Today, at the Markaz where we go jogging at a fenced-in track several times a week, the man at the ticket counter tried to overcharge us for admission. When I realized that we were being swindled, I said (in Arabic, with a few grammatical errors, but he still understood me), “Normally we pay 60 pounds. Why are we paying more today?” The man looked back at me sheepishly. I’d called him out on his corruption. A second man in the booth looked down at his hands quietly while the first man searched for an explanation to redeem himself. I looked at him squarely in the eyes and said it again, “Why?”
I had him backed into a corner and I knew it. Maybe he’d say something or do something that would make me accept the “error”, but then, I could invoke the “hospitality toward foreigners” card (Muslims believe that kindness toward guests translates into heavenly bonus points) to win the argument. At the very least, I felt that I needed to hold my ground for another 15 awkward seconds and then, to save face he’d come up with a reason to give me the correct change.
But before I had the chance to find out, John leaned in and did a coup on the transaction. “Just forget it.” He said in English with a wave of his hands. Then, John ushered me through the gate, having paid twice as much for admission.
“Why did you do that?” I said after we’d gotten inside. Had he seen a mob of angry Egyptians walking toward us with sticks? Did he see someone pull a gun? Initially, I took a deep breath and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’d seen something going on that I’d missed.
I stopped just inside the entrance gate and looked at John.
“What?” He stopped and looked at me surprised that I was questioning his judgment. “He wasn’t going to give us our money back.”
“How the hell do you know that?” I asked him.
“I could just tell.” He said.
My jaw dropped open.
“You could just tell?” I said. John’s eardrum is perforated so he’s partially deaf and besides that, he can barely stumble through the words for “hello” in Arabic, let alone hear the subtle difference between a “k” and a “kh”. I knew that he had no idea what I’d said to the man in the ticket booth. “Are you serious?” I said.
I. Was. Livid.
“I could just tell that we weren’t going to get our money back.” John shrugged defiantly, not wanting to admit to his mistake.
Our dialogue continued on from there, my voice rising to a pitch of appalled shock as I tried out different lines of questioning to help him see my point-of-view more clearly. He continued to defend what had hitherto been an ignorant stance.
In English, I recounted the words I’d spoken to the ticket man. I explained what had been going on from my perspective, with the expectation of a full apology, but alas, there were none in the cards. At the entrance booth, when John had done his wrist flick, this tiny gesture held more weight with the ticket men than all the Arabic words I’d managed to acquire in two years of dedicated study. It was galling. I’d felt cheated by the ticket man and then disregarded flippantly by John. And somehow, John was now wounded because his charades were being called into question. Nevermind apologies. This man’s ego is wounded! Call in the fire squad!
As we turned to start jogging on the track, I looked at John and said, “What’s wrong with you?”
He fell silent. He was angry. Angry. ANGRY. This had become his wound. His drama.
No. No. No…I would have none of it! (But still, we started jogging together since we’re on a tight schedule and we’d just paid $20 for admission.)
John was underestimating my willingness to multi-task. I didn’t hesitate to fight with him publicly and do my workout at the same time.
As we trotted around fat ladies fully niqab-ed from head to toe, balding men in sweatsuits, herds of teenage boys, and pairs of girls wearing hijabs and impractical but stylish flats on the track ahead of us, I reminded John that he was the one who’d hurt my feelings and not the other way around. Fueled by the pent up rage that I’ve felt for weeks whenever I see a woman fully covered and incapacitated by the bags they wear on their heads in public places, I lit into him. Women in niqabs don’t go jogging, but their husbands can. Few of these men do any kind of exercise, of course, because they’re too busy sitting at the coffeehouses wasting their lives away with other men talking politics (not solving any problems, though) and smoking sheesha.
In the unusually open and clean environment of the Markaz, my American Woman persona came out in metaphorical stilettos and a tight-fitting 1990’s-inspired Female Hero suit to publicly defend my honor and the world. Every time I ran past another woman with the full head covering, my fury was renewed. I thought, This is what men will do with a society when their Penises are left unchecked by the balancing force of Strong Vaginas.
