I went to look at two apartments yesterday with my real estate agent. We were supposed to meet around 3 but something kept her and we couldn’t meet until 5. With iftaar, the celebratory fast-breaking meal at sunset, just around the corner we were only able to see two places and then she kindly invited me to breakfast with her.
Unfortunately Mr. Swiss showed up and, inexplicably, almost immediately began spouting off about the danger of being blackmailed should a western man like himself become involved with an Egyptian woman. “I am not paranoid,” he said, “I am just aware of the danger of blackmail if you get involved with something like this.”
Dina and I rolled our eyes at each other. Come off it, Zurich Man. For one thing, where exactly are you planning to meet these Egyptian women? For another, if you’re afraid the bowaab is going to get you in trouble, it’s going to be way worse for her than for you. You can always go home if the going gets tough. And finally, why on earth should either of us care?
I excused myself from the bizarre conversation and went to meet a British dancing friend at the Marriott. Samantha has lived in Egypt for the past ten years, an expatriate dance teacher, actress, director and all-around creative person. She often tells me the story of how she started her PhD on how the future doesn’t really exist at SOAS then fittingly lost all her research and had to stop.
When I first met her, I found her incredibly intimidating. Like so many people I admire, she is clearly a woman holding the keys to her own destiny, and no way is she going to let you forget it. But she is also incredibly good-hearted and an excellent and willing mentor for people like me arriving in Eygpt young and wide-eyed and not entirely sure what they’re doing.
She was also meeting another young protege sent to her by friends outside the country. Aziz grew up in London, his parents are Egyptian, he’s here for a month or so visiting relatives and trying to figure out what to do now that he has his MA. Investment banking? Acting? Dancing? Singing? He met friends of Samantha’s on a theatre course in Greece, this is why they are in touch now.
As we were talking Aziz asked where I’m from in America. Boston. “And your parents?” Pennsylvania. “They’re just American?” Yes. “So…” He studied me for a moment. “So you’re just white. You’re just a white girl.” Yep. He said it with some kind of emphasis – surprise, disappointment, annoyance? I wasn’t sure.
I explained about the Italian-Irish thing. (This leaves out several ancestral nationalities on my dad’s side, but it’s quicker and accurate enough.) Samantha said I look very Italian. I replied it’s funny, people think I’m all sorts of things. “No but, you do, you look very Italian.” This three days after a Northern Irish young woman told me “Well, that explains your complexion then,” when I told her I’m partly Irish.
I get asked all the time. “Where are you from?” Boston. I’m from Boston. And I grew up in Gloucester, not far from there. That’s where I’m from. But people say, “Oh, you look [Greek, Spanish, Arab, Persian, Jewish, Roma…]” You fill it in, people have asked.
Sometimes I enjoy these conversations. Sometimes they annoy me. Once someone said patronizingly, “Oh, yes, where your family comes from is a big thing to Americans, isn’t it?” Not really. You asked. “And then you all come back over to the old countries, like they can still be yours after your families left ages ago.”
I’ve had people argue with me about my family name: “That’s not Irish, it’s Scottish.” It’s both, actually, and I happen to know my family did live in Ireland before emigrating to the States, thanks.
I’ts not that I’m not proud of my family tree. I am. I just hate it when other people try to tell me who I am. (Or behave as though I’m lying when I tell them.) It’s like having someone correct your own pronunciation of your name. That’s not theirs to decide.
I always want to tell these people, “If you’re so sure of who you are and where you come from and who everyone else is and what they look like and where they come from and what their ‘real, authentic’ identity is, then why don’t you just go off and start a eugenics program that will keep everything in its safe little pigeonholes?” But so far I haven’t done this.
I think maybe I’m pissed off because what I really find belittling is being described as ‘just’ or ‘merely’ anything. Like being myself isn’t enough.