Dahab is lazy. I am lazy here. The main drag is lined with restaurants with plaintive names and the same menus where travellers lounge on cushions and rugs only expending energy to chase away hungry kittens from the low tables. The more active go diving, with companies that go by the same effortless names: Aqua Divers, H20 Divers…, but I just stroll, lie and drink Bedouin tea in the sun.
One of our group signed off the tour to visit St. Catherine’s and climb Mt. Sinai for sunset. They had to sign off because the tour company had deemed that area too dangerous to visit. Ironically that same night the entire bar we were drinking at broke into a brawl, pitting Bedouins against Egyptians and demonstrating a deep hostility that I don’t understand. Our guide says it is the first fight he has ever been in; the six-foot ex-Navy Australian girl that ended it with a blow to the aggressor’s face says it’s the first she’s been in “for ages.” The next day the Sinai climber gleefully tells us it’s safer to go to St. Catherine’s than to hang with us.
It is 12 hours into our journey and one of the carriage windows has just shattered. Broken glass falls across two rows of seats like hailstones. Passengers dart to safety and take stock of the scene. A quick gust of wind sends more glass from the broken pane across more seats and a decision is made to kick out the remaining window pane. An off-duty policeman, gun still attached to his hip, takes a few swings then, satisfied, settles back into his seat. I’m trying not to laugh, but the policeman catches my eye and we share a grin.
We had left Luxor at 11pm last night and we due to reach Cairo three hours ago. I had the half-asleep perception of making a too-long stop somewhere during the night, and found out early this morning that an unexplained protest somewhere had stalled us for four hours.
My trip roommate sits next to me reading some erotic thriller and swearing that even the trains in India were cleaner than this. Me, I put it down to experience, even though the grime sticks, the toilets are disgusting and the snoring thunderous. The breeze from the broken window comes as a relief and we travel past a brightly coloured village along a canal. A women wearing an abaya is feeding her ducks while others wash clothes in the canaland children balance on trotting donkeys. Further on, a donkey that was pulling a cart appears to have fallen and several men are raining blows on him to get him back on his feet. I have to turn away.
Our tour leader stirs, thick black hair sticking up. We tell him about the window and he just shrugs. “It happens,” he says.
“We have a saying here in Egypt. There is a man behind every woman. Don’t worry.”
Ahmed’s words did not reassure me. He had been trying to bolster me after I had made a hesitant complaint – egged on by the other two women in the truck – about the police escort who had spend the previous night in the desert with us and our Bedouin guides. He had tried to take my hand and lead me down into a valley, further out of sight from the rest of the group. It wasn’t much but, coupled with knowledge of the well-documented rate of sexual harassment in Egypt, it made me something a little more than uncomfortable.
I have otherwise found myself almost relaxed among crowds and as the object of the stares, yells and catcalls of the men. I have shifted the hard-faced stare-straight-ahead stance of my first day or two to include an occasional smile at the occasional call that is just too ridiculous to be offensive: Hello, spicy girl!Egyptian husband for free! And in the market: Buy one get me free!
But I am shielded. I stick to the sides of the other two women, using them as a buffer. It is disturbing me and undermining my confidence in myself as an unshakeable independent woman. The few times I venture out alone I feel uncomfortable and forge straight ahead, (the same way I cross Egyptian roads) hurrying to get to where I am going, or back home, not pausing for two seconds even to catch my surroundings or let myself relax.
We arrived in time for the Friday prayers, tense with the noise and tiptoeing around the crowds of men kneeling outside on the street – overflow from the mosque next to our hotel. Karnak overwhelmed; the Kalashnikov carrying temple guards hassled and hustled, and the whipped-up sand and dust burned my eyes through my contact lenses.
In the Valley of the Kings you are permitted to visit just three tombs; we saw the tombs of Ramses IV and III at tourist-shuffle pace – never getting the opportunity to pause for quite long enough. At Ramses I, I spent some minutes alone, in silence studying the hieroglyphics before one of the guards interrupted and began his pitch.
We shuffled all together through the bone-dry valley; back to the waiting van, on to the boat across to the other side of the Nile. Together with the two Australians I walked through the souk, the three of us forming a buffer against the beckoning shop owners and catcalls. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the noise; the disorder and the dust, but then I went back to the hotel and I stalled. I sat in the lobby looking out at the city then back down at my iPhone. I saw carriage drivers calling to tourists; children and unidentifiable touts doing the same, so I stalled. I returned to my iPhone and read about Marie Colvin, killed by shelling in the besieged Syrian city of Homs; about babies dying and rockets raining down, but still, nervous of the looks and the calls, insignificant and cowardly in comparison, I couldn’t drag myself out into the city and wasted the rest of the day by just looking through glass instead.
I’m still wearing the clothes I was wearing when I left the U.S. If my bag arrives before the end of today, I won’t name the airline that misplaced it.
