“You Like to Have Some Cup of Tea?” and Other Questions About Complicity and Place



“We need to do more, Mom,” my son tells me. He’s fifteen, supports the Kurdish resistance and fancies himself an anarcho-socialist (“It’s not like being an anarchist, Mom, okay?”). The Young Socialist lives in a state of perpetual indignation about the state of the world. He insists that governments can and should do better, and that capitalism is the root of almost all problems—past, present, and future. He hopes for radical social change, but when I call him an idealist, he’s furious: “It’s practical, that’s all. Marx and Öcalan, their ideas would work if people weren’t just so… stupid. And greedy.” I usually tell the Young Socialist that, because I’m a literature professor, my version of “do more” is of the teaching and writing sort, rather than the man-the-barricades sort, which I know disappoints him. He says: “We’re all complicit, Mom. You’re white and a professor, and there’s no way to escape your own privilege, even if you’re only white by accident.”

Now, on the one hand, I’m delighted that he perceives race as an accident of birth and understands that only sheer dumb luck made him our kid instead of a kid in a concentration camp on the southern U.S. border, or in any one of the hundreds of temporarily permanent refugee camps around the world. On the other hand, his zealous certainty can be exhausting in the extreme, especially given that his views are untethered to things like taxes, rent, or health insurance.

His absolutism prevents him from seeing that, mostly, I agree with his diagnosis of the world’s ills. But at fifty-something, I am more comfortable with incremental change than he is. Incremental, in his mind, is insufficient.

When I came up with the idea that we take a family trip to South Africa—the last “big trip” before my older son left for college—I thought that maybe one benefit would be helping Young Socialist gain a bit of nuance about political and social change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had a different opinion: “Why would we want to go to such a racist place?” he asked. The various answers I offered—learning some history, exploring a new part of the world, spending family time in an amazing place—got no traction. All he saw was South Africa’s racist past and contentious present. I told him that his certainty reminded me of how people react when I tell them that I live in the United Arab Emirates: they imagine the Gulf only as a swirl of oil rigs, jihadis, and veiled ladies, with the occasional abject worker crouched in the background. The Young Socialist didn’t like that comparison. He insisted that while people were wrong about the UAE, he himself was right about South Africa. “We’ll see,” I said. I thought about the conclusion of Their Eyes Were Watching God, when Janie Mae Crawford says that “you got tuh go there tuh know there.” Taking her words as my intention, I booked our trip and hoped that maybe YS would see that positive change is possible, even if “perfect” remains out of reach.

Entrance to Robben Island

What I hadn’t expected was the education that I would receive: our trip pushed me to think about my life in Abu Dhabi, particularly the discomfort that I’ve come to think of as privilege’s constant companion. Discomfort coils inside the easy mobility that’s available to me courtesy of my whiteness and my American passport. As we traveled in South Africa, it occurred to me that the tiny first step of “doing more” begins with examining the narratives you use to explain your relationship to the world. If we can’t—or won’t—interrogate the nature of our relationship to the structures of power and the ways in which we may (consciously or not) benefit from inequities, then how can we expect societies, communities, governments to change? And how, then, can “more” ever become “enough”?


Struggling with these questions, I turned to fiction, as I always do when in search of some sort of truth. In this case, I dug out my copy of Nadine Gordimer’s brilliant 1981 novel, July’s People, which imagines, thirteen years before it actually happened, the collapse of apartheid. Or at least, it seems as if apartheid has collapsed, but one of the many brilliances of the novel is that we never know if the armed revolt it describes will be successful, or if it’s just a short-lived upheaval, like the others that Maureen Smales and her husband, Bam, have weathered. At the beginning of the novel, the couple and their two young children have been rescued from violence in Johannesburg by their “houseboy,” July, who never explains why he helps them. July smuggles the family out of the city and into his small village in the bush; the novel begins with Maureen waking up in a ramshackle mud hut.

You like to have some cup of tea?

