Diaspora Disconnections with the aid of Technology by Mary Barghout

On a day in late 2020 I visited my parents. I figured I would try to show my baba, who is in his mid 70’s, how to login to the Facebook account I created for him. How to use the Facebook messenger app to call his sisters in Egypt. How to not need an Africa calling card anymore. It’s 2020 after all. Even the guys I occasionally buy his calling cards from in bodegas give the standard response of “Why are you even using these? You can call Egypt with WhatsApp.” To which I respond in my autopilot voice, “Yes I know that, but it’s for a person who does not know the intricacies of how to use applications on a smartphone.” 

I figured a pandemic is as good a time as any to learn all the ways you can call your people for free. My sister had finally gotten my parents a smart phone so we could at least use FaceTime to stay in touch with them. But what about the other parts of my baba? He needed to stay in touch with people in Egypt too. They worried about him too. Various aunties contacting me via Facebook to ask me about him had become a frequent occurrence. 

I had become a sort of human transmitter. If they left me messages in Arabic I would call my dad and read the messages out loud in my broken pronunciations of Arabic. So in addition to being “between” things as a mixed-heritage woman (my mother being White of the Swedish/Irish/who knows what else variety) I am literally splitting an ocean and the time-space continuum into smaller fractions as I pass along messages.

I login to his Facebook app. I show him what the icon looks like on the screen in the hopes that he will be able to use this to connect with his remaining siblings in Egypt. 

This entire thing got me thinking that we need to do better for SWANA (South West Asia/ North Africa) elders in the U.S. There are common entry points for depression namely, empty nests, financial difficulties etc. are potentially abundant and yet how difficult must it be to feel like you are disconnected from your first language. From your family. From the cultural products of the country you were raised in. How tragic that the magic of YouTube, which could allow my baba to listen to Oum Kalthoum again, or watch some seedy Egyptian comedies from the ‘70s is unavailable to those like him, without a working knowledge of technology. Having Facebook is a step towards remedy right? A step towards independence and enjoyment and the random entertainment of being a human.

But then, his hands are shaky. And the phone screen is too small. My mom’s eyesight is not as good as it once was so the screen size is not ideal for either of them. After I go to the trouble of visiting and logging into Facebook, my sister ends up giving them an Ipad to help with the screen size.

I then get a message from one of my co-conspirator cousins in Egypt. One who had previously helped me to fold countries and miles into origami birds of lightness. She says her mom wants to talk to my dad. However he is not logged into Facebook on the tablet. 

The work never ends. After all the work they did to raise me, it seems like the full circularity of it all becomes apparent as I try to do what I can, when I can, to help make some of the geographical distances of our planet, into small spaces where the wrinkles of an eye and a toothy smile take decades off the face of my baba. 

Mary Barghout is a mixed heritage multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Minneapolis. Her experiences as an Egyptian American woman, and the many spheres of juggling that come along with it are complicated and help her to see the complexities in the world. She likes to name them, address them and live in empathy for the complexity in all people.

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