The Penis Problem isn’t just a domestic problem here in Egypt, like it is in the states where all couples contend with each other privately behind closed doors. Nope. In the Middle East, the Man vs. Woman problem is a public issue that’s obvious when I look at…well… anything here. Cairo is an ugly city in desperate need of a woman’s touch. It’s a sprawling megalopolis of dingy cement rectangles under a blanket of polluted air where women walk the streets with the volume turned down on their beauty in an effort to appease the men who, per their own admission cannot control themselves. The men, meanwhile laze about in coffeehouses all day smoking hookah pipes.
I took the liberty in the wide-open spaces of the Markaz to lecture John loudly about the global problems that plague our world today because of Big Swinging Penises. Out of embarrassment of me, more than his own behavior, he listened quietly, not wanting to incite louder rantings. Quietly though, in his own way, he remained on the defense, still holding his ground by rolling his eyes discreetly, unwilling to concede an apology even for the sake of peace; which earned him another dose of the same Swinging Penises pitch on our second lap. Around and around we went, until finally, I lost my breath (so to speak). Then, we just jogged together in silence our jaws clinched and our eyes narrowed. We’d continue the battle at home.
Many experts agree that Muslim Machismo is the backbone that keeps the corpus of human rights abuses intact and healthy in places like Egypt. Though the Muslim Machismo is less prevalent in Egypt than it is in other countries like Tunisia and Jordan, from time to time, Lydi and I have still been flatly ignored when we speak because, frankly, we don’t have penises. While I don’t have a problem with men, penises, or masculinity, a large number of men in the Middle East seem to have a problem with me (and Lydian) and the fact that we lack this all-important appendage. And that irritates me. A lot. I’m not used to it and I doubt that I’d ever get used to it if I lived in the Middle East. I’ve heard stories of western expat women chasing teenage boys down the street to literally kick them in the ass after they push one too many of the women’s buttons. If I had to live here over a longer term, I’d get so fed up with the situation that I’d probably end up “disappearing behind the sun” (as they say here) after one too many testicles disappeared because unsuspecting men weren’t expecting me to kick them in the gonads.
Lydi and I carry weapons with us discreetly when we go out alone in the Middle East because when John isn’t with us, I know that we’re regarded differently. Men stare at us, especially Lydi with her youthfulness and her blonde hair. Sometimes they say things in Arabic that we don’t understand and then laugh in a way that’s unmistakably directed at us in a gross way. But both of us are tall compared to the other women here and I’m certain that we wouldn’t react to an attempted attack or rape the way that a typical Egyptian woman would which gives us an exploitable advantage that would probably make the front page news should something ever happen to us. And I’m not inclined to back down in conversation when a man tries to use his Penis Power to convince me to defer to his masculinity on miscellaneous issues unless I sense that there’s some real danger that I can avoid by giving in to him. Having the same educational opportunities as the men in the U.S. puts me on an equal footing with them. I feel very lucky for these equal rights, as should all American women.
But I certainly didn’t expect to have to back down from a fight that I was winning against an Egyptian man because of John’s machismo. Egypt isn’t that bad in terms of the man-stuff (compared to Tunisia and Jordan, for example), but still, when I encounter the gender-biased form of prejudice, it gets on my nerves. And actually, normally, it gets on John’s nerves too. He gets frustrated, for example, when I’m talking to a man in Arabic, but the man is staring at him, waiting for John to provide some kind of blessing on my words since I’m just a lowly woman. Often, John will make a gesture like, This-Is-What’s-Behind-Door-Number-One and step away from me to indicate that indeed, My woman is speaking. You can listen to her. I think it’s embarrassing for John in a weird, culturally-sanctioned way, because he has to step down from the Man Pedestal that all men occupy here by default. I know it’s embarrassing for the other guy, an Arab, who’s then forced to communicate directly with me, a female. And I feel a twinge of humiliation because I need a man to justify my speech and my existence. The situation is unnecessary and infuriating and it feels to me a lot like watching a child in the states who isn’t minding his parents. I want to go up to the kid and kneel down and say firmly, “Listen to your parents,” and then stand up to the parents and say, “Parent your child.” Everyone in the Middle East needs this kind of, “Stop being stupid,” guidance, but they all need it at the same time. Instead, there are two or three intelligent Egyptian women who stand up for themselves with self-respect and two or three intelligent men who support them. The masses are oblivious to the problems and life continues on with men on one side and women on the other. The problem is social and it’s impossible for John and I not to play the game along with everyone else just to get through a normal day.