Our group, which consists of only four people, was woken early for breakfast and a briefing. The word right now is that we will not be going to the Sinai region (meaning no Dahab and no climbing Mt. Sinai) owing to unrest and recent kidnappings. The mood of the group was noticeably more of disappointment than relief. “We want you to be safe,” our guide tried, but there was still grumbling.
We drove out to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. I had heard a lot about the touts but, really, they were just annoying but that’s all. There really were not that many tourists there at all. It was quite quiet. I feel terrible for the people who make their living from the tourist industry. In conversation I empathised with our guide; he smiled and said that it was worth it.
In the afternoon there was walking and getting lost — my favourite thing to do in a new city and something for which Cairo is just right.
Approaching the Egyptian Museum I ducked in and out of Tahrir Square, snapping pictures of the powerful street art around.
It’s my birthday today, but who cares because tomorrow I fly out to Egypt.
I was incredibly lucky to be chosen to serve as a Traveler in Residence in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center.
Previous travelers in residence, Keph Senett and Kyle Ellison went to Turkey and Nepal; Coen Wubbels in currently travelling in Panama and Costa Rica, and I will be covering Egypt in a three week tour named Egypt Encompassed, travelling from Cairo through the White Desert, to Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Mt. Sinai and Dahab. Phew
The challenge of tackling a country — that has a 5000-year history; is processing a revolution, and is at present rarely out of the news — in just three weeks is daunting, as is the idea of doing it with an organised tour group, and on a schedule, which is a brand new experience for me. I am, however, hugely excited and, in typical fashion, frantically trying to get organised with little time left to spare.
This is my itinerary:
I would love to hear any suggestions/recommendations/advice/warnings that you may have.
And follow me (Internet access permitting) here and at Twitter.
The volume of information available about Doria Shafik, activist, feminist and author, is disproportionate to the level of her contribution to the Egyptian women’s movement. In fact, much of her life’s work was confiscated and banned, and her name prohibited in the media following her February 1957 house arrest at the hands of the Nasser regime. Police stormed the offices of her magazine Daughters of the Nile, seized every issue and destroyed her own private papers. She remained under house arrest, in total seclusion, until 1975 when she committed suicide by throwing herself off a balcony.
Shafik was born in Tanta and raised in a traditional, middle-class family. Her childhood was comfortable but peppered with experiences that planted seeds of what her biographer, Cynthia Nelson calls “deep, personal feelings of outrage and indignation”.
“Doria grew up in a atmosphere where women, rich or poor, suffered in marriages and lived at the mercy of men and the “whims of his tyranny; a tyranny that had become second nature.”
Nevertheless, Shafik was able to take advantage of the expanded educational opportunities available to Egyptian women in the 1920s. She received a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne, where she gained a doctoral degree at the young age of 29.
On her return home, she applied for a teaching position at Cairo University but was rejected for being female. Instead, at the request of Princess Shuvekar, first wife of King Fuad I, she became the editor of the new magazine by the Daughters of the Nile Union, a women’s liberation movement.
While editing and writing for the magazine, Shafik intensified her activist work. She staged sit-ins to protest the British occupation; attempted to run for elections illegally (as a woman), and, most famously, in February 1951 led a crowd of 1,500 women to storm a session of Parliament and demand that the council take action on women’s issues. the following week Egyptian women were granted the right to vote and to run for political office.
“Our meeting today is not a congress, but a parliament. A true one! That of women! We are half the nation! We represent here the hope and despair of this most important half of the nation. Luckily we are meeting at the same hour and in the same part of town as the parliament of the other half of the nation. They are assembled a few steps away from us. I propose we go there, strong in the knowledge of our rights and tell the deputies and senators that their assemblies are illegal so long as our representatives are excluded, that the Egyptian parliament cannot be a true reflection of the entire nation until women are admitted. Let’s go and give it to them straight. Let’s go and demand our rights. Forward to the parliament!”
Following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Shafik successfully campaigned to have the Daughters of the Nile Union recognized as an official political party – Egypt’s first women’s party. However, the changing political situation following the revolution did not favour her: in 1957, she organized an eight-day hunger strike to protest the Nasser regime. His response was her arrest, seclusion, erasure and, ultimately, her death.
In May 1923 at Cairo’s Misr train station (now called Ramses Station), on her return from the 9th Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Rome, feminist nationalist activist Huda Shaarawi performed her most famous act: she publicly removed her veil.
Shaarawi was born in Minya in 1879, the daughter of Muhammad Sultan, first president of the Egyptian Representative Council. She was part of the last generation of women to grow up in the segregated world of the harem. She recounts her story of this time in her published memoirs, The Harem Years. At the age of 13 she was married to her cousin, the political activist Ali Shaarawi.
