Exciting as going to live on a houseboat in Cairo is, there are several things about returning to Egypt that cause me some trepidation.
The first of these is the seriously problematic issue of sexual harassment on Egyptian streets. This is a difficulty experienced by virtually all local women and foreigners, and though I’ve never felt afraid of these attentions, they’re definitely unsettling.
I’ve already caught myself forming strategies to deal with the various situations I either found myself in or witnessed other female travelers experiencing the last time I was in Cairo. If I took time to describe the variety of discomfiting behaviors we’d be here all day, so let me skip to the solutions section.
There are several things that a woman can say to try deterring unwanted attentions. My Arabic really isn’t that great, so trying to ask something like, “Would you let anyone speak to your sister that way?” or “Do you think that just because I’m a foreigner that kind of behavior is appropriate?” is still a little over my head. Even if I could get the words out, my accent is still fairly broad, so I risk not being understood (plus I stammer in Arabic.)
The simplest response of all is a resounding ‘Eib! (Shame!)
Let me pause for a note on language: The e in ‘eib has an apostrophe in front of it because the letter used in Arabic is one of those annoying sounds we don’t actually have in English. The closest approximation I can offer is that it’s like dry heaving before making the next syllable. I find this daunting in ordinary conversation and hence don’t do it very well, as evidenced by the number of my Egyptian friends who will snickeringly ask me to say the word ‘four’ in Arabic (’arba’a) and then collapse in fits over how I pronounce the first syllable.
Anyway, I’ve been constructing alternative sentences in my head for when ‘eib doesn’t work on the first utterance. I tried “shame on you, Dirty,” (’eib, ya waseekh, where that last sound is like you’re gargling, or saying something in German) but I think the shameful connotations of the word ‘dirty’ in English don’t carry over. It’s more like I’m saying “shame on you, O Dusty One.” Not quite the same. To explain that I think they’re being obscene, I’d have to say, “’eib, ya ‘abeeh.” While this would probably get the point across, it’s a little repetitious (those are basically the same word, just using it as a verb and then as a noun). Also I’d like to limit the number of apostrophe-fronted words I have to say in any given sentence. (Annoyingly, it’s one of the more common letters for beginning a word.)
Other things I can say include “bas! “ and “khalas!“, which both mean something like ‘enough; stop’. The second one, confusingly, can also mean ‘okay,’ though I suspect this depends largely on the tone of voice and gestures used while saying it. A Cairene taxi driver once quoted me an unreasonable price to reach my destination. I said “khalas!!“, flapping my arms in a complicated gesture to indicate “do you think I fell off the boat yesterday, sir?” while walking away. The price dropped eighty percent.
Again, I have not once felt unsafe walking on Cairo streets, no matter the hour of the day or night. This is more than I can say for some parts of London, where, while I may not be whistled at or catcalled, I might very well be threatened with a knife after dark. And yet, whenever I get ready to leave for England I rarely think about the danger of violent crime, but here I am several days from departing for Egypt and the thoughts that most frequently stray into my mind by a large margin are those about dealing with Cairo streets.
Of course, I could always approach it the way some Egyptian women do: if her reputation is in any way maligned by a man, the woman will seek out the miscreant who is spreading rumors and then, usually in a place where everyone can see what she’s doing, remove a shoe and beat him about the head with it until he recants.