Egyptian Women

The first time I traveled to Egypt alone, I was carrying what turned out to be this magical piