An Americaine in Cairo

Recently, I mentioned the time I spent in Egypt to a young (late-20s early 30s), liberal, well-traveled woman, and was surprised by the response.  I gave my usual one-sentence opener, which is that I was there for six weeks this summer, loved it, and can’t wait to go back.

Really?!  I’ve lived everywhere, even Beijing, and that was the worst city for being a woman.  I was so uncomfortable all the time.”

Um, wow.

Granted, that opening line is designed to intrigue, confuse and incite discussion.  But this is the first time I’ve encountered someone who not only had actually been there, but is in pretty much all the same demographics as me, and does not want to go back.  Not only that, she was thoroughly uncomfortable.  So in light of this, I think it’s about time I reflect succinctly on my time there, through the lens of a young, white, liberal, ostentatious, middle-class American woman.

Oi, what a mouthful.

First, I need to emphasize the ways in which my experience was different from that of the average tourist.  I honestly believe that I have a very different view of the country based on my education before and during my trip, as well as the nature of my trip (ie length of time and breadth of cultural immersion).

  1. I speak Arabic. This is huge.  I am not amazing at it, I was nowhere near the best in our group (VERY much to my chagrin), but I made a sincere effort and that changes both how people treat you and how you are able to assess any given situation in-country.
  2. I have studied the culture and politics far more than your average person. I am by no means an expert, again, but I do believe that I am better versed in religious and cultural practices, as well as the politics of the region and Egypt in particular, than most westerners.
  3. I had Ilham. This is a biggie.  Ilham is not only academically versed in the Arab World, but she straddles western and middle east culture.  Born in Lebanon, educated in France and the US, she was able to help us through some of the roughest of cultural clashes, successfully staving off culture shock as well as making us smarter, better people.  In short, as the Pasha would say, “Ilham is a bomb lady.”
  4. I stayed there for a long time, by tourist standards anyway. The people in our neighborhood got to know us and left us alone.  I also became quite used to the Egyptian way.
  5. We had security. We’re not entirely sure for who’s benefit they were there, and sometimes they were more present than others, but I was definitely treated differently at Khan el-Khalili market when a suit was overseeing all my haggling.

Now there were a few things that helped me thrive in Egypt that aren’t necessarily specific to my trip, and that I highly recommend for anyone traveling to that area.

  1. I have a good eff-off face. This is key on the subway, in the market, and walking down the street.  People know to leave you alone, which is how I was able to walk through the market in Luxor, by myself, and be left mostly alone.
  2. I went off the beaten path. This is  one of the biggest points of our program, Dialogue of Civilizations.  I talked to Egyptians who had never spoken to Americans before.  I went to the other side of the Nile in Luxor, where all the natives live.  I went to a tiny village where there is virtually no crime or illness.  If all you see is the pyramids at Giza and the men and children who hock their wares, you will have a very skewed version of the country.  It would be like coming to the US and only seeing Disney World, or a rural WalMart.
  3. I had a support system. Every day, I had intense cultural discussions with Janine, Sarah, Allyson, Katie, Alex and Anthony.  There were 25 of us Americans, all experiencing roughly the same things, and we really helped each other talk through every awkward, uncomfortable or confusing encounter.  If I hadn’t had a bunch of smart, kind people to  air these issues with, I probably would’ve internalized them and gotten upset.  I highly recommend not going alone for your first time in Egypt, and definitely talking about the issues you encounter.

Alright, now that the full-disclosure is done, here’s my take.  Were there uncomfortable moments, derived entirely from the fact that I was female?  Yes, of course.  There was an incident in a restaurant and a similar one outside the train station that freaked me out.  There were men who didn’t realize I knew what they were saying.  There were times when I was really angry at the American guys I was with for not understanding when we needed protection and when they were just a nuisance, pleasing themselves.  But unlike the woman I spoke to, I was comfortable walking around alone during the day, at least in Zamalek.  The first week we were there I took a cab alone.  An intense experience, of course, but I got through it just fine.

On the flip side, a lot of this has to do with my own personality.  I pointed out the restaurant thing to the girls I was with, who were disgusted.  I later told some girls about the train incident, which no one else witnessed but was clearly directed at me, and they were all shook up, and kept asking if i was okay.  It was disgusting and undesirable, but I was in no way hurt.  As for the cab, one of the guys pointed out that I was one of the (if not the) only girls on our trip to do that solo, especially so early on.

