Men’s Sensibilities and a Syrian Girl

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.

Very often.

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.

Yes, I asked a male stranger to take a photo of me posing alone in Tahrir Square.


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.

Darius and I.


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.


  1. Annie

    I found you through a mutual friend (MTM) and am so glad I did! I wish you the best of luck on your journey ahead. I tried to “follow” your blog, but the link was broken. I would love to get email updates of new posts.

    • shawnlent

      Hello, Annie! Thank you dearly for kind words and for the notice. I think I worked out a better follow/subscribe option.

      With gratitude and hope,


  2. Elaf

    like i can’t believe u wrote about me here and on fb i really appreciate it, i was checking out and then i saw that u are writnig about me, really thanks, u are adorable <3<3

  3. shawnlent

    Happy Birthday, lady! Many joys to you for this birthday and the years to come. And much hope to Aleppo.

    “Brazil, Morocco, London to Ibiza
    Straight to LA, New York, Vegas to Africa

    Dance the night away
    Live your life and stay young on the floor”

  4. Elizabeth Vanover

    Happy Birthday from Ann Arbor, Michigan! You were so brave to go over to Shawn to practice your English! All the best for this year and every happiness and hope for a bright future!

  5. Maria Gray

    Have a great and magical birthday!!!

  6. Sarah J.

    Happy Birthday from Chicago!

  7. Mohammad Nabeel

    Happy Birthday to you 🙂 wish Syria issue will settle down very soon !

  8. Elspeth Murray

    Happy Birthday, Elaf!

  9. Bev

    Happy Birthday from Saginaw, MI, Shawn’s home when she was a little girl, you’ve met a wonderful person, enjoy her.

  10. Kaye

    Happy Birthday from Shawn’s family. You must be really special to leave such an impression on her. She’s pretty special also.

  11. Kaili

    Birthday greetings from Champaign, Illinois. Blessings to you & happiness abound!!!

  12. Ginger Menard

    Happy Birthday, Elaf! Wishing you all the best on your special day!

  13. Shayla

    Happy Birthday from Dallas, Texas. Praying for you, your family and your homeland.

  14. Elaf

    like guys i don’t know what to do to say thank you all, u are really all amazing, really thanks it’s mean alot to me <3<3

  15. Elaf

    Shawn really u are an amazing person .
    “dance the night away,
    grap somebody drink a little more
    tonight we gon’ be it on the floor”
    “I know you got it,
    clap your hands on the floor
    And keep on rockin’
    , rock it up on the floor
    If you’re a criminal
    , kill it on the floor
    Steal it quick on the floor, on the floor”
    and my best sentence “don’t stop keep it moving, put your drinks up”

  16. Jen

    I hope your birthday was safe and happy and amazing, Elaf. I hope your family is able to return safely home as soon as you can.

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