Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I had been warned about the Metro, which is Cairo’s light rail, subway, tube, what-have-you. I had been warned that there would be so much staring, pushing, insults – that it was “survival of the fittest.” People would undoubtedly sleep standing up, breast-feed babies, sell cosmetics, push each other, and generally be unpleasant. And that was just in the women’s car. Apparently, the mixed gender car would be worse in that one’s chances of getting pinched and grabbed and harassed were much higher. I have heard stories of women taunting each other for the tint of their skin, of women in niqab shouting about Allah and how young women need to cover themselves. I’ve heard, too, that everyone stinks.

Yet I’ve ridden the Metro for two days, ever since we moved from Zamalek to Maadi, and the only creepy, unpleasant thing that has happened to me occurred just outside the Metro this afternoon. As I was walking under the street through a long corridor splattered with the same ubiquitous Pepsi ad, I could see someone walking next to me. OK, so we were walking the same pace. Fine by me. But the corridor is quite wide, and there was plenty of room. OK, fine, people have different space thresholds than me in this country. But this person was very close to me.

I adjusted my pace, and this person (a man, I could sense, though I was staring straight ahead), stayed with me. Finally, I looked over, thinking, Geez, maybe it’s just James being weird again. Alas, it wasn’t the face I wanted it to be. A man in a Tony Soprano shirt smiled and asked if I was Egyptian. I said no and stared ahead.

Had he said it in any other way, had I noticed kind eyes or simply an inquisitive expression, believe me, I would have talked to him. But I knew right away that this was a creepy man.

Creeps transcend nationality.

He spoke to me in Arabic, and I ignored him. He then said in English, “Can I talk to you?” “No,” I said. Then I heard him say “Sorry” quietly as he backed away. I kind of felt bad about that as I sent my ticket through the slot and pushed through the turnstile.

I stood on the edge of the platform next to where several women had accumulated, an indication of the approximate position of the women’s cars, which are marked in red and have a painted lady with a triangle skirt as you would see on a bathroom door. I stood there about five minutes. Sure, people stared at me, but I was the only one nursing a bottle of water and one of the only ones who wasn’t veiled. It’s kind of like when I see a veiled lady in Galesburg, IL, or, for that matter, any foreigner. It’s just hard not to stare when something is an anomaly in a given place.

So the metro came barreling toward the Sadat stop, and I got on, made my way down the middle of a row of women, and found a metal bar to hold onto. Then I looked out the window.

And there was Mr. Creep, just outside, blowing me a kiss as if I were his wife and we were briefly parting. GROSS. That artifice of familiarity instantly irritated me. I curled my lip in an ugly way that I have and looked away. I guess he had been standing there, behind me, the whole time. If something like this happened at home, I would feel a bit threatened, but in this case I knew that if I would have needed help, every other woman and man in that place would have beat that guy to the ground. Such is the trust I put in Egyptians. This sort of trust, unfortunately, doesn’t transcend nationality. This sort of security is something I expect much less in the U.S.

Safe is how I felt this morning, as I boarded the Metro during one of the busiest of times. It was strange to feel safe in that situation. All kinds of women boarded with me, and I learned the meaning of being packed like a sardine. There was no need to hold onto anything – we were like books on a shelf, carrying each other’s gravity. Indeed, you did have to push your way in, to toss yourself onto the Metro and somehow slip into the throng. At each stop, more women forced their way in, and I would think, There’s no way another person can cram in here, and then it happened anyway – we managed to become sandwiched just a little bit more.

At one point a short young woman in a black niqab, her eyes large and looming behind the mask, had her gloved hands pressed against my chest. Really, it was the only place her hands could have gone. I could smell her breath, and I imagine she could smell mine. I would find my hands and legs in strange positions that I couldn’t adjust. At one morbid moment, I thought, Gee whiz, I might be squeezed to death this morning. Mumkin (possible), as they say.

Yet it was quite bearable. For a while I stood there thinking, Wow, I could really freak out about this. Claustrophobia is for the privileged. I was only taking the Metro because it’s 1 LE each way – about nineteen cents – and it’s so much easier than taking a taxi from Maadi, which could potentially end in many hand gestures and surliness when the driver and I cannot agree upon a fair price.

While the Metro might be taken by more diverse classes of people than the terrible public buses, the majority of riders seem quite conservative and solidly lower middle to lower class. There were many women headed to low-paying jobs in the public sector and many young girls headed to school – and not to AUC, either. Few of the young girls wore their hair free; I suspect that they do not rationalize “taking the veil” as something that happens when they are “ready,” which is something I have heard a lot of my students say. Rather, they probably do it because it is time to do it, and that is that. All in all, though many of the AUC kids are more loaded than anyone I’ve ever met, I was sitting pretty in the Metro.

But even as the niqab woman pressed her gloved hands against my chest, and even as I, grappling for a handhold behind me, accidentally grabbed another woman’s breast or stomach or something fleshy like that, I felt fine. First of all, nobody stunk, for god’s sake. It’s like this – when it gets hot, people stink. I stink. You stink. Etc. But it was morning, and we may all have been as fresh as daisies, for all I could tell. I can't speak for the car with all the men in it, however. Second, a woman in a lime-colored hijab leaned to me and said, “Welcome.” When I responded in Arabic, a few women around me softened and gave kind glances.

As we neared Sadat station, a young woman tapped my shoulder to let me know it was time to start shoving toward the door. She assumed I was getting off there, and she was right. She and the “welcome” woman gave me a nod, and I tried to stick with them as we pushed through women – women staying, women going, and women trying to get on before others had a chance to get off. A Sudanese girl who was staying in the car got spun in a circle as easily as a rack of clothes, her braids flying, as we passed.

A sea of women – we crested then toppled out the door, gripping each other, pressing our hands against each other’s backs, patting each other in that womanly empathy that has become so familiar to me in Egypt. I can’t understand how I didn’t fall on my face, how I wasn’t trampled. And all the while, women were laughing. I was laughing. We had this in common. 



kate hopper said...

What a wonderful post, A. I felt I was there with you, pressed in a crowd of women.

Stephanie said...

Beautiful, Amanda.

Ellen said...

My comment was going to be a simple, "Oh, how lovely," until I realized that the warmth and intimacy of your moment in the women's car had caused me to completely forget about Mister Creepo Suave-ay.

Becoming invisible to his kind is one of the very, very best things about getting older.

Writing Sisu said...

This is really lovely and interesting. This is the stuff of essays, my friend!

Elaine said...

This is very interesting. I ride a woman's only car on the Tokyo subways, and there is absolutely NO sense of being surrounded by any kind of womanly empathy. I guess it's typical Japanese "if you don't see it, it's not there" behavior that's common on the trains (which can be exactly as crowded as you describe, except here nobody smells).

What interests me after riding on mixed cars at the same time of day, though, is the quiet hostility that the women display. On the mixed cars, everybody knows they can only endure, so people give way as the car fills without saying anything. But the women don't. They'll stand their ground, not move, push back, use elbows. Though the cars are less crowded, slightly, it's actually a much rougher ride.