Category Archives: Arab society

Greener Grass

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I am quite keen on finding out what the psychology is behind the expression ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’. While temperatures have been increasing and I have heard through the grapevine that this month will be the hottest June on record, I am wondering if I should be playing outside somewhere instead of staying at home executing the Big Fat Writing Plan. But perhaps once you find me in the playground it will be much harder to drag me back behind my laptop. It has been a year since I finished my studies in Egypt and as I am currently dealing with coming to terms with graduate life, which is, rather unexpectedly, not entirely stress-free, I think back at the ‘good old days’ at the Med. It was a life filled with frustration, but at the same time it didn’t have the same London stress. Living the high-life was cheap and pretty straight forward. You’d hang out with the same bunch of people in the same places, which are considered dead cool in Alex, but are rather mediocre for the standards of  a vibrant metropole. If you’re a rich kid and you’re about to graduate mummy and daddy will arrange you a job and if you’re not that lucky you’ll just be unemployed. Or if you’re not rich but still ‘lucky’ you get a government job for a meagre salary. If you’re a woman you just find yourself a husband and don’t delay the creation of some offspring for too long. Would I want that life? Hell know, but the choices on offer in life this side of the Med are enormous in amount and sometimes seem to leave us with too many options for us to handle. The design of human life has been based on set patterns for a very long time. If you’re a guy you would do the same job as your dad, just like he did and his dad before him and that would be the end of it. As a woman you were a human incubator and childminder and a man’s- your father’s or your husband’s- property, like your mum and her mum before her would have been. And that would be the end of that. This pattern is still common practice in large parts of the world. Here in the ‘marvellous’ west we have been given an ocean of opportunities in a relatively short amount of time. And now we can do or be practically anything, it is expected we do and be just that. As women we are expected to have fabulous careers, be good mothers, inspiring partners, keep up with the latest developments in current affairs and art and culture-  we are women of the world after all- and besides all that look hot too. I don’t think men have it any easier. Besides the need of being successful on the work front, it’s no longer excepted that they ‘just cut the meat at Sunday dinners’. The need to be hands on fathers, in touch with their- and your- emotions and with the introduction of the metrosexual, we want them fit and fresh too. That’s progression they say. Progression gives us new phenomena that give us new problems for which we find solutions. It’s not that it used to be better in the past. It’s just that we have to keep on moving. We don’t always like it, but we can’t help ourselves. It’s in our human nature. So let’s be human, let’s move it forward.

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Rebels With Much Cause

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It’s very very nice to be back in Lowlands Country for a longer period of time, it’s been a while. I am mainly travelling between  my home town where I stay at my sister’s, who moved a few months ago from a funky city pad with park view to a single-family dwelling in a newly build neighbourhood exclusively inhabited by thirty-something-year olds mostly with kids, and  Amsterdam where friends keep their couch, spare room or flat available. I very much realise that I am not living anywhere at the moment. I am in transition. I am catching up with old friends some I haven’t seen in years. I realise that cities change. They move on even when you’re not there. I am made fully aware of the freedoms we have here and we completely take for granted. Seemingly trivial activities like riding ones bike through the city and consuming an alcoholic beverage on a bench along the canal become genuinely joyful experiences. And then there is the wear-what-you-like-’cause-frankly-my-dear-even-if-we could-be-inspired-or-absolutely-horrified-we-probably don’t-give-a-damn attitude. What a difference a year in MaSr makes and although I don’t miss it I think of it often and besides the appreciation of those little things and a tiny bit of Arabic I am wondering what I really learnt. I know that a gained a lot of respect for ‘those who are different’ and my verdict is that when it comes to ‘being different and being proud I have been a bit of a coward myself. As I mentioned in a previous post, there is not much room for individualism in Masr and social control is massive. It’s all about keeping up appearances and maintaining reputations. Tobias told me that one of his students- he teaches English- told him in a discussion that he saw a man beating up his wife in the street. He went over to him and instead of telling him off for hitting his wife he told him do this appalling activity in the privacy of his own home. See no evil, then there is no evil. But I’m digressing slightly. Despite my whining about this country I have met some exceptionally kind, interesting and inspiring people, foreigners and Egyptians alike. Those who choose to stand for who they are despite criticism, gossip and sometimes harassment, go about their businesses and carve a niche for themselves which says; this is me, deal with it. It can’t be easy. It’s not easy in countries like Holland or the UK let alone in politically and -in my opinion- socially repressed societies like the one in Egypt. And what did I do? I -subconsciously?- made an attempt to adapt and fit in. If you’re not the norm you just pretend you are and very few will notice. Even I, who knows what it’s like to be the odd one out and has found her niche, I, who is a foreigner and can get away with certain stuff because I am foreign, I, who was in the country for only a limited amount of time disposed of the little alcohol present in our mansion in any bin other than our own, pressed the lift back to the ground floor when I came home late and refused to have a cleaning lady ’cause I don’t want the whole building talking bollocks about us, which most definitely would happen as the whole world wants to know how the ‘agnabeeyaat’, the foreigners are living. In hindsight I understand why I did or didn’t do what I did/ didn’t do. It is not comfortable to notice there is no room for your ‘differentness’ or ‘weirdness’ while you’re so used to that space being available. But cowardly it is, if only a tat. Here is to you front line warriors of differentness across the world. Be true, keep the faith and keep the weirdness. The world is a far more colourful place because of it. Let others try to fit the mould.


