Friday, September 28, 2007


I’ve been dressing a little more like I want to these days. I’ve never cared much for fashion, but I did buy a few skirts at home this summer that I’ve been sporting on the streets of Cairo. I’ve been wearing shirts that bare more arm, more skin below the neck. I’ve been wearing sandals. Oooooh! To be honest, I’ve been less frumpy than I’ve been in years. Even James looks a bit flummoxed when I put on a skirt. I was wondering how this would play out for me – if I would get looked up and down more, or less. Or if I would actually begin to get harassed in the way that many white women say they are harassed in Cairo. Last year I remember seeing women dressed this way and thinking: Oh, she’s green. She just got here. She doesn’t know.

All in all, my public experience is the same as ever. Actually, it’s a little better. I think it’s because I know where I’m going and have cultivated a look of confidence. Maybe the stares blend into white noise with the honking. I don’t dart my eyes away from men. I keep my pupils cool, my gaze nonplussed. None of this is going to stop the next little boy’s hands from picking at my chest in a crowded street or the next hooting man on a bike from making obscene fruit-like gestures with his hands. Sure. This is going to happen. It’s repulsive that a little boy or a little man thinks this is all right. And I really do think that the next time a twelve year old decides he’s going to grab me for the edification of his buddies, I’m going to smack his face. And I really do plan on staying away from crowds of men when possible. Nonetheless, things have been better. It’s hot out. So I wear a skirt. The sun gifts me with freckled arms. At the end of the day, I don’t stink quite so much. And I haven’t seen anyone get too worked up about it.

Granted, I live in Zamalek and teach at the rich-kid university, and there is a specific cultural feel here. Foreigners are common, and you must have some serious means to live in Zamalek (or, in our case, have a rent-free experience), and class blatantly determines your dress code. Gamal, the president's son and one of the richest people in Egypt, supposedly just moved here, and now the routes of the taxi drivers have mysteriously changed and certain streets are gated up. Truth be told, there are things about Zamalek that I don’t get. There are Cairene attitudes about Zamalek that won’t ever sink into my consciousness. Zamalek is the best version of Manhattan that Cairo has. And I will never live in Manhattan, so there you go. It’s true that I would rather not wear a skirt in Old or Islamic or Coptic Cairo, though even in these places I would not anticipate some sort of riot courtesy of my bared calves. But people stare. And women I know keep getting harassed. And even though the government denies it, I'm pretty convinced that at Eid last year, right next to the university, a bunch of young men assaulted women. Do you see how this is getting complicated?

Still, over the last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my beliefs. I think of myself as a liberal, sure. That’s not going to change. Like the Republicans, though, I have been experiencing a bit of party disruption. I’ve been meeting some really intolerant liberals. Of course, it is foolish to believe that liberalism will breed tolerance. The inflexible belief that one is open-minded can cause one to be more conservative and intolerant than the people one criticizes. I’m not claiming I haven’t ever been like this. Sure I have. Sure I am.

Yet in the case of Egypt, foreign women’s complaints about how much they get harassed are getting old. I’ve gotten to the point where the looks don’t bother me much, where I don’t consider the looks to be harassment. While it was a different experience this summer to walk down a U.S. street and have no one bat an eye at me or my legs, it’s not as if people in the U.S. don’t ever emit salacious stares. It’s not as if I haven’t had my caboose lasciviously checked out in the U.S. Frankly, the fact that people so often tend to ignore each other in the U.S. is a bit creepy after living in a place where almost everyone, in tripping over almost everyone else, feels compelled to connect with strangers.

When foreign women (Americans, mainly) in Cairo tell me stories about being harassed, I’m not sure what they want in return. They close their stories and look in my eyes and wait. Do they want me to hate Egyptian men? Do they want me to agree that this is some foul place? Do they want me to regale them with my own stories of harassment, with my own experiences? Are they thinking that my experiences have somehow curdled into generalized hatred?

Sometimes I just nod and wonder what time it is. Sometimes I say, “You know, I just don’t get that a lot,” and I laughingly add something self-deprecating about my physique or say something about how I have always cultivated a public attitude of asexuality. In these cases, I am glad for my “Midwestern” ability to cloud my feelings. What good would it do to point out the bald inconsistency in claiming to have so much understanding and tolerance while masochistically despising a country of people, or one whole gender within one country? Really. There is this weird gleam in some women’s eyes when they talk about how terrible the harassment is here – as J said recently, it’s like they’re taking a big bubble bath in it. Listen, white lady. I think I feel much sorrier for the Sudanese refugee who takes a maid job and is abused by her Egyptian employer. Just a bit.

