They say the delta of Egypt is where She gets her life. It may be true; but it’s not where She necessarily gets her freedom. I came to Kafr Elzayaat on my second trip as part of the election campaign, that I have been kindly allowed to join, in a bid to see a different side to Egypt; one I would otherwise not have access to. I took off on this road trip trying to see the delta with fresh eyes, uninfluenced by my awe of Upper Egypt and all the things it changed in me. But, it was hard to step back and embrace it objectively. I admit I am a product of what I experience and I had to remind myself often to make space within me for the beauty and pain that this place might reveal.
The road was new. This road didn’t pass through the agricultural Egypt, instead, it cut through the desert. Unlike the air that was thick with human stories in Upper Egypt, the air here was thick of sudden death. Is was one of the most dangerous roads in Egypt, claiming a large number of lives a year. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who died on this road. Mostafa also was not the same. The animated man full of stories of struggle and hope was tired. He was being pulled thinly across Egypt in different directions. He hadn’t slept for days, started taking painkillers every 12 hours and was starting to taste the sting of criticism as he gathered both supporters and critics. We temporarily swapped roles on this journey. But as soon as we arrived and our hosts welcomed us, I was amazed at where he gathered all the strength from. He was back! Optimistic, faithful in delivering his message and sincere in his support.
The man running for elections in this constituency was a character that filled me with such a strong compulsion to create a caricature of him or one of those flick books to capture how comically serious he was and how quickly he spoke and moved. You could almost see the ideas fly by in is mind and you had to be super quick to catch up with both his thoughts and words. I loved him and didn’t believe a word he said! His optimism was endearing but his lack of awareness or conversation about anything other than now many votes he was sure of securing made me wonder if he was the best candidate for this part of Egypt. I felt we should have carried a responsibility away with us to take back and talk about, write about and fight for. This man was not going to give us the humanistic tour or answer questions about struggle and needs.
The generosity we we’re offered in this home matched that of Upper Egypt and the food was delicious! We had already eaten and tried to explain we couldn’t possibly eat now but it was almost like those were words that did not make up any part of the vocabulary of an Egyptian home and all that was said was “That is not my concern”! So we sat and ate.
After the food I started to learn what I had come here to learn. About women. Where were the women? While Mostafa was taken to a separate part of the Villa to change his clothes, I was introduced to Nadia (her real name has been changed for her privacy). A very beautiful 27 year old who opened the door to greet me. She stood behind the door gracefully in a long white and sky blue Abbaya, earrings that were so big and heavy I was in awe at how she didn’t have to bend over to carry them. She was white with the blackest hair sleekly brushed back from her face and she wore grey contact lenses that I was sure hid even more beautiful eyes. Nadia greeted me with the smile of an old friend and started chatting straight away, even before I sat on the very modern beige and cream couch, about my marital status and why I wasn’t married till now?! I loved her instantly.
A few minutes later I was “called for” (it felt like I was called for by my master which irritated me from the “messenger”) by Mostafa. I went over to where he was dressed (very smartly may I add) and he, with a very embarrassed look on his face said: “I’m really sorry Nelly, I didn’t know, but no women are coming to the conference. You’re not going to be able to join us”. He seemed more irritated than I felt and so I decided not to express my outrage immediately. But at the same time this was relevant. This spoke more about this candidate who had earlier left out the most important stories of the place. His second mistake quickly evident; his marginalising the women who were going out to vote in a couple of weeks. It was crazy.
What struck me as surprising was the comparison to my recent visit to Sohag. Sohag, a part of Upper Egypt, known for its conservatism, and it’s need for gender equality awareness seemed to be years ahead in terms of their involvement of women in the political scene. So much so that in my post about Sohag, I very naively did not mention that the 1000 strong crowd was half women and that a woman from the constituency was running for elections! Today this seemed significant and very worthy of celebrating and mentioning.
While Mostafa went to the conference, I stayed with Nadia. Nadia taught me much in the couple of hours I spent with her and she unwittingly, through her small talk, gave me a bigger, clearer picture of what it meant to marry a man from here. Nadia has been married for just 3 weeks. “This was probably the worst time to get married to Mohammed because of the campaign”. She goes on to explain, “but, of course Mohammed can’t leave his brother to go through this alone”.