It Ain’t Over Until the Fat Lady Sings

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The radio silence has had no specific reason. Laziness, refocusing, reorientation, homesickness, writers block, who’s to say. Although I’d been a pretty bad student the last few weeks -if not months- of the course and I don’t like routine, I miss the focus in my life that used to be studying Arabic at the centre. Almost all uni friends have gone, Jameela and I are vacating our mansion, which seems to have an expiry date as stuff randomly breaks, falls apart and/or stops working for no apparent reason and then I won’t have a home either. There is plenty of stuff I can do; yoga, hit my home gym, study Arabic – tab3an- work, write…but all I seem very good at at the moment is sleeping in, go to a cafe with wi-fi connection, as our internet subscription has expired and Anna, who left two weeks ago, took the router with her, attempting to work – I do need the internet for that- but what I mainly do is check my yahoo account ten times an hour, faff about on facebook and chat to my sister or the Helms on skype. And in the evening I might go out for a few drinks or stay in and watch a film. All this is very chilled but not horrible productive. I guess a sense of boredom has kicked in yet again. As Cairo is getting pretty hot it’s not the pleasantly mental escape as it is the rest of the year. The summer season has started and the beaches are getting really crowded. The only people left are my Masree mates who have different routines than I do and we go to the same old places to drink the same old juices or wine, smoke the same old sheesha and listen to the same old sh*tty music.

I still have to be weary taking a taxi on my own after midnight, I have the same old fight with the driver about the fare price, the city is still dirty and disorganised. I still get harassed by men on the street, especially when I accidentally have ‘too much’ flesh on display, I still don’t understand Masree, and there is still no establishment in town where they play decent music and the crowd is genuinely cool and interesting. I think it’s just time to go to somewhere more familiar, where I can cycle, go about my business independently from anyone any hour of the day, where I am fluent in the language, where I am not (so much) an odd one out, where I can wear what I want without being considered loose or weird, where I can have my hair done, where a rule is a rule and where good wine is widely available for reasonable prices. I will be back, insha allah, but I need to get out first.

MaSr Messing with my Head

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To all you loyal readers, bless you lot, it has become quite clear that this country has surprised, angered and frustrated me on quite some occasions and the happy news is, it doesn’t stop. Now, I find it quite a shame that my fashion of figure-hugging clothes is not really Egypt proof. There are women who are fabulously and still modestly – meaning, no flesh or hair on display- dressed, but since I haven’t really mastered that – not that I really tried- I dress in fairly shapeless piece of cotton, showing some arms, mumkin, but definitely no cleavage, bum or even calves. A bit like a boho-nun. I also cover my head with a scarf since I have a bad hair year and I feel I get less hassle when I wear it. Since showing not too much flesh is always in the back of my mind, even when hanging out the laundry on my own balcony, I was absolutely shocked and rather appalled that someone dared to intervene with my fashion when I was ‘asked’ to remove my headscarf (while I was wearing a halter neck top which revealed my upper back and shoulders) when entering a fancy lounge bar in Cairo. I got rather upset, the manager was called, my Masree mates intervened but they were not having it. I had to remove my headscarf, which I clearly didn’t wear for religious reasons, or entry would be refused. This country is even more schizophrenic as I previously assumed. I had heard from some people that In some establishments you will be refused entry if you look ‘overly religious’ meaning wearing a hijab (80 percent if not more of the women seem to wear one) and a beard and/ or galabeeya (the Arab dress for both men and women). Now, clubs across the world have dress codes but I don’t understand that in a muslim country, you’re refused entry if you overtly display you’re a muslim?! Jameela argued that it has to do with that others might feel uncomfortable consuming alcohol or having a boogie when an ‘overtly religious’ person is present. My argument is that if there is a headscarf or a galabeeya in the house she or he is obviously fine with being in an environment where alcohol is consumed, they wouldn’t be there otherwise. If this were to happen in Europe the club would be taken to court on the basis of religious discrimination and muslims across the world would call for a boycott of the country in question. Maybe this issue is an example per excellence of the tension between secularism and religious groups and tendencies in this country. Some religious groups are very popular among the people as they seem to offer practical solutions to the problems ordinary Egyptians are facing. But the government is not having any of it and considers them a threat to national security and they are therefore forbidden. Perhaps secularism, as in not displaying symbols of religion, is seen as western and therefore modern, like Turkey being a highly secularised and westernised muslim country. Not that I have done an opinion poll, but it seems that with all this display of religion and the perceived popularity of religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt does not wish to be a secular nation. Perhaps those havens of hedonism, where headscarfs, beards and galabeeyas are not allowed, are supposed to be a reminder of the Egypt of the 1960’s and ’70’s when very few wore a hijab, many wore mini skirts and alcohol and sex in films produced in the then flourishing factory of dreams was not a taboo. MaSr, land of the Nile, pyramids, temples and tombs is searching for its real identity and it seems that the whole nation can’t agree on what that identity is. Past, present or future, religious or secular, Egyptian or Arab, Middle Eastern or African. Egypt is not only messing with my head it is mainly messing with itself. Which makes it the more tiring….

