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.