Friday, February 29, 2008

Boundaries, anyone?

You want to know how I have really been feeling? You want to know why this "photographic journal" has not seen any new photographs in several days?

My biggest challenge so far, besides learning Arabic, has been learning to interact with Egyptian men. Most taxis are driven by men, most waiters are men, most grocers and business owners seem to be men, so I have to deal with men everyday. Just in my experience.

In general, as well as in my work as a photojournalist, I am an open, friendly person--not just when I talk, but also in my body language, face and eyes. I smile a lot. I have a firm handshake and make direct eye contact with people. When I am trying to make someone on the other side of the lens feel comfortable being photographed, I use nonverbal cues to try to show that I care about the person, that I am listening and trying my best to understand.

This is not only key to my work, but it's also who I am.

Now that I am in a place where my grasp of the language is minimal at best, I have to rely even more on non-verbal communication. And, really, I am just being me. In addition to this, I am alone much of the time and therefore a pretty easy target. This has caused me a lot of problems. My guard is firmly in place all the time when I am alone--to the point where I am civil, but just barely. Any time I let my guard down even just a little, even if I am just trying to practice my Arabic, something happens.

So let me just try to describe what this is like. When I am with any other person--male, female, Egyptian, American, a mixed group, it doesn't matter--everything is fine. Or relatively so. However, when I do anything by myself, walking down the street, taking a cab, ordering food, or even, God forbid, taking photographs, I can almost assume that a man will make a pass at me, say something vulgar, ask for my telephone number, ask to be my "friend", or propose marriage.

I am not even kidding.

So far, I have tried numerous tactics to try to avoid encouraging this behavior. My taxi ride to class can take anywhere from 30-90 minutes. After a couple of uncomfortable morning cab rides, I started asking the doorman at my apartment to call me a cab. The message I hoped to get across is that I am not here all alone--I know people who know how you, Mr. Taxi, are supposed to behave. So don't try anything! This has been really helpful I think.

I also started wearing a (fake) wedding ring. If strange men ask (and they almost always do), I tell them I am married, and that my husband is here in Cairo with me. I have even invented a job for him, a life, whether we will have children and so on. It really sucks. I hate lying to people.

I try not to talk to taxi drivers AT ALL. Anytime I have tried, even a little, to practice my Arabic on the long cab ride, no matter how innocently the conversation starts, it always goes bad by the end. Sometimes I still think, this person could be alright to talk to. No. It never goes well. Yesterday the taxi driver wanted me to divorce my fake husband so that the driver's father could sit down with my father and work out the details of our marriage. No joke.

If the waiters at a particular coffee shop get too friendly, I change coffee shops. (I am currently relying on internet cafes for wireless access--and my daily caffeine high.)

From now on, I also will try not to visit any tourist sites alone (unless I must while working on a story). Men in the Khan el-Khalili market, Cairo's most famous bazaar, have said some of the most outrageous things to me. Completely unbidden, I am not even looking in the shops, just walking eyes straight ahead and a male vendor says something really offensive about my body.

It's really starting to piss me off and someday soon I am going to let loose with a loud slew of Arabic curses. Don't mess with me, people. I am developing a more aggressive attitude toward men, definitely for the better.

I want to say that I certainly have not had trouble with all Egyptian men and some have shown genuine kindness and respect. I don't think the average Egyptian accepts this type of behavior.
Also, I am a source of curiosity and most people assume that I have money. Culturally, men and women interact less, but the only perception that some Egyptians have of Westerners is from television and movies. Cairo has the mega-city element of anonymity, which allows some people to step out of traditional cultural boundaries. These are all factors.

And oh by the way, I don't fit in with Egyptian women either, although many women have shown me kindness. I think eventually I will have some female Egyptian friends, but not yet.

It all makes life rather lonely. It could make working here damn near impossible. And it's at least part of the reason I am moving to Zamalek, a relatively expensive area where a ton of foreigners live.

It's going to be alright. Right? Sorry for the rant. It's all good. (I am going to my happy place now...)

I want to add that I am doing really, really well. :)


Anonymous said...

Geez, Holly. I'm sorry these men are bothering you. How annoying and discomforting. I hope the move to your new neighborhood and having 2 other roommates will lend a little extra security. So go grrrrl power! And give those men the hairry eyeball they deserve!

I'm loving this blog and hope you're well, Bridge :)

fishwife said...

Boy howdy Holly! Do I want to visit Cairo? I've heard this actually, about Egyptian men. Thankfully (?) I have had a little practice in my recent travels, from an outright boob-grab attempt in Lombok, to offers of love & marriage from curious & well-intentioned Thai men. We will travel well together methinks!

See you soon! Erin

Virginia said...

Hi Holly! "Haram alaik!!" or "Shame on you!" with a really, really dirty look sometimes worked for me. I am thinking of you! I agree that ignoring the men (not talking at all or even making eye contact) might be your best bet. Take good care of yourself.

Brad said...

Hello Holly,

Enjoying reading back entries on your blog. Your dad and mine have worked together in Montana I think. I'm currently finishing my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso. Your story of "making up a husband" makes me laugh because many of our female volunteers here have even competed for the best "made-up husband" profile. (The winner I believe was a hanggliding ex-marine trauma surgeon curing disfigured children in Chechenya.) I think it's a standard necessity of working in muslim countries to have such cover stories. Although here in sub-saharan Africa you can always say YES to proposals, and then simply inform them that the dowry for your hand is 500 head of cattle or something outlandish. It's fun to hear your impressions of Cairo. It has long been a place I hope to visit and live one day.