Distance keeps things simple; closeness complicates. From far away, it is easy to sum situations up, to describe in definitive terms. But the closer you are to a place, the vaster it becomes; the more full of detail, of nuance, of contradictions.
One of the first things that personal observation exposes is the meagreness of language. The word “the Middle East” like the words “Arab”, “Muslim”, and “terrorist” is a gross approximation, a scrap of verbal fabric stretched clumsily over a great pile of countries with very different histories, geographies, cultures, attitudes and priorities.
In this fractious and misunderstood region Cairo is a good city to start with because it so draws you in. In fact, it positively won’t allow you to keep your distances. Beirut is Mediterranean and affable, busy plastering its war over and opening its cafés; Damascus is polite and picturesque, a little too quiet. But Cairo is in your face. With 16 million people living here it is a city that never ends, never sleeps, never shuts up, and never stops surprising.
A circuit through my own neighbourhood, through a handful of streets near my apartment in downtown Cairo, is sufficient to shatter half a dozen easy generalizations about Muslim or Arab culture. In fact, there’s enough life and contradiction churning in this small area to fill hundreds of pages (it’s no surprise that several Egyptian writers have found material for whole novels in one alley, one building).
On the main street outside my house, if you’re a woman, you’ll be harassed. Men will sing and whisper and click their tongues and roll their eyes and sometimes purposely bump into you. But you’ll also be surrounded by other women: Egyptian women, who are going to school or to work or to meet their boyfriend and walk along the Nile, and who bear no resemblance to the exotic victims often featured on the covers of books sold in the West. They’ll be wearing everything from the full polyester niquab (which covers the face except for the eyes, and is usually worn in conjunction with long shapeless smocks and sometimes gloves), to pertly arranged and colour-coordinated headscarves, to Western jeans and tight T-shirts.
One of these girls might be Aisha, who took the niqab on her own initiative when she was 17-years-old. Aisha’s father has only allowed her out of the house to visit friends three times in her life. Now, she is married to a young accountant in Qatar. Aisha was almost assaulted in an empty building along this street several years ago, when a stranger passing himself off as a state security officer tried to drag her into an empty building. Aisha, who is deeply devout, credits Allah with loosening her frozen, frightened tongue, allowing her to reach out to another young woman on the sidewalk and thus scare the man away. Aisha believes in djinn (evil spirits). and she believes in romance and true love; she thinks society should be run according to Sharia, or Islamic law, but in her time as a teacher of Arabic she has made loving mental note of the foreign places her students have described for her and that she says she dreams of visiting.
One of these girls might be Sabah, whose parents moved to Cairo from the countryside 23 years ago and never had a chance to attend college. Sabah, on the other hand, was a stellar student, encouraged by a mother who she says, “is very ambitious for us”. She started working at a foreign magazine when she was 17, convincing the staff she was worth having around for her Arabic and her ability to get anybody on the phone. Now she works as a journalist and makes more money than both her parents. She wears the hegab (headscarf) and she wouldn’t touch a beer, but she makes loud jokes and uses foreign swear words. She is a young, laughing dynamo, a girl who walks the line, who goes out to bars with foreign journalists and goes home to her family’s flat in one of Cairo’s working class neighbourhoods, where neighbours whisper about her behind the walls. She is as ambitious as her mother could want her to be, and no one who knows her doubts that she will be wildly successful. “The future President of Egypt” is how one of her friends describes Sabah.
One of these girls might be Miriam, a bilingual Egyptian-American who’s spent as much of her life in New York as she has in Cairo. She studied art history at The American University of Cairo (AUC), works in an art gallery downtown, drinks, smokes, and dates. She’s going to a prestigious masters program in the US next year. This past year, she fell in love with an American boy, but when she found out he was Jewish, she broke up with him. Some things even her liberal family couldn’t accept.
Egyptian women are anything but weak. They face serious challenges: female circumcision which is pushed almost entirely by women on women is still predominant; woman are expected to be virgins at marriage; domestic abuse is common and sexual harassment, rather than a form of misconduct, is viewed as an essential expression of healthy masculinity. But Egyptian women are out there, working and striving and asserting themselves every chance they get. The main breadwinner in 20 percent of Egyptian households is a woman. In fact, there’s a solid argument to be made that the donning of the hegab in Egypt is a pragmatic strategy women have adopted on their way to unprecedented new emancipation. It’s a way for women here to say “I’m doing things that a Muslim woman has never done before, but I’m still a Muslim woman, with all the rights and protections and respect that that entails”. The hegab has allowed them to work in offices with male colleagues, massively attend co-ed universities, and ride public transportation.
