by Madeline Laughs
I have long had a love affair with the land of the Pharaohs.
Here are some, but not all, of memories of my time there.
As I lay in my hotel room, nestled in my bed and crunch the sheets next to my nose I wonder *would these be considered Egyptian cotton sheets?* Last night the Nightingales sang a serenade right outside my window. Idyllic and almost surreal is this place called Egypt.
I like my Egyptian hotel. I have a large room, a small refrigerator and a balcony that runs the width with three sliding glass doors that open onto the city. I can see all of Cairo. I can also hear all of Cairo, the cars and the car horns honking. But the most surprising and beautiful of all the sounds is the one that wakes me in the morning and leads me through my day. This is the sound of the numerous prayer towers that dot the city. The towers are the tops of numerous prayer rooms. When you walk by one on the street you can see the prayer leader holding his microphone chanting and high above him in the top of this tower are large speakers that broadcast his pleas throughout the city. The city becomes blanketed in a cloud of prayer at certain times each day. This melodic cry awakens me each morning. It’s soothing and reminds me that I am in a city of peace, at that moment.
All of the good Muslims stop whatever they are doing when the call to prayer starts. I know what a good Muslim man looks like. I have pictures of them now. A good Muslim sports a callous right in the middle of his forehead. This develops over years of bowing on his prayer rug. I say *him* because the men are the ones in the prayer rooms, the men are the ones pulling their prayer carpets out in the streets and the coffee houses and they are the ones that bow down and humbly recite their prayers while rhythmically tap, tap, tapping his forehead to the rug. Over years the telltale roughened area becomes prominent and it is a badge of honor, loyalty and dedication.
The night before there was an earthquake. It registered 5.5 on the Richter scale. My friend and I were in the midst of selecting which pieces of her vast wardrobe we would take with us on our journey when it happened. She was strutting back and forth across the marble floor in a pair of high heels “Should I take these? they’re not very comfortable”. When the floor started to move and quake, we both jumped on the bed and just stared at each other. What IS that? When the rumbling and shaking stopped we ran for the door and rode the rickety elevator to the first floor to seek out our trusty desk clerk who very calmly informed us “This was nothing ladies! Just a little ripple. Happens all the time!”
And yet, it was on the front page of the national newspaper the next morning. The newspaper, even though it is written in Arabic, is delivered to me every morning with my breakfast. The woman that takes care of me here also brings me an English newspaper. She makes my breakfast every morning. Fresh baked bread, real butter, preserves in a bowl and a pot of coffee. She also does my laundry. All of these services are included in the price of my room, $20 American dollars a night.
Today we are going into town to do some shopping. A Muslim city is the best place to buy lingerie. Much better than Paris and much more affordable too. The practice of women wearing coverings or burkas leaves the female little space to express herself fashionably. So they have found a way to express their femininity in different ways…underneath it all.
I ride the Metro here in Cairo. I like the Metro because I can go anywhere in the city for 75 cents. I have to pay close attention to the signs because everything is in Arabic, but oftentimes someone on the train will speak English and I can ask where I am.
The women ride in separate cars from the men. They always take an interest in me when I board. Most of the time a young girl will get up and offer me her seat. They ask to touch my hair, they stare at my bare arms and admire the color of my skin. The cars are not air conditioned. In fact, many places in Egypt are not air conditioned. But here on a train car, that is so old and dilapidated that it wouldn’t even be considered safe enough to haul livestock here in the USA, the heat is more evident as the sweat rolls down my back.
I smile at the beautifully open and curious faces of my own gender and know I am about to embark on a journey.
So that I might travel a bit better in the city, I have taught myself to speak a little Arabic. Phrases I use most have to do with my numerous cab rides. Stuff like “turn right”, “turn left”, “wait here for me, I’ll be right back”, “please”, “thank you”, and my most used phrase “Please slow down, you are scaring me!”. I am not fluent enough to hold a conversation though and I have a very hard time understanding.
My friend has an obsession with Coptic art. There is not a shopkeeper specializing in these archaic pieces in all of Cairo that has not laid eyes on her. Right now I am standing on the street waiting impatiently for her to finish haggling over yet another piece for her burgeoning collection. I can see the anger on the shopkeeper’s face through the plate glass window.
My god, it’s hot here! I am boiling from the heat today. I look down at my cotton teeshirt and I can see the sweat stains blossoming. This land is so hot and so dry and the reddish, beige dust clings to everything damp. It clings to all of my clothes, even after they’re washed they still carry the color of Egypt.
HURRY UP! I’m thinking.
I turn once more to watch her through the window when a young man passes right in front of me. He’s very close and just as he’s right in front of me he reaches out his hand and roughly grabs my crotch. I am shocked! My first reaction is surprise that he would do this. Egyptians are peaceful, shy and usually very happy. My next, split second reaction is vehement anger. As he sidles away down the street smiling back at me I shout at him in Arabic “PERVERT! HOW DARE YOU TOUCH ME LIKE THAT!” Other people in the street turn to look at him and to look at me. My friend comes running from the shop and she too engages in denouncements in Arabic.
The man starts to run.
We make sure I am okay, that I have stopped shaking. She wants me to once again be brave enough to traverse the streets of a third world country. I am fine, but the fear in me is right below the surface.
I am growing tired of being brave, of being adventurous.
I want to cry,
I want to go home.
My friend brings on the tough. Snap out of it Madeline!
We continue walking down the street and she is now holding my hand. As we round the corner someone taps my shoulder. It is the man that grabbed me. His head is bowed and he is rambling nervously in Arabic and he refuses to look at us. My friend translates. “He is very sorry. Our shouts have shamed him. He will never do that again”. I look at him, all meek in his beseeching, and I ask her to tell him to look at me. I tell her to make him know that I am a woman, a human being, a sentient being, a person, just like him. Look at me! I want him to see me. To see how much his actions hurt and belittle me, even though I know all he might see is a woman, someone beneath him and a white woman at that.
Still I have hope he is truly remorseful.
On one of our many trips into the city I find a woman sitting in the corner on the street. She is dressed head to toe in a black and midnight blue burka and she is round and full of life. Her face is cocoa brown and her smile is luminescent with white, straight teeth. In her lap is a round basket filled to the brim with lovely fresh vegetables.
What a lovely picture this would make.
Egyptians, I have found, love to have their pictures taken. I always try to accommodate them with a baksheesh once they have posed. My friend asks the woman if I can take her picture and she shakes her head no and covers her face with her black veil. Without the face, the picture will not be all it could be. I dig in my pocket for Egyptian dollars and offer them to her to uncover her face and still she says no. My friend begins to persuade her and I can see something close to fear on the woman’s face. I don’t want to scare her so I nudge my friend “Come on, she doesn’t want to. Let’s go.” But my friend persists. Finally the woman very quietly tells her that she is afraid that I will show her picture to the authorities and she doesn’t have the $2 to pay for a vendor’s license and they will arrest her for selling her vegetables. She also won’t take my money unless I take her wares. After assuring her we are nothing more than admirers, she allows me to snap a picture that has stayed in my mind’s eye.
I love this memory. The demure way she covered her mouth when she spoke to us and how her eyes danced and laughed. To sit in the street everyday and to do it with grace and elegance is something only she knew how to do. But I think she would have gladly taught me how, had I asked. How rare that the truest beauty could all be in one place, at one time and that I could experience it. It is, for me, a defining moment.
I know I am bound for a journey and it begins now.
I have met Elizabeth here in Cairo. She is here on a work Visa from England and teaches English language in one of the private schools. On her break from school she is traveling to one of the Bedouin tribes in the desert to meet with the elders to talk to them about female circumcision. I am going with her.
Female circumcision is the cutting and removal of the clitoris and sometimes all of the female genitalia. FGC predates both Islam and Christianity faiths and is practiced widely in African nations. In some cases the vaginal opening is also crudely sewn closed. This practice is done for religious and cultural purposes. The removal of the clitoris is so the woman can never experience sexual feelings or enjoyment. It is also believed that removal of the clitoris will halt excessive masturbation and therefore alleviate the pollution of the woman from this activity. Another reason is that in this manner she will not stray from her husband. Sewing the vagina closed leaves the area pure and untouched so on her wedding night her husband is assured that he alone is the only man ever to enter his wife. The man shows no mercy in re-opening the closed area. He shoves repeatedly against the incision with his erection and tears a hole, a way into the vaginal canal. He feels this is his right as the husband.
