Lines in the Sand: Speaking Arabic in Cairo, Egypt (as a Woman)– By Jennifer Shipp
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Lines in the Sand: Speaking Arabic in Cairo, Egypt (as a Woman)– By Jennifer Shipp

This woman has her hands showing though her face is covered. Many women who wear the niqab even wear gloves to cover their hands. This is a Bedouin tradition that's related to the superstition of the Evil Eye. Besides covering women, Bedouins will keep young children unbathed and in scruffy clothes to keep jealous onlookers from afflicting their children with deadly diseases or unlucky situations caused by the Evil Eye.
This woman has her hands showing though her face is covered. Many women who wear the niqab even wear gloves to cover their hands. Veiling is a Bedouin tradition that’s related to the superstition of the Evil Eye. Besides covering women, Bedouins will keep young children unbathed and in scruffy clothes to keep jealous onlookers from afflicting their children with deadly diseases or unlucky situations caused by the Evil Eye. Many people today still believe in the Evil Eye. They believe that a person who casts an envious glance at animals, wives, children, or property can cause misfortune to befall the coveted person or thing.

Lydi and I have been spending a lot of time each week with Egyptian women and girls and most of that time we’ve been stuttering through clumsy sentences and mispronounced words. Meanwhile, John waves every morning to the Saudi guards outside the embassy and they smile at him and wave back enthusiastically from behind their metal barricades. I don’t wave at the guards on purpose because they’re Saudis and I’m not even supposed to look them in the face as a female, according to Sharia law. The fact that my face and hair is exposed would be enough to justify a good public flogging (not to mention how I brazenly wear pants).

But luckily we’re not in Saudi Arabia. We’re in Egypt. And Egypt isn’t like Saudi Arabia. Men and women mingle and the women aren’t required to wear a head covering. On the surface, the male-female goings-on seem relatively normal. I’ve seen couples hold hands and sit together closely in public. Yesterday, I asked a young female university student if men and women are equal in their relationships and she said, “Yes”, but I couldn’t probe into the questioning further with my limited Arabic. And it seemed unlikely that her definition of “equality” and mine were the same.

First of all, the Arabic language has different words for “you” depending on whether you’re talking to a male or a female. In other words, a male “you” is different than a female “you”. And there are special words and conjugations for groups of men and groups of women. If I say, “they crossed the street” I use a different word for “they” depending on whether the group is made up of all men or all women. It’s similar to Latin languages except that this conjugation scheme even includes special masculine and feminine categories for two women or two men. Linguistically, everything is divided and categorized according to it’s male-ness and female-ness much the way that people arrange themselves by gender inside the mosques (with the men in front, so they won’t be tempted to have lustful thoughts about women positioned ahead of them).

In our vacation rental, there’s a big curtain that separates the sitting area from the rest of the

The curtain in our apartment reminds me that women and men are not on equal footing here in Egypt. But the situation is more complicated than just taking the curtain down.
The curtain in our apartment reminds me that women and men are not on equal footing here in Egypt. But the situation is more complicated than just taking the curtain down.

apartment so that women can cook the food in the cramped and very basic kitchen and serve the food to the men (who gather with other men in the sitting area to smoke cigarettes and talk politics). The women can serve without ever being seen. Though I don’t think a lot of Egyptian families partition their women off from the men with this kind of extremism anymore, the curtain is evidence that the practice still exists. And it might be more common than I realize.

While we were out jogging a few days ago, a little boy lost his balloon over a fence and it floated into our path. His mother, in a full niqab (which covers everything except the eyes), and his father in a sweater and pants, stood nearby as John picked up the balloon and hit it back over the fence to the little boy. The woman was waif-like and delicate. She looked at John briefly and then leaned over to pick up the balloon (it was almost too heavy for her). John ran back to me to continue our jog and gave me a “look” and I said, “how did you feel about that?” And he said, “I don’t know,” and furrowed his eyebrows. And I asked, “Did she smile at you…I mean…could you tell if she smiled at you?” And he said, “I don’t know. It was a weird transaction.”