Keep walking, into a leafy residential neighbourhood that houses many foreign embassies, past a fuul (baked beans, the staple of the Egyptian working man’s diet) stand where you can have a fantastic lunch for 50 cents, past a group of street kids that know poetic insults, dirty jokes about Suzanne and Hosni Mubarak, and how to hold razor blades against their gums to use in fights, and you’ll come to the building where Fathi works as a bawwab (doorman). Like most of the bawwabs in Cairo, Fathi is from Upper Egypt. He is quiet man in a galabeya (the traditional cotton dress worn by rural Egyptian men), his eyes are downcast as he opens the door for you. He scurries off quickly when he hears the voice of the landlady calling him.
You wouldn’t know Fathi has a three-month-old baby daughter he hasn’t seen yet because he’s only allowed to go home twice a year. You wouldn’t know that he sleeps in a closet under the stairs, and that the landlady pockets the majority of the fees residents pay for his services. And you wouldn’t know he’s also entrusted with shutting off the water every night at midnight. What he does, some nights, is wait in the little dark inner stairwell until he hears one of the residents get into the shower. Hand poised on the water lever, he waits until he’s sure they’re nicely soaped up. And then he shuts the water off, and laughs to himself while someone curses into the night above him.
People will tell you that Egypt is a highly stratified, hierarchical society. It’s true that there are gross discrepancies in wealth, that subordinates are often treated harshly, and that the Western notion of individual equality is not a given. But this is perhaps more evident here because people of different classes are not insulated from each other through money and geography as they are in the West. You have personal relationships with everyone that renders you services; you know all about the lady who cleans your toilet (no Merry Maids here). And however hard their bosses, landlords, and employers push them down, Egyptians can push back. There is a constant, overt, often humorously expressed tension between the classes. People will say that Egyptians are fawning, that they have acquired the habit of servility from centuries of colonialism and occupation. But in every “Ya-basha” you hear (from the Turkish word “pasha”, used indiscriminately to butter up social superiors), you may detect an undertone of sarcasm.
On the sidewalk outside Fathi’s building you might see a poor young girl with a loosely knotted handkerchief on her head. If you’re like me, it will take you two years to learn that this girl is a part-time prostitute, like many others in the area, and that there’s a bordello ran in a building around the corner to serve the nearby embassy of another, wealthier Arab country. You will also be surprised to discover to what extent illicit sex takes place in this supposedly sexually rigid society; to hear about quickies in parks, hymen restorations, pornography, short-term marriages, internet dating, and middle-class call girls. Egyptian young people, like young people everywhere, are longing to have relationships, to find sex and love.
And of course, all the people you will have walked past will be religious; some Christian (Egypt has a Christian minority) but most Muslim. In Egypt there are fanatical Muslims, lapsed Muslims and hypocritical Muslims (I even have a friend who says he’s an “atheist Muslim”). There are righteous and power-hungry Muslims who want to impose their views on others, just at there are Christians who want to do so in the US. There are Muslims who drink and have premarital sex and are horrified at the idea of an Islamic state. And there is the majority of Muslims, who are as observant as their temperament and conditions permit, and who value their religion because it gives them a sense of dignity and of belonging.
And all this takes place in just a speck of the great dusty bowl that is Cairo. There are a hundred more alleys, shops, courtyards, rooftops and staircases to be explored here, just as there are a hundred more assumptions about gender, religion, sex, politics, culture, family everything that are waiting to be upended and expanded by a close look or a close encounter. At this time when Arab and Muslim countries are the object of so much attention and so little understanding, so much anxiety and so little respect, it’s important to make this exploration.
I’m not saying that a lot of things in Egypt aren’t as you might imagine: women are disadvantaged, there is religious fanaticism and militancy, the political process is undemocratic, civil liberties are not respected. But interestingly, there are a lot more things to be found, as well: two children giggling and arm-wrestling on the floor of a mosque; a saucy 50-year-old government secretary who hits on young men applying for visas till they blush; a taxi driver who recites his favourite 10 American presidents, in order. Such expressions of human nature in Cairo might be considered unimaginable until you bump into them one day.
This goes for everywhere, of course; for every country and culture that is not our own. Things are never as simple as they seem, and especially not as they seem from far away. Beyond the surface, beyond the headlines and the news footage and the clichés, there is always a world of complex individuals, a world as vast as a neighbourhood in Cairo.