Yesterday, we went to Orman Park to meet up with a university student, Alee-ah’, who converses with us partly in English and partly in Arabic (she’s brushing up on her English while we fumble along in Arabic). We were to meet her at the gate that faces the university at 2:15 PM. Lydian and I arrived at the park at 1:50 and we started walking the outer perimeter to see if we could find a place to sit. On our way, a group of four muhajiba girls seated in the grass waved at us vigorously and yelled, “Haalllooo!” as we passed by them.
Teenagers do this to us a lot here. They realize we’re probably English speakers and then they pounce on us with whatever English words or phrases they’ve learned in school, initiating conversations that end awkwardly because they’ don’t understand our English or our ultra-elite-speak of FusHa Arabic that Lydi and I are currently learning (we’ll learn the Egyptian dialect later). The conversations are entirely one-sided, like talking to a tape-recorder or the television, but the kids are always giddy with excitement about our willingness to be friendly with them nonetheless. We often have our photos taken with them. Their enthusiasm is kind of irresistible and I love how they get excited about practicing a new language. We get sucked into the party before we’ve even realized what’s happening.
Egyptians may very well be the friendliest people in the world.
Though we noticed the girls sitting in the grass as we walked by, on this particular day we kept going, pretending that we couldn’t hear them or that we didn’t actually speak English. We were on mission to find a good spot for our English/Arabic conversation with Alee-ah’ and we didn’t want to be late meeting up with her since we didn’t have a cell phone or any way to contact her if something went awry.
We turned a corner to go around the playground and up ahead on the path was a group of boys doing some kind of mock sword fight with long palm tree branches. “God…”Lydian said contemptuously. “Boys.” The high-school aged boys in Egypt rarely mix with the girls which leads to a lot of drama wherever the boys gather. Today, for example, we saw a hormone-induced riot of male teens break out on a sidewalk near a school building. The boy-ness of boys is turned up full-blast here. The boys walk around in giant herds, always shoving each other, joking, and pushing the limits of appropriateness. Girls are ultra-feminine. They’re often weak and ineffectual. They walk slowly in pairs or groups of four. Sometimes they trip over themselves and fall down in their girl-gear (fashionable but impractical shoes, long gowns, and bags with eye holes that cover their heads).
As Lydi and I neared the boys playing with sticks in the park, I mused, “They’re always on the verge of chaos…the groups of boys, I mean.”
“I know.” She said and then added sarcastically, “Poor things…”
The boys were hitting each other with the sticks and laughing, and I imagined at least a dozen different injuries they could inflict on each other: lost eyes, visceral stab wounds, etc. When they saw Lydian coming though they behaved themselves and smiled amicably. The presence of a young female is a rare gift in the world of Egyptian boys. We passed among them exchanging smiles, and light nods.
Lydi and I tried to return to our original goal of finding a place of privacy to practice Arabic. But just a little further ahead on the path was a different, larger group of teenage boys loitering in a low spot under a bridge. There had to be more than a dozen of them but otherwise, they looked like a lot of other groups of boys that we’d seen in the park. During most of our other encounters with herds of boys, though, John had been with us.
“Shit, there’s more of them…”Lydian said with her mouth full. She’d just opened a bag of potato chips, a little treat, and she’d planned to enjoy them quietly for the rest of our walk before our university friend showed up. I heard the bag crinkling as she quickly rolled it up put it away. The boys had already spotted us. As a foreign female, Lydian isn’t necessarily off-limits to teenage boys like all the other local girls are, especially if she doesn’t have a male “chaperone” so within moments, the whole lot of them had crawled out of the ditch to greet us.
There was no turning back. There were boys in front of us and boys behind us — with sticks. Lydian was a juicy morsel amidst circling vultures. In Egypt, taking Lydian out for a walk is like smearing honey on our faces in a room full of fruit flies. Up ahead on the path, they watched us approaching. Behind us, the other boys watched Lydi walking away and I said, “It’s like the walking and the eating-of-the-chips is a performance. It’s like a Potato-Chip-Eating-Pageant!”
I laughed at my cleverness, but Lydian wasn’t listening. She was doing a quick scan of the pickings like all girls do. The boys lined up on either side of the walkway.
One of them had a camera, which is normal for groups of boys in a park in Cairo. John and I have speculated that there’s a photography class going on nearby at the university and the big cameras that the boys are always carrying are on loan from the school. In most of the groups of boys we’ve met in the park, there’s usually one with a camera, one who can speak limited English, and one that’s outgoing but a little daft. The daft one usually steps out to greet us first while the others stand back to see if we’ll be friendly or not. In this particular group of boys, there were no English speakers. But since we were two foreign women without the accompaniment of a man, they made an intimidating circle around us anyway. They looked friendly though as they shifted their feet and smiled at us, so I smiled back at them and looked for the one with the camera.
“Soowar?” (pictures?) I asked. They hadn’t thought of that.
There was much joking and teasing. I’m certain that there were Arabic euphemisms flying past me that I couldn’t hear or make sense of. The boys laughed and hit each other on the shoulders, laughing and making jokes. One of them tried to figure out how much Arabic we really knew (luckily, it’s hard to measure such things so our meeting didn’t get too out of hand linguistically).
Lydi posed with one boy after another. I took pictures of her getting her picture taken. One of the boys snuck in for pictures with Lydian twice (I noticed it later). I found out later that he was the one that Lydian found most attractive in the bunch. He tried to talk to her too, but his English was faltering and his friends were crowding in on him. He got embarrassed. Just like boys and girls at home in the U.S., a few moments alone without the friends and family gawking at them would be enough for a boy and a girl to decide if they’d like to spend a few more moments together. Some things defy language. Some things are true across cultures.
After everyone had had pictures, it was time for our meeting with our university friend, so I said, “We have appointment” in Arabic and they understood and let us go.
We walked back to the gate where we were meeting with Alee-ah’, past the boys with the sticks (they stopped and asked us for pictures too this time, of course). When we got to the park entrance, the ticket people told us that Alee-ah’ had gone, “that way,” and they pointed down a path that branched out in three different directions.
We walked past the group of four girls again. I had no idea where we’d find Alee-ah’ and by this time we were late. The girls saw us and one of them in a dark blue hijab got up and sprinted 50 yards to chase us down. “Haaallooo!” She said waving with a characteristically Arabic grabbing finger movement. I smiled at her and said, “Hello!” back to her.
“How are you?” She asked me and I knew immediately that she wouldn’t be able to understand my response in English. So I smiled at her and tried instead to explain in Arabic that we had a meeting with a friend and we needed to find her. By this time the other three girls had arrived. I said, “we have appointment,” in Arabic, just as I had with the boys and expected for them to understand our urgency and allow us to move on, but instead, they clung to us. I started walking and they followed. By the time we’d gotten to the other entrance gate, one of the girls had proclaimed (in English) that she and I were best friends (she struggled to find the word “best”, trying “better” and “very” first before I offered the word she’d been searching for). We turned a corner and I had the idea that Alee-ah’ might be outside the gate on the street. So I said, “Stay here,” to Lydian and ran out to look outside the gate. Sure enough, Alee-ah’ was waiting outside.
Lydian, has been ambushed by several different groups of girls here already, all of them wanting to be super-close buddies with her from their very first meeting. Lydi keeps saying, “I feel like Hannah Montana,” because it’s like she’s famous and they want her autograph stamped on their lives. Now, as I returned to her and the group of girls, Lydi gave me a wide-eyed clinched-jaw look. She was being sucked into the vortex. But I knew we’d be okay now. Alee-ah’ dismissed the girls curtly. I’m not sure what she said. It was succinct and quiet. And then they were gone.
I apologized to Alee-ah’ for our delay, but she wasn’t concerned about it. We walked and then we stopped in a random clearing to talk about college, using Arab-lish. The last time we’d met with her, a crazy man had come up to us to tell us something important about Jesus Christ (his left eye twitching, his shirt buttoned wrong) in broken English. This time, some men on the walking path grew offended by our womanly presences. They taunted us with cowardice in Arabic from the sidelines. Alee-ah’ told us we needed to move on. I never got to ask her exactly what they were saying. How was our presence offending them exactly? I don’t know, but I guessed that they were just being lewd. I’d noticed the men back there yelling something behind us in Arabic, but I figured I’d let them come up and say their peace (or is it piece?) to my face. That way, the men could feel as embarrassed about it as they should.
“There are lots of crazy men here.” Alee-ah’ told us.
“That’s true in the United States too.” I said, but she shook her head.
“There are more of them here.”
I didn’t argue with her because I had to admit that she was probably right about that. The segregation of the men from the women is right on the cusp of driving me mad and I’ve only been here for two months. As our family walks along the street every day men will say, “Hello! How are you?” but they are never talking to me, even if I’m the one standing right in front of them. They’re talking only to John. They’re recruiting him, in fact. It would only be a matter of time before he’d be invited to one of the ubiquitous coffee houses where men sit around like tom cats all day sipping coffee and smoking sheesha instead of doing productive work like cleaning the trash off the streets, for example.
But though I agree that Middle Eastern men are more prone than their U.S. counterparts to a certain type of freakish behavior toward women I also don’t want to offend Alee-ah’ by saying too much about it in Arabic or in English. I’m not sure where the line is between defending women’s rights generally and offending an Arabic woman’s culture specifically?
Alee-ah’ is a Nubian from Aswan in southern Egypt near the Sudan border, a completely different culture from the one Cairo. She’s studying economics and she’s never been anywhere in the world except these two places. When I ask her questions, she answers with absolute confidence, though Mona, our Arabic instructor ten years her senior, often tempers the same questions with answers that have a bit more realism and balance. Muslims aren’t encouraged to travel to countries that are not also predominantly Muslim because Islam is not just a religion but also a system of government. For Muslims, travel outside of a Muslim country is like a Christian going to a synagogue or a Jew attending meditation classes at the Shambhala. For women, travel is an even bigger problem. Muslim women must be accompanied by a Muslim husband. A certain type of temporary marriage is available for single Muslim women travelers that becomes null and void after the couple returns to their homeland, but dealing with a male consort en route to a foreign land who may try to assert his rights as husband to his temporary wife would be enough to keep a lot of women at home. Most of the Middle Easterners we’ve spoken with (male or female) have never traveled outside of the Middle East because it’s looked down upon. Middle Easterners may talk about their desire to move to the United States, but the desire is strictly economic, so it didn’t surprise me that Alee-ah’ had never traveled beyond the borders of Egypt. To most Muslims, the Arabic world is the whole world.
At the end of our time with Alee-ah’, after fumbling clumsily through conversations that are peppered with a balance of English and Arabic, I felt exhausted. There’s so much going on and there’s so much to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. From the gender-segregation and the misunderstandings that happen between men and women to the cultural misunderstandings that have to do with radically different perspectives on the world, it’s hard to manage it all in a conversation with limited words and poor pronunciation. There are so many things that can go wrong in any given sentence. And there’s so much room for discovery too. My mind is always blown. There’s crossing a land border and then there’s crossing a language border. Though many people have been to Egypt, fewer have crossed the language border to Arabic and I have to say, it’s a fascinating place and I feel lucky even to have dipped my toe into it. The Arabic-speaking world is a place where it isn’t safe to write down the most intriguing secrets and Truth can only be exchanged verbally between friends. Learning the language, in this case, is the only way to really cross the border between here and there. It’s a trip that’s been more like visiting a different planet than visiting a new country.