When I see the fully blackened women in their gloves and facial coverings, I try to imagine my existence behind a veil and it makes me shudder.

I hate the kitchen. It's small, unventilated, and primitive. Our closet at home is bigger. It demonstrates the amount of attention that women have been given in this culture since many Egyptian women spend hours each day preparing food in kitchens like these.
I hate the kitchen. It’s small, unventilated, and primitive. Our closet at home is bigger. It demonstrates the amount of attention that women have been given in this culture since many Egyptian women spend hours each day preparing food in kitchens like these.

Of the women in niqabs there are two breeds: those who are thin and lethargic like ghosts or those who are nearly crippled by obesity (they eat because they feel invisible, I suppose). It’s hard for me to imagine submitting to a life behind a veil and at times I feel frustrated with these phantasmic women. I think, for crying out loud…just take off that damn veil and refuse to wear it! But then, I remember that the women’s liberation movement in the United States didn’t have to contend with female genital mutilation as a practice that stifled and dulled women who might otherwise have rebelled against silly things like niqabs.

I’ve been reading the book, Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali this week and last night, after Lydian’s and my conversation with the university student, I read the author’s account of her own clitoridectomy, a surgical procedure that’s referred to (improperly) as “female circumcision”. The reason why it isn’t “circumcision” is because the clitoris is analogous to the tip of the penis on a man’s anatomy. Often, the clitoris as well as the inner labia are “scraped” off with a razorblade, but for the author of Infidel, a man came to the house with a pair of scissors and simply clipped off her clitoris and the labia (no anesthesia) and then sewed up what was left with a big needle, leaving just enough room for her to urinate and menstruate through a small hole. She described the searing pain of the “clipping” itself and then the days and days of agony that followed with the particular trauma of having to pee following a procedure like this. Her legs were tied together for two weeks afterward. She was five years old. A lot of girls die after clitoridectomies and many of them are never the same afterward. I read the chapter on my Kindle in the dark Cairo vacation rental, with my mouth agape, horrified.

I wonder about a lot of the women and young girls that we talk to on the streets here. Have they been cut? I wonder about our Arabic teacher and the university student. They seem okay. Surely they’re “okay”, I tell myself. They seem “okay”. How could a woman who’s had her southern regions clipped or scraped off be as “okay” as these women seem to be, after all?

I’m trying to learn a politically correct collection of Arabic words to be able ask them about “clipping”. I’ve read that Arabic speakers are more open about talking about sex than Americans. They may not be having sex or enjoying it, but they talk about it freely.

Bedouins at Petra. Many of the traditions and beliefs in Arabic culture come from the Bedouins. And Bedouin culture is influenced by the harsh desert environment.
Bedouins at Petra. Many of the traditions and beliefs in Arabic culture come from the Bedouins. And Bedouin culture is influenced by the harsh desert environment.

Today, our Arabic instructor talked with us at length about marriage in Egypt. And I was right to suspect that “equality” is not the right word for how husbands and wives relate to each other after marriage, but not for the reasons that I thought. She said that these days, the biggest impediment to marriage is economics. Men must pay an outrageous dowry for a wife (and most men are too poor). But more serious than that, women can choose a particular man to marry, but if her father doesn’t like him, the relationship must end. Women can’t just decide to marry or who to marry. They have to have the permission of a man, be it an uncle or a brother if her father isn’t alive or available to make the decision. The families are intimately involved in the married couples’ affairs. In many countries (I’m not sure about Egypt), a celebration takes place after the sheets from the wedding night have been examined by the family for blood to determine that the woman was, in fact, a virgin and that the man was, in fact, “manly enough” to consummate the marriage. That’s too much involvement, in my opinion. It’s hard for me to even imagine living under that kind of bizarre scrutiny from extended family. Nevermind “equality”. I’m not even sure what a concept like “equality” would look like in a situation that invites commentary from the extended family on the sex life of young couples.

