Monday, November 26, 2007

Here and There

Years ago some American friends of mine rented a car and spent a weekend driving around the delta. I, in my quest to see parts of Egypt that don't have internet or hotels or Metro supermarkets, joined them. We went to Zaqaziq, Ismailya, and a bunch of other places. I could write a lot about those trips, about entire villages with not a single paved road but plenty of satellite dishes. About how the number of security personnel in al Fayoum is exaggeratedly conspicuous even for Egypt. About how at some point we were driving through a tiny alley with overflowing sewage, surrounded by painful signs of an even more painful poverty at the same time that our cassette brought us Louis Armstrong singing "What a wonderful world" in a voice which manages to be both happy and sad at the same time. Unfortunately what concerns me here is not any of that, but the ahwa.

On Friday around prayer time we were exhausted. We'd been on the road for more than five hours, and everyone wanted to be out of the car and have some coffee, juice, anything. We had been wandering through a market in a village (I can't remember which one) and we spotted a coffee shop. Just your regular ahwa. It was fairly empty given the time of day, and so we decided to brave it despite my presence in the group (I was not only the only Egyptian but also the only female). I knew my entering this space transgressed a boundary, one which is far more established and unquestioned than curious friendliness towards strangers. It was my second year in Egypt, and I knew enough about these boundaries to be infuriated and too little to be pragmatic. Some less self-conscious and more self-righteous part of me decided that I was just going to deal with the discomfort, and that I wasn't going to let my gender restrict my experience or that of my companions.

We sat down at a table outside, a few feet above street-level (more like dirt-road level). Prayer had just ended, and as groups of men and boys walked down the road back to their homes they simply pointed and stared. I tried to imagine they were more shocked by my friend's blond hair than they were by my presence in this space which traditionally belongs to men. Maybe they were, I don't know. There was none of the raucousness and tarya2a that one would expect if such a situation were occurring in Cairo. What I do know is that the people working at the coffee shop could not look me in the eye. When I spoke to them, they pretended not to hear me. It didn't matter that I was the human being in this group who was best able to communicate with them. I was a girl. Someone else who did not speak their language had to order my tea for me.

Right and wrong bend and shift quite easily for concepts which imply such assuredness (discrimination and equality have a tendency to disappear all together). Was it wrong of me to enter an establishment that does not formally exclude people of my gender, but is effectively forbidden to them? Was it right of the staff to disregard my existence? Was it wrong for us, in our quest to see a part of the country in which we were alien, to disregard established social codes? Yes, probably.

Cairo, being the consumerist, swarming, more outward-looking place that it is, has a much different way of dealing with boundaries. They are less absolute, changing along lines of class, nationality, ethnicity, and language. They are more easily camouflaged. There are more and more ahawy in Cairo which are frequented by women, to the chagrin of many. What differentiates those places from the Le Cafes whose mixed clientele receive not a double-blink? It's not that they don't have printed menus or bills or bottled water. It's that, culturally, the ahwa is mapped out as a space for men. For women to start going there is unrespectable, abnormal, and dishonorable (in short, 3eib).

A few cafes have popped up in Cairo which are open to women only. So it would seem that people of both sexes are now able to choose whether or not to interact with (or even see) the opposite gender when hanging out outside the home. It's no one's calling to predict what effect, if any, this will have on society. We will have to wait and see how further segregation, in a place where women's presence on the street is tolerated at best, changes things.

**Originally published in Campus magazine.

Friday, October 05, 2007


(I wrote this a few weeks ago and have been meaning to post it. Unfortunately my internet connection is an archaic dial-up for the time being, which makes me significantly less active.)

I went to the pub after work today. It's the first bar I visited in Egypt, a long time ago. In fact the first bar I visited in my life. For a couple of years I found a certain smart humor in telling people about how I (my 17-year-old self) was startled to find myself consuming alcohol from labeled bottles, bottles served to me by a staff, how it was a strikingly different experience than buying alcohol in a plastic water bottle, alcohol which tasted harsh and ugly, and drinking it with friends in parking lots and parks.