So despite his best intentions, and the fact that he’s American and thoroughly domesticated, John has had his Man Moments during our sojourn in the Middle East. These are times when his brain switches off and the whole world is supposed to bend unflinchingly to his masculinity. You know what I’m talking about, Ladies…Man Moments are not about being right. They’re not about being good. They’re not about puzzling out the answer to a difficult question or putting in the hard work to make something impossible happen. They’re merely about being more stubborn and physically stronger than the opposition.
I am King of the Mountain! The man proclaims in a deep and resounding God-like voice [holding up his arms in a “V”] even if the mountain is just a pile of poop.
The divide between men and women is frustrating in the United States even though there’s an ongoing dialogue among experts about our differences and similarities and men and women can fashion their relationships in ways that suit their individual personalities and inclinations. Despite all the studies that have been done, all the research, the large “relationships” section at Barnes and Noble, and the ongoing daytime talk TV about how Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus, relationships are still hard to navigate. Men and women don’t really understand each other anywhere in the world. In the United States, they go through a push-pull that ultimately keeps things balanced (most of the time), but the back-and-forth of men’s and women’s relationships doesn’t keep them peaceful, per se. Total peace isn’t the goal though either. The edgy man-woman dynamic ensures that there’s always a conflict to keep the clumsy, romantic plot moving forward. And you know, I really like it that way. Here, in the Middle East, the divide between the sexes is stark and the wiggle room is nil. There is no plot. Men and women complain amongst their own kind about the problems but they can’t communicate to the opposite sex. The problems have become a lingering source of irritation instead of a Love Story.
As the sky turns pink and twilight falls, I’m still pissed at John. But maybe I’m not just pissed at him. I think I’m pissed at all the Muslim Machismo I’ve been putting up with for the past six weeks. I won’t admit that to John just yet because I’m reveling in my right, as a woman to stay arbitrarily pissed. I’m having a WoMan Moment. And as I enjoy this right I can’t help but remember that few women here in the Middle East get to do this. After paying twice the correct amount to get into the Markaz and enduring an 9 mile jog with John without ever hearing an adequate apology, I decreed that John will have to manage all of his own human transactions on his own from here on out until we leave for Thailand. Lydi and I won’t help him out by using our Arabic skills over the next week and a half and already today I watched him floundering at the grocery store with no one to translate for him when the store clerk had to excuse himself to go off in search of a pen (John didn’t know what was going on). John relies on us, the “weaker” sex, more than he realizes, but since I have the right to withdraw my services temporarily from our couple-dom, he has the opportunity to remember that I have valuable contributions to make to our lives. I have the right to be mad and to assert my boundaries. As an American woman, my husband doesn’t have the right to beat my defiance out of me unless I let him. It may seem like a small right. I think before we started traveling to the Middle East, it was a right that I took for granted as something that all women have everywhere in the world. Women’s rights translate into a big difference in the way our American society operates for both men and women.
Later tonight, after John has spent six to eight hours in Time Out, I’ll stop being so cold to him. And then, I’ll review with him where things went awry today. And he’ll tell me how he thought he was doing the right thing and hopefully that he’s sorry. And that will be that. I don’t know if men and women ever fully understand each other, even in the most spirited earthly connections. I don’t expect for John to live inside my mind and read it for me, but I do expect to have enough space in the world and in my home to be who I am. And in turn, I support John’s same right to have space and his own way of living out his existence too. Right now, John isn’t the only one in my world (the Middle East) who’s trying to stamp out my inner flame, but he’s the one who gets to take the brunt of my fury about it. Being male, he isn’t inclined to notice my experience of the world unless I draw a detailed word-picture of it for him, but I have a profound appreciation for his willingness to retreat quietly to his corner of the ring to sit and wait patiently for me to stop throwing punches in the air after I put on my boxing gloves.