A lot of our most familiar words don’t translate directly into the Arabic language. Like the word, “interesting”. I used it wrong yesterday in regard to a crazy man. He’d walked up to our little group of all-women and tried to convince Lydi and I that our Nabatean woman-friend was filling our brains with godless thoughts (or something, I don’t know…he was crazy and Arabic) and the university student corrected me when I said, “Hmmm…moomteya (interesting)”, as he walked away. “That wouldn’t be interesting.” She said, “That would be…hmm…maybe exciting.”

What?

I pretended to understand why the crazy man would be exciting, but not “interesting”. “Interesting” had been the most diplomatic word I could come up with (in English) for something that was not remotely “exciting” but maybe at best “disturbing”. And I was aiming for diplomacy with this girl since she was clearly aiming for diplomacy with me too. And so the closest we could come to an understanding was a mutual acceptance of misunderstanding.

Sana (in the hijab) chiding Hani (in the shades) to bring us back in time to meet her son-in-law at her shop. We were exhausted after the camel ride (it's more of a workout than you'd think), but we had to sit and wait to meet this fellow for reasons we couldn't really understand.
Sana (in the hijab) chiding Hani (in the shades) to bring us back in time to meet her son-in-law at her shop after our camel ride. We were exhausted after the camel ride (it’s more of a workout than you’d think), but we had to sit and wait to meet this son-in-law fellow for reasons we couldn’t really understand.

Last year, when we went to the pyramids and rode camels into the desert at dusk, there was no time to try to understand the Egyptians at all. A woman named Sana in a shop below our apartment showered us with attention and affection every time we left our front door. She gave us gifts out of her tiny, impoverished storefront. Lydi’s bellydance instructor (an Australian) told us not to give the gifts back because it would be considered bad taste, but Sana was so poor, I didn’t feel like it was right to take from her. So I bought her new gifts and then tried to excuse our family politely from having dinner with her and her entire family since I simply couldn’t understand her motives fully and didn’t have time to evaluate the wisdom of such a connection. Over the course of the week while we were there, I spoke with her daughter over the phone, we met her son-in-law, grandson, and several cousins (we’d sit in her shop sipping tea reluctantly waiting for new relatives regularly). She was somehow related to the people who took us on our camel rides. We became a part of the family by virtue of our proximity to Sana and it was suffocating.

But interesting.

It was and still is, remarkably difficult to know where to draw the line in the sand as an outsider here in Egypt. Lydian has Egyptian teenagers begging for her time right now, but she doesn’t have time to be attached at the hip to these teens and she lacks the Arabic vocabulary to be expertly diplomatic about it. And so she has anxiety about it daily. If you live in the desert and being all alone is considered deadly (because you would die on your own in the desert), constant companionship would be highly prized and it would make sense. But for an American, being alone makes sense. We were raised on Thoreau-type philosophies and little hand-built hermitages in the forest. But in Egypt, Bedouin tents are relocated whimsically. Lines in the sand disappear overnight. Dunes move. Curtains and veils are all that there is to shield your evil eyes from what’s mine. So relationships and tradition have been made solid like rocks. And even though modern-day Cairo is a city overwhelmed by concrete, the Bedouin desert values have persisted.

When I watch news stories from the U.S. about demonstrations or bombings in some Arabic country, I think about the families and the women and how challenging it would be to recreate a culture with such strong (and dysfunctional) traditions. But it’s important that the dysfunction is made functional, even though the traditions used to make sense. Though some parts of the culture are good and some parts are bad, all we see on the nightly news are negatives and craziness and it isn’t the whole story. Change rarely comes as a result of harsh judgment from outsiders who think they know better. And aiming to understand is noble, but understanding is a moving target because people everywhere are constantly changing. So on our limited budget of 30 more days, we’ll try to stay curious and keep asking questions because this is a place that doesn’t need any more lines in the sand.

Related Posts:

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Not Exactly a Bombing in Cairo, Egypt — By Jennifer Shipp

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