That’s the opening line of the novel. July asks the question of Maureen, proffering a mug of tea, “as his kind has always done for [her] kind,” regardless of the fact that she is sleeping on a pallet on a dirt floor. Maureen and Bam think of themselves as “good” South Africans: they go to protests and rallies, join leftist political groups, and tell themselves that July appreciates being their servant. Early in their marriage, Maureen and Bam had thought about leaving the country, “when they were young enough to cast off the blacks’ rejection as well as white privilege,” but they didn’t go. They tell themselves that they stay because South Africa is their country too; they don’t admit to themselves that they stay because “they couldn’t get their money out—Bam’s growing savings … Maureen’s little legacy of De Beers shares … the house there was less and less opportunity of selling as city riots became a part of life.” They get trapped by their own privilege, the very thing that would have enabled them to leave.

The Smales family’s decision illustrates, at least in part, what is meant by the novel’s epigraph, which is a comment from Antoni Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks (written between 1929 and 1935 as the Fascists came to power in Italy): “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great diversity of morbid symptoms appear.” Bam and Maureen can’t quite bring themselves to relinquish the benefits that accrue to them from the “old ways,” but until they and others like them let go, nothing new can emerge. Gramsci’s comment still resonates: we can see all around us the destructive lengths to which people will go to preserve the narratives that keep them in power.

When Gordimer published July’s People, it was speculative fiction, but now it’s historical—and like all good historical fiction, it holds up a mirror in which we can see ourselves. When I look at Maureen, in fact, I wonder if I should also see myself. I’m never sure about Maureen: Is she a good person trapped in a terrible situation? Is she amoral and passive to the point of culpability? Because she is South African by birth, can we fault her decision to stay? Now that I live in the UAE, these questions press harder than they did when I first read the novel, decades ago. I am, after all, Maureen’s “kind”: a middle-aged white woman who lives with her husband and two children in a nondemocratic society. I came to this place willingly, with that narrative of oil, jihadis, and repression looping in my head, and like Maureen, I experience a kind of privilege that fluctuates: I have privilege in the UAE because of my whiteness, but that privilege (like Maureen’s) is undermined by gender. As a Westerner in the UAE, I have privilege, but as a non-Emirati, that privilege is impermanent: I am a guest worker whose visa could be revoked, theoretically, at any moment.

Adding to the complexity of my life in the UAE is that I’m married to a man who was born in New York to parents from different parts of Asia: his father is a Parsi, born in pre-Partition Karachi; his mother was from the Philippines. Our children are browner than I am and paler than he is; they think of themselves as “mixed,” and in elementary school, whenever they had to make a self-portrait, they colored their faces in various shades of tan. In the States, I’ve sometimes been asked if I were their nanny (particularly in the summer, when the kids get much tanner than I do), and in Abu Dhabi, my husband has been, on more than one occasion, referred to as our driver, because to casual observers, his brown skin can only signify that he is “the help.” And yet it is only in Abu Dhabi that, when he mentions he is a Parsi, people nod with recognition instead of assuming he means “Farsi” or saying “a what?” (Parsis are Zoroastrians who were pushed out of Persia by the Muslims in the tenth century and ended up in various parts of the subcontinent, including Karachi and Mumbai.) The Young Socialist seems to have no problem understanding the way his family blurs boundaries and definitions, but that complexity does not yet extend into his thinking about geopolitics. His railing against capitalism, for instance, can be followed by complaints about the slowness of the Wi-Fi connection: he lives, at the moment, pretty much irony-free. And yet he cannot stop trying to educate us, as evidenced by his reading aloud to us, while we traveled, from the copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that he’d lugged with him on the trip. I came to think of his readings—a sentence or two invoked without context—as Zinn koans, offered as meditative tools.


In Abu Dhabi, all “the help”—in fact, most of the workforce—comes from somewhere else. The non-Emirati population hovers at about eighty-five percent, which means that there are almost no Emirati waiters, or taxi drivers, or shop clerks, or store managers. For the most part, Emiratis have government jobs, often in upper management. In the smaller, less Westernized Emirates, where it’s not unusual to see goats wandering through the gas stations, there are Emirati-owned date and camel farms. But even in these smaller cities and towns, it’s likely that the person scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins is a thirty-year old Filipino man wearing a wedding ring, or that the restaurant delivery guy turns out to be a grandfatherly-looking fellow from Islamabad. There are no “teenage jobs” in the Emirates, no part-time gigs at the pizza place or grocery store.

The Young Socialist and his less political older brother have chores at home and pick up occasional babysitting or tutoring jobs, but there isn’t much more than that available for them to do, and they complain that none of their friends have chores (because their families have full-time domestic help). We have a housekeeper who comes in two mornings a week (to me the very height of luxury), but the boys do all their own tidying and laundry. One day after school, YS came home full of wonder: “It’s like he knew,” he said, reporting that an Emirati classmate had insulted him by saying, “You do your own laundry,” and then called him khadama, which connotes not just “maid” but also “slut.” Young Socialist physically resembles his Filipina grandmother, and thus he also resembles the thousands of Filipinos who live in the UAE, a significant percentage of whom are employed as domestic workers.

The slur reveals one of the ironies of “progress”: it’s likely that the grandparents of the kid who insulted YS were tent-dwelling nomads, who eked out their living as goat and camel herders. The Bedouin didn’t have oil wealth until the 1960s; the Emirates themselves only came into existence in 1971. My children take great delight in teasing me about being older than the country in which we live. As oil wealth grew, so too did an unofficial caste system that keeps “unskilled” migrant labor at the bottom and makes it almost impossible for non-Emiratis to become citizens (without government intervention, an individual must live in the UAE for thirty years and speak fluent Arabic to even begin the application for UAE citizenship). The origins of the UAE rest with a largely illiterate population who worked with their hands—and whose descendants are now so wealthy that “worker” can be used as an insult.


Our second day in Cape Town, as we walked through the V&A Waterfront on our way to the ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years of his twenty-seven-year prison sentence, we passed a group of drummers, all men wearing dashikis and surrounded by tourists taking pictures. The musicians must hate this ersatz authenticity, I thought, but I put some rand in their basket nevertheless. And then I looked again. The drummers were on a raised stage; they seemed to be having a good time; the music was fantastic. Why was I so sure they were being exploited? My assumption seemed like a version of Maureen’s blithe belief that July was happy as her houseboy: in both cases, us nice white ladies were making interpretative decisions about other people’s lives. For all I knew, the drummers were a group of enterprising musicians for whom the Waterfront performances were a lucrative side hustle.

View from Robben Island ferry

The queue for the Robben Island ferry stretched from the ticket-taker’s gate near the dock, up a flight of stairs, and out to the street. The mood was festive but gently so, as if we were a crowd of happy churchgoers. Some people in fact seemed dressed as if for church (it was Tuesday), in flounced skirts and elaborate headwraps; others seemed ready for safari, in khaki-colored shirts and broad-brimmed hats. Another group of people wore red bomber jackets and matching berets, looking like members of Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels, the self-styled street patrol group that some called vigilantes, who got their start in gritty 1970s Manhattan.

We moved forward slowly, past informational panels and videos that narrated thumbnail histories of Cape Town and Robben Island (Robbeneiland, “Seal Island”), starting with the indigenous Khoi and San peoples, through the Portuguese and Dutch colonists, to the installation of a leper colony on the island, and then to the creation of a penal colony. Outcasts, lepers, prisoners: human societies seem to coalesce by pushing out what is feared, as if it’s easier to define what we are not than to articulate what we are. We deem people untouchable and then behave as if that socially constructed status is contagious. (Hansen’s disease—leprosy—can be contracted only after months of close contact with someone who has the disease and is not being treated.)

In Abu Dhabi, many of the migrant workers, particularly those who do manual labor, live in enclaves at the far edge of the city. The road signs point to “labour camps,” but all you see from the road is a tall fence ringed with ghaf, the willowlike trees with deep taproots that are native to the Gulf. Beyond the fence, you might see some low-rise housing blocks and maybe the dome of a small mosque. To a tourist, the area might look like an inexpensive apartment complex, which, in one sense, it is. According to the law, workers’ residences must have adequate ventilation and AC (essential in a country where summer temperatures can stay above 120 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time), cafeterias, community spaces (a gym, a game room, maybe a small library and computer lab), laundry facilities, and so on. Depending on what time you drive by, you might also see big white buses lumbering along the dusty access roads to these compounds. Most of the buses are made by an Indian company, Ashok Leyland, and they are used primarily as shuttle buses, bringing workers back and forth between camp and work. Until 2011, when the first Ashok Leyland plant opened in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK is an Emirate just north of Dubai), the buses were manufactured in Chennai and shipped to the Gulf. Given that more than twenty-seven percent of the Emirates’ population come from India—particularly Southern India—it seems likely that there are men from Chennai now working in RAK to build the buses that they themselves ride, and that their wages will go back to their families in Chennai. Or Hyderabad, or Cochin, or Colombo, or Islamabad.

