The market stretches for miles — only briefly interrupted by four-story apartment buildings and, at their bases, 200 square foot convenient stores where the owner works as the cashier and the water bottles only cost 10 American cents. Each street vendor has a different patterned umbrella, shoved into the sides of bushes or loosely taped to poles to provide reprieve from Egypt’s sweltering, native heat. To me, the umbrellas and their positioning remind me of the wistful spontaneity of Egyptians — a characteristic that even those in the United States don’t seem to lose with the cultural crossover. Vendors pack tightly together — each of their faces exhausted but hemmed with hope. A light gust of cigarette smoke and whiffs of cilantro travel between bodies granting the ambiance a peculiar, fleeting fogginess. The air I inhale here is the same as my mother’s kitchen in America: the same pungent consolation. The streets line themselves with cheap plastic and faux, chipped-away wooden tables, imported clothing, assortments of furniture, 8-foot tall racks of the same make of shoes, glass shelves sprinkled with embellished tea pots and coffee cups and the occasional touristy shop drowned in ‘I Heart Egypt’ paraphernalia.
Somehow the chaos fashions a dazzling comfort and grants me solace. Down a one-lane road, two cars travel in opposite directions. From a fourth-story apartment, a woman calls to her neighbor. Other women bustle through the marketplace trailed by their four to six progenies tugging at their robes, lodging numerous complaints. I couldn’t help but laugh at the formality of their Arabic; the children to me always sounded like elderly men and women.
My Arabic is still intermediate; I’m nationally Egyptian but from the United States. My mother repeatedly silences me as we make our way through the market-maze-craze, so we don’t appear as tourists: this allows her to bargain for fair prices. She clasps my hand in her much smaller one as she elegantly navigates the marketplace, her 5-foot-2 shadow tracing dashed patterns on the half-cobblestone, half-concrete ground. The sun graces the curvature of her face as beads of sweat appear like drops of liquid sunshine around the fringes of her forehead. She always wears the same short sleeve shirt: the collar a perfect semicircle with discreet cross-stitching, the sleeves ruffled, pointed up towards the firmament, the cloth like an amateur artist began to experiment with a pastel paint brush. She wears 1990 light-wash jeans that are always one size too big and cuffs them at the ankle. Her feet perform a purposeful dance in her golden sandals sharply contrasted with her toenails — painted a deep hue of red like the blood of Coptic martyrs.
I recollect these moments so vividly I can conjure them into my memory and play them across like a flickering film roll. The ardor and splendor of the Egyptian marketplace displays itself to the universe. So I was appalled that a woman — passing through the same marketplace (most likely Wekalet El-Balah — notably Egypt’s most chaotic market), in the same year, emerged with a remarkably different narrative.
I remember the excruciating agony I endured attempting to make it to the end of her piece without descending into a turbulent riot. My organs internally vomited at the thought of that blissfully-ignorant, blonde-drizzled, egocentric woman utterly failing in her attempts to construct a riveting, righteous, American-exceptionalist, look I’m a white-feminist-who-doesn’t-have-the-first-clue-about-liberal-politics-but-I’m-going-to-pretend-I-do-anyways narrative.
Most of you have no idea what on earth I’m talking about. So before I get too ahead of myself, let me introduce to you Colleen Kinder.
Kinder is a self-proclaimed ‘creative non-fiction world traveler’. She coined the multiculturally seasoned, quirky job title herself, by the way.
In her essay “Blot Out,” Kinder recounts a trip to Egypt and decides she cannot possibly immerse herself in Egyptian culture unless she appropriates it. So, she wears the niqab, walks through the Egyptian marketplace in the niqab, and doesn’t end up actually absorbing any of the culture because she’s too preoccupied with the possibility that her veil will fall off. Or a grizzly, hairy, throaty man will thrust her against a wall and interrogate her, which would give away she doesn’t speak any Arabic. Or a scrawny pubescent teen who couldn’t keep it in his pants would rip off her veil and unleash her pallid goldenness and crystallized baby-blue eyes to the world. And oh, throughout her journey, she’s ridiculously appalled by the men who let drool seep out the corners of their mouths and grab their dicks after preying on her scrumptious ass as she exudes the glimmering warmth of a vanilla-white, born and bred American, female tourist.
She claims she found men picking out scantily clad underwear, but Egyptians treat sex or anything resembling it with taboo. I even recently asked my mother if she had seen any growing up in Egypt, and she told me underwear can only be found tucked away in shopping malls and department stores. Kinder claims someone grabbed her ass, but men don’t touch women in public in Egypt — especially if it’s not their wife. It’s culturally deplored, religiously prohibited and might even be illegal by law.
