Will we ever really be ‘Welcome to Egybt’?
8 September 2012 § Leave a comment
Last weekend I dragged PG downtown to check out the showing of the top 10 films from the Beirut 48 Hour Film Project. It is no secret to anyone who knows me that if money were no object (oh, student loans how I loathe thee) and I weren’t such a chickenshit when it comes to really pursuing creative endeavors, I would endeavor to be a film maker. It is my deepest desire. And my crowing glory would be a film adaptation of Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra. A lot of people (read: my intellectual, literature type friends) think this novel is a whole lot of breathless drivel. But this novel is the one that got me to leave lifelong dreams of becoming an engineer (no, really) and instead go into studying Arabic literature and culture. So…you know. It’s important to me.
But all of the above is neither here nor there. This is a blog post about how being linked to PG in the Cairo public sphere has exacerbated a problem I have faced my whole life — being mistaken for a non-Egyptian and subsequently being greeted repeatedly on the streets of Cairo with the oft-heard phrase, ‘Welcome to Egypt!’
I dragged PG downtown to this film screening because I thought maybe I can start taking a step towards the above-mentioned goal of being a filmmaker by getting involved in the 48 Hour Film Project. The screening was being held in a location I’d never been to before, and though I’ve been on Adly Street many times in the past, I was confused as to how to get there from the Sadat metro station. And so we stopped several times on street corners to ask for directions. I would ask in Arabic, and inadvertently the reply would come in broken, incoherent English. One guy outside the Samsung store on Midan Talaat Harb kept insisting he explain to me in English what I wanted even though I persisted in speaking to him in Arabic. Another dude at a koshk started struggling to answer me in English when the lady sitting on the pavement next to his koshk said, ‘Ya 3am, heya bitifham 3raby!’ (Hey, man, she understands Arabic.) To which I replied, at this point in sweaty exasperation, ‘I don’t just understand Arabic, I am Egyptian.’ The koshk guy looked startled at the vehemence with which I’d made this proclamation, looked over at PG and then looked back at me and said, in Arabic praise be, ‘Ok, ok. Listen, this is how you get to Adly Street from here…’
We made it eventually, but after the third guy we stopped to ask for directions responded to me in English yet again, PG mumbled, ‘I’m sorry. Should I go stand far away the next time you ask for directions?’ I reassured him that this always happens to me, although, yes, of course being seen with him didn’t help matters.
I don’t know why it’s always been this way. One of my closest Egyptian friends growing up has blond hair and green eyes vs. my brown hair, brown eyedness. I remember one time when we were 12 or 13 we walked into the local Omda to order schawerma sandwiches and the guy at the counter looked at her and said, ‘3yza eh?’ then looked at me and said, ‘What you like?’ I went home and asked my mom why she thought that had happened. Noora looks way more foreign than me with her coloring and her sort of fafi* ways. How did that guy single me out? How did he know that I didn’t live in Egypt full time? That I hadn’t from the age of 3? My mom tried to explain by saying it’s in the different ways we carry ourselves, but till this day I truly do not understand what happened.
Yesterday marked the first practice of a sporting group I have recently joined. It is founded by two foreign teachers in Cairo with the aim of ‘bringing feminism to Egypt through the sport of roller derby!’ Every time they talk about bringing feminism to Egypt it sets my teeth on edge. It just stinks of the white man swooping in to save the wayward brownie. But, I really like to skate and I’m often up for trying something new and so I stick with it, and in the meantime try to gently educate these khawagas on how offensive they come off.
In any case, our first practice was to be at Shababa Gezira. We arrived on Friday morning expecting the club would be free of the young men who usually crowd the fields and courts as this was a Friday before prayer — surely they’d all be tucked up in their beds?
But, no. They had instead been at the club since 5 am getting their football on until prayer time. I arrived to find the group of derby ladies and their husbands huddled at the gate arguing with the guy meant to sell them the entry tickets. Apparently they were being barred from going in because they were a large group of foreigners and they didn’t have permission to have a gathering in the club. I jumped into the fray and pointed to PG saying, ‘This guy has been meeting up with other foreigners at this club on Saturday afternoons for 5 years to play football. What’s the problem?’
To cut a long, frustrating Friday morning argument short, we discussed it back and forth for the next hour until the head of the club’s security came and said that we could use the parking lot on the other side to practice for today, but that next time we’d have to bring a letter and pay a fee to reserve the courts we wanted to practice in.
In addition to being supremely annoyed by the club supervisor on duty, I was also inwardly cringing because the derby ladies were convinced that they were being asses because we were a large group of foreign WOMEN HEAR US ROAR. The head of security assured me this was not the case, and I believe him because while we were waiting for the club director to show up so we could lodge our complaint with him, we witnessed him giving shit to a large group of young Egyptian men. It was annoying that my argument to the foreign ladies was, ‘Look, they’re not being assholes because you’re foreign and female. They’re just generally disposed to assholeishness.’
The point is, I struggle with the fact that even though my farangi has more Egyptian friends than foreign friends, and even though he is not one of ‘those expats’, the fact is that I spend enough time around khawagas, and I am married to a khawagi, that people often confuse me for being a khawaga. A foreigner in my own land. And they treat me accordingly. And yesterday when the derby team were setting my teeth on edge with their disparaging comments about Egyptian shabab and their clubs, I couldn’t help but wonder if they felt comfortable saying such awful shit in front of me because I myself hadn’t married an Egyptian and so, of course, I must implicitly agree.
It is a thought I struggle with sometimes, though not often because usually honey badget don’t give a shit. The clumsy analogy I make in my head is that it’s like a Black Panther marrying a white man in the 1960s. How can I prove that I am not a self-hating Egyptian when I went outside of the Egyptian sphere to marry? When I tied my future and my potential children’s future to an outsider? When there are weeks like this past one where my own countrymen insist on speaking to me in English, and where foreigners assume they can, basically, be racist because of how I look and the company I keep, I find myself cringing and wondering when I will stop being welcomed to Egypt.
* er, not that foreigness is synonymous with fafiness