I went out yesterday to do a research interview and didn’t end up going home until the wee hours of the next morning. My friend Lorna called just as I was leaving the interview and asked if I wanted to join her in Mohandiseen to get our nails done. Yes, please!
Our nails newly beautified, we walked back to Lorna’s apartment. As we were walking in Mohandiseen, which in my opinion is one of the worst areas in Cairo for harassment, I was putting on my New York walking face and posture. Basically this involves walking with confidence as though you know where you’re going and are simply not going to tolerate any distractions or obstacles. I can do this with varying degrees of politeness depending on my surroundings at the time.
We were almost at Lorna’s place when we were momentarily paused by a car who was trying to back all the way up the road. Because there were cars parked on both sides and the sidewalk was unpassable, there was a space approximately six inches wide that we would have to pass through unless we wanted to wait for this guy to back himself up to the other end of the block.
So: the car was backing up. We were on one side. A man was approaching on foot from the other direction and would have to go through the same space as us. Somebody was going to have to yield. The guy approaching us from the other way didn’t break his stride at first, and I just had the feeling he was going to try to cop a feel as he squeezed his way past. This is probably a completely unfair and stereotypical assumption on my part, simply based on the fact that we were in Mohandiseen and he was a man, but that’s what I thought at the time and I wasn’t having any of it. Someboy was going to have to give way, but it sure as hell wasn’t going to be ME.
Instead I plowed straight through the narrow space in my most straightforward, dagger-like manner while giving him the Look of Doom. Actually I wasn’t looking at him at all but instead aiming past him down the road like a ballistic missile homing onto its course. This worked a treat, the guy stopped and let us pass but I could hear Lorna laughing behind me for some reason.
After we got past the reversing car she said the pedestrian had been cowering against the parked cars on the side of the road holding his carrier bag in front of him like a shield as I sliced my way through. Apparently he looked absolutely terrified. Lorna said, “it’s funny, most of the time you’re such an easygoing, calm person but sometimes you get so…I don’t want to say agressive…” I took this as a compliment.
Lorna’s house is once again full of guests and later in the evening we all went out salsa dancing on The Place boat near the Gezira Sheraton. The crowd begain to thin while it was still pretty early in the evening so we finagled an invitation to an event at the Cairo Jazz Festival.
The venue for the evening was the top deck of a boat in Giza that used to be a Chinese restaurant and is now owned by a pastry chain called Trianon. I think the top deck is a seperate venue, but anyway it’s a beautiful space full of comfy couches where you can sit overlooking both the stage and the Nile. Via only the most minor of deceptions (“We’re with a friend…”) we managed to get in free (”…What, all eight of you?”)
When we first arrived we dithered about where we were going to sit and as we moved to the second spot the youngest member of our party caught my arm and said, “They’re all staring at me because I’m different!”
This is an eighteen year old British girl who wears the hijab. (Hijab is the Arabic word for the headscarf some Muslim women wear. There are some more subtle meanings of the word, and lots of different ways to wear the hijab, but that’s not really relevant to the story.) She was the only one in the place wearing a scarf. I knew she must have been feeling especially sensitive about it because the night before Lorna and her guests tried to go to a bar where there is a no-hijab policy and the doormen wouldn’t let them in! When they told me about that I was completely outraged. It put me in mind of Rosa Parks and the whites-only seats on the bus. The whole point of wearing a scarf is to confer respectability, so to hear about it used as an instrument of discrimination and exclusion, especially here in Egypt whose population is between 90 and 95% Muslim, was both shocking and repellant.
I wanted to give her a big hug and say, never mind them. They don’t know a good thing when they see it. You walk proud. Instead I just linked her arm firmly in mine and walked tall beside her.
As the evening wore on the audience began to dance. Eventually the musicians began playing a tune in a Moroccan rhythm – Lorna pointed out that they were using Moroccan finger cymbals, which have two circular bits on each cymbal instead of one – and two of the men in the audience jumped up and grabbed two women, who both wrapped scarves around their hips and began dancing in the space in front of the stage.
Of course as soon as this happened I dug out my camera and began taking video of the dancers. The other people with me all laughed and shook their heads at my incessant researching – or maybe it was because I was practically jumping up and down with excitement that there was something worth filming!
Near the end of the song the younger of the two men took the scarf he was wearing around his neck and tied it around the hips of the younger woman. This has only happened to me once when I was dancing.
It was in Exeter at one of the world music nights they used to hold in the Postgraduate Center at the university. These nights were always well-attended by international students of all nationalities, including a large mix of Arabs from various countries. My Egyptian friend Farhana (this means joyous in Arabic and is thus an appropriate pseudonym) had gotten everyone on the floor to form a circle and clap to the song. This is a common sight at Arab parties so it probably would have happened anyway but Farhana was the queen of the floor every world music night and she was definitely the instigator of this particular circle.
People in the circle were dancing and clapping and singing along to the music, taking it in turns to dance in the center when suddenly Farhana shoved me into the middle, possibly by the expedient of a well-placed elbow to the ribs. After I’d danced a little while somebody whose name I don’t currently remember danced out of his place in the circle and tied his scarf around me as though I was really one of the gang. I’ve never had a prouder dancing moment.
My favorite thing about dancing with and in front of that group was that somebody would inevitably ask me where I was from and where I’d learned to dance. They always looked shocked when I replied “America” to both questions and usually didn’t believe me the first time. I actually had one girl say to me something like she never would have expected belly dance to be taught in America because she always had the impression that “America hates us.” I’m always happy when even in the smallest way I can efface that idea. I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of prejudice and intolerance in my native land, simply that when I can contribute to eliminating that prejudice or to giving other people a glimpse that there is more than that to America, it makes me proud.
To finish up: the Jazz Festival continued well into the wee hours and I didn’t wind my way homeward until just after three in the morning! Though of course that’s pretty early by Egyptian standards…