The story of her youth is interesting to me in that through the screen of oppression — the harem; the arranged marriage — come signals of inspiration, which give me cause to reconsider assumptions of Middle Eastern women. She was well educated in the harem by Muslim women teachers who taught her Arabic, Persian and Turkish, and to read the Qur’an. Moreover, her marriage was one of respect. Her husband supported her feminist activism; often sought her advice, and would even have her sit in his place at important political meetings. After his death, she wrote in the Harem Years, she experience terrible sadness, yet also a feeling of freedom — a feeling she attributed to her dedication to the feminist movement, which had changed her life — as well as the lives of many other women.
Shaarawi’s early work was done at a time when Egyptian women were expected to stay out of the public gaze. She rejected this completely,beginning with doing her own shopping and organizing lectures for women, which brought many women out of their homes and into public places for the first time. Her early philanthropic projects included establishing a women’s welfare society, Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, and opening a school for girls to be taught academic rather than practical, traditionally female, subjects.
In 1914, she founded the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women, and in 1923, the Egyptian Feminist Union, which focused on gaining women’s suffrage, increasing education for women, changing the Personal Status Laws and raising the minimum age for marriage to 16. Egypt’s first secondary school for girls opened in 1927 largely thanks to the work of the EFU.
Sharaawi was also involved in the Egyptian nationalist struggle, and helped organize a women’s march against the British in 1919. Although she maintained ties with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance for years, it is said that she later became suspicious of western feminists. She argued for women’s equality by pointing out that women and men were equal in ancient Egypt and that it was under foreign rule that women had lost rights.
In 1920, she became the president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. Following Egyptian independence, when women were still denied suffrage and banned from attending the opening of Egyptian Parliament, Sharaawi led a delegation of women to picket the opening and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands, which were ignored by the Wafdist government, causing her to resign from the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee.
Sharaawi continued to lead the Egyptian Feminist Union, and did so until her death in 1947.
Today, January 25th, marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian uprising.
During the events of last year, I took a particular interest in the commentary of feminist blogs. From that perspective, women were central to the uprising, standing side by side with male protestors in Tahrir Square, free from the fear of harassment that stalks (according to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights) four out of five women in Egypt.
It seemed almost utopian. With the toppling of the regime, women were released from harassment and oppression:
The centering of women’s role in the revolution was perhaps not as unlikely as commentators would have us believe; after all, women have held powerful positions in Egypt. Indeed some of those universal symbols of powerful, defiant women come from Egypt: Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut …
There are six weeks until International Women’s Day and in that time (and perhaps beyond) I want to pay my respects to those brave, defiant, badass Egyptian women that have touched me. Purely out of indulgence; I take pleasure reading and educating myself about wonderful women.
This series will take no particular order, but I want to start with a woman who has been fighting and shouting for decades. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of feminist history will know the name ….
Nawal El-Saadawi: Author, doctor, director of public health, publisher of the feminist magazine Confrontation, feared by the government, and imprisoned by the Sadat regime. She was also, at the age of 79, among the protestors in Tahrir Square.
I first read her slim novel, Woman at Point Zero around the time I was beginning to take an interest in the sex worker rights movement. It was recommended to me by an activist, and it is plain to see why. For all its tub-thumping quotability — “Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.” / “A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off.” — The book takes a complex view of prostitution: at once showing the ways in which it can victimize a woman, and how she can find liberation and empowerment through the work.
The novel concerns a woman, Firdaus, a prostitute sentenced to death for murdering a man who demands to be her pimp. Her childhood history includes female genital mutilation, hunger, being orphaned, and a forced marriage, which brings with it brutal beatings. She enjoys a comfortable life as a prostitute — being very selective in the customers she accepts — but yearns for the respect she would gain by working in a normal, low-paying job. She takes such a job but soon realizes that “as a prostitute I had been looked upon with more respect … An employee is scared of losing her job and becoming a prostitute because she does not realize that a prostitute’s life is, in fact, better that hers.” She returns to prostitution, but then this would-be pimp ruins it for her.
She goes to her death without guilt.
The prose is heavy and points are hammered home, but reading her, I can barely restrain myself from punching the air and crying Yes! Perhaps she has to bludgeon the point home because she is saying things that, frankly, are unspeakable: do wives really want to hear that they are prostitutes too? (and, according to Firdaus, the cheapest kind.)
Firdaus hated the work of prostitution, but had reached the conclusion that she lived in a society where women were taken advantage of and mistreated at each and every turn. For her, prostitution carved off a little power for herself: “my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.”
The book is eminently quotable. Moreover it speaks to modern concerns: anti-vice corruption (the police tell her that they have to protect “respectable families” from the likes of her — of course it was the “respectable families” who abused her) and do-gooder “rescuers” of fallen women (“the men I hated the most were those who tried to give me advice, or told me that they wanted to rescue me from the life I was leading.” )
Firdaus found freedom and empowerment in sex work. But she also found abuse and, ultimately, her death. I don’t think I have read such a conflicted account as that of Woman at Point Zero.