I got to the bar a good while before the friend I was meeting there. It was quiet, there were only a couple of other tables occupied by people who were sharing whiskey and conversation. I thought about all the people whose conversation I’d sought out in this place. One in particular; a friend with whom I have spent more time conversing than I have with anyone else in Cairo, with whom I think I’ve talked about more things and more nothings than anyone I can remember. We used to wonder a lot together. About people, mostly, and why they seemed the way they did, why they talked or didn’t, how they laughed or didn’t, why they made love the way they did. I haven’t spoken to her in over a year.

I wondered if I looked any different to the staff who had seen me walk in a good six years ago. I wondered if I seemed less curious and more self-aware. Less keen and more worn (like the shirt I have with the hole in the armpit that’s small and hidden, but just one indication of why I should stop wearing it).

They were playing classical music, some Beethoven at some point. And I felt like writing. About the place, the bar, the black guy with his back to me who was having a glass of wine alone, how when I light cigarettes in bars I always think of the movies (although no decent silver-screen woman would be lighting her own cigarette in a bar), about how amusing it is to sit and think about the different people I’ve sat down with at this very table, some lovers, some friends, some inconsequential (as much as a person’s interaction with another can be), how few of them are a part of my life now (if any). I wanted to write about the cigarette smoke and how it can look like a dance, even though that’s been written about already in every way possible, about feeling a woman at the next table turn her head and look at me for a while, about the music.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunday Pain

I have mixed feelings about my new job. I share an office with four females who don't really get along brilliantly. And one of them plays terrible music all day long. There are some redeeming factors though. I am basically getting paid to read and write, which is unassailably cool. And last week, when the electricity was cut off for nearly two hours and we had descended into the hell that is Cairo heat, everyone ended up rolling around on the cool ceramic floors, and various entertaining bits of conversation occurred, such as:

Co-worker: "Do you think we can get booze delivered here?"
Me: "Yes, but what if X (the big huge boss) walks in?"
Co-worker: "Oh, he won't mind as long as we've ordered something for him as well"

Co-worker 2: "Who wants to smoke a j?"

"If we're gonna hang out in the heat, why don't we just go to hurreya?"

As you can see, the theme seems to be escapism through substance (ab)use.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thoughts on Bussy

I saw the Bussy play earlier last week, at the Howard theatre (the little black box in which all amateur - and thus most of the controversial - performances seem to be held). This was the second annual installment of the Bussy play, which is basically a collection of true stories submitted to the project and given life by different performers of varying levels of theatrical background.

The thing I really like about this kind of amateur theater, especially performances comprised mostly of monologues, is that the relationship between the actor and the character they are performing is different than it is in more professional acts. In "real" theater, the actor is supposed to shed all of his or her personal mannerisms; the way they hold themselves and the way that they speak is all supposed to dissolve once onstage and be replaced by those idiosyncrasies particular to the character. There is a huge focus on inventing ways to speak, to gesticulate, to walk, and to stand that are specifically suited to each character. Not so in amateur plays, or at least not to the same degree. If a girl is playing the role of an aggressive character, she will most likely be standing, speaking, and using her hands in the manner that she would if she herself were being aggressive in real life. My point is that this trait makes amateur plays seem more personal somehow. There is not the exaggeration of drama, and everything seems more down to earth.

