The End of the Honeymoon

For anyone who has experienced the stages of culture shock, this post is about how I am dealing with my induction into the “phase of frustration.”  

The first few months in Egypt, I felt like this place made me more alive.   Each day was new and exciting.  Each new friend a gem in my pocket to join a whole crowd of others.  Each sunny day a reminder that my winter would be mild, especially relative to my damp and grey Seattle winters of the previous three years.  I wrote poetry about the “magic” of my surroundings, and how it made me feel “electric.” As this is not my first time living abroad, I am no stranger to culture shock and the mental tempest at the end of the honeymoon period.   While living in South Korea and Zhengzhou, China it took me roughly six months to move beyond that “honeymoon stage.”  Cairo, rather Sheikh Zayed, became the place where I lasted the typical three months before mentally throwing in the towel.  I have friends for whom their honeymoon period lasted only a few weeks. As a feather in my fez, in that time I hadn’t had any of the experiences I had read about.  The verbal or physical harassment news outlets so frequently report were all noticeably absent from my day to day life.  None of that was part of my reality.  Suddenly, it was.

On the whole, I find the people I meet to be in one of two camps: those who love Cairo and those who know almost immediately it is not for them.  The former have magic and heart connected with the soil and sand of Egypt.  The latter see all too clearly what is broken and needs to be, must be, fixed.   For this second group, especially women, the ideologies of upbringing clash and clash hard with the local code of ethics.  Most foreign women I have become acquainted with were raised with a set of mores regarding the roles of women that differs significantly from how women are raised here.  I find that those who are most successful with the dissonance of this new culture accept and live within the parameters of each contrasting reality.  They have rules for dress, for who may benefit from their society, and where and when they may accomplish certain activities.  The idea of cultural relativism is also particularly useful to some people.  It isn’t wrong.  Only different.  What I hear a lot is, “It’s just different here.”

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One of the first moments when I realized that Egypt and I, perhaps not quite oil and water, wouldn’t make great bedfellows was when I visited the Mohamed Ali Mosque with some out of town guests.  At the entrance to the mosque was a huge sign, nearly 1/4 the length of the entrance wall, reaching from floor to ceiling, emblazoned with a slogan proclaiming Islam a religion of feminism. Interested in this idea, I went over to talk with the women passing out literature.  I was not surprised to find that both women were heavily veiled, though that had little to do with my eventual reservations.  The woman I was speaking with began her talk by explaining her role within Islam.  I expected, from my somewhat limited purview,  she would begin by talking about her aims to dress modestly, continue with her commitment to daily prayers, and her fervor for  God.  She surprised me by saying, “When I make food for my husband, I am worshipping Allah.”  I reminded myself, though probably not in so few words, devotion has many forms. On this, and many other things, it was apparent that we would never agree on a form of devotion, or even a definition of feminism, but still we talked.  After a few minutes I felt comfortable asking her how she felt about the sexism and disrespect shown women on the streets in Cairo.  My question had stunned her, and she did not seem to have a ready reply.  This immediately made me feel as though I had crossed a boundary.  My brain started to spin with internal arguments, “Should I not have tried to have a dialogue? Isn’t that what is expected?” Eventually she said that everyone could always do better.  For the remainder of our time together, I allowed myself to listen, but didn’t ask any pressing questions.  Anxiety had risen in my throat and I lost the confidence to question.  We parted only when my husband and our friends were ready to go.

At the time she and I spoke, I had experienced very little of this disrespect myself.  The first time I experienced verbal harassment I was walking home alone from the grocery store. My reaction was automatic:  I simply shouted something lewd back.  That is a ritual that has continued. It always shocks me to see how surprised they look.  I have wondered, though not at length, what  should my reaction be?

On the bus to and from school we have become accustomed to the same bus driver each day.  Back in September, I had an experience and I wasn’t sure if it was strange or not.  Often in my area, men and women kiss each other on the cheek to say hello, though very devout Muslims won’t touch a member of the opposite sex who is not in their family.  On this particular September day, our driver shook my hand and then kissed me on each cheek.  I had never seen him do this with anyone else, but I was new and unsure of the protocol.  Possibly he noticed my state of discomfort, but that never happened again.  My husband said that he was likely just being nice, but he was also unsure as to its propriety.  Earlier this week I went home on the early bus, which meant I was on the bus alone when we reached my stop, my husband still at work.  While descending the stairs I turned to call back, “Thank you, see you Wednesday.” My driver puckered his lips and kissed the air twice.  His eyes looked heavy.  I felt nervous.  This made me uncomfortable.  My first reaction was, “Oh no.  What did I do wrong?” 