Much of the money that people make in the UAE gets sent home in the form of remittances, and the amounts are staggering: in the last quarter of 2018, more than ten billion dollars was sent somewhere else from the UAE. India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the U.S., and Egypt had the biggest shares of that amount. Those billions—in dollars, dirhams, dinars, rupees, rubles, ringgits—wend their way across the globe in wire transfers that trace the paths of modern migration. Bodies, objects, money: all in endless, interchangeable circulation. The wheels on the bus go round and round.

Supporters of Bobby Wine

Living in Abu Dhabi has made the abstraction of “global capitalism” a much more intimate concept, in part because I too am an economic migrant who came here to better support my family. The phrase “economic migrant” defines almost everyone, from the CEO of a multinational finance company to my housekeeper to a construction worker. And yet, within that category, there are significant differences: because of their income and education levels, for example, neither my housekeeper nor the construction worker would be allowed to sponsor visas for their family members, but the CEO and I could. The bigger your income, the more people you can sponsor. And yet we are all impermanent, regardless of our position. Shortly after we moved to Abu Dhabi, in 2011, an American journalism professor at one of the national universities had his visa revoked; he and his family moved back to the U.S. within the month. No one knows precisely why he was sent home; some said that he embroidered the story of his departure in hopes of making himself a cause célèbre; others said it was because he’d asked politically sensitive questions in his classroom; still others said he’d been too critical about the UAE on social media. I don’t know what happened; I only know that guest workers are always ultimately transient and our movements are not always our decision.

The typical narrative about unskilled workers in the UAE focuses on the kefalah system, which, on the face of it, seems benign: the employee comes to the UAE on the sponsorship of an employer who is supposed to handle the person’s visa and legal status for a fixed length of time. The employee is entitled to benefits under the law: insurance, medical care, a living wage, housing. As with most laws governing labor, however, in the UAE and around the world, policies aren’t always enforced, violations can be egregious, and the people who suffer the most are those least likely to feel that they can complain. What gets less attention are the violations that occur in home countries, even before people emigrate: false promises about jobs made by recruiting companies; ruinous interest rates being charged on the loans people use to pay for visas, immigration papers, airline tickets. Indeed, on the Ashok Leyland jobs page, I saw a warning about “fraudulent emails being sent in the name of Ashok Leyland … offering employment in exchange for money.” Recruiting companies aren’t supposed to charge fees to prospective employees, but they often do; it isn’t uncommon for workers to arrive in the UAE only to discover that they are trapped in debt: they can’t find other work, can’t pay their loans, and can’t send money home.

When I’ve explained to the Young Socialist how the UAE fits into the global system, he says the entire system is broken and we need to start again from scratch. If, with my incrementalist thinking, I point out that a total reboot probably won’t work, he tells me that I’m rationalizing on behalf of a corrupt system. His vehemence reminds me of the moment in The Big Chill when Jeff Goldblum tells his friends that rationalizations are better than sex. One of the friends protests that nothing is more important than sex, to which Goldblum retorts, “Ever gone a week without a rationalization?” Rationalizations keep discomfort at arm’s length: none of us wants to think that we are benefiting from the misery of others, and so we create stories that smooth the edges. Maureen tells herself that July likes being her houseboy. The YS is right, of course. It’s not just the kefalah system that’s broken; it’s the entire giant wheel of global capitalism that rolls inexorably over us all. And while some are crushed more completely than others, almost no one can escape unscathed.

I wasn’t as aware of that inexorable wheel when I lived in New York, even though we were stretched to the breaking point financially (two children on the combined salaries of two literature professors living in Manhattan is not a recipe for fiscal health). I did all the good progressive things—voted and donated and marched—and yet everything remained abstract: I could drop a dollar in the outstretched hand of the homeless guy, sign a petition—but if it all felt like too much, I could walk home along a different route to avoid seeing the cardboard shanty towns in Tompkins Square Park.

That (false) ease disappeared when I arrived in Abu Dhabi, where the spectrum of privilege is always on unavoidable display, from the unimaginable wealth of the sheikhs and finance-guru expats, who cruise the city in their Bentleys and Maseratis, to the daily experience of Saeed, who drives a school shuttle bus. “We are here to work,” he said. “If we get into trouble, we have to leave, and there is no work at home.” Thinking about the “trouble” that he wanted to avoid cast my own sense of safety in a different light. I feel safer in Abu Dhabi than anywhere else; I don’t lock my doors or hug my satchel close to my body, the way I do when I’m in the States. For people with no viable employment in their home countries and with the weight of their families’ well-being on their shoulders, the threat of deportation is a powerful deterrent. I know that my sense of “safe” is also bolstered by my whiteness, but Saeed feels the same way: “Is very nice here, very beautiful with gardens. And safe. At home, they shoot at you when you’re in the fields.”

I didn’t ask who “they” were. But I suppose many things are beautiful if you’re no longer worried about being shot.


The boat ride to Robben Island was glorious: Table Mountain and Lion’s Head gleaming up against an endless blue sky, an occasional seal leaping through the waves alongside us. It’s a long boat ride, maybe forty-five minutes, and I wondered if the prisoners saw the beauty as they were ferried toward jail. Can you appreciate beauty if you’re trapped, if the seals have more freedom than you do?

From the boat dock, tourists are herded to tour buses; it’s a set route—there’s no opting out. The guide on our bus was earnest but lighthearted, tossing gentle jokes at the bus driver. We trundled along past the few old buildings still standing, past the leper graveyard and a little church where, every Valentine’s Day, people can get married for free. The guide teased the bus driver about marrying her lesbian partner at the church, and our tour group applauded—only for the guide to say that he was kidding: the bus driver is still, in fact, single, but maybe there was someone on the bus who might be interested in a date? To my list of what I hadn’t known about South Africa, I added the legality of gay marriage.

To jolt along the roads of Robben Island is to drive through a history that has been replicated in almost every country in the world, whether it’s the story of slavery, pogroms, genocides, femicides. The list goes on and on and—if we are completely honest with ourselves—makes it impossible to say, “My people didn’t do that.” Because of course the chances are good that, at some point in your family tree, someone did something. Does anyone have a family tree on which every branch and twig grew on the right side of history?

At a rocky promontory from which we could see Cape Town nestled in the shadow of Table Mountain, we stopped at a solitary snack bar, where people bought Pepsis, coffee, candy bars. Waves smacked against the rocks, and penguins clacked and clamored, as did the tourists angling for penguin-based selfies. The Young Socialist struck up a conversation with one of the red berets. Turns out they weren’t Sliwa followers but supporters of Bobi Wine (born Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu), a singer who was elected to Uganda’s parliament in 2017. Wine calls himself the “ghetto president,” much to the chagrin of Yoweri Museveni, the actual president, who has been consistently “re-elected” to office since he seized power in 1986. Museveni, like all tyrants, brooks no criticism, which he deems bad for business, and as a result, Wine and his supporters, all of whom are outspoken critics of Museveni, have been beaten, threatened, and imprisoned. The Red Berets told YS that they’re in town for a concert, a benefit to show solidarity with Bobi Wine. Young Socialist was impressed. I imagined him thinking that these people were really “doing more,” unlike my paltry efforts in the classroom. Resistance, to the YS, should be dramatic and potentially dangerous.

As YS explained the conversation to me, eyes glowing, I realized two things: first, that his safety means more to me than social justice; and second, that I will probably never have to choose between his safety or justice, a luxury not available to Bobi Wine and his supporters. Despite ongoing harassment from the Ugandan government, Wine announced in July that he will run for president in 2021. When we heard this news, YS and I had the same thought: we hope he doesn’t get killed.

At the prison, the bus guide turned us over to a former inmate, a man with a profound bass voice that resonated in my bones. Former inmates lead all the tours of the prison: their voices narrate the reality of a place that tried for so long to keep them silent. But these men are getting old, and I wonder who will tell their stories when they can no longer speak for themselves.

