22 July 2009

I went back to Mahgda’s house on Wednesday after class with Spencer and a gal named Kira who had just arrived from San Francisco. As expected, we had a blast. Here are some highlights from our journey:

One of Mahgda’s grandchildren (Ali) is a six-and-one-half year old butterball of a child who loves attention and speaks both English and Arabic quite well. After a while he and the other children warmed up to us a bit and felt more comfortable speaking in front of us. So it came to pass that as the whole family was sitting around and drinking tea, young Ali looked over to me and demanded, “You have boyfriend?” Flabbergasted, I burst into laughter with everyone else and told him, no, I don’t in fact have a boyfriend. He wrinkled his brow at me and again demanded, “You have boyfriend?” and I again replied that I did not. At this point he shot Spencer a suspicious eye and asked, “Why not? I your boyfriend!” At this point we were all bursting with hearty laughter; I couldn’t even reply to the child. As we were all laughing, Ali said something in rapid Arabic that provoked an even stronger response from those who could understand. As I was not one of them, I had to wait until Ali’s grandfather could stop laughing long enough to inform me that Ali had asked if I wanted a kiss. Laughing, I decided to call his bluff and pointed at my cheek. The poor kid didn’t know what to do, so we laughed all the more and had a jolly afternoon.

Mahgda is an amazing chef, and she pulls all the stops when she has guests. We were treated to the best lunch I’ve had in Egypt. She made us eggplant, rice, potatoes, and various delicious meats. I ate much more than I needed and still craved another helping when I decided to stop eating for health’s sake. I think Egypt is much like Tunisia in that there aren’t many varieties of restaurants to choose from, and of the ones we tend to frequent, not much of the food is worth mentioning. Most people eat at home with their families, and it is a universal truth that home cooked food surpasses anything one can find in a restaurant. For that reason, our group gets a little restless when we know Mahgda is preparing a meal for us, which happens occasionally during the school week; early in the morning we start guessing what foods she’ll bring us, and these thoughts often dominate our conversation for the entire day. So it was once again wonderful to be at Mahgda’s house, eat her food, and enjoy the company of her family.

We talked and swam until late in the evening, and around 1:30 the three Americans decided to take a final walk on the beach before going to bed. We were given strict instructions to stay away from the water lest we be mistaken for smugglers and arrested, but otherwise we had free reign of the sand. The waves off the sea were still very high from a storm somewhere north, but aside from the water breaking against the shore, it was silent. No people remained on the beach, and the sky was full of stars. We had intended to walk around a bit, but instead we ended up lying on the sand silently observing the heavens and listening to the sea. After a while, we tacitly stood up one by one and made our way back to the house where our beds waited for us.


In other stories from Alexandria, I was walking back to the hotel after classes last week with some friends when a couple Egyptians coming from the other direction began openly staring at me. My friend and I had just made our way around some scaffolding that protruded onto the sidewalk, when the two guys passed us—still staring—and one of them actually turned around to continue staring right before he walked straight into the scaffolding! My friend and I only knew what had happened because we heard the loud *thud* as the guy completely body slammed the wooden wall. Haha. Fail.

That’s one of the more interesting things I’ve noticed about Egypt so far—it’s a culture of looking at other people and staring unabashedly at whoever happens to catch your eye, and as a foreigner I attract many eyes as I make my way through the streets. Though I sometimes feel uncomfortable under this constant scrutiny, I will say it bothers me much less than the attention I received in Tunis last summer where I was occasionally pinched or grabbed. Egypt gets more credit since I’ve not experienced anything unpleasant beyond some stares and random comments as I pass. It made me think a little about women’s rights in the Middle East and at home. While Tunisia will boast of the most “progressive” women’s rights laws in the region, I still felt like a piece of meat walking in streets full of hungry dogs (at least in the touristy areas in the city; I should be clear to say that Tunisians are among my favorite people in the world and the people I’ve described definitely represent a small minority rather than the whole). Egypt, on the other hand, is a much more conservative country where nearly every woman in the street wears a hijab and a significant number are fully veiled, showing only their eyes. While men do stare at me (and other women), they still have a level of respect for their female counterparts. Men won’t touch women—even the security guy at the airport won’t frisk ladies passing through the gates; we’re allowed to simply walk through while the guards search and fondle the guys. While admittedly that creates its own problems, it’s still nice to be in a place where women are respected and cherished as something—someone—special; even if women have fewer legal rights than men.

This also made me think about women's rights at home. I do think I enjoy freedom equal to--or at least nearly equal to--that of men. At the same time though, I also experience harassment in the States very similar to that which I experience here in the Middle East. Cars full of young men frequently shout or honk at me when I'm walking on the sidewalks both in my hometown and at my school. While I don't think that behavior is appropriate anywhere I go, it helps me to put a broader perspective on harassment in the Middle East as something that occurs worldwide, not only in places with fewer women's rights.

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