I did nothing wrong.  This place, this place that at first made me feel electric and magical is turning me into someone I don’t always recognize.  No stranger to questioning other people’s motives, I was suddenly ready to blame myself for another person’s transgression.  What makes this so hard is that I am not alone in this.  Many women voice the same concerns. “What could I do differently? What could I change about my lifestyle that would prevent this from happening?”  Most striking, is that while my experiences have soured my perspective, I have been lucky. Not so the others.  The other women.  Women with different stories.

This takes me back to the phrase, “It’s just different here.” While that may be so, it is never socially or culturally appropriate to take such liberties. Naked, modestly dressed, or in a burqa a woman is a human being deserving of respect.   Cultural relativism is not an appropriate excuse for subjugation of women. Or, in my opinion, subjugation of any people, anywhere.

I want to be sensitive.  I want to remain who I am.  I want to be respected.

We shall see.

  

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Dreaming of Home

Living abroad means you get asked the question, “Where are you from?” all of the time. When you have made your life in many different places, and have been created by many different places in turn, how do you go about answering that question? I usually answer with:

“Well, that depends on where you want to start. I was conceived in San Francisco, born in Florida, raised in Pennsylvania, and chose Seoul, China, and Seattle as places to call home. I usually say I am “from” Seattle.”

When I gave this answer, omitting the conceived bit, to my soccer team, they formulated their own understanding:

“So you’re half San Francisco, a quarter Pennsylvania and Seattleite, and a quarter East Asian.”

This way of piecing me together seemed the most accurate I have ever heard, especially in an international context where each person is noting your origins. All of my experiences have shaped me, for better or worse. Of course my parents have shaped me as well.

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The man singing “into the tap handle,” is mi padre. Sometimes I look at this photo and completely understand myself. If you know me well, this may explain a lot. If you don’t know me well, this may help you to understand. My mother cannot be explained in graphics – she has to be experienced. One of my fondest memories of her involves her laughing for countless minutes over a croaking frog toy in Williamsburg, Virginia. She just couldn’t stop. It wasn’t an infectious kind of laughter at the time, but now it is.

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While writing this, I was chatting with my best friend and decided to send it to him to proof – his response was not what I expected, or asked for.

“But the astonishing thing about you is in spite of your experiences you are 100% you. I’ll write more later, gotta go for now. Love you.”

And that is why we are best friends. My husband always comments on how I cannot have conversations, I just talk “at” people. Well, blame John. We went to several dances together in high school, and this is just the classiest of our senior year homecoming photos. Everyone dreams of having their photos taken in what resembles a car-park.

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In college, we were often separated for long intervals by his dance group’s touring schedule, when we did get together it usually involved strange photo sessions on my computer’s Photo Booth.

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One thing to note is that I have not stopped making this face in photos. John has.

In our more recent photos, we have made good on our promise to work on our facial expressions. We’re getting better.

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While thinking of home, I realized I haven’t written a letter since my arrival. My intention was to make all of my close friends a pen-pal, and have yet to make good on those promises. Well no more!

Bat for Lashes is on repeat. Stationary found. Pens have been rounded up from their many secret stashes.

Until next time, friends.

❤ love<3 love<3

Stoptober: or Fall Comes to Egypt

Now that I have a blog up and running, I plan to write a lengthy post in the next day or so.  Until then, I’ll leave you with a short summary of my time in Cairo.

1) Egypt, and Cairo specifically, is an incredible place full of open and loving individuals; ready smiles, support, and love abound. This place feeds my soul in such a way that I didn’t realize how starved it was.  My first day I was told, “this place gets inside you,” and each day I have felt it.

2) Egyptian liquor is not to be trusted.  When in Cairo, have a beer, or three, there are three local varieties, or a glass of Egyptian wine. Preferably any sort of white.

3) Before I left Seattle, I had a lot of questions about the risk I might be taking in moving to Cairo.  Thank you to everyone who cared, and asked, to you and everyone else I will say, Cairo is really very safe.  The biggest risk to my health, so far, is riding in a taxi where access to a seat belt is not guaranteed.  Inshallah (God willing)!!

4) Things fall apart, and things fall together. “Inshallah” is a glorious way to summarize our inability as humans to appropriately plan for the future.  “I’ll have my visa next week, Inshallah.”

<3<3<3

Simone

Moving on.

What follows is my first post from my original blog… Due to a silly misunderstanding, deleting my e-mail account linked to that blog, I have had to create a new one.

July 25, 2014

Moving on is hard to do.

I’ve spent this week thinking about how I am going to make my work exit and not knowing how.  The last time I left a place with such finality, I recall a close friend of M’s shouting invective, along with helpful hints.  Each word punctuated by sobs.

“You need to eat your fish because you don’t remember anything. Simone, make sure he eats his fish.”

This time, I feel like I’ve taken her place in the “crazy lady full of emotion” category.  I’ve already been told to, “stop picking fights.” Twice.

Seattle, I’m not done with my investigation.

Until next time, Friends.

All the love.