I read a couple of really good articles this morning which have made me think a lot about my own situation here in Egypt. The first was written by a foreign woman who lives in Syria and the challenges she faces there as a ‘foreign’ woman. (Link at the bottom of the page).
Having recently moved to Egypt, I could completely identify with her experiences of living in an Islamic country as a foreign woman. Although Egypt is probably less oppressive than Syria (possibly, as I have never been to Syria!) it is still a challenge. But it is a dual challenge. I live in Luxor, where the tourist industry has pretty much destroyed any positive relations between foreign women and Egyptians. Foreign women are seen as immoral and therefore available to all and sundry!.
Sometimes this judgement, especially as I am married to an Egyptian, overwhelms me. And sometimes I just think “fuck it’, I’m a foreigner. There’s no point in trying to prove that I am one of the ’modest, good ones’ as they will judge me anyway.”
This hit me last week as myself, husband Omar, and his teenaged nephew sped along country roads on his nephew’s motor-bike. Omar was ‘driving’, with his nephew behind him and me sitting behind his nephew. No helmets or protective clothing I might add!
Here in Luxor motorbikes can carry more people than a car and often you will see entire families driving along on one bike! Women usually sit side-saddle, and I did try it. It was fine for short journeys but driving on busy roads? No way Jose! I sat ‘astride’ like any self-respecting woman. I had to ignore the judgements of passers-by and at one point, having passed an open car filled with women who stared at me, I reached the ‘fuck it’ point! I was a western woman sitting on the back of a motorbike behind two men!!! It probably didn’t matter how I was sitting, the fact that I was on it at all was probably bad enough.
But oddly it felt kind of liberating! Yes I am a Western woman. Yes, in their view, I am totally immoral and decadent. But if I don’t know them then it doesn’t matter!!!! The same thing applies at the souk. No matter what I wear I am still the foreigner! So I may as well be OK in my jeans and long shirt and not worry about my Gelebeya. And carrying a camera??? Well, definitely a tourist!
I went for a walk by myself last week, and I brought my camera. It was an hour away from sunset and I wanted to take some photos of the local graveyard. I walked across the Souk and headed towards the graveyard which was about 150 yards away from our house. No sooner had I passed the supermarket, which is owned by Omar’s cousin (Who, by the way, wanted to know where Omar was!) I was accosted by 4 or five 5 young kids. “Hallo, Hallo. Euros???” I did the usual, smiled and kept walking, but they followed me insisting on ‘Euros’ . So eventually I said I had nothing. They didn’t believe me. Then I remembered what Omar told me to say but I couldn’t remember the word for Poor! So I used a gesture instead. I put my thumbnail behind my front teeth and clicked it out. It basically means I am poor! As soon as I did it, the older girl instantly said “Ahh” in acknowledgement and they all disappeared! I will use that again!!!
However, that was the least of it!!! I wandered around behind the temple of Seti Ist and, apart from the pack of wild dogs, met no-one. I walked through the village where all the alabaster factories are, picked up some alabaster crystals which they discard as useless, and ignored the incessant “hallo,hallo” that usually accompanies any journey I make through this area! I figured that if I walked here often enough they would get used to me, like Omm Seti! Just not quite so old…
I managed to make it out onto the main road without too much hassle but then it all began. Every single bloke on a bike or service taxi stopped to ask where I was going, blah blah blah, and did I want a lift? One man wanted to know if I was a journalist as I was carrying my camera. ”No, I’m just going for a walk” was my constant reply!!! They couldn’t understand why I was walking and why I was walking alone. Some, in fact most, were opportunists and a couple of teenaged boys asked me if I had a phone number and email address. I lied and said ‘No’, hoping that Omar would not choose that precise minute to ring and expose my lie. Thankfully he didn’t and I said goodbye!
There was one nice encounter with a very old man who gave me some clear calcite cubes as a gift when he saw me picking up some crystals from where they had earlier dumped them.
It was dark by the time I arrived home and yet again, as I passed by the cousin’s supermarket the question was asked “Where is Omar?” I went over to say hello to him, and Omar’s nephew, the one with the motorbike, offered to take me the rest of the way home, all of 150 yards! I couldn’t say no. He’s a nice boy!
On reflection I think it might be a good idea to wear a headscarf next time. I will see what the difference is. Will I still stick out like a sore thumb or will they be less inclined to bother me as I will not look so immoral? We shall see!!!