I was in the doctor’s office. He did your standard pulmonary-doctor things, frowning as he listening to my chest as I breathed sharply in and out, taking my pulse, taking my blood pressure. After listening to the burbling and whistling coming from my lungs, he took his stethoscope off and looked at me gravely. “This is bad.” He said. “I think you already know this.”
I actually smiled when he said this because it was such a relief to be told it wasn’t just in my head! I knew the truth all along.
I went to see this pulmonary doctor after my almost surreal experience in the emergency room a few days ago. He was great: he told me that it’s our job over the next month to work out exactly how to take care of me while I’m here in Egypt.
After my examination he sat me down and explained the various treatment options he was planning for me. I now have a whole new and exciting regime of drugs that involve not only strengthened versions of what I was already on but pills, nasal-squirty sprays and a foul-tasting elixir I’m honor-bound to spoon down three times a day. I’m supposed to do all this for two weeks and then go back in and see what’s what at that point.
Additionally, I’ve been told to keep the air conditioner on as much as possible and avoid going outside when the air is especially bad, or to take my inhaler before going out if I can’t avoid it. The doctor tells me that the air is particularly nasty these next few weeks because farmers are burning a lot of agricultural waste which puts all kinds of pollutants in the air. Plus I’m to avoid smoky rooms.
This actually is a problem bigger than me giving up my dalliances in shisha cafes. Where people are dancing, they are likely to be smoking as well. I haven’t met a single Egyptian adult who doesn’t smoke copiously. This is literally an occupational hazard for me. So either I follow his advice and am able to stay in Egypt but not do any research because I can’t leave the house to go out and meet people, or I throw caution to the winds and go to lots of parties but sacrifice my lung function in the process.
After a lot of thought and in depth conversations with my parents and my supervisor, we’ve come to a decision. I’ll stay until Christmas (depending on how my new drug appetizer platter goes) doing the fieldwork I originally planned, then I’ll spend some time doing interviews in parts of the world that don’t require me to bring my own oxygen tanks to do it.
This involves a wholesale switch of the focus of my PhD. My original plan was studying contemporary Egyptian social dance – parties, weddings, post-football matches; any social occasion in Egypt where people find themselves dancing – and what that means in terms of gender, socioeconomic class, power structures and blah-de-academic-jargon-yawn-blah. Now, I’ll be looking at the way belly dance has become a global phenomenon and what that means in terms of gender, socioeconomic class, power structures and blah-de-academic-jargon-yawn-blah.
Basically instead of doing interviews and what’s dryly termed participant-observation here in Egypt, which in my case would’ve involved me going to lots of parties with ordinary Egyptians and watching people dance, then maybe joining in where appropriate, I’ll now be focusing more on dancers and dance teachers around the world, especially in America and Britain. (Why there? Because I’ve already participated in those dance communities, so I already know a bunch of them.) I also get to spend lots of time trolling the internet for belly dance websites, online forums and videos to look at how the Web influences the global dance community.
It’s not nearly as exciting as my original plan, I gotta say. But: I get to keep my lungs. And I still get to stay for a couple more months and have a gander at things like dance tourism and how Egyptians feel about that. Plus because of the switch I’ll get to reconnect with some old friends and teachers from various places. That is one of the remarkable things about the belly dance community, it truly is global and people who do it do perceive themselves as part of something international. (I could go into a whole rant here about cultural appropriation, globalization, authenticity or lack of it and whether that’s even a valid concept, but I won’t. If you’re really that interested I’ll send you my dissertation.)
My supervisor, when I told her what was happening, was so great. She sent me an e-mail right away saying, don’t sacrifice your health. Nobody can ask that of you. If you need to leave right away, just do it and we’ll figure the research part out later. We spoke on the phone the next day and I mentioned that when I realized how bad things were I was really nervous I’d have to quit my PhD at first before I thought of some ideas about how my research plan could change. Her response was that pretty much every researcher has to change their plans at some point; it’s sort of inevitable. At least, she said, when things like emergency room trips happen to you, it puts things in perspective and keeps the paper part from looking so daunting.
She’s absolutely right. I’ve seen a number of research student friends and colleagues practically asphyxiating themselves with anxiety over having to switch around parts of their theoretical framework or their literature review. (For those of you not as big nerds as me: a theoretical framework is like the commandments of your research. It’s the rules you run your work by, or disagree with in order to justify new rules that you make up, as the case may be. Your literature review is where you describe everything that anybody else has already written on your subject. Keeping with the biblical analogy, it’s the Old Testament part.) I mean, these are just problems with words on pages. Big, important problems, of course: if I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be a PhD student! But still, in comparison with the threat of having to go back to the emergency room in Cairo, interviewing a different set of people and having to rewrite my research proposal seems like small potatoes. So what? I already did one, so clearly I can do another one.
One small regret is the loss of the excellent travel journal that I’ve been able to share with all of you at Skirt! because of my time here in Cairo. But (assuming all goes well with the medication extravaganza) there are still two months worth of adventures and follies ahead of me yet here in Egypt–and I’m sure I won’t stop having those just because I’m somewhere else! Most important, as I said, all these problems with my health have really put things in perspective: instead of the end of the journal, this will really be just the beginning.
(Speaking of follies, have I told you that I dropped one of my roommate’s shirts off the balcony laundry line when I was trying to take it in today?)