In my short academic life I have realized that I often need to travel so far away to go back to my roots and myself. There is much that I am still learning, and much that needs to be undone.
After more than two years of studying “affect,” I finally feel like I’m beginning to understand what it actually is. This is a eureka moment for me, but also a very sad one, as it dawns on me that I’ve always known what it is, even as I’ve sat, cowardly, with my German colleagues, wondering with them about the nature of affect.
I want to take you away from the present day; out of the structured, hierarchical classroom and on a number of short journeys through my teenage and childhood memories, as I try to remember what I know. I’m struggling to unlearn and relearn against the grain of internalized colonization and what is permissible in modern-day critical academia, which is so often split along racial and gendered lines.
As I walk with my mom back to our small apartment on the fifth floor, she shouts “assalamo alaykoum” to an empty house.
I ask her, “Mom, who are you talking to? There is no one at home!”
She explains, “ahl al-beyt. I am greeting the people of the house.”
I am a teenager, an angry one. We are on vacation with my mother’s family, a majority of women with no husbands or fathers in sight. My mom calls me over, along with my aunt, the clairvoyant of the family, to discuss some of the eerie dreams I’ve been having lately. “Tell her about the dreams you’ve been having,” she instructs me. I tell my aunt the dream as she listens attentively, then she claims that I am also a clairvoyant and gives me tips and advice — religious and otherwise — to foster my spirituality and encourage me to be more attuned to metaphysical worlds. I laugh, make fun of them, and never practice any of her advice.
The women in my family are hysterical. The women in my family are superstitious. I will become a woman of science. I believe in knowledge, in my mind, in what I can understand and what I can see.
Now I am in my early 20s. I believe wholeheartedly that my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts and all the women in our family are superstitious, despite their education. They are irrational and illogical. I determine that I’m not going to be like any of them. I aspire to be like my dad, who is an engineer. I am and will be a rational, intelligent and realistic woman who believes in science. Yet, as my dad gets older and sicker, I watch him cry and talk to God or non-existent beings. I tell myself that he is sick and this is why, and that I will never be like him either.
What is affect? As I read in the works of Western scholars like Canadian social theorist Brian Massumi and French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: It is a pre-lingual, corporeal, non-rational force that precedes emotion. I do not trust what I do not see, hear or even read.
During this time my mother starts to read and watch television shows about new-age religions, healing and energy, which were in vogue in Egypt at the time among certain classes. She finds a new vocabulary with which to talk to me about what I refuse to believe or feel, and I ridicule her constantly for it.
I sit in the classroom at university wondering what affect is and making fun, along with everyone else, of the prospect of studying such nonsense. But I know what it is, I have always known. Not the jargon of course, not the academic language, but I have always lived with and among this “energy,” this intensity of feeling. I was repeatedly encouraged by the women in my family to acknowledge and recognize the affective potential of beings, things, places and spaces, as I cringed and ran away into science, into rationality, into a German university.
I sit here in Berlin and recall all of these instances that I am ashamed of, which I never shared. I sit with “civilized, rational” academics and wonder about what there is outside of language, outside what we can see, hear and touch. I wonder about what is, and has always been, common wisdom in my “backward, superstitious” family.
Such affect is the very substance of life. I realize this now, and I believe it because I read it in English, in a book, recommended to me by my German colleagues, published by a prestigious institution and loaned from a library in a German university.