She tries to explain to me how the foreign women get around. I remember her saying some pretend to take a phone call or respond to a text message, some envelop themselves in their iPhones, some walk with urgency, some act preoccupied. And now it makes sense to me why she may have attracted all the attention that she claims she did. If you walk with your head down or act preoccupied or in a hurry or fake a call or a text message, I’m sure you’ll get every stare from every Egyptian in the marketplace — only tourists do that. Kinder claims she dressed in a niqab to experience the invisibility of an Egyptian woman, but Egyptian women are not invisible. In Egypt, if everyone in the square can’t hear the highly exaggerated story you’re trying to tell om gosak (your husband’s mother) about the drama between her children over whether a profession as a doctor or an engineer is more prestigious — you’re doing it wrong. If Kinder was looking for women that were keeping to themselves and not making any noise, she wasn’t going to find any. I’m not even entirely sure why Kinder felt the need to wear the niqab specifically; very few women in Egypt are dressed in niqab. An assemblage of women wearing the hijab, the niqab, the burka or nothing veiling their hair at all roam the streets of Egypt.
I don’t know how Kinder could say Egypt hides its women.
Now, of course, this isn’t me saying that Egyptian women bask in all of the blissful freedoms that men do. Or that they meander the streets at any hour of the day or night in whatever they feel like wearing without a single reservation. They don’t. Women in Egypt frequently get catcalled. Women in Egypt are silenced by men. Women in Egypt are disproportionately affected by domestic violence. Women in Egypt are assumed to ascertain certain gender roles and fulfill certain norms. Women in Egypt are held to much tighter dress regulations. Women in Egypt have to fight for their spot with much greater fervency than men do.
It’s absolutely true — Egypt’s feminism has a way to go. But so does America’s.
Still, just like American feminists get to dictate the story and condition of America’s feminism, Egyptian feminists should be able to do the same. The stark reality of the issue at hand is that even Colleen Kinder — a Yale part-time professor — has fallen susceptible to the lethal avenue of America’s exceptionalism that allows Americans to dictate the narratives of other peoples and cultures and civilizations. The Middle East-North Africa region has a compelling and spellbinding counterargument to Western civilizations’ assertions, but they aren’t granted a proper platform to give it.
When I was applying to college last year, I noticed there was no Middle East-North Africa option on the race and ethnicity section of the Common Application (which deserves a completely separate article by the way). We’re white. Even though I don’t have fair skin. I don’t enjoy the same privileges that white people do. I grew up in an Arabic-speaking household. My parents are first-generation immigrants who came to the United States without a word of English in their vocabulary box and started from the bottom and got where they are by their own ceaseless grit. I’m still white.
I came to Yale thinking it would be better. Thinking I would finally belong. Thinking at last I might be accounted for. Thinking my culture and heritage might glisten through the whitewash. That maybe the Common Application was the Common Application, but Yale should be Yale. One of the most liberal institutions in the country. One of the universities with the highest endowments. Arguably the university immersed in the largest Middle East-North Africa refugee population. Yale should be Yale.
But I was wrong.
We have African American, Jewish, Latinx, Asian American and Native American cultural centers, but we don’t have a Middle East-North African one. I don’t know how many Middle East-North Africa students are on campus because we’re not even a statistic. Some of us are probably grouped into the African American or African category. Some of us Asian American. Some of us white. Some of us “other.” We don’t belong anywhere. We aren’t being accounted for. The Western world has generated a diaspora of our demographic. And because of this, a lot of the Western world, including Yale, isn’t even conscious of its suppression of a widely diverse group.
So seek out Middle East-North African voices. Seek out Middle East-North African narratives. Seek out Middle East-North African counterarguments. You’ll learn that Egypt shimmers in its beauty and glory. You’ll learn that tourists are treated with utmost respect — even the women. You’ll learn that Egypt’s chaos might bring you solace. You’ll learn that the thickets of cigarette smoke won’t bother you after a while. You’ll learn that being able to listen in on the entire country’s drama is more valuable than you thought. You’ll learn that Egyptian women don’t need an American feminist revolution to incite the change they want — they’ll do it on their own.
So hey Colleen? Hey Western world? Stop hiding our women.
Let us tell our own story.
Anastasia Ibrahim | firstname.lastname@example.org