Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You Stop For Us!

Before we went to Athens a few weeks ago, we had read about the volatile traffic and pollution. These days, most of the travel guidebooks we pick up are geared toward the expectations of people who are no longer us, people who might get horrified, for instance, with the idea of a rickety donkey cart toddling down a highway along with buses spewing black – no, really, black – exhaust and racing BMWs and men in gallabeyas perching on the median before plunging out into the road…to get to the other side and men sitting on the tailgates of speeding, swerving trucks as if the trucks are at a full stop in some pleasant farmer’s driveway in Iowa. 

When we got to Athens, the air seemed pretty damned fresh, the traffic downright reasonable. Everyone stopped at the stoplights and colored within the lines. They just drove fast. I was so calmed by it that I almost got run over once.

I know there are far worse places for traffic and for nearly everything that bugs me about Cairo, so I don’t mean to sound as if I think I am worldly or have seen the worst shit there is to see. Of course not. But I thought of the surprisingly logical traffic of Athens today for two reasons. First, this morning, as J and I commuted to school, the bus suddenly slowed. Peering over the broken-down median to the other side of the road, we began spotting wrecked car after wrecked car. I don’t know how many there were, but they seemed to stretch half a mile or more as the bus crept along. The term “wrecked” or even the word “totaled” doesn’t suffice for what we saw, actually. Some of the cars were only grotesque twists of metal and dust and shattered glass, and, because they had been shoved onto the sandy roadside next to the skeletons of hasty construction sites, looked as if they had been abandoned years ago. They hadn’t. One of those buses that spews black exhaust had been part of the pile-up, and it had a disintegrated front. Worse, the side of the bus was gone, peeled off, to reveal a set of empty olive-green and pink seats.

Everyone was rubbernecking, but no one looked really horrified (or, rather, no one was pretending to be horrified with hands over mouths for the benefit of other rubberneckers). Some kids on my bus even looked rather amused. I don’t know how to explain that. On the way home, as we passed the same horrific metal clumps, an exchange student whipped out his camera and flung open the dingy blue curtains of our bus, proceeding to gratuitously snap. For a few seconds, the bed of a truck, yellowed with bananas, got in the kid’s way, and he held his camera with an irritated poise. It’s not that I blame him – I wished at that moment that I had a camera, too. But it wouldn’t have sufficed to take a picture, just as it doesn’t suffice to explain it here. Besides, why would I want to scare the bejabbers out of my mom any more than I do? That’s how I’m beginning to feel about so much of my time here, and it’s not as if my experiences have been that unique. There are a ton of expatriates here, and you can bet we are not the only people self-congratulatory enough to feel as if we should write about this place. I am being too harsh, I think.

Anyway, the second reason I was reminded of the seeming ease of Athens traffic: I get off the bus at a place called Midan Victoria. “Midan” means square. I think you know that Victoria was a queen, and our neighborhood this year is very British in its labyrinthine roundabouts (“Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament!”). It’s a fairly busy roundabout. Today there was no pause in traffic. None. So I started across, holding out my palm. Some people muttered their irritation to me as they drove past. One car came to a stop but not before pushing into my hand. Another taxi driver wanted to know if I needed a ride. Another managed to expertly maneuver his car and be lecherous at the same time. As I made it across in one piece and reflected on my good luck, a fat man standing on the curb looked me up and down and made smarmy comments. Sometimes I feel like punching every Egyptian man I see and shaking every woman – no matter what her nationality – until she joins me with her own fists. That makes me sound intolerant, I know, and sometimes I feel exactly that way.

A few weeks ago I was crossing Midan Victoria with a more hardened and much taller expatriate, and he whipped into the street as a cab sped up (People often speed up here when they see a pedestrian. It’s not an exaggeration.), and he stopped in front of the car and pointed his finger at the surprised driver, who brought his car to a halt.

My normally calm friend then yelled: “NO! You stop for us! You stop for US!”

After we crossed, my friend fumed, and I giggled, as I almost always do when someone surprises me with volatility. When it comes to volatility, most members of my family barely have a pulse, and we like it that way, and we’ll keep it all inside until we take our bitter vengeance on you without you noticing, thank you very much. However, since living here, I have been more forthcoming about my feelings. You can ask the teenaged boys who screeched to a halt in their souped-up car one day in order to make inappropriate comments about my body and who got an earful of my best American expletives and universal gestures of rage. The poor man who was sweeping the street next to the curb wasn’t sure what to do with himself. Moments such as that result from an abnormal amount of suppression that bubbles up every once in a while with an overreaction. Most of the time I walk down the street with a “don’t fuck with me” frown but keep my eyes downcast. It takes a while to shake that off whenever I leave Egypt. It takes a while for me to feel normal around male strangers again, to feel as if I can look at them plainly without sending the message that I am willing to have their babies. It’s a relief to only be looked at appraisingly on occasion; it’s a relief to feel invisible, normal-looking, just a person walking down the street. Men and women have a lot of work to do in all parts of the world – witness the hateful criticism of Hillary Clinton’s outfits rather than her policies or beliefs, or the interchangeable blonde anchors on Fox. But, really, the gender crap here is…too much to go on about at the moment. I’ve written before that I don’t entirely approve of foreign women who go on and on about harassment here to the point of obsession, who respond by egregiously covering themselves and acting fearful (perverts feed off fear) and staying inside all the time and sometimes feeling as if their lily white skin is very precious and exotic indeed when, all the while, veiled Egyptians are harassed as much as they are. But I do understand. I understand how my daily decisions, my small adjustments to my manner of walking and speaking and wearing simple articles of clothing could be insidious. They are habits even now.

I complain about these things knowing full well that my foreignness offers a measure of safety (some of which is simply psychological) that an Egyptian woman, veiled or not, probably doesn’t feel. I complain about these things knowing how little I have to complain about.

But I started this entry thinking about those desolate cars. They have surfaced for me throughout the day, as they will continue to do. So many cars, and what happened to all of those people? How many are dead? 

Once we got past the rubbernecking point, our bus driver and the guy with the truck full of propane tanks and every vehicle on our side of the road floored it. Not your version of “flooring it,” I’ll wager. The Egyptian version. You just had to be there.