Page 43 of Cairo: The Practical Guide by The American University in Cairo Press
“Women’s Lib[eration] has not had quite the same impact in Egypt as it has in some Western countries. This produces some charmingly chivalrous behavior towards women on the part of men–opening doors, carrying packages, etc.–but can also cause the poor things some embarrassment if a woman offers to or insists upon paying for dinner.”
That is happening.
Nearly driving me crazy.
Even good friends of mine in Cairo are bothered by where I choose to walk in relation to them on the street. Yes, I hop up and down curbs, sometimes even skip and dance in public. Friends and strangers both get upset, when I get upset, when they insist on taking the heavier bags out of my hands. Sometimes the challenge of carrying things is extremely enjoyable. Can’t be the only woman or girl here to think so.
I’m not lady-like and don’t aspire to be. Once in awhile I can pass it off, almost like playing a character, but it doesn’t last long. Please understand this is not just a gender issue for me. I prefer to try to things on my own and then ask for the help I need. Whenever someone, male or female, has the job of tending to me, I get mighty uncomfortable. Asked to fetch my tea, prep my seat, clean up after I leave. My dad is a school custodian. But more than that, a community builder. He taught me everyone lends a hand.
The Cairo Guide goes on to say, “Defer to the custom of the country or your male companion’s sensibilities on this issue.”
Oh yes, men’s sensibilities. I apologize in advance, gentlemen and authors of the Cairo Guide. Couldn’t defer if I tried. And I did try. Will probably offend your sensibilities often and I probably won’t participate well in these aspects of Egyptian culture.
For reference on where I’m coming from on this matter, here I am with one of my favorite dance students back in Chicago. I once lifted him on my back so that he could feel some weightlessness, release, and the dance concept of weight-sharing. He is an amazing guy and an amazing dancer. We found a way to be equals, as teacher/student, as different body-types, helping each other.
Back to Cairo.
Last night I had planned a Hello Cairo party. 10 people RSVPd. 9 said maybe. 1 showed up. Me. That’s ok.
Actually it was more than ok. It was one of the coolest things.
I was enjoying my shrimp fajitas alone at TGIFriday’s on the Nile when a brilliant, nearly 14-yr-old girl from Aleppo, Syria came over and sat with me. Confidently and out of nowhere. Bright pink hijab and a bright smile. She and I chatted for nearly an hour. We had a blast.
She wanted to practice her English. And her entire family was at a nearby table: only her father speaks English but not to her level. Someday she wants to study in America or Europe. Her friends don’t seem to understand that she will be safe and that not everyone in those countries hates Muslims. That’s what she told me.
She asked me how old I was. 34. She asked me if I was married. When I said no, she asked what was wrong. I told her about failed attempts at relationships, and about doing good things in the world. We gossiped a bit about guys. She told me about a fight she had with her boyfriend back in Syria. She asked me why I had short hair. Shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s. I told her about Donna and Shea and the other children who have battled, will battle, are battling cancer; she lit up and said she wants to be a doctor and volunteer.
We laughed about how slow the male waiter was with bringing the check, even though I asked several times. I said I might just do it myself, write down on a piece of scrap paper what I ordered and leave the paper on the table with the cash.
It was in this silly moment that I felt like a real role model. An amazing feeling. And in one mere hour, she taught me a lot about being a powerful teen, Muslim young woman, aspiring doctor. She told me she likes Jennifer Lopez and Eminem. I told her about Lupe Fiasco. She said she was worried about her friends back in Syria and that she wants to keep in touch with me on Facebook or e-mail.
Hope she has a great birthday on Tuesday. And I hope she knows that my writing about her is because of how much our conversation meant to me. We are 20 years apart but kindred spirits. Her family has been here 20 days and I hope they can return to a safe and bright Syria soon.
***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.