June 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
Going back a little while…
2 years ago I went to Egypt with my class, to do a 3 month Arabic course at a small language school in one of the more well-off areas of Cairo – Mohandiseen. The first 2 nights we spent in a run-down colonial hotel in the centre of the city – far more expensive than the rooms would suggest it should be, but, even if the showers barely gave a trickle of warm water, the place still retained a semblance of its old grandeur. From the outside it was like any other building in Wust el Balad. But the tiny reception area still had solid wood chairs, and the large restaurant with its plush burgundy carpets (probably highly impractical in the climate) and dark wood somehow carried the entire history of the place, yet fit perfectly with the dilapidation of the rest of the building. Even the rickety old lift with its ornamental grille doors was testament to its past and its continuing popularity with well-to-do tourists looking to stay somewhere with a bit of ‘culture’.
In any case, when we finally found a flat (a lovely, big place, with a lovely little landlord – and some very odd decor choices), we were delighted to finally be settling in. The day we moved in, after wandering out after sunset to find something to eat, I sat on my bed under the fan (still a little too nervous of cockroaches to open the balcony in the evening) and wrote reams about what it felt like, after 3 days, to be in Egypt. That was pretty much the beginning and end of my travel diary. But I still crave the luxury of going back and putting the days in order, tracing the impact of each new experience, recalling the ups and downs. Perhaps the 2 years of hindsight will help me along.
Egypt, then. A great mass of contradictions. Busy, busy roads imply that everyone is rushing around, presumably getting things done. But then how can they be when the amount of traffic means moving more than half a meter a minute is generally impossible, and it would probably be quicker to walk halfway across town than take a taxi somewhere which should only be 5 minutes away by car. How can anything be getting done, when the cafes are almost always full of men (the odd woman can sometimes be seen in the more middle class joints – but I have it on authority that they are highly unlikely to be telling their parents where they spent their afternoon!) sitting around, drinking tea and smoking the narghile, playing backgammon and complaining about today’s news (ma3lesh, maashi, look how terrible it is, look at these idiots – but what can we do? ). But it is something of a relief to see these spaces of calm, where nothing of any significance seems to be happening, somehow remaining intact in the vast rush and confusion of the big city.
Women walking alone and in groups, multicoloured hijabs in various styles. Many appearing to be compensating for their head-coverings by wearing skin-tight outfits – and this despite the impracticality of wearing tight clothing in this heat! The men too in tight shirts, short sleeved, top 4 buttons open, leaning against cars (not theirs) and watching, watching, as the women walk past, leering, sometimes hissing, sometimes shouting lewd or simply irritating comments. Nothing better to do, apparently.
Taxi drivers are quick to ask if you are Muslim – but even quicker to ask about your marital status – hadratik aneesa wala madame?. The information that I, an unmarried Muslim girl, am here alone, without my father or brother or husband – is more than enough to inspire raised eyebrows and slightly shocked disapproval. And 5 minutes later… can I have your phone number? You can call if you ever need a taxi, or I can show you all around Cairo, there are so many things to see, you need a guide…
Needless to say, after a number of very similar experiences, I moved my only ring – a gift from my grandmother when I was 17 – to my wedding finger and started telling all those too-interested taxi drivers that I’m engaged.