September 16, 2008

With the heart

I had a few cross-cultural moments this weekend.

Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, my husband and I found ourselves in Cairo for a long weekend -- under Ramadan.

We had been there before, both alone and together, so we did not need to rush about from one site to another. Instead we had a camel ride in the Sahara overlooking the pyramids as the sun set and the moon rose (ok, yes it was romantic), wandered from mosque to mosque and market to market in the Islamic and then Coptic Christian sections of town and visited an oasis about 100 km to the southwest.

Cairo was hot, dusty, noisy, dirty, chaotic and crowded -- overwhelming to the senses while inebriating and captivating. For the two days, we didn't actually fast until 6:00 pm, but we didn't sit down to lunch either. Although shops were open, most restaurants were closed and it seemed in bad taste to eat in public, so we furtively drank lots of water and discretely had a mango juice at a stand to the young boy's dismay!

As the day dwindled, we happened to be in the large piazza in front of the Khan al Khalili market while hundreds of people gathered on the sidewalks with their meal spread out before them. Families and friends were just sitting there in small groups waiting for the 6:00 pm call. We waited and watched expecting a free for all, I mean they hadn't touched food or water all day, but they very calmly began with drinks -- water, a cold tamarind tea or fruit juice -- before chatting and sharing their meal, smiling and waving to us as we walked by and continued on our way. We then wandered into a side alley that had been closed off by families sitting down to a communal meal. The organizer standing over a large copper kettle told us that it was Ramadan and the meal was free before insisting that we sit and join them for some Kushari (a rice, noodle, lentils and onion dish). I was carefully examined by all as I ate, the children smiling, the women nodding and the men staring. I was dressed in long pants and a high cut t-shirt, but my head was not covered like all the other women and my lower arms were free.

I got to thinking about what it would be like to live here as a foreigner. Besides the pollution and the noise, the idea of having to cover up all the time would be tiring. Even over a few days, I wished I could wear a cool, sleeveless top or a sundress. Even walk about without my husband.

I was surprised at the overwhelming number of women in full length garb and so many in black -- I remember many more women in Western dress the last time I was Cairo. Even at the international area of the airport there were really no Egyptian women in Western dress, head uncovered, that I could see and one in ten was with a full burqa.

Airports are good people-watching venues and I watched the women talk among themselves, stroll with stylish designer handbags against gold stitched black burqas, discuss logistics with husbands through veiled mouths, reprimand children, and laugh with friends. I wonder how well you can hear with your ears covered.

While entering one mosque, I was firmly invited by a guide to cover myself with a long flowing robe and headpiece. After ten minutes of walking about, I had to get out -- it was so hot in there, and oppressive. I needed to move freely and feel air on my neck and hands and walk swiftly.

I had a moment. It would take a lot of shifting perspectives to get myself to a place where I felt comfortable enshrouded in cloth. I understand intellectually the pride many Muslim women feel when covered, the principle of female modesty and the protection (and power) they feel, not to menion the respect they earn. Yet I still have a hard time understanding with my heart. I come from a different place.

Guess I would need to work on that one.

a domani,


jrmartin said...

You need to stop inspiring me. I have other work to do. Nice post. I have to get to Egypt some time.


Elizabeth Abbot said...

Hi James,
and you inspire me! what a team.
Let me know when you get to Cairo for a few travel tips.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece. Thanks. What wonderful tales we all have to tell, from behind our "veils". Grazie!