We were led along a narrow hallway to a room that had once been a dormitory; bunk beds—rusted and small, with thin rush mattresses—stood behind us. Our prison guide paced as he talked, moving easily around the horseshoe of benches where we sat, and explaining that it was almost a relief when his twenty-year sentence began: “Detention was worse,” he said. “They do anything they want to in detention; no rules, because between arrest and prison, you don’t really exist.” When he stood in front of me, I saw a wet spot at the crotch of his trousers, which I thought must be a splash of water, except that it grew larger as he talked. And then I felt embarrassed: he told us that while he was in detention, one of the “treatments” he received was to have an electrical current zapped through his genitals. “It was surprising that I could have children, actually, a gift from God,” he said, nodding his head in thanks.

Trauma lives in the body, nestled deep and emerging without warning, like leprosy, which can remain undetected for as long as twenty years. The entire island tour was an exercise in the history of traumatized, quarantined bodies, bodies rendered “untouchable” through the twin engines of fear and greed. As we listened to the former inmate, the Africans in the audience murmured and swayed in assent, as if they were at a church service, but what I saw on the faces of the whites in the group, and was probably reflected on my own, was a sort of frowning concentration—I am really listening hard to what you’re saying—and perhaps also a little bit of shame: “my kind” did this to “his kind.” I felt myself wanting to apologize, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The flip side of white privilege: white guilt.

But wait, I told myself. I didn’t do this; I’m not South African; I spelled out DIVEST with masking tape on my mortarboard at college graduation in 1986 and railed at my parents not to invest with any companies that did business with South Africa. Protesting against apartheid was my first quasi-adult political action, outside of marching in abortion-rights marches. Was what I did enough? No. What else could I have done? Given who I was at twenty-one, I’m not sure.

“It’s not my fault.” That’s what we tell ourselves, right? We deflect and simplify, say that the men who instituted apartheid are the culprits, as if their actions can somehow be separated from the historic and ongoing need for whiteness to define itself over and against blackness. Maureen Smales tells herself that her discomfort with apartheid is a mark of virtue: because she didn’t invent apartheid, she sees herself as neither culpable nor complicit. She may be only a passive recipient of a corrupt system.

You like to have some cup of tea?

So what to do? Is there anywhere to escape the global net of complicity? According to the Young Socialist, we should go to Rojava, in the Kurdish region of Syria, which is governed through direct democracy. It’s a feminist egalitarian society that may have solved the problem of class-based inequity, YS tells me, which is why both ISIS and Assad are trying wipe Rojava off the face of the Earth. But let’s face it: I’m not going to join the Rojava militia. I’m too old, for one thing, and I hate guns, for another.

Is that why we make our pilgrimages to Robben Island, to remind ourselves that “something” can be done, that change is possible? Do we tour the prison as a way to imagine what we would have done in those circumstances, to assess the quality of our own bravery? The island has come to symbolize a story about the triumph of the human spirit, in which one heroic figure overcomes tremendous adversity. It’s a poetic inversion: once the symbol of entrenched injustice, Robben Island now exists as the site of change, as the crucible within which something new struggled to be born.

Nelson Mandela, of course, was not the only person in the prison. When the tour bus took us past the rock quarry where the prisoners were made to work, the bus guide pointed to a cave where the men ate their meager meals. The guide joked that those quarry meals were the first meetings of the post-apartheid government. Mandela had help, in other words: those with whom he talked in prison, those who smuggled his writings out of the prison, those who kept the cause alive while he was in solitary confinement. When we talk about “the triumph of the human spirit,” we would do well to remember that the human spirit rarely triumphs alone.

But we want desperately to believe that story of the triumphant hero, as if we are hardwired for hope. We want wickedness punished; we want justice to prevail. We remind ourselves that Mandela was freed, the prison was closed, apartheid was dismantled. These things are true.

Also true: there is radical income disparity between whites and blacks in South Africa, and pervasive inequities in access to education, clean water, medical care, digital technology. There is a long list of disadvantage and deprivation, manifestations of centuries of trauma rooted deep in the body of the country, symptoms that were enflamed by the regime of the ousted Jacob Zuma, who filched billions from the government coffers. Adding insult to the injuries suffered by the national body is that Zuma belongs to the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela’s party. Judas, some people call him.