I guess my lack of empathy with these women is also selfish. I do get the sense that some women think I am in self-denial about harassment in Cairo. Certainly, here I am pointing out my feelings on the internet, another way to confront something slantways instead of just insisting upon my point of view in person, which I have been conditioned to feel is rude and confrontational. You can always leave a blog entry. So I sit and listen to the complaints. I must be boring company. You know, I’ve got that Midwestern reserve. I like to mull it over. I like to wait. I’m not always sure that the throw-up of my contemplation needs to be puddled in someone’s lap. I do like to avoid a misstep. I’ve been at the butt end of remarks about Midwesterners, but I find that the kind of reserve inculcated in me in the abdomen of America has actually helped me in being, as James, another Midwesterner, said recently, “not just OK in Egypt, but fine.” Happy. I certainly don’t think that the Midwest is infallible, and I definitely don’t think Egypt is. But pollution, of any sort, doesn’t have to blind you.

I keep thinking about Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s visit to Columbia University last week. Why invite someone to your university in the first place if you are going to ridicule him before he has a chance to speak? Let the little man hang himself with his ignorant and hateful remarks, as he undoubtedly would have anyway – why preempt that with your own brand of idiocy? Everybody the media focused on looked like an ass. It was like they were all at a Little League game. Here were all these little bright ideas – these important and breathing ideas waiting to be molded into something decent, sitting in the dugout, handling the ball, swinging and missing, swinging and hitting, sliding up a cloud, staring at grass, accumulating dirt necklaces and blurry green stains and bands of sweat – here was the beauty of all these ideas mucking around with each other – yet a bunch of adults wrestled separately on the bleachers, in their own game of words and misunderstandings and inflexible beliefs and haunted, sullied pasts. Behind the bleachers were the smirking adults who thought they were above it all. They couldn’t even see the game. Irony, which is perhaps a key myth of the liberal psyche, is over-schlepped. It’s confused with detachment and, at times, with humor. And it is too often connected to the ideals of liberalism, which are easily overcooked, just like any ideal placed in a human fist. Sincerity, on the other hand, is too often mocked, a dusty book from childhood relegated to the shelf.

When I walk out the door in Cairo, I am ever conscious of being female and, as a result, knowing that whole parts of my personality are as nothing, are severed. This is not a pleasant feeling. It’s not something I think is okay. I really resent that James can have a completely different experience than me, that his maleness so blatantly asserts power, possession. Icky-poo. (James begs to differ in some respects, and I hope he tells you about it sometime). I am ever conscious that the way I choose to act can be perceived as some foreign stereotype, that the conversations I engage in with taxi drivers while baring a leg can be misconstrued. None of this will change. Last May, when I wanted to hug my real-live male Egyptian friend goodbye before departing Egypt, even I understood that we should go upstairs to the apartment in order to avoid freaking out the dudes on my street, who were already peering suspiciously at my audacious appearance with a male friend sans the Keeper-Man, James. I don’t always defy that assumption – sometimes it’s easier. Without a doubt, I find typical Egyptian attitudes about women, even the attitudes of some of the male Egyptians I know and like, to be unacceptable. I can’t fathom, for instance, why any woman should cover herself in heavy black fabric in the desert heat. This is of course the woman's attitude as well. Some of my Egyptian friends have heard about my feelings, and they will continue to hear about it. There sure are lots of sexists in America, too. But to view these attitudes as wholly reflective of the humanity of a person, of a culture, of a region, of a country sometimes exposes much more about your own ugly flaws. I gotta say I’m kinda sick-a that. I really hope I don't do it too much.



kate said...

Such a wonderful post, A. I do have to add that I miss you!

AtYourCervix said...

I am so glad to have found your blog (I actually found it a while ago, but I digress). I was thinking of this very topic recently, because of my desire to visit Egypt some day. I was wondering how I should prepare to dress, when I finally have the money saved to go visit. Cover myself fully from head to toe? Dress as I normally do here at home? Somewhere in between?

My boyfriend and I had already discussed this potential trip to Egypt - he knows he would more than likely need to be by my side every moment, due to the belief system in place over there.

A said...

Thanks for your comments. About dressing in Egypt - Egyptians are very used to tourists since it seems to be the main way they bring money into the country - so I would say that you should wear whatever makes you most comfortable. When I first got here, I was more conservative in the way I dressed (and still am a lot of the time) - this had its advantages and disadvantages. Many men will be looking at you no matter what you wear - the key is to remain unruffled by it and to remember that almost none of them mean you any harm, and that most Egyptians you will meet are kind and generous. I feel so much less on-my-guard walking down the street at night here, men all around, than I would usually feel in Minneapolis. But still, there are things you can do -- for example, look confident and wear sunglasses. Get some cotton long-sleeved shirts and wear layers. It seems also that business-like attire is a good way to curb the looks. But mostly, be observant about what sort of thing seems acceptable in neighborhoods - my university is a European fashion zone, but a few blocks away it's a different story. It seems to me that women adapt in all kinds of ways here - in part because it is one of the more liberal countries in this region, actually - and there isn't one right way of handling it, to my mind, especially if it is not a deeply-religious thing to you. Women have valid religious reasons for wearing the hijab, despite my own feelings about it.
Also, while it can be advantageous to have a male with you, you should not feel unsafe by yourself. I take a cab to work by myself every day, for instance, and I have never been harassed.
Also, two great books to prepare were The Rough Guide to Egypt and Culture Shock: Egypt.
Anyway, I hope you get a chance to come to this beautiful country!