Her appreciation for solidarity that chewed into her honeymoon touched me. I asked her if she went out here and had made any new friends. She looked at me with a look that said “you’re a foreigner and I’m going to have to explain this to you slowly”. She told me laughing, “friends?! What friends? I’m not even allowed to stand out in the balcony to hang the clothes to dry!!” Then, she went on to tell me, lovingly, that sometimes her husband came home early at 8pm and she’d spend time with him. That seemed the highlight of her day. I asked if this made her miss Alexandria (where she’d grown up) and her friends there, and she explained, again very cheerfully, that she only had one friend since knowing Mohammed because “a man is always right in terms of his insight about the world and he had explained that most of her friends where “no good”. ”
I wasn’t sure if it was what she was saying or the cheerfulness she was saying it with, that was making me so uncomfortable. I decided to change the subject from personal relationships to her plans for the future. With every conversational manuver I was making I was discovering how arrogant I was. She did not have plans for the future. She told me that her family owned a series of makeup and accessory shops and that her mother had made each of the 7 children responsible for one of them. She giggled as she confessed that the one week she was in charge of hers she had been responsible for a loss of over 2400 Egyptian pounds and this was for goods that were usually under 5 pounds… She went on to explain to me that different people were made for different things and she was a failure at the outside world and was made for staying at home and shopping when she went to Alexandria.
What happened next was something I don’t know how to explain. I couldn’t just listen passively and I told her she can’t be so harsh on herself or call her self a failure simply because she didn’t perform well in retail, that the world was so big and there were a million and one other things that I was sure she could excel in. If you would be quick to accuse me that I was being pretentious, then explain how I broke all the social barriers of this extraordinarily beautiful woman and suddenly moved from a formal eating of gateau in the living room to sitting cross legged on her bed eating biscuits and her showing me her makeup and scarves and telling me intimate stories of friendship and love.
The bedroom we had moved into housed the large LCD screen where her favourite Turkish TV series (which she had watched three times before) was showing in an hour. This was also the only other room she had private access to. It did not match the modern minimalist look of where she received her guests. When she directed me to sit on the bed, I looked at its height thinking “will she pull out some garden ladders, or a stool perhaps to climb?” But I quickly realised no such assistance will appear and so I jumped on the rich ruby silk and decided to enjoy her hospitality and the friendship she was offering me. As she was opening the drawers to show me her scarves, she explained that a few years ago she had tried a scarf on and realised she looked more beautiful in it so she never took it off since then. Her honesty was refreshing! She was veiled because it accentuated her beauty rather than her modesty and she wasn’t in the slightest ashamed. I wondered how many more of the veiled girls had decided to wear it for the same reasons.
I asked her if she was happy. She told me that she was. That though Mohammed would swear at her and take out all his frustrations at her, she “worshiped the soil he treads on” and that he was the best sort of man because though “he would hurt her when he was angry, as soon as she apologised, he would act like everything was ok again”. How I wanted to throttle Mohammed and society and everything that made this woman who had so much potential feel so weak and grateful for treatment that others take their partners to court for. I didn’t say what I thought, not only because there was not enough time, not because I didn’t want to intrude, but because I didn’t know to want extent I wasn’t respecting the cultural relativism that I so believed in. Who was I to impose what I thought a healthy relationship was. I say this, but at the same time I felt like screaming at the absurdity of it all, at the plight of women and at how damn hard it was living like this. This trip made me temporarily fall out of love with culture.
We were interrupted by the maid who came in to the room to tell me “you’re being called for at the conference”. I didn’t want to leave. As I was leaving, Nadia insisted I freshen up my make up and use her perfume so I could be ready “should I bump into my fate on the way”. She stood next to me in the mirror inspecting a spot that appeared on her otherwise flawless skin and complained. I said it might be her period coming to which she took much offence and said “spit those words from your mouth, hopefully it won’t come and a baby will instead, what else has he married me for?”
I got in the car waiting for me with two strangers who drove me the 30minutes to the tent I did not want to go into. I wasn’t invited in. I was told I could hear them via the speakers from the car and the driver was instructed not to leave me alone to make sure I was “safe”. I felt suffocated and I hoped no one would vote for this candidate. The show (it all felt like a show now) came to an end and again Mostafa left the conference with tens of people around him, again trying to be as close to this man as they could. I hadn’t heard what he had said to them (the quality of the speakers wasn’t great) but the look on the faces of these men was different to the other people on the street. These people had been motivated and you could see it. why the women couldn’t be part of this was meaningless.
Mostafa got into the car and apologised to me for my having made the journey and not getting the chance to learn much of the socio political scene that I had come for via the conference. This of course was an unnecessary apology. I do not think I could have learnt more at an artificial set up where politicians play on dreams as much as I did in the coziness of the small room and the genuine sharing of Nadia that evening.
We were driven back to Cairo and I could not help but feel how lucky I was for the privilege of having choice. Not only the choice to participate or to disengage, but to not have someone like me leave my home after my being as hospitable as Nadia had been, feeling pity out of their arrogance at thinking they understood society or what was best for me as I had done. It’s never as simple as your convictions make it out to be; the truth is, it’s complicated.
[Photo by Neal http://www.flickr.com/people/31878512@N06/%5D