Friday, October 13, 2006

Today I was awoken by the Friday call to prayer. It was almost noon. I listened to the chanting and singing, the loudspeaker reverberating between buildings – at times, monotonous, at times lilting. I opened the back door and stood on the balcony, collecting laundry off the line, and the strange voice swelled and withdrew. It is still hot here, hotter than usual for this time of year. Yesterday it was 95 degrees in Cairo, while, in Illinois, my parents woke to 30 degrees and snow. Today it is 88, and the skies do not hold those dark clouds from the burning rice fields that have hovered the last few days. This week I finally put long-sleeved cotton shirts to the test. And I was no hotter than usual. See, it means something that I have been brazenly wearing my short-sleeved shirts and plastering my arms with 50 spf. Each time I look in the closet, I think about what my clothing will say about me when I step outside.

I don’t find the clothing issue too oppressive since I am a foreigner; therefore, it seems that I have more power to do what I want. If I am seen as a loose Western woman, there is little I can do to deter that, and if I were to cover my head, I would be a complete poser. But it’s weird to be a girl here. OK, foreign girl. I am almost thirty, but I must use the term “girl.” Anyway, the kinds of looks and words you get from men here have no relation to your age and are in no way to be taken as a badly-planned compliment or offensive forms of flattery because it doesn’t matter what you look like. If you are a woman, fat or skinny, flat-chested or big-breasted, you will get looked up and down and all around like you have never been looked at before.

After coming here, I met a couple of American women who said they suffer endless harassment. They said it tires them; they said they are on the verge of a nervous breakdown; they said they cannot respect this facet of this culture – the obvious inequalities between men and women. I did not quite see their point of view in the sense that I did not have such a strong reaction (which surprises me, but I think not having a strong reaction to a lot around here has kept me sane and laughing), though I wondered about it because both of them dress much more conservatively than I do. I do not dress provocatively (which goes without saying, folks), but I do not purposefully cover my arms and sometimes feel okay wearing capri-style pants and my American tennies that stick out like sore thumbs. And I usually don’t get harassment, only looks, and they really didn’t seem all that bad for a while – simply looks. I was feeling pretty good, actually, like I must look like a respectable lady and the feelings these American women were talking about were just overreactions. I generally walk with confidence and as if I have a busy sense of purpose, and this seemed to be working well for me. (Of course, the fact that I acquiesced to looking down when I walked so as to avoid catching the eye of a man – as that might seem an invitation of some sort – and the way I would defer to J doing the talking even though sometimes I was able to understand something in Arabic that he wasn’t, is in itself self-imposed harassment.) Sure, some soldiers mumbled things when I went by, and I do recall hearing a couple of hisses from men seated in front of embassies, but no one was running out and grabbing my rear or anything, and no one seemed vicious.

Then one morning J and I were looking for a taxi when a man on a bike passed us, turned around, cupped his hand against his man-breast as he looked at me, then pointed at J and gave him the thumbs-up. He also said something in Arabic that was obviously dirty, probably “Nice melons” or something equally repulsive. He kept repeating the cupping motion and his thumbs-up. Why was J getting props for MY assets? Huh? Shouldn’t my great-grandma Glasco, beautifully buxom, get credit for this? I gaped in disbelief while J sternly told the man in Arabic to get the hell away. The only thing that would have made this incident into a good story is if that man would have run his bike into a parked car, flipped over the car, then been pummeled by stray cats. As it was, I was at first astonished that this was happening at 10 in the morning, then, as we finally hailed a cab and the driver spoke pleasantly in English to us, I felt humiliated.

MEN. Men are everywhere. I have never seen so many men. In the morning, I step outside our apartment building. There is the bawaab, squatting against the wall reading a newspaper, or smoking (when it isn’t Ramadan), or washing tenants’ cars, or hosing down the sidewalk, or helping to move paper products from a truck into a dark garage space (we have no idea what the deal is with the paper). Sometimes he pulls my mail out of his pocket. He always says hello.

But he never looks directly at me. This is supposed to be a sign of respect, but for me it is often hard to feel respected when I feel invisible. (Look at J's entry about going into the Ramadan tent and seeing the men cooking. I was there. I was there the whole time. The men welcomed J heartily, shook his hand. I stood on the periphery, and they nodded politely at me and said “welcome,” but it was clear they were uncomfortable and did not want to shake my hand. After all, it was close to prayer time and they cannot go into prayer sullied by a woman’s touch. Later when J took the pictures, I was there, too, and I watched how one man sternly waved away the camera and looked at his wife. Don’t look at her. Don’t photograph her.) But my bawaab, a man with an enormous prayer mark on his forehead, thinks I’m an ok gal.

Keep walking with me, though, past the other bawaabs, past the men lounging in chairs, past the makwagi and green grocer, past the silver-haired policeman who directs traffic at our corner where the street splits oddly, past the soldier leaning against a pole with his gun strapped carelessly on his back, past the next soldier, and the next one, and the man who sits in a chair in front of the Chinese Embassy wearing a suit. Turn the corner, and there is a mass of parked cars, and it seems that they have all been put into neutral so that policemen and soldiers can move them when someone wants to get out. They push each car back, and the cars bump against one another until there is space enough to leave. In front of the student hostel is the shuttle bus. Here are the university guards, in blue, standing clumped on the corner with a husky panting and chained on the sidewalk. All the while, vehicles pass by, men slow, men look. These men are looking at me, many of them. As I pass by the men in front of their businesses, the policemen, the soldiers, the boys on their bikes, the taxi drivers, the deliverymen on their puttering motorcycles, the men wearing Western-style suits, I am keenly aware that they are looking at me, though I usually do not look back. I can feel it. I am every woman on the street.

When I read Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, I was mortified by the fact that one of the main female characters is not allowed to leave her house. Every once in a while, her husband takes her, completely covered, to see her mother. That is it. She does not have friends; she does not go anywhere to pray though she is devoutly religious; her only purpose in life is to serve her husband and children, but mostly her husband. As I was reading, I was aware that the book was set in the early twentieth century, and I remember reminding myself not to think that this was an accurate representation of the Egyptian society I see.

There is an image, though, that I cannot shake, something I saw not long ago near Tahrir Square: a woman completely covered in black, in 100 degree desert heat – only her eyes showing. Her hands were gloved in black. Everything was covered. Everything. She was walking next to her husband, who was wearing a Nike basketball jersey and loose jogging pants. The husband was joyously bouncing their toddler son on his shoulders. They were a young couple.

There is no justice in this. There is no virtue. I’m sorry. There just isn’t.

Most of the women I see here are not covered so drastically. None of my students are. Many of them wear headscarves, quite beautiful, actually, and very stylish. But, even though I see women around me, they sometimes feel invisible.

We are high enough in our apartment building to see into the courtyard and classrooms of the girls’ school across from us. The older girls in the school wear pink uniforms and white headscarves, and the younger ones wear blue and will not be covered until they reach puberty and then decide whether to take the veil, which has all sorts of complicated implications I do not know enough about to discuss. At intervals, the younger girls stand in lines in the courtyard and cheerfully shout the national anthem to the beat of a drum. As they chant, the older girls sit at long tables and work. The windows are always open, even at night. The first morning I heard this chanting, I thought it sounded like a riot had erupted in the streets. Imagine my surprise when I looked down just in time to see the girls be released from the courtyard and run streaming, like ants, back to their classrooms.

Then I saw a young girl trip. Picking herself back up, she held her nose, then started jumping up and down, flapping her hands like little kids do when they don’t know how to deal with sudden, unexpected pain. In no time, she was surrounded by all the other little girls. They were touching her face, consoling her, patting her, hugging her. They never stopped touching her, and they didn’t think to go get an adult to take care of the situation. There was so much care there, so much love. I wanted those little girls to pour into the street with their love.

Where are these little girls most of the time? Where do they go when school is over? Their male peers are dodging traffic in the streets, playing their versions of stickball, hugging each other, being rowdy and sweet.

But I will leave you with this. One night J and I were walking home from the grocery. The streets are dark at night here, and the soldiers stand in the shadows with their guns. Cars flick their headlights on and off just to let you know they are coming. The men are still perched outside on their chairs, or standing in clumps, or walking arm-in-arm together and smoking. I fear none of these men. I am not afraid of the soldiers or their guns. The thing I fear is being hit by a car.

I used to walk down the relatively quiet streets of Minneapolis at night with my keys stuck between my fingers and my hands balled into fists, ready to poke out the eye and scrotum of any man who might emerge suddenly from a bush. I knew that if I screamed, no one would do anything. Too often we sit and wonder if we should do something, or whether what we hear is an actual emergency or just the sounds of the city. We sit so long that it no longer matters. For God's sake, we are told to yell "Fire" instead of "Rape." Let me tell you that in Cairo, one of the largest cities in the world – in Cairo, with its poverty, with its pollution – people will stop and help you. People will hear you scream. They say that you should hold your tongue against verbal harassment because if you raise a ruckus at some hissing man, people on the street will come to your aid. At the very least, they will publicly shame him. If two parties argue in the streets, passersby interrupt their walks to crowd around and convince the two to be at peace with each other, to forgive. They clamor around, like those little girls in the courtyard. They don’t call for the police.

Back to the street, where J and I were walking that night. An older man was crossing past us.

He bent his head and said, “You are welcome here.”

He said it quickly and continued on, waiting for no response.


Katie Levin said...

I LOVE this post, Amanda.


Sari said...

Okay Mandy, I'll be Miss bossy pants: You MUST write this up and sent it out. MUST! Seriously.

Ginger said...

I agree.

Anonymous said...

I experienced the strange combination of worry and comfort from this post. But mostly respect for the courage you show in dealing with this aspect of their culture. And the term "girl" suited me just fine--
Of course, your loving Mom

moonlight ambulette said...

i can't believe this is your life. beautiful.

you loose western woman, you.

Aunt Tam said...

I agree with your mom, I was excited and worried.....
But one thing for sure. If your great granda Glasco ever smiled ( I think very rarely), I am auite sure she smiled when reading this post.
love ya

Mom said...

You go girl... I think what you are experiencing would be very difficult to handle for the girls here at home.

kim said...

It is amazing how your experience is so alive in your words. women are invisible and that should not be. it is heartening to know, however, that they are not invisible to one another and someday when and if they align the moons and planets to their advantage that may become their salvation.

Yul said...

Amanda, you are my hero!

Beth F said...

Love this post Mandy...I can't even start to type what is going through my mind right now.
... a book should be written...
i think its awsome that the old man quickly told the two of you that you are welcome there. That was a great gesture he made.

Kate said...

Amanda, this is beautiful. Thinking of you and sending lots of love.


Anonymous said...

This is beautifully written.

I have checked your blog a few times, and this post really struck me. I sent it out to a few of my women friends that I think will really appreciate it.

Take care of yourselves.

Susan Fey

kron said...

More, please.