Tiny, middle-aged, with black western-styled hair, wearing matching skirt and top from Paris, the Arabic Sudanese woman stared at me. We were at a dinner party in Maadi, an exclusive suburb of Cairo.
Employing an Oxford English--plotted, selective, erudite if slow in passing through her lips--she made fun of me. Not of me, of course. That would have been rude. Rather, of all America--which is still rude, since I, like many Americans abroad, find it tiring to represent our whole country. Still, it would have been a mistake then, and would be one now, to bloat oneself on egotism. If that's the way one's going to behave away from home, then best to stay put in Darien or Skokie.
"The only thing I can never understand about America is Elvis. Why is it Elvis is such a phenomenon in your country? Elvis strikes me as ludicrous, a shameful preoccupation. Frivolous even when some people are merely poking fun at him, because, you see, they feel compelled to think, to waste time, on him, on Elvis. How can people of the U.S. square Elvis with the rest of their self-image: 'We are the biggest, the best'? It reminds me of that sect in India which prays to the image of a dancing elephant--which I find hilarious. Only, of course, the U.S. has money and power. So I find the Elvis thing...deeply troubling."
How can anyone, I was thinking, grasp America--the America which exists outside the texts of Jefferson or the newspeak of our recent presidents--without an elementary appreciation of Elvis? Yet this woman is saying, "The only thing about America I don't understand..."?
Feverish at the time, ravaged by parasites, I smiled, nodded, looked over the rim of the cocktail I wasn't drinking. "It doesn't seem to make sense, does it?" I said.
She polevaulted to the short novels of Tayeb Salih. "They say he doesn't write any more. Constance was just there, in London, to see him. She'll tell you he doesn't write." She motioned to the African-American woman sitting across the room. "Do you think London's the cause, Constance? Is it because he's cut off from his Sudanese roots? If he went home, of course, they'd kill him, somehow, some way. It's a tragedy, don't you think? A writer of his talent?"
She was not really interested in discussing Elvis. Why then had she brought him up? Only as an insult? Her pleasant manner said otherwise.
It seems, now, she had been extending a courtesy, as well as concocting a test. There in that parlor in Cairo, so far removed from the elastic bubble of American prejudices and pop culture, she had given me the chance to agree with her about Elvis. She considered her remarks to be, in fact, agreed on in advance. I worked at the university, I was a writer. She wanted to see if I would rubberstamp her implied views, that many persons up and down the economic ladder in America are daffy about Elvis. That, furthermore, this daffiness reflected an inward-looking, inherently delusory self-indulgence on the part of many Americans. If you can agree with that view, she was saying, we can talk. We might even be friends.
But she had heard my comment correctly, had heard the word 'seems.' By rocketing to Tayeb Salih, she left a burning hole where Elvis had been. Certainly it didn't matter that I was sincerely interested in Salih, or that I was teaching, at that time, his novel A Season of Migration to the North to my classes. The truth was, she was filling the air with Salih too.
Within a few minutes she was up, offering her apologies to the hostess. There was so much to do the next day, she said, she had a daughter coming in from Rome. "Well, if you absolutely must," said our hostess.
Standing in a group of us beside the door, I shook her hand, looked into her firm eyes. She was petite. I suppose I said something like, "Good talking to you." Certainly I didn't know then that she'd come to the party for one reason only--to see me, the American, to have a chance to draw me out on that one fateful subject, Elvis.
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