As for Bussy itself, a lot women have complained that it was too whiny, that some of the pieces where substantively anti-feminist (this accusation was specifically directed at the piece in which a woman is basically begging for a man to hold her). I've thought about this a lot. I've recalled all of the feminist theory I've read, from Betty Friedan to Islamic feminism. I had come to the conclusion years ago that there is a plethora of ways in which to be "feminist", but the common denominator is about allowing women to choose. To choose how to live, where to work, what to study, whether to have kids, who to worship, how and if to marry. And if Bussy gave the stage to a piece submitted by a woman who has chosen to beg to be held by a man, then that is actually a feminist strategy. Because, whether we like it or not (which doesn't matter anyway), many women, given the choice, want to stay home, or to be dependant on a guy, or other choices which may seem to be the anti-thesis of the mainstream feminism of independence and "liberation". Allowing women a space in which to voice themselves has to be inclusive of all women, and not just those who fit a certain profile. It may not make for good theater, but I think performing those pieces in which women seemed "weaker" or "whinier" was probably the ethical thing to do.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hello again, Internet

Here's what i've learned about life since the last post:

1- Don't travel to North America in March without boots. Because snow, apparently, is wet.

2- Don't buy an unfinished apartment 2 months before your wedding.

3- Don't think that time, books, or experience will in any way enable you to have a clue as to what kind of career you want.

4- Don't quit smoking.

5- Don't hold your cell phone while standing near the rail of a boat. Even if you are sober, and the boat is docked.

6- Mothers really are crazy.

7- Don't trust those people. You know the ones i'm talking about.

8- Stay in touch with the ones you miss.

9- Beer is not, in fact, good for an upset stomach.

Nine pillars of wisdom.

Friday, January 05, 2007


"Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult" - George Eliot

Someone once told me that I carry myself like a professional liar. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but given the fact that this person was my boyfriend at the time, it wasn't really a compliment. I was hoping to be likened to something more along the lines of a ballet dancer. Or a diplomat.

I do, however, lie a lot. To my parents, that is. Like so many others, adolescence taught me that there are things which my parents view with such fundamental disapproval that they will never be able to accept them. Such as drinking. Or pre-marital intimacy. Now everyone in the entire world hides things from their parents. But what I am talking about is not just a few lies here and there, but the existence of an entire life which is hidden from them, as if occurring in another dimension. Places, activities, people that they never know about. Once, when I was 18 or maybe 19, I was so tired of this incoherence that I sat down at the dining room table and told my mother almost everything I had been keeping from her, things I would have never thought would come out of my mouth in her presence. What ensued were months of painful fighting, of two entire worldviews (mine incomplete and young, hers set in some of its ways, both self-righteous) pushing against each other with all their might. There were scenes that Hollywood movies are made of, complete with yelling and the occasional intervention of the aloof but all-authoritative patriarch.

Years later, I cannot say my experiment with brutal honesty was either positive or negative. I have gone back to my quiet lying. Except now, as I am planning my wedding and my marriage, it all strikes me as stupid and sad. I ran into another girl who is also getting married soon, and she is planning two entirely separate receptions, one for family, one for friends. This is not uncommon in Egypt nowadays. The fact that so many people have such an essential and influential gap between them and their parents that they cannot integrate them into the most celebratory event of their lives cannot be positive. This means there is an entire generation of liars running around the city. The term "liar" is no longer even percieved as the harsh insult that it used to be, or that it is in other societies. It is no longer even used, as the entire city quietly decieves itself, people putting on facades for each other, gently protecting interests and extracting extra money. From the cab driver and the man in the shop to the businessman and the Minister. Lying, corruption, bribery.

I used to worry that my lying to my parents would spill over to every other aspect of my life. That I would slowly become this deceitful and secretive person incapable of maintaining relationships with any degree of geniuneness. This has led to my insistence upon constant honesty in all other parts of my life, as if, somehow, it will all balance out.

Most of my friends in similar situations of leading double lives do not give it much thought. It's the way it is: parents won't accept certain things, so you lie about them. Easy. Painless. But I think thoughtlessness about the matter is dangerous. Lying becomes a effective, legitimate tool to be used throughout one's life. Perhaps for some, this is not a problem. It is for me. And while the comparison to a professional liar did not ring true at the time, nor does it now, it seems like some sort of ghoulish projection of my worst self-image.