We were in Cape Town two months before the 2019 presidential election, and political banners hung everywhere—for the ANC, for the Democratic Alliance (DA), and for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). I talked to a man who called himself Trevor—no relation to Mr. Noah, he said, grinning—who explained it to me: “It’s like this: the ANC is a spoiled child, greedy; the EFF is the problem child, stomping around; the DA is the middle child, maybe the one that can do something good.” Trevor, like everyone else I talked to, didn’t want the ANC to win but was nonetheless sure that it would: “The ANC, they go into the townships and make promises about everything, spend some money, maybe give some jobs, then after election, everything stops.” And indeed, the candidate of the “spoiled child” party, Cyril Ramaphosa, won with fifty-eight percent of the vote (the lowest percentage the ANC has ever received); the “middle child” came in second, with twenty-one percent of the vote. It remains to be seen if Ramaphosa will be able to cure the ills of the national body.

The EFF’s campaign centered on the need for reparation, giving the land back to the people. Trevor had nothing but disdain for this plan. “EFF wants to give back the land to the people, but what people? They mean blacks, when the land really belongs to us. I am Khoisan. So EFF is speaking nonsense. Besides, I say to you, look at Zimbabwe, look at Angola, and then at South Africa. Which is better, I ask you?” He pointed to a statue. “That’s Ceciljohnrhodes,” he said, pronouncing the name as one word. “Even if we take down all the statues, and all statues of Jansmuts [Jan Smuts], it all still happened. We have to leave the statues there so that people know what happened, know who is responsible. I came up through apartheid—I know. We leave the statues there.”

What do we do with history? Return the land? Destroy the statues? Stop telling the stories of oppression, torture, and death because they make people uncomfortable?

We met two men from Zimbabwe who would have agreed with Trevor. One of the two, a young man in his mid-twenties who introduced himself as Innocent, said that despite earning a college degree in accounting in Zimbabwe, he’d moved to Cape Town: “In Zimbabwe, there are no jobs, and there is a dictator there who makes all the rules.” Now Innocent works as a travel guide while he looks for a job teaching accounting at an international school, probably outside of South Africa. “People my color, we are dark,” he said. “The blacks here know we are not from here. They are afraid that we Zimbabweans will take their jobs.” Innocent, like everyone else we talked to, wanted the DA to win the election but knew that they wouldn’t. “The ANC is what they know,” he said. “Maybe people don’t want change?” He himself couldn’t vote, because he’d not lived in South Africa long enough. “In five years, I vote,” he said. “If I am still here.”


I can’t vote in the UAE. Even if I were to one day become a citizen, I wouldn’t be able to vote: elections came into existence here in 1971 and only for members of the Federal National Council (FNC), which is the UAE’s advisory council. But, yes, before you ask, women can vote—and drive, and hold high-powered jobs, and hold elected office. The president of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, recently decreed that the FNC, which has representation from all seven Emirates, must be fifty percent women, and the current Presidential Cabinet is thirty percent women, almost all of whom have advanced degrees and most of whom are under forty. All these women “cover”: the official public uniform of an Emirati woman is a black abaya and a black sheyla over her hair. If you saw one of these women on the streets of New York, would you assume she’s the oppressed victim of religious patriarchy? That’s an easy story, but it’s far from accurate.

Hijab—modesty—is one of the traditions of Islam, but the black abaya worn in public by Emirati women is in fact a sign of modernity: woven of light silk or cotton and shaped more like a dress rather than a cloak, it became the custom in the 1970s, at about the same time as the Emirates became a country. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the country and its first president, unified various tribal leaders of what are now the other Emirates by offering to share Abu Dhabi’s vast wealth (most of the UAE oil and gas is found in Abu Dhabi). Zayed insisted that girls receive an education, that houses of worship be built for religions other than Islam, and that land be set aside for nature conservancies. Progressive, you might say. Another angle: the current president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa, is one of Zayed’s thirty children, born from his seven wives.

Zayed remains such a powerful presence in the UAE that a tourist might be forgiven for thinking that he’s still alive (he died in 2004). And the more I know about his achievements, the more I am surprised that in the West he’s not known at all. But to acknowledge Zayed as one of the visionary leaders of the twentieth century would significantly complicate the story that the West tells about the Gulf.


