I was walking down the hallway discussing different administration problems – both in our department and more generally in our college – with Françoise. Just as I was saying to Françoise, “It’s not only because I’m the department harpy that I say all this,” Hassan stepped out of his office.
Hassan showed his boyish grin under his sparse grizzle and asked, “What’s a harpy?”
“You know, the bird-woman thing in Greek mythology.”
“I don’t know about Greek mythology.”
“You don’t ‘do’ that in the Maghreb?”
“Soo . . . you don’t carry on the myth of civilization rising from Athens in linear progression to Mecca, Alger, Casablanca as it was supposed to do to Paris, Rome, Washington?”
Hassan giggled. “Nope.”
“So I can’t talk not only about harpies, but about medusas, or about promethean endeavors.”
“It’s all Chinese to me.”
In a way, it sounded refreshing. None of that Acropolis weight laid on the shoulders right from middle school. Not that I minded it. I remember being disappointed in getting an answer marked wrong in our mythology quiz in seventh grade. The teacher had asked when Persephone rose to the surface, and I said, after six months. But she wanted us to say Spring, so I didn’t get the points. Then I was shocked to find out how badly the other students did. Didn’t they dig this stuff? It was fun, I thought.
To Hassan I explained the mythological bird-woman, then tried to explain the metaphor. It’s almost as difficult as explaining a joke. “ . . . so I’m saying I’m ornery, insistent, always after everybody about something.”
The smile flashed again. “Are you?”
Boy was that a blow. That had nothing to do with culture. I was crushed simply by Hassan’s two-word question.
After all the noise I made I simply had no reputation.
It meant that I was going to have to howl even more loudly to earn it.
published 5 November 2012