by Len Lear
”I have been reading your beautiful, sad and deeply moving story, learning a lot of disturbing history about something I thought I knew about but never saw in such depth or personal detail. This is an important memoir that needs to be read and can have a powerful impact. It’s timely, original and written with a painful authenticity. It evokes tears and also some laughter, with a great sense of compassion and empathy. I suspect I’ll carry your story in my head and heart henceforward, as so many events of the world today continue.”– Alan Rinzler, former editor, Simon & Schuster.
This stunning review is typical of the many ethereal reviews for the recently published book, “First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God: An American Feminist in the Middle East,” by Chivvis Moore (published June, 2016, by North Loop Books, 422 pages).
The title comes from an Arab proverb reminding us that while it’s all very well to trust in providence and have faith that everything will work out, it does not let us off the hook from doing whatever we can at the same time to ensure a favorable outcome.
Normally I only write about books with a local angle. In most cases the author lives or used to live in or near Chestnut Hill. However, I have to make an exception for this remarkable book and its unique author. Moore, 71, is a lesbian and feminist who lived for 16 years in the Arab world, including 11 years in the Palestinian West Bank, controlled by Israel. Most of us would assume that an avowed lesbian and feminist could not possibly survive intact while living for so many years in the Arab world, but Moore did survive and thrive.
She has earned her living as a journalist, carpenter and general building contractor, editor and teacher and now works with Zawaya, a non-profit organization that seeks to contribute to the multicultural discourse of the San Francisco Bay Area with the Arab arts. She lives in Oakland, California, with her partner.
We conducted the following interview with Chivvis last week. We are running the interview in two parts but still do not have enough room for the entire interview. However, it will appear in full on our website:
What does the name Chivvis mean? Is it an ethnic name?
Chivvis was my mother’s name before she married. My maternal grandfather’s origins are murky, and although speculation is the name is Welsh, we do not know for sure either its origin or its meaning. It is my middle name. I was never much attached to my first name, Nancy, which my parents changed to Anne, after my mother’s mother, and her mother before her. I switched to Chivvis when I was working as a newspaper reporter and didn’t feel I was getting the respect from some of my readers I would get if they thought I might be a man. The change worked.
Where did you grow up? What is your academic background? When did you realize you were a lesbian?
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1944. At age 7, I moved with my parents and brothers to Rio de Janeiro for two years, then São Paulo for one. On returning to the U.S., we lived in Michigan for three years, then New York for five. I attended Radcliffe College and received a Bachelors Degree with honors from Harvard University in 1967. The only other degree I have is from the American University in Cairo, where I received an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the end of a teaching scholarship. I realized I was a lesbian in my first year in college.
What kind of work did you do after college?
My first paid job was on community newspapers in Harrison, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was in high school and college. My first paid job after graduating from college was as a reporter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. My next job was as news reporter and feature writer for The Daily Review in Hayward, California.
I then returned to work with the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, where I had volunteered when I was in college. I worked as editor for the National Indian Training and Research Center in Tempe, Arizona, and, along with Navajo and Pima colleagues, helped the tribe initiate a community newspaper and radio station. I taught business English on the reservation through Central Arizona College.
From Arizona, I moved to Mendocino, California, where I worked first as a waitress, then as a housemaid and finally as a carpenter. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and joined the Carpenters Union. Then two friends and I got our contractors’ licenses and established a women’s carpentry company, Seven Sisters Construction, Inc. Eventually, I moved to Albion, California, and worked there as North Coast Sisters Construction.
Why did you go to the Middle East in 1978? / Did you think it would be temporary?
In 1978, I read “Architecture for the Poor,” by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, and left for Egypt, hoping to volunteer with his project building homes of mud brick in Islamic style for Egyptians with little money. I planned to go for a year, and at the end of that year, I returned to the U.S. and worked again with Seven Sisters. I did not go back to the Middle East again until the First Gulf War.
Did you learn to speak Arabic? / Did you have trouble communicating because of the language barrier?
In 1978, English was not as widely spoken in Egypt as it is now. I did study Arabic three nights a week at a school run by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, and Arabic was the only language spoken in the carpentry shop where I worked that first year, but I do not learn well by ear, and my progress with the language was slow. When I first stepped ashore in Alexandria, I spoke not a word of Arabic and, using a phrase book and place names, made my meaning clear to men, women and children, who took me by the hand and led me, sometimes clear across the city, wherever I wanted to go. Many times people paid for my transportation on train or bus, knowing I had no understanding of Egyptian currency or fares.
Luckily for me, French, which I had learned in school, was more likely to be spoken by those who were educated, because the French had been among the country’s colonizers. This was the language I spoke with several Egyptians whom I came to know quite well and who helped me enormously to understand much of what was going on and many aspects of the culture. Hassan Fathy spoke English, as well as Arabic and French, and Halim, the young man who had lent my friend the book in the U.S. and who became a good friend of mine in Cairo, spoke perfect English.
But through the entire year, gesture, guessing and all the nonverbal ways we find to communicate when we don’t have language were my mainstay in the shop, on the street, in shops and eating places. I would never say that I “had trouble” communicating; my lack of language and the misunderstandings that spawned brought out the humor in many situations for everyone involved.
Did you dress as a Westerner during all your years there? Were you ever harassed for being a woman? For being an American? For being a lesbian?
I did dress as a Westerner but as a certain kind of Westerner: I wore long-sleeved shirts and long loose pants always. I never wore sleeveless shirts or shorts or shirts that were not buttoned up in a modest way. Except for the fact that I sometimes wear shorts in the US, that was how I usually dress anyway. The only time I did not wear Western clothes was the first year in Egypt in 1978 and ‘79; I wore a men’s “gallabiya” in the carpentry shop, but that was entirely my own idea.
Do most Americans harbor misconceptions about the Middle East? If so, what are they?
Yes. They certainly do. Americans often think Arabs are backward, ignorant, misogynist, violent, fanatical, extremist, ultra-religious and primitive. This is the portrait that American films have always shown, and now much of our media and many of our politicians are spreading the same false images of Arabs and other Muslims.
More information at www.chivvismoore.com.
— To be continued