Egypt: it’s a love-hate thing

Writing about Egypt is difficult.  I guess a good place to start is by answering the question, “Do I even like Egypt?”  Unfortunately, I think my answer is no, I do not like Egypt.  For the most part, Egypt leaves me wary and confused.

My attitude toward Egypt changed by the day, and sometimes by the hour.  I began in Cairo, a disgusting city the color of a mummified corpse.  Car horns screamed every minute of every hour, and the air was so thick with exhaust and dust that within days I was coughing up black stuff.

Then there was Aswan, a small city in Southern Egypt perched picturesquely on the east bank of the Nile River.  My new friend David and I arrived at two o’clock in the morning, and thought, “Wow, what a quiet, serene city!”  That all changed about four hours later, when the citizens of Aswan awoke and began their daily routine of pounding on their car horns like septuagenarians at slot machines.  But overall Aswan was pretty nice, and the people were open and friendly.  Just don’t look too closely at the dead cats in the gutters.

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Sunset on the Nile River at Aswan

Luxor was the next destination, and I really liked that city at first.  It had a funky sort of backpacker vibe to it, and the hostel we stayed at was awesome.  The next day we stopped in at a local shop for some cold drinks.  We struck up a conversation with the owner, Omar, and drank our juices in the shade.  When it came time to leave, Omar barely charged us for the drinks, and insisted I take a half dozen postcards for free.  His kindness left us with renewed faith in humanity.

The following day, while David was reading at the hostel, I went out on my own to grab us some falafel.  Two blocks later I realized that, without David walking next to me, the Egypt I had begun to feel comfortable with was gone.  Cat calls, whistles, clicks and hisses came from every doorway I passed.  Men commented on my ass in loud English, and said who knows what else in Arabic.  I was put off by their behavior, but not too upset by it—sticks and stones and all that.

But then a guy on a motorcycle stalked me down a quiet street, verbally harassing me the whole way.  I ignored him completely, but when no one was around he grabbed my wrist and tried to force me to…to what?  Pay attention to him?  React?  Well, I reacted alright, and he rode away leaving a wake of cuss words and middle fingers.  And just like that, any warm feelings I’d begun to have for Egypt disappeared without a trace.

Of course, two days later I was having an amazing experience with a wonderful Saudi-Egyptian couple in Marsa Alam, and I went from never wanting to visit Egypt again, to wondering how soon I could come back.

Back and forth, love and hate, I can’t make up my mind about Egypt.

There’s definitely one Egyptian character flaw that I can’t get past: the treatment of women.  I have felt like prey every single day for the past three weeks, even when I was with a professional crew on a live-aboard dive boat on the Red Sea.  I can’t imagine living my whole life in this environment.  What does that do to a person in the long run?

This video produced by two Egyptian women is a perfect example of what it’s like to walk around Egypt as a woman.  It’s the POV of a woman walking across a bridge in Cairo, having a pretend conversation on her phone while actually videoing the men she passes.  Go ahead, take a one minute walk in Cairo:

Totally creepy, right?

Now take a look at these statistics about Egyptian women.  The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights performed a study and found that:

  • Well over two-thirds of Egyptian women are harassed daily.
  • Even veiled women who are victims of harassment blame themselves.
  • While Western women in the study demonstrated a strong believe in their right to personal safety and freedom of movement, this was totally absent among Egyptian women.
  • Egyptian men harass all women equally, regardless of whether they’re clad in typical Western clothing, a hijab, or a full burqa.

Furthermore, 91% of Egyptian women have experienced “unwelcome physical contact”.

The bit about Egyptian women not believing in their right to personal safety and freedom of movement is heartbreaking.  I found the women in Egypt to be clever, funny, kind and well-educated.  If I ever needed directions, I’d find the nearest woman and ask her for help.  Not only would she treat me like a human being, but her English would be ten times better than any of the men.

Every encounter I had with an Egyptian woman left me with the same thought: if this is how wonderful Egyptian women are under conditions of oppression, violence and self-defeat, just imagine what they’d be like with the same freedoms and rights I enjoy.  I’m pretty sure they would rule the world.

So yeah, Egypt is complicated.  I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here, but if I do I’ll try to hang out with as many women as possible, because they’re a damn sight better than [most of] the men.

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