Today is the 11th of September.

The tragedies of 9/11 will always be remembered for those who were killed and those who suffer.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

 

National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center, Lower Manhattan, New York City

 

The day is also associated with an awakening of American understanding of Islam and of predominantly-Muslim Arab cultures and nations. 11 years ago, I just had moved to a predominantly-Muslim neighborhood in East London. I was one of those Americans who realized my ignorance and the need to reach out.

11 years later, I am living in Cairo. Still learning and sharing. Cultural exchange. Making friends. I have been here one full week and a bit. Have gone out to a few pubs and clubs, and like an American independent lady, walking home after.

Today, because I was one of three people on the panel to interview and select Egyptian students for the Fulbright program in the U.S., I dressed smart. Nice button-down shirt and a tight, black pencil skirt. The students were eloquent in translating their reasons for wanting to study the arts in America and what their vision was for the arts in Egypt and the Middle East/North Africa.

After the panel, I walked around town in that pencil skirt, getting a few comments from strangers but nothing awful. Just one man blurted, “F@#king American” as I passed him. Several guys served some lame cat calls, but I paid no mind. In general, they just said things like, “Welcome. You are welcome here.” I walked with a bold stride that tested the back slit of my skirt. Generally happy and knowledgable enough to start understanding and embracing the Egyptian life; no American Fool stereotype here.

Had the confidence to take Cairo public transportation for the first time.

Cairo Metro مترو أنفاق القاهرة

 

The Metro only costs $0.16, doesn’t require haggling with grouchy taxi drivers, and is clean, if not a bit pushy and steamy. I loved it, and was proud of myself for figuring it out. Yet I was definitely the only one around in a pencil skirt.

Sadat Station under Tahrir Square

 

Sadly, that pride was short-lived.

As I was walking home around 3:00 in the afternoon, an older gentleman walks up along side me and asks me where I’m from. I just say “The States” politely and quickly walk on. He jumps in front of me, telling me to not be rude and explaining he used to live in Michigan. Says he is the director of a museum. Also says he wants to give me his business card. I thank him with a “no thank you” and tell him I’m actually in a bit of a hurry. He is adamant to just give me his card and leads me into his souvenir shop, where his daughter is sitting. She is getting married tomorrow, they say.

He hands me his business card and asks me my name. Now, here is my big mistake. I tell him my name is Shawn and attempt to leave. But as soon as his daughter hears my name, she starts painting it in Arabic on a piece of papyrus paper. When I turn around, she’s there offering it as a gift. While I am explaining that I don’t want it, the son appears with a cup of tea. The family says it is rude in their culture to refuse the tea. I explain that I’m in a hurry, but drink some of the tea quickly. The son flirts and the daughter wraps the painting in a bright yellow tube while I sip.

After a few moments, I begin to walk out.

The three family members all get angry and say I need to pay for the papyrus painting. I politely, but assertively, say I don’t need or want it. They point to the price on the wall (460LE) and ask for a portion, however much I want to give them as a gesture of good will between our two countries.

I say no thank you.

They yell that the painting is unsellable now. Ruined. Because it has been personalized with my rare name.

I give up. Give them 100LE ($16). Their faces and words force me into doubling that amount.

And I have to carry the bright yellow tube all the way home.

Sigh. Shamefully swindled.

The yellow tube

 

But 9/11 is a time to reflect on other matters: memories of amazing people killed on that bright blue morning, as well as during the 11 years of war and chaos that followed.

We are the generation somewhat defined by 9/11.

9/11 is the hope for decades of peace and friendships.

From Kabul to NYC. From Chicago to Cairo.

7 Thoughts to “An American’s Walk of Shame”

  1. Thank you for representing our State Department and our country on such an emotionally charged day (for us and the Middle East) with a complete disregard for modesty and cultural sensitivity. Keep up the good work, Fulbright Scholar.

    1. Thank you for your comment. The outfit was business professional and covered shoulders and elbows. The skirt just had a bit of my personality. Nothing too inappropriate and similar to other women I had seen at the Fulbright Commission office and Children’s Cancer Hospital. In my opinion, finding a balance between cultural relativism and being oneself is important. I am representing my story as well as my country, other dancers, and my Egyptian friends.

      Again, I thank you for your criticism.

      Shawn

  2. I, for one, am incredibly proud to have Shawn representing our country abroad, today and all days. I can’t think of too many people who embody the essence of diplomacy so fully. And by “diplomacy” I mean both in the formal sense– acting as an ambassador in more nations than I can count and positively impacting international relations– and in the informal sense– responding to unkind and unhelpful comments with grace, decency, dignity, and humility. Shawn is a class act, and brave as hell to be doing what she’s doing in a nation where she not only risks bodily harm but also confronts countless daily moments where she has to learn traditions, customs, and unwritten rules on the fly, with no guide to help her.

  3. (Found you through Mary Tyler Mom) Kudos to you for what you are doing, and also staying true to yourself. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of your blog. Stay safe.

  4. Sorry you were scammed, Shawn. I was harassed by a guy outside the amazing ruined temple in Baalbek, Lebanon, a few years ago. He wanted me to buy some old coins. I politely said no and he angrily told me he had a wife and children. I told him I did, too (not facetiously – I was touring a play on minimum wage). He then asked if I would just hold them in my hand. So I did. When I tried to give them back he wouldn’t take them. He wanted paid and I was now determined that he’d get nothing from me. It turned into quite a stand-off. Luckily, I had an Iranian-born friend nearby, who took the coins from me and gave them back to him with a few words of Arabic. She also got comments from a small minority of men for wearing modest western-European clothes. There are ignorant people everywhere, which brings me to Really?, the fearless commentator with no name…

    I don’t think you’ve been to Cairo, Really?. If I’m wrong, maybe you could spend a portion of your free time looking up the words ‘complete’ and ‘disregard’ in a dictionary.

    Shawn, the Metro is a great way to get to the Coptic Museum and Hanging Church, if you haven’t been.

  5. Just wondering if you’ve tried the women-only cars of the Metro and if there’s a difference between your experience there and in the mixed cars.

    1. Goog question. I’ve taken the Metro four times so far and have had four different experiences. Once in a mixed car, where I my only concern was a hole in my shirt as I raised my hand to hold on to the strap. Second time, I tried the women’s car. Found it safe but a quite unfriendly. Almost more judgmental. The third experience, I rushed into a packed car last-minute then realized I was the only lady there. It was fine and a bit empowering. Lastly, I was in a car with all men once again, but this was far less crowded. I had some great conversations with some students and then helped fan a man who had passed out in the heat. Every trip is a different adventure.

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