As far as Egyptian women, I did not have the same perception as the woman who told me she wouldn’t go back.  I did see them walking at night, and I did see them by themselves.  On the other hand, I know from my research the ways and frequency with which many of them are cat-called or physically abused, and it is revolting.

So, my conclusion?  Yes, I still would go back.  And I know I will, someday.  There’s a sort of balance between cultural understanding and maintaining your personal integrity.  There’s also that balance between my own feminist ideals and the reality of life in Cairo.  Yes, I did once  tell off a cab in colorful Egyptian because I had simply had enough of being treated like that, but most of the time I kept my cool about it, the same way I do when I’m treated that way in America.  I don’t mean to make excuses for men behaving poorly, but I honestly don’t think it was much worse than how I am treated here, with just a few exceptions.

I think the biggest measure is that in the end, when I reflect on my time in Egypt and what it meant for me academically, personally and socially, the catcalls aren’t even on my mind.

5 thoughts on “An Americaine in Cairo”

  1. So well put and articulated. After all is said and done I would head back to Egypt as soon as I had the plane ticket money, but in the same light it wouldn’t be the same. The support system and experiences that we had while there probably couldn’t be replicated, and I think is why often people have a difficulty with it.

    For me Egypt was interesting, I can’t imagine a place where I could feel so beautiful at times, but also like a piece of meat. I can see where she was coming from as the staring and the harassment are very intense, but at the same time I think they mostly go away after you get settled in a place. But when you have that wide eyed tourist look alot of people look at you like fresh American meat. For me however, at times I’ve never felt more free there just because I tended to blend in so well, it ended up giving me a different type of confidence.

    It’s also interesting to note that there was some movement to stop the street harassment that was so rapid. When I went to the culture wheel at one point they did this whole session on combating harassment and protecting your mothers, sisters, daughters ect. The worst part about it was that the Egyptian men we were hanging out with didn’t take it as seriously as us. However, I see positive movement I guess.

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    1. yeah, i think your case is interesting too. I was intrigued by how many Egyptian guys would try to flatter various girls in our group by “mistaking” them for Egyptians. Never happened to me though, odd.

      I know what you mean about feeling beautiful and like a piece of meat. I hesitate to ever validate any form of street harassment by saying it made some girls happy (since that’s the prevailing argument by idiots the world over who take part) but there were some other forms of attention that were nice. For example, our waiters at Vivant, who weren’t creepy but friendly, were never shy in showing you how beautiful they think you are. That kind of thing is nice, and a far cry from men making kissing noises or groping passers-by

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  2. I have not lived everywhere, and Cairo is not the worst city for being a woman. I am not uncomfortable all of the time.

    Yes harassment does exist; yes I have been hissed at and get the occasional ‘gameela’ sometimes with inappropriate hand gestures; but most of the time when I am in downtown Cairo (which I will admit has been fairly limited so far) I can walk around alone or with others, day or night, without issue. Sometimes people stop and say ‘Welcome to Egypt!’ and try to walk with me wherever I’m going and yes these people are always male, but none of that so far has been dangerous or disgusting, mainly just mildly annoying. I’ve learned to ignore the hissing and that most of the time a polite ‘shukran’ or ‘la shukran’ will get my new admirer to cool it.

    I recently got back from Morocco where the harassment was much more aggravating. The frequent shouts of ‘gazelle!’ and having men stop in the street so that I have to go around them and they can whisper things in English/French/Arabic as I walk by got on my nerves way more than anything has in Egypt. My friend had a guy come up and grope her chest when she was in Morocco – and walking around with two Moroccan women.

    I have never felt second class because of my gender in this country. If anything, I feel like I get worse treatment because I am an American than because I am a woman. This is highlighted by the time we spend with Egyptian friends and incidents such as one where a cab explicitly told us he was charging the car without the Egyptian in it more simply because none of us were Egyptian.

    I’ll re-evaluate my response after a few more months/years here to see how things have progressed. Thanks for writing such insightful posts 🙂

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    1. thanks for the feedback dana! you’re totally right about the american thing. This is one of those bizarre instances where being american puts you worse off than being female. I found that letting people think I was French was useful, and proving that I can hold my own in Arabic and know the local culture a bit (ie cab fares, haggling) was the best way to make people back off on the america thing.

      I hope you get to spend some time with average Cairenes, though, because most of them are enamored of Americans, and really excited to see what Obama will do.

      Interesting to hear about Morocco, I look forward to someday comparing Egypt with a whole bunch of other Arab states.

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