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Dixie Through Egyptian Eyes: An Egyptian scientist's 1950 travels in the southern US

The memoirs of Asharaf El-Bayoumi offer some provocative cross-cultural observations on the 'American Dream' in the middle of the last century

Ahram Online , Monday 5 Mar 2018
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Colored Water: Dixie Through Egyptian Eyes, by: Ashraf El- Bayoumi, Mosaic Design Book Publishers, 2016. pp. 184
 

Retired Egyptian professor of physical chemistry and biophysics, Ashraf El-Bayoumi, who has been living in the United States for decades now, has released a volume of memoirs entitled Colored Water: Dixie Through Egyptian Eyes.

The book is a series of insightful, humorous and profound accounts of the author's experiences – as a young, curious Egyptian – as he traveled to the US from Alexandria for graduate studies in chemistry during the fifties.

The word "Dixie" refers to the southern states of United States, especially those who formed the Confederacy during the nation's civial war.

The memoirs offer some provocative cross-cultural observations on segregation, the "American Dream", race, identity, science, sexuality, love, academia, religion, tradition, personal freedom, social status and class during the 1950s.

While written from the perspective of an Egyptian living in America for the first time, anyone who has found themselves immersed in an entirely new and different culture might identify with the contrast between one's pre-conceived notions and the actual experiences and impressions one has on departing the "motherland" for the unfamiliar.

In his short review of the book, author Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, says, "Ashraf El-Bayoumi weaves in his memoirs a thought provoking, personal serial of his experiences in immigrating to America in the 1950s. Those interested in a perspective of segregation in the South through a unique Egyptian 'outsider' lens should read this compelling and witty memoir."

Colored Water offers the experience of the author, who arrived suddenly in a new society that is different in every respect from his own, without any preparation or realistic expectations – a situation that is both exciting and thought provoking.

The author attempts to convey to the reader the intense joy arising from the exposure to new music and songs, unconventional customs, pop culture, unfamiliar religious expressions, unusual climate and habitats, thrilling sports and glamorous forms of entertainment.

In addition, he recalls the thrill associated with his journey into the realm of science, the serious challenge of excelling in scientific research, advancing his knowledge and mastering complicated scientific tools. Thus the excitement of science lies at the heart of his joyful American experience.

In the first chapter, entitled Colored Water, the author describes his first encounter with segregation during a train ride from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. The title of the episode (and the book) derives from an event that occurs upon arrival at the train station. There were two water fountains, one labeled “White”, the other “Colored”.

The author – sensitized to the notion of America as a “wonderland” – insists on drinking from the “colored” fountain, expecting cold purple, red, or green water to quench his thirst.

He then moves to the next chapter, where he introduces the reader to the author's home environment, the Mediterranean town of Alexandria ("Iskendereya" in the local tongue), before embarking on a long journey to Florida.

The chapter describes the author’s reaction to the news of receiving a fellowship to study in the United States, along with his anticipation and perception of the U.S. It also provides a glimpse of life in Alexandria in the early fifties, the author’s family background, brief references to the political climate, the author’s falling in love with his neighbour, the engagement period, and finally his departure for America.

He also recounts American songs that he heard during the first few months in the USA, and describes his various joys, surprises, and misunderstandings, including being puzzled that a depressing song mourning the death of a baby is frequently aired on the radio. This leads to a discussion of current American and Egyptian songs and their cultural implications.

El-Bayoumi also describes the first encounter with gay culture in the fifties, when a bus-stop cafeteria frequented by the author was raided and arrests were made. The author was startled upon learning that the cafeteria was also a hangout for gay men. Among those arrested was an acquaintance, a post-doctoral research scientist. The incident forced the university community, including the author, to take positions.

He then relates the experience of renting a flat in the U.S. and his reactions to evangelists, religious healing and lively Black Churches, as well as a meeting with a remarkable black woman who educates him about the culture and grievances of African Americans.

The last three chapters – or episodes, as the author calls them – are devoted to his scientific research, finishing his Ph.D. and returning to Egypt.

Dr. Ashraf El-Bayoumi was born in Cairo in 1934. Now a retired professor of physical chemistry and biophysics with a specialization in molecular spectroscopy and excited state dynamics, he studied, conducted research and held teaching positions at Alexandria University, Florida State University, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, Michigan State University and the University of California, Berkeley.
 

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