Can the Real Egypt Please Stand Up?

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Since my homey the Helms is very much in the known we get around a lot more then we used to. (F*cking typical that you tend to meet these people towards the end of your stay and not in the first few months but malesh, never mind). A few days ago the Helms took us, Anna, sister Dutchie Saskia and me to Cairo for a Big Fat Party. We were staying in a charming villa in Mansooreeya just outside Cairo, which belonged to his cousin and we went to one of the fanciest bars in town – reservations only- right on the Nile, where the prices for drinks can rival with those of a fancy West End establishment. We had some good food, a few drinks a good laugh and a proper boogie. When we were ‘kicked out’ of the club we had a nightly felucca trip on the Nile and when we returned to the Cousin’s mansion we enjoyed an early morning smoke with great views over the garden and surrounding grounds . After a few hours sleep it was time for ‘breakfast’. As there was no food whatsoever in the house we went to a cafeteria with Lebanese food in a newly constructed upmarket suburb of Cairo. As the weather was pretty hot we chilled at a pool in one of those gated communities, where you’re allowed to forget you’re in Egypt. One of the residents of this community, who is a friend of the Helms, arranged some tickets for a freestyle motocross event at the pyramids sponsored by a popular energy drink. Top entertainment in magnificent settings; we had an absolute ball.

Now, there is a lot of ‘western-style fun’ to be had in this country. That is, if you’re willing to forget you’re in Egypt. All those ‘posh’ friends of ours kind of complain that we have a ‘wrong image’ of Egypt. They claim that there are plenty of people who ‘get the western lifestyle’; women and men can be just friends, showing a bit of flesh or drinking alcohol does not make you loose and it is indeed very uncool to verbally harass a woman. We are aware that that side of Egypt exists. An Egypt with way too much money and tight connections for whom the country is their playground. The point is that that is not the ‘real Egypt’, where half the women can’t read or write, an average monthly salary is 500 Egyptian Pound (ca £60), people never leave the country and drinking alcohol is deemed very uncool. Now, I very much like ‘Playground Egypt’. You can live like a queen for a fraction of what it would cost at home and, as we do know now, if you have the right connections and live in a ‘good’ neighbourhood you don’t have to deal with the Egypt that we all find such hard work. The question is, is that a just thing to do? Although our friends, who are all from good (read wealthy and connected) families are incredible good and kind people -they wouldn’t be our friends otherwise- they also very much contribute to maintaining the status quo of inequality and corruption. And by joining them in their playground we are silently approving. But, just like our friends say, what can we do? And then it all comes back again to (self-) responsibility. If it is always up to someone else to solve it, nothing will be done and the country will keep on deteriorating and although we would like to believe otherwise, we foreigners are not complete outsiders to this.

Love and Marriage: The Complications

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Marriage is a very big deal in this country and across the Middle East. Many a single woman in her late 20’s will experience increasing pressure to fulfil what for many is the reason why she has been put on this planet: being a wife and mother. And although marriage is considered such a milestone these people can make it very difficult for themselves to reach it. Firstly, a man has to be able to provide for his wife and future family. That means that a potential partner for a woman needs to have a decent job, enough (read: plenty) of money and -moHim gedan, gedan, very very important- a residence of his own or at least to be very able to afford one. This, you can imagine, forms a problem for the vast majority of Egyptians even if they have a decent job and a bit of spare cash. In the event of a wedding the man, his family, is obliged to pay for everything. The custom is that the woman is offered a lot of gold jewellery, which functions as a sort of bond in the case of a divorce. Women are expected to marry relatively young -early to mid 20’s- in order to leave plenty of time to create some offspring. Men are often forced to marry at a later age to allow plenty of time to beg, borrow or steal plenty of fluus for a decent wedding celebration, a decent house and lots of shiny, shiny gold. I have heard of a few occasions where a guy, educated and with a decent job was not allowed to marry the partner of his choice because of a so-called lack of funds (no own flat).

