A few days ago in the wee hours of the morning I found
myself sitting on the couch scribbling furiously in my journal. I’d just got back from a night out
with two friends in a bar known to one of them.
We wound up sitting with two diplomats Ghana who were interesting and fun to
talk to until one of them began talking AT LEGNTH about his failed relationship
with a former wife of his who has a PhD and a couple Master’s degrees. He
blamed the failure of their relationship on her education. At one point
after describing their troubles he turned to me and said, “so that’s why
when I see these women who are over-educated it makes me a little…” he didn’t
finish the sentence, instead abruptly asking me if anything like that had ever
happened to me.
I couldn’t believe that somebody with so much education himself, whose job is to be an ambassador for his country and work with highly educated men and women around the world, somebody who deals with highly educated women every single day, was actually saying this to me. How can he possibly work productively with his female colleagues if he’s so sexist? I also didn’t really care what he
thought of me or my PhD and I certainly wasn’t interested in his opinions on my
love life, so I just said no in response to his question. Suddenly one of my friends leaned in to
ask, “Well, isn’t that pretty much exactly how it was with you?”
She was referring to the fact that my boyfriend and I broke up immediately
before I left England
to do my fieldwork for my PhD. One way of looking at this is that we split because of my obligations to my PhD, though I prefer not to see it in this light. Obviously the truth is more complicated. Still, this comment really hurt. I almost
had to leave the table to collect myself but I didn’t want to be dramatic.
Instead I settled for a defense that was more spirited than accurate, largely
influenced by the quantity of libations I had consumed up to that point.
I know this friend would never say anything to deliberately hurt my
feelings. I am absolutely positive she didn’t say it with the intention
of upsetting me and I’ve been hesitating to write about it in case she reads
this entry and in turn feels hurt by what I’ve said. I finally decided
that as we’re true friends she’d be able to forgive me if I did say something
The evening continued on the same course for a while, with the result that I began drinking more than I was speaking, and finally we got up
to leave. Stopping in the ladies’ room on the way out I suddenly
discovered a sharp pain in my chest. It was something unfamiliar, not the
way I usually experience asthma. I wondered if it was the start of an
asthma attack. Then I wondered if it was heartburn from the
alcohol. Then I wondered if I was just terribly broken-hearted.
Finally I took my inhaler and that seemed to help.
Two of us were going on somewhere else and while we were standing on the
street corner getting directions from the other person a car full of young men
pulled over. They started to harass us in English, trying to get us to
get into their car.
At first we ignored them, then they started getting out of the car to
approach us. My two friends very calmly turned and told them off.
This had absolutely no effect whatsoever so I began yelling at them in Arabic
which only goaded them on. Then one of our number walked up to them in
order to tell them more specifically the ways in which they were being
offensive, and they all backed up like they were running away from an angry tigress. She found
Just then a taxi pulled up and seeing what was going on the driver leaned
out the window towards me and said, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, nevermind
them, they are very bad, I’m so sorry…” in a mixture of Arabic and
English. We wound up taking this taxi to our destination and as we got in our driver leaned out to yell at the young men, who just laughed
at him but he refused to pull into traffic until they were in front of us so they wouldn’t be able to follow. The whole ride, which was
approximately two minutes long, he kept apologizing and telling us not to mind
the young men.
In the end I left that whole experience feeling a lot more positive about
the harassment here in Egypt.
Finally here was a man that I didn’t just want to smack with a large stick.
I’ve spoken before about my fear of generalizing negative images of Egyptian
men. I am very glad as a result to be able to provide a positive
anecdote: here was one who, above and beyond the minimum of not harassing us,
actually stood up for us and provided the very validating message that, “no,
you shouldn’t be treated this way and these men are not how I would like
foreign women to perceive my country.”
I know in my heart that the harassment is inappropriate, that it isn’t
because of anything that I’m doing, and that I shouldn’t pay it too much
mind. But at a certain point you start to think, “Maybe it’s
me. Maybe I’m the only one who has a problem with this.” So to have
someone local stand up and indicate that no, it’s definitely them, was a very liberating feeling.
The truth is that I have plenty of neutral or even positive exchanges with
local men, but I get so caught up in being irritated by harassment on the
street that it rarely strikes me to reflect on or describe the good
experiences. It took something dramatic to really remind me in a tangible
sense that people everywhere are individuals and it’s pointless to fall into a
state of describing “us” versus “them,” because one of “them” always turns out
to be more like what one of “us” should be.
On that note I feel an
intense urge to read Dr. Seuss’sThe Sneetches, because some lessons
really don’t become any further developed with age or education no matter how
many highfalutin words or fancy graphs you use to explain them.