Female circumcision is not performed on consenting adults, it is performed on young girls as soon as they have their first period. In the desert tribes she is brought to the elders tent, usually a healer’s tent, by one of the older women in her family. Sometimes it’s her own mother delivering her to such a fate. The operation is not performed in a hospital or a sanitized doctor’s office, but right there on the dirt floor, sometimes on a straw, soiled mattress. There are no scalpels, no anesthesia and no clean bandages. If a proper knife can not be found, they will use whatever is handy, like a broken piece of glass. The girl is held down by other women in the tribe while she is cut and mutilated and then given a dirty rag to soak up the blood as she is carried to her own tent to heal.
The screams must be horrifying.
My friend rode in the taxi with us to the train station. At our last stop we rented a jeep that would take us most of the way with the last bit being on foot. We are welcomed with smiles and ushered into the elder tent. Seated on the floor we are brought strong Turkish coffee and offered whatever sustenance they can afford. I feel humbled to be treated like royalty when I am surrounded by poverty.
The afternoon progresses. Over and over I can feel Elizabeth’s body tense sitting next to me as she argues with the elder in Arabic about his practices. She has brought supplies, antiseptic, bandages, antibiotic pills and creams and morphine and they are tucked out of sight in her bag. We are not there to help or assist him in any way in continuing this barbaric custom, we are there to plead with him to STOP. But just in case we are defeated by superstition or by stubbornness we will leave behind these items so that maybe some of the girls here will not feel the pain, will not be plagued with continuing infections, perhaps will not die from the dirtiness of it all.
Late that afternoon as the sun is making it’s way across the horizon we leave this camp to walk back to our jeep. We are defeated, we are tired and dirty, we do not speak. When Elizabeth had given her best arguments, when she had exhausted her patience, she had opened her bag and had literally thrown the supplies in the elders lap. She struggled to maintain respect and decorum, but I could see her heart was breaking. She took great pains to explain each item to him and she implored him to use them. His face was filled with confusion and I had doubts that we had made any impact on him at all.
We climbed into the jeep and as Elizabeth turned the key to start the engine she looked at me and said “Next time Madeline. We’ll get them next time.” And I fell completely apart. I cried for those young girls. I cried for every woman there. I wanted it to stop. And so we carried on with our visits and each one brought me a little closer to the brink of despair.
Note: When I visited Egypt the rate of female circumcision was about 85% with most of it being performed in situations like I described. In July of 2007 Egypt’s Ministry of Health And Population banned all forms of female genital mutilation. Those who were found not in compliance would be subject to criminal and administrative punishments.
It was about fukking time.
My friend met us at the train station that evening and Elizabeth and I said our goodbyes. I will forever remember her courageous fight against this injustice, this travesty against women and she will be in my heart with every woman in Egypt until the day I die.
In the cab ride back to Heliopolis we see native Egyptian kites being flown over the City of the Dead as the sun finally set. It’s an omen for me because on our arrival my sweet husband calls to find out when I’m coming home. I’m not sure I’m ready to come home just yet. Would it be possible to go somewhere, just him and me, to reconnect, to ease myself back into life? I want to go someplace where I can walk the streets with my head held high, where no one will spit on me because I am white, where I don’t have to be covered up with clothing even though it is 110 degrees outside.
I want to, I have to, feel some relief from the oppression.
“Yes”, he tells me, “let’s meet in Paris”. And so we do.
As I lie here covered in my Egyptian cotton sheets, I wish to share some of my heart with you. I wish to make you feel some part of this place, the part that stays with me. Egypt was a pleasure and a horror all at once. It was an education. In my time there I walked in my neighbor’s shoes. I felt discrimination for my color and also for my gender. I marveled at the beauty, the complexity and the mystery.
I marveled at my resilience.
I wish to stretch my arm around the world and lay my hand upon your cheek so you too might feel the life, the wonder, the sadness, the pain, the possibility, the hope and the heat that is Egypt.
- People, army saved Egypt (arabtimesonline.com)
- Muslim Brotherhood’s bid to scapegoat Christians failing, say Egyptians (foxnews.com)
- Egypt’s interim premier says security a priority (sacbee.com)
- Egypt’s Mubarak to be put under house arrest (sacbee.com)
- Egypt’s Government Cracks Down on Syrian Refugees (world.time.com)
- Seeking the Peace of Egypt (tallskinnykiwi.com)