this time of year, and I had just drunk a glass of the reception punch before heading inside. What if I had to use the toilet in the middle of the lecture? Or worse, I thought, what if I had to throw up? I had just scarfed down a very greasy lamb dinner, and food poisoning was simply another part of daily life for a foreigner in this city. Puking in public would be incredibly humiliating, and the very thought of it happening in front of all these uptight intellectuals started to make me increasingly nauseous. As I gripped the armrests to steady myself, I saw one of my professors sitting a couple rows to my left. She waved, and I knew her well enough to expect that I would have to prepare something intelligent to report in class the next day. My armpits were already soaked with sweat, and Judith’s introduction hadn’t even finished.
Ms. Butler took the pulpit with remarkable poise and elegance, and the entirety of the great hall went silent. I focused all my energy on taking deep breaths to calm my queasiness, but everyone had such an attentive intensity that I was convinced they could hear the air rushing through my nostrils. I left my mouth ajar and tried to silence my exhalations with the wetness of my tongue. Concentrating on this action helped me forget my nausea for a minute or two, but when I glanced behind me and saw how many rows of important bespectacled people would witness the disaster should I lose control and vomit, my stomach churned with a vengeance. It was like being on the edge of a horizontal cliff. Don’t. look. back. I told myself.
I figured that if I could fall asleep, I might be able to prevent the accident. But every time I closed my eyes, I would lose my focal point and my head would start to spin. When I would open my eyes, the sudden disorientation only added to the sickness. The first quarter of the lecture was a valiant display of mind over body. As the acid in my stomach became more and more volatile, the harder it was to stay calm, and the increasing level of panic only added fuel to the fire. I can’t remember the last time I focused so hard on anything. I began to lose control of my balance, and every few minutes my body would lurch as if I had just caught myself from falling asleep. I could feel the pressure building, and I wanted to burp to release some of the gas, but I was afraid that it might just cause everything to be let loose. The more nervous I got, the more the nausea increased, and the people around me began to be distracted by my twitching. Half an hour into her four complexly structured points, I found that if I just concentrated intently enough on the individual strands of red fuzz on the seat back in front of me, I could enter a state of hypnosis that might save me from a public upchuck.
I don’t think I heard a single thing she said. If I did, I certainly don’t remember it now, so I can’t tell you much about the lecture itself. Afterward, I heard people call her a genius and thank her for the life changing insights she imparted, so I assume it was a decent speech. But I can only suppose they were right. A little more than an excruciating hour after it had started, a standing ovation shook me from my hypnosis, and I honestly believed the cheering was for me. A wave of pride and utter relief rushed over me, and with the pressure of humiliating myself gone, the nausea demon was exorcised. I, not Judith Butler, deserved most of the gratitude and appreciation that was exuded by the five hundred people in attendance that night.
If I had failed in the battle against the weakness of my flesh, and unleashed my partially digested meal upon the crowd, what, do you suppose, would stand out greater in the minds of those daylight depraved academics? Judith, the great feminist—or me—the disgusting undergrad who effectively stained the memory of her with an unintentional assault of bodily failure? Which story would you choose to tell when asked how the night went?
So, Judith Butler, you are welcome. Although you received all the credit, it was I, the unsung hero, who saved us both from unfortunate circumstances. Allow me to misquote you. “Let’s face it…one does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone.” It’s funny to think of how close we are at all times to that one step towards becoming completely undone. Fortunately, my best efforts did succeed that warm Arabian night. But if they hadn’t, I rest assured that you would have had the compassion to handle the situation with as much grace as rests in the wisdom of your words: “Whether or not we continue to enforce a universal conception of human rights at moments of outrage and incomprehension, precisely when we think that others have taken themselves out of the human community as we know it, is a test of our very humanity.”
Well said, Judy.
Until next time, your hero,