Another issue is that the Middle East doesn’t do dating so it often happens that couples don’t really know each other when they engage themselves to get married. Now, I have to tell you about my new best friend The Helms, who I randomly met like you only randomly meet people in Egypt. He is highly entertaining and has been incredibly kind and helpful. He has moved heaven and earth to get me some kif in a time of great scarcity – the whole country has been complaining for months- and tighter controls while he has given up on the beloved leaf quite some time ago. I am well impressed. Now, The Helms has an old friend in his late twenties, who just got divorced. He met his ex-wife at college, exchanged pleasantries for a few weeks and gave up on it as for many a rich kid there are loads of other flowers to smell. Years later he felt the need to settle down and thought of her as ‘she’d always seemed decent’. He got highly disappointed. A big reason was that they actually didn’t know each other.

A(n Egyptian) friend of a sister Dutchie friend is in her late 20’s, single and gay. She’s been able to keep it off from quite some time but there might come a time when she has to give in to the pressure, marry and live a life with someone who she’s unlikely to love with all her heart. O, what a joy…

Love and marriage is considered important and complicated all over the world. The pressure and obstacles in Masr however seem unbearable. Across the world people dream about and pay tribute to true love, the romantic union,  while the truth in most cases is much more sobering. In Egypt marriage seems more like a business transaction rather then a union in love. A woman is not truly respected or even safe if she can’t rely on the financial and social protection of a husband. It is not a man’s character, his good heart or his hot looks that makes him a suitable partner. His status and how he can provide is considered far more important

Why not make the union worth all that effort, blood, sweat, tears and gold and get to know your future bride properly. Why not abolish all the social and financial obligations around it all together. Let people date before they get married. If you want to preserve yourself for ‘the one’ that’s fine. But if there wasn’t such a stigma on it if people (read women) don’t do so and one were actually allowed to fool around a bit it would make a world of difference to the sexual repressive state of this country and Egyptian men would behave less like horny f*ckwits harassing everything that hasn’t got a dick. The women of Egypt and foreigners alike would be o so grateful.

Love and Marriage: The Big Do

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A few days ago I attended my first Egyptian wedding. It was actually an engagement party, but quite extravagant in its execution, I’m wondering if this can be surpassed on the ‘Big Day’. Half of the couple in question, Huda, is our classmate. She is half Austrian with an Egyptian father. We girls, Anna, Jameela, Nadia, queen of glam of the North (of England, as she has a very charming Yorkshire accent) and me, who are all in the same class since the second term, got very excited as we know that Egyptians take these affairs very seriously and it was a good occasion to dress up. We all had haircuts, pedi and manicures and/or Moroccan baths and got ready at Nadia’s.

Location was an upmarket hotel in Mamoura, an area in the city close to Montazah, which has an enclosed compound full of condos that serve as holiday homes. The whole affair was a pretty good show, because that’s what it was, a spectacle. Twenty minutes or so after our arrival Huda and her groom arrived accompanied by a drum band and a camera crew. The band’s show, in which the couple was the centre of attention lasted for around 20 minutes. I’ve never clapped continuously for that long in my life. Then we went back to our seats and the couple disappeared only to appear again after a few minutes set in dramatic sound and lighting while making their way to an elaborately decorated bench that was set on a sort of stage in front of the hall. There the groom offered his bride the engagement ring, which was a massive piece of bling of the sort you would be scared to wander the streets with, but this is Egypt. Crime of that sort is very rare. After that it was time for a boogie. The couple made their way to the dance floor in the middle of the hall. After one song other guests joined. The dancing was a joyous yet tamed affair. The couple danced in the middle with the guests in a circle around them. The women in the inner circle and the men around it. The music consisted of Arabic pop only, to which the guests were very receptive except us Westerners, who were completely unknown to the songs. Although Jameela, who we call ‘fake Arab’,  because she passes for an Egyptian and her Masree is very good -but is actually a real Arab since her tribe in East Africa is an Arab tribe from Yemeni origin – could sing along to a few tunes. After 40 minutes of boogie it was time for some food announced by a little choreography performed by the waiters, who were carrying torches. Behind the hall a lavish buffet had been stalled out after which there was more boogie-ing to be done.

Although the event was quite extravagant I found it very ‘Egyptian’ in the sense that it wasn’t pretentious. Almost all women were covered up in the sense that although not all wore hijabs non of them with one or two exceptions showed any flesh in the form of bare arms, shoulders and/ or uncovered back and cleavage. We on the other hand, except Jameela, who looked like an newly crowned Nubian queen, had relatively quite a lot of flesh on display but didn’t feel horribly out of place. Considering the amount of money I imagine this event might have cost I would think either or both families must have quite some money, but the atmosphere of pretentiousness, which is often present when you go to places where it is pretty obvious people have plenty of money to spend, was completely absent. Yet another side of Egypt.