The easy story I told myself about South Africa involved the status of the townships, which I’d thought of primarily as symbols of apartheid. I figured that because apartheid had ended, the townships would also have disappeared, as if by magic. But they’re still there, sprawled along the sides of highways and out in Cape Flats, where the apartheid government “settled” the thousands of people displaced by the declaration that District Six (an area in Cape Town near the waterfront) would become “whites only.” Cape Flats is miles from the city center and has never had adequate services, not even sufficient potable water. All I can see as we drive past are jumbles of shacks with corrugated tin roofs, telephone poles looped with snarls of wire from pirated cable and electrical lines, and laundry that flaps on clotheslines stretched between scrubby bushes. These transient communities remain, permanent in their impermanence, like the huge refugee camps in Jordan, Kenya, and elsewhere, testament to a set of complex narratives that outsiders cannot understand but only observe.

Leper Graveyard on Robben Island

The townships were the flipside of what I’d noticed as I’d planned our trip: ads for hotels that described their décor as “colonial elegance” or “nostalgic African style.” One place extolled its “British colonial style”; another talked about its idyllic views being as pristine as “the old settlers” would have seen. It’s like the languid scenes from Out of Africa, with Meryl Streep wearing swaths of linen and lounging in the tall grass with khaki-clad Robert Redford: beautifully curated landscapes without any, you know, colonialism in view.

The sales pitches are meant to invoke teak furniture, brass trim, cocktails on wide verandas, and picturesque animals on the horizon (the actual horizon, not the extinction horizon). The phrase erases, as capitalism likes to do, the fact of the labor that produces the furniture, the brass trimmings, the cocktails, the offer of a cup of tea. “Elegant” veils the means of production, lest the sight of the laboring body detracts from the pleasure of consumption. The snarled rows of tin shacks—like the workers’ camps in the UAE—strip away that illusion.

Trevor suggested we take a tour of the townships, because “they” like to have the chance to tell their stories, show how they live, maybe sell some of their artwork and crafts. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt zoolike to me, like going to swim with dolphins at a seaquarium, or like the scene in Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy Pilgrim is put in a cage and asked to mate with a kidnapped movie star for the edification of the Tralfamadorians. I did not want to be a Tralfamadorian in South Africa. But maybe—in a capitalist system—my cash was all I had to offer? Should I have gone to the township, purchased whatever was for sale, aware that my vacation rand were a tiny and inconsequential drop in the bucket of the world’s need? I took the easy way out, avoiding the site of what would make me uncomfortable, but now I wonder if that was a mistake.

Years ago, I saw a therapist who used to say, whenever I struggled with something, that I should “stay in the uncomfortable place.” I’d tell her that I didn’t like the uncomfortable place, because it was, well, uncomfortable, and she’d say, “But that’s where the work gets done.” Her comment has stayed with me even though I can’t always make myself follow her advice. Discomfort is unsettling and messy. It is also unsuppressable. Like water, it finds a way through our defenses, seeps into the very stories we use to try and keep it at bay.

July’s People ends with Maureen running alone toward the sound of a helicopter. We don’t know if the helicopter contains black revolutionaries who will kill her, or white rescuers, which would mean that the rebellion against apartheid has failed. I read this book for the first time when I was about fifteen, and I’d never before encountered a story that didn’t come to a tidy resolution: the final sentence is “She runs.” I didn’t know that novels could leave their readers in medias res, and I certainly didn’t know that running away was a narrative available to women. All these years later, I think it makes perfect sense that the novel ends in motion toward unknown, equally discomfiting possibilities: Maureen dies or apartheid survives.

I want to believe that I’d be different from Maureen, that I wouldn’t run away from husband, children, discomfort. I tell myself that, unlike Maureen, I am not afraid to look at the unflattering light cast by my white privilege, and that I am not afraid of complicated narratives. I hope I’m right. I don’t want to disappoint my son’s fierce idealism, which, in its simple binaries, can be exasperating and tiresome, but is nevertheless often inspirational in its clarity: he insists that we make the world a better place. I want to live up to his challenge to “do more,” although I am still wondering how and when we will ever reach the point when “more” becomes “enough.” Maybe the first step is to force ourselves to stay with the discomfort of complication. Maybe that discomfort will enable new and different stories to be born.



Deborah Lindsay Williams teaches in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. With Cyrus Patell, she is co-editor of The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 8: American Fiction Since 1940, for which she also wrote the chapter on children’s literature. Other writing of hers has been published in The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, The Rumpus, and Motherwell, among other publications.

[Purchase Issue 20 here.]

Photos courtesy of the author.

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