Part 4 of our Egypt trip. Part 3 here
Some vaguely related musings on the joys of womanhood in a foreign land.
I didn’t do a great job of packing for our trip. Boston was cold – 30s Fahrenheit, and I couldn’t remember what I like to wear when it’s 60s/70s in the day and 40s at night. I also didn’t know if I’d want to wear a dress or jeans or what. When we arrived in Cairo, I realized I would have to wear a long-sleeved shirt every day, which I hadn’t been planning on. I’d brought two, so I wore them all the time over my t-shirts. Somehow, both shirts were white, which was a mistake in such a dusty and polluted country, and to top it off with a pale pink sweater…let’s just say I looked a little worse for wear by our last day.
I did some quick reading online and in my guidebooks about women traveling in Egypt, and I didn’t particularly like what I read, but the comment that upset me the most, which I kept thinking about, was that making eye contact with a man was considered a flirtation. I mean COME ON! How are you supposed to live like this? After a few days, however, I decided that woman’s impression was a little excessive. I didn’t feel like the men I made eye contact with were considering me a flirt, and I relaxed a bit.
I went to Egypt knowing I wouldn’t wear the headscarf, but I did pack a big cotton scarf with skulls all over it just in case. There was only one time when I felt I needed to put it on – I rounded a corner in a poor neighborhood, and suddenly a man was hissing at me in a really scary way, which he stopped doing when Slava showed up behind me. Slava & I were getting hungry and lost, and I angrily put the scarf on briefly while we got our bearings.
98% of the women we saw on the street were sporting the scarf (1% were sporting the cabbage). Katya put us in touch with an artist she knew in Cairo, and his young arty friends didn’t wear the scarf, and we saw some Egyptian women who looked like they could be professors, or at least intellectuals, and they didn’t wear the scarf. They’ll be the first to go.
I knew I’d get my period on our trip. My cycle isn’t precisely predictable, but chances were good. I got pretty emo for the first few days due to PMS, and on the first day of my flow we had a bad travel day and we didn’t get much done, but that is to be expected. The bathrooms were acceptable, and I carried paper with me like any good tourist.
Sexual harassment is a big problem in Egypt, a bullet I dodged for the most part, no doubt thanks to my husband, my traveling companion. I’m not sure I’d want to travel there by myself. We saw a woman at the pyramids getting shaken down by the men who had rented her the camel she was on. They wouldn’t let her down unless she paid them 2,000 more Egyptian Pounds ($100)! It’s pretty impossible to get off of a camel without the camel sitting down, unless you want to risk bodily injury. Of course this could happen to a man, too. A guard in one of the tombs we visited kept saying something about how he wouldn’t touch me because Slava was there. I was like hey, you shouldn’t touch me anyway, dummy, but you know, my Arabic is not so good so he didn’t get it.
We made friends with an Egyptian guy at a cafe and had lunch at his house one day with the whole family – husband, wife, daughter, son – which was great. Their daughter (age 7?) immediately wanted to put makeup on me. I told our Scottish pal about it later, and she was happily surprised to hear the wife ate with us and even got into the group photo – sometimes the women are just not included in these events, even if the invited guest is a woman.
We didn’t see any women taxi drivers (I don’t see many in Boston, either), but we did see women drivers. Women worked in shops and in the fields, but not at the tourist sites. We were in the Luxor Museum and a woman approached us in a friendly way to offer her services as a tour guide. If we’d been in the market, I would have hired her in a heartbeat – she was the only woman guide we saw. We saw her the next two days at our hotel – she was giving tours to a group there that included dinner at the hotel – a long day to spend with someone!
There used to be a village built into hills on the West Bank near where we stayed called Qurna, but it has been torn down for the most part by the government over the past 15 years. The houses were primitive but were great because they had a fantastic view and many were built on top of tombs. Our Scottish pal Faye brought us on a visit to one of the few remaining houses. An older woman lives there with her two adult daughters – the men in the family have moved to a new house down the way. These excellent women are fighting for their home and their rights in their own quiet way. They keep animals and get along in a simple manner. I got to hold a baby goat! We got a tour of their house that is home to both them and their animals (sheep, goats, ducks, chickens – the dogs and donkeys live in the out buildings), and the back room contains the entrance to an ancient tomb! We were very impressed by the strength of these women who were making it on their own in defiance of the norm.
Our friend Hasan made us go to the bellydancing club with him. It wasn’t as sleazy as we had feared – Fay had warned of titty-twisting Russian dancers. The only women there besides me and the Egyptian dancer were a handful of white tourists. There were no eyes on me, so no reason to feel self-conscious. It helps to sit at the back on such occasions.
On New Year’s Eve we met a Dutch couple who had retired to Luxor – they go back to the Netherlands in the summer to avoid the heat. We saw some other white people around who were living in Luxor – including a woman of a certain age whom we heard had married an Egyptian who swindled her out of her money and real estate. Although I really liked Egypt and want to go back, I can’t imagine living there. It was not particularly comfortable for me. Although I didn’t get harassed or pinched or anything (no doubt due to my advanced age), I did feel a lot of pressure just because I’m a woman. I’m a strong feminist, and I don’t know how I would deal with the culture there if I had to deal with it every day. A nice place to visit. As much as America stinks right now, I feel pretty comfortable and respected. As they say, we’ve come a long way.