Sunday, December 14, 2008

In which the news reads like a dystopian fantasy story

Society's obsession with what people are doing in their bedrooms never fails to amaze me. We've had thousands of years to come to terms with the fact that people are turned on by different things, and that they will continue to do those things no matter how energetically society tries to police them. I do not understand why people give a damn, frankly. As long as someone's sexual acts are consensual and private, why should it matter to anyone else? Why must society force us all to fit into one heterosexual, chaste until marriage, monogomous version of the story? Have we not learned that repression of sexuality often leads to violence, depravity, and the sort of behavior that is generally more likely to ruin lives and break apart families?

Apparently not. This article in the Daily News Egypt is interesting because it starts out discussing couples that are suffering due to the fact that the husband is a homosexual who got married only to save face socially. And yet the bulk of the article is spent discussing homosexuality from exactly the same perspective which caused these couples so much grief in the first place: that homosexuality is a disease, and one that should be treated.

There is mention of erectile implants to assist men in being able to have sex with women, as well as this gem from a Dr. Abdulla "a gynecologist and the Ministry of Justice’s Medical Consultant for Sexual Disorders":

"While Abdulla underlines the futility of psychotherapy in the majority of such cases, he commends the results of behavioral therapy which consists of reversing the patients’ sexual obsessions through conditioning to trigger orgasm through pornography in the presence of a woman."

For the sake of caution, I do think it is possible that the writer was trying to be neutral and simply "report" the attitudes and practices surrounding the problem. However, I think it would have been responsible to find a quote from someone from a human rights group posing a different question: What if we stopped criminalizing homosexuality?

It would have added a bit of dynamism to the article. Instead we are left with the same old panicky "WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT THE GAYS?" answered horrifically with: "stick implants in their penises and force them to watch heterosexual porn". Yeah, that'll fix it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Om el Donya

It seems that the creeping approach of Ramadan has caused my boss to wake up from the lull of managerial office routine in a frenzied panic, and to throw buttloads of work into my lap. One of these suddenly remembered tasks sent me on a ten-day trip to various parts of Upper Egypt and Fayoum. We are talking about working with farming communities in the heart of the s3eed here. In August. Never have I so frequently lamented my female-ness. Not even while living in Saudi Arabia; at least there one has the option of leading a double life - publicly, a life that is indistinguishible from its repressed surroundings, and privately, one that mirrors western conceptions of leisure.

The trip was educational both professionally and in the way it opened my eyes to how culturally removed Cairo and Alexandria are from the rest of the country. Cairo is so crowded and overwhelming that one often forgets that its residents, and its commuters, are in fact a minority of the larger Egyptian population. I'm among those who complain about the enforced social conservatism of Cairo, and, like most, I usually attribute it to religion. I had forgotten all about straight up traditionalism. I guess that's easy to do in an enormous, mostly Muslim city setting. The following is an email I sent to some friends mid-way through the trip, pointing out various things I had learned about the s3eed by that point :

- It is rude for women to chew gum.
- It is rude for women to cross their legs in public. It is not, however, in any way notable if a man sits with his hands cupping his balls for about 15 minutes, or picks his nose continuously (really, really picking. Like exploratory digging.)
- If you are not veiled, do not be surprised if a development "professional" asks you if "you guys are fasting these days."
- There is a kabab store in Fayoum called "Kalbaz". I look forward to seeking it out tomorrow almost as much as I look forward to having a beer and wearing a (gasp!) half-sleeved t shirt on saturday.

I did indeed make it to Kalbaz, and it proved to be the cheesy, brightly colored, lard-smelling, flourescently lit place I had imagined. Other highlights of the trip included:

- Walking through a village and hearing about how they had to enlarge the police presence after a case of taar (revenge killings) left 3 people dead a few months ago.

- Driving through Fayoum (the actual town, not the touristic "oasis" by the lake) on Thursday night and seeing at least two dozen pick-up trucks absolutely overflowing with wedding guests.

- Quickly realizing that unless you specify otherwise, any cup of tea that is given to you will be unbelievably sweet, and dark to the point where it looks thick. It makes Lipton seem like some sort of baby-faced pre-pubescant whose voice hasn't yet cracked.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Long overdue

It's 9 AM and I am walking to a main street so I can hail what will probably be a rickety cab blaring loud music that will drop me off, very late, at work. It's exceptionally bright this morning and so I'm squinting, cursing myself for having not yet replaced my sunglasses, whose final moments came unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago when they fell into a toilet at a restaurant ( I do not care what anyone says, no amount of anti-bacterial cleaning will make it ok for me to put them back on my face). I am wearing my loose (ie comfortable) jeans and a button-down shirt that my mother-in-law bought for me, and flip-flops, which I donned in a split-second decision geared both by impulsivity and the thought that my boss would not be in the office today.

As I pass a 3arabeyet foul attracting a modest swarm of people, I see a girl, 11 years old or so, also walking down the street towards me. She's wearing long pink cotton shorts, way past her knees, and a matching pink t-shirt. She is tall and skinny, clearly living through that pre-pubescent growth spurt that many young girls experience, when they suddenly get very tall but their hips are still boyish and their chests are still flat. It's still a few months before things will start to suddenly get soft, and weird, and she'll have to start wearing extra undergarments and deal with roundness and pimples and hundreds of questions, some of which I'm sure are already in her head. I think to myself that this could be my younger sister, who also walks with a silent air of self-conciousness, doing a good job of looking straight ahead of her and blocking out the rest of the street. She's carrying a plastic bag, and I wonder what errand she's been sent on, and why she's not in school this morning. As we get closer I see she too is squinting in the brightness, and her eyes have a puffiness that indicate she hasn't been awake for long.

We pass each other, and as I round the corner I'm thinking I should spend more time with my little sister, before the teenage years settle in with their unbudging weight, making her more defensive, more frantically preoccupied, less interested in family. I see the main street now, it's at the next intersection and I mentally groan as two empty cabs whiz by, I'm too far away to hail them, even with the incredibly useful "TAX! TAX!" yell which I have now mastered. A blue Hyandai Matrix, which always seems like a family car to me, is driving up the street I am on and stops on the left. I move to walk around it, and I hear "Saba7 el kheir. Saba7 el kheir." This is not the morning for this. Sure enough, I look to my left and see a man my father's age, sitting alone in the driver's seat. He is looking at me with beady eyes, and repeats the greeting which he apparently uses when he is soliciting prostitutes.

I yell at him, "Eih el 2araf dah!" in a voice harsh and angry and filled with disgust. And then I walk the few remaining steps to the main street and get into a cab. Sitting here now, blogging in my unsupervised office, it occurs to me that my rage was instantaneous, that only a few moments after I'd sat down in the taxi I was thinking of other things. It was not always this way. Up until recently, when drivers would slow down and try to get me to get into their cars because they thought I was a whore, it would weigh on me for hours, altering my mood palpably. The three times that different drivers flashed me their penis, which they were jacking off while looking at me, I was sick to my stomach, the way you are when you consume food or drink items that do things they aren't supposed to. The time I was waiting for the CTA to get to campus, when a driver drove up and down the street 13 times (I counted), in order to pull up in front of me and verbally harass me, I tried to walk up and down the steet to dodge him, standing on the sidewalk as far away from the actual street as possible. It didn't work. 

All of these experiences pissed me off and stressed me out and made me unsure myself. They made me question whether I would ever belong here, and whether I even wanted to.

Despite all of the advances pertaining to women's place in society, despite the thousands of Egyptian women who are doctors and professors and engineers and mothers and farmers and diplomats and writers and protestors, women still have no place in the street. "El share3", when mentioned in relation to women, carries dangerous and dirty connotations. Some say women can have a place there, provided that they dress "appropriately", meaning that they cover up bits of themselves that people have decided to sexualize, that they alter who they are in order to help men control themselves (that this line of thinking humiliates men by assuming they are pigs with no self-control seems to escape everyone). Others tell me that there is room for women "like me" (educated, from "good families", with money) in the street, provided I am in my own private car. Women "like me" should not be walking around by themselves and using cabs or the underground. This makes me think of my friend who was sitting in her car, stuck in traffic, when a pedestrian stuck both his hands through her window and grabbed her breasts. At 2 PM, in downtown Cairo.

Harassment happens everywhere. I've been catcalled and leered at in New York, Alexandria, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi and San Francisco. But there is something about the pervasiveness of it here, the fact that it happens every day, to shocking degrees, and to all women, that we sometimes feel like we can't away from it, can't get a break, that indicates to me that there is a sickness more advanced in this society plaguing the relationship between men and women. The years here may have made my skin tougher, but they have not made me any less saddened.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Crossing the Cab

Disclaimer: in no way is this post meant to bash religious phrases or those who use them. I am describing my personal feelings on this aspect of the language, I have no gripe with your beliefs, so don't have any with mine.

I used to be so conscientious about how I spoke, the expressions I did and didn't use in Egypt. The constant sycophancy of Egyptian 3ammiya was not irritating in and of itself, but rather the vagueness and lack of accuracy which it infused into conversation was troublesome. Plus, the most commonly repeated phrases all reference Islam, but what about the Copts? So I boycotted the use of all god-references in everyday speech and commercial transactions, in an attempt not only to placate my very out of place secular leanings, but also, I hoped that somehow I would be sparing the occasionally unknown-to-me Christian what must at least be a surge of mild irritation they experience when they are greeted with "al salamo 3alaykom". (The phrase itself, "peace be upon you", is quite beautiful. But every time I hear it, I remember something about a point system wherein you are granted a certain number of blessings based on how completely you used the greeting..."al salamo 3alykom" bringing in less points than "al salamo 3alaykom wa ra7met allah". The fact that the greeting has gotten mangled up in people's obsession with the details of religion pisses me off. It shouldn't be about points, dudes.)

Anyhow, somewhere along the line the years of inhaled smog and deafening noise pollution wore down on my stamina for such lofty principled-ness, and I noticed a couple of weeks ago that I was muttering "insha allah" occasionally (though NEVER in response to a question regarding whether something had happened in the past. I said I lost stamina, not logic). The other day I got into a cab and as I was dragging the door shut I said "al salamo 3aleko" only to look up and see a dashboard absolutely covered in Christian paraphernalia. Pictures of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and various priests dangled from every dangly-able part of the car.

It was like 2 religions talking so loudly at, not to, each other. One with a carelessness and self-assurance that only comes with having such a majority stake in culture. And the other responding with a desperate plea for attention, for space, for recognition, even in its own Christian-owned car.

The driver responded with "wa 3alaikom el salam", but only after a significant moment of paused silence. I wondered what thoughts went through his head during that pause and whether they included an angry stream of curses.