Sunday, October 07, 2007

And now for another angle on this issue of power. I suppose I’ve touched upon it already in my entry regarding the zeballeen (who, incidentally, I haven’t seen since paying him 20 LE about six weeks ago. Wait. We did see him, walking down our street, as we observed from the balcony eight stories up). M has talked about the various ways that power in Egypt (and Cairo especially) is gendered, how sometimes the entire country seems like a guy’s locker room while the women make due in the corners and shadows, seen—but only slightly—rarely heard. Their domain is the household, and within the household they are the nurturers. And, depending upon the class, their roles as nurturers can involve presiding over the nannies and maids who tend to the less pleasant aspects of child rearing.

Of course, Western women are more assertive because they don’t belong here. They function largely beyond the grasp of the culture. Part of this function involves enduring some unbelievable misconceptions about their morality. Some of these misconceptions are funny, some disturbing.

Still, it’s the trade off that the culture makes: we won’t enforce cultural and religious standards of dress and behavior on you, but in exchange, you have to put up with some incorrect assumptions and, occasionally, inappropriate public reactions.

I mention this as a “trade-off” because I want to say something about the larger role of our empowerment in this society. We have it in abundance—both of us, as well as every educated Westerner we know.

One of the most obvious forms this power takes is in our ability to function outside the culture. This is due in part to our ignorance of its finer points. But we also have no direct claim on cultural standards or national or regional concerns. We are always a plane ride away from Amsterdam if the shit hits the fan. We will someday return home. And while we are here, we enjoy elevated status. We live in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city and teach at a university that is, by far, the nicest in the region. The support staff at the university behaves deferentially toward us—and it’s no surprise that the faculty is largely white, whereas the staff are mostly Egyptian. That deference says something about how powerful is the color of our skin. Thing is, it’s always been that way. But you can count on Cairo for one thing, and that is to put you in close proximity with these facts that have been staring at you all along.

This power plies its trade in strange and, often, uncomfortable ways. There is a relationship between the color of our skin, our elevated status as residents of Zamalek, our access to the finest of what Egypt has to offer, and the fact that we are correctly perceived as rich—especially once we are discovered to be Americans. Because America is freakin’ rich beyond belief. Your modest middle class family in America far outstrips 99% of Egyptians. It’s not even close.

Perhaps an example will suffice as illustration. Last week I hopped a taxi for the 15-minute ride to school and found myself talking to a man, my driver, who claimed that he had one baby, maybe two or three babies, in the “moustashfa,” or hospital, with cancer ravaging their bodies. He gestured toward his arms, his torso, saying “cancer” and “moustashfa” and “bebe.” His voice shook with desperation and sadness, the helpless wails of a father. He held in his hands several fifty pound notes, and through his poor English and my poor Arabic, I surmised that he wanted me to give him 300 LE. I looked at his sad eyes and his frowning eyebrows, and they were the eyes of a sad man, and though he emitted the unsteady wails of a man in tears, his eyes were completely dry.

Through this experience, I tried to cultivate a posture of sympathy while at the same time refusing his pleas for money. Frankly, I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but even if he had been telling the truth, I would not have given him that money. It seemed somehow inappropriate for a taxi driver to hit up his American fare for what is, by Egyptian standards, a large sum of money (meanwhile, I had dropped that much on an air purifier for our bedroom). But that sense of inappropriateness is mitigated by the fact that, while this man may have been lying to me, this is a city where millions of it inhabitants are in desperate straits. I sympathize as much as I can, but as I function largely beyond the reach of this society, my ability to sympathize is seriously compromised. It’s because I can land in this developing country and be identified—correctly—with wealth and influence. And I’m not rich in the United States. I’m of modest means. Still, you take a salary of $40,000 a year and place it here, and you’re well off.

And it’s true. We live well here. Very well. We send out our clothes to be ironed. Seriously! We have all manner of items delivered—water, beer, Indian, pizza, Chinese, groceries (all of them), toilet paper, paper towels. I had an external hard drive delivered to our front door last week. We also employ a maid who would cook for us if we paid her a bit more every week. All these people who serve us are Egyptian. We spent a day last month proctoring language proficiency examinations and pulled down 3200 LE between us. Those paying top dollar to take the test? Egyptians.

This is power beyond even our ability to comprehend, just as our apartment, while large, is even larger given the space-starved city where it exists. It’s a complex mix of ethnicity, race, culture, country, but it all expresses great power. It’s a power that we wear, that shows on our faces and in our green eyes, in our red and brown hair, in our freckles and our straight white teeth. We glow with it. We wear it with all the authority of our Western features, which is a remarkable authority even if we don’t think we’re wearing it well at all. We wear it when we walk down the street and Amanda is ogled.

We wear it, we wear it, we wear it.

I gave the taxi driver 10 LE for fare—double the normal fare.



Sari said...

Yes and yes! I felt the same way in Uganda. I felt disgustingly wealthy and it made me feel so guilty and so mad. It's ridiculous that where you're born determines your opportunitites. I might be strapped for cash in the States, but the truth is--I choose this field. I had options.

Excellent post

jack said...

I know exactly how you feel.
K had the same taxi driver, or at least the same sob story.

BTW: Where did you get that hard drive? I may need one for all the photos.

American_in_Cairo said...


You'll want to talk to a gellow named Tarek at the university. He's i npurchasing and can hook you up with a hard drive (we also got a lser printer last year. also delivered). On campus he can be reached at 5672. His office is in Main Campus along the same hallway where Kawthara, keeper of passports, works.