Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and Arudhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” are the only two books I’ve ever reread. Interestingly enough, the two books are polar opposites in terms of the stories they convey.
I read Roy’s book first, as a first semester senior in high school, during the most difficult moment of my life. Shortly thereafter, I read Seuss’ book as an acknowledgement of the four years I was about to experience.
Both texts really characterized the struggles I was living at the time but approached adversity very differently. “The God of Small Things” spoke to the part of me that was loathing inequality. Roy’s idea, “Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered the less it mattered. It was never important enough,” embodied every frustration that was plaguing me at the time.
By stark contrast, Dr. Seuss’ declaration, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go,” inspired me—and reminded me—that, with enough passion and persistence, I could work to help build societies where equity and equality are synonymous.
In coming to Duke, I aspired to have those two books prime my path. I told myself that I would take advantage of all the resources here so that, one day, I would be able to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. I wanted, in the words of Seuss “to go,” so that those living the reality of Roy’s words would have the chance to live in Seuss’ world.
Despite the fact that quotes from both of the books are pinned to my desktop, I rarely think about these two texts. After a long period of absence, the books reappeared in my life this week. A recent conversation with family members in Egypt brought back the worlds of Seuss and Roy. Ziad, a cousin my age, laughed at my questions about his schooling and sarcastically asked, “Why would school matter if I know that I will never escape the poverty of Egypt?” In his world, “nothing much mattered,” and if we applied Seuss’ message, there would be nowhere for him to go.
I had grown too accustomed to the world of Seuss in my Duke bubble of physics problems and forgot about the struggles of those in another reality, where “nothing mattered much.” Unfortunately, in the caste system that Roy writes about, as well as the social structures in Egypt, Burma and Syria, the people do not “matter.” In our society, however, I—and every other Duke student—“matter.” Our passions and our desires are relevant, and there are people on this campus who are paid to ensure that we know we matter.
Nonetheless, in Ziad’s world, nothing matters. He cannot educate himself since the economic turmoil in Egypt means that the last two years of high school cost more, on a weekly basis, than the monthly income of most Egyptian families. He cannot secure a job, because—well, no one can. In the grand scheme of the unrest in the Middle East, Ziad is just one of the millions of adolescents who don’t matter. And the truth is, as much as I want to, I can’t help him “matter.”
So, this week, as I read my neuroscience textbook and learned about topics such as convergence, I started to care more than I ever had before. I started to care because I know Ziad and others like him would give their lives to worry about neuroscience and calculus. Instead, they are worrying about how best to attain food and work towards a non-existent future.
This week, I realized that my calculus problem set, sleep deprivation and burnt bagel from Au Bou Pain are all irrelevant. This week, what mattered were the places I would go to make sure that people like Ziad would “matter.”
Nourhan Elsayed is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.