8: A Woman in Cairo
23 Mar 2002
Travelling alone has truly been interesting. In Turkey, I felt that I was more friendly and outgoing. I met a couple of really nice carpet sellers, who to their credit didn’t once try to feed me a sales pitch. We sat and chatted for hours and hours, and I went back to do more of the same the next day. In hotels, I sit and listen to other travellers’ interesting stories rather than retreat to my room. I’ve heard the wondrous story of a Swedish man in a wheelchair who has been travelling since before I was born. The wondrous part of it is that he was paralyzed in a bus accident on his first trip through Africa. But now, after recovering, he managed to pick himself up and support himself by writing articles about disabled access for travellers. Amazing. [can tutti get us in touch with him?]
But I digress. I flew into Cairo airport at night and as I was riding a bus into town, I couldn’t help but feel incredulous that I’m all of 25 and never before had I entered an unknown country completely by myself. And it gave me such an exhilarating feeling of joy, excitement, adventure, and self-confidence that surprised me a lot. I haven’t felt that way in a while. The joy has faded a little, but it hasn’t vanished. It comes back as I special order a mosquito net or as I manage to rig together a laundry line out of rubber bands.
Unfortunately I don’t like Cairo that much. I don’t think it’s very fair to Cairo because my feelings are because I’m here as a single woman. When I walk down the street, I’m surrounded by hissing sounds from all directions. It sounds like a cross between pssst and the hiss that Stanford students used to make at anything to do with Cal (they’re bitter rivals). I had thought it was negatively directed at me, but have since learned that it’s how everyone just tries to get attention. On the first day, I had politely stopped to talk to numerous people, but had never gotten a good response. This is in contrast to Turkey where for every 20 people who approach you, there may be one rude one and five who genuinely just want to talk to you. The three Arabic phrases I’ve learned in Egypt are: salaam (“hello”), shokran (“thank you”) eterim nafsek (“watch yourself”/”behave yourself”/”respect yourself”).
My second day in Cairo has been better since I went shopping at the bazaar yesterday and am now swathed in long robes and a head scarf. Walking down the street, I have to pay attention to all the thoughts running through my head. “Don’t smile. Try not to smile. Look at the ground. Make no eye contact. Oh, a woman, smile. Oh, a child, big smile.”
Both smiling and even making eye contact at a man are signs that you’re interested in him. It was difficult for me to maintain a solemn face, but now after one day in Cairo it’s coming quite natural. As I walk down the street in my headscarf and dark sunglasses, I try to remind myself to think about being Jackie O. and not an oppressed woman.
I’m sure there are many good things about Cairo. The bazaar and mosques of Islamic Cairo have been beautiful. I will go to the Egyptian Museum today and also to the pyramids after meeting up with Josh. But for now, I’m retreating into the safety of my clothes and looking forward to leaving the city tomorrow. Maybe some of this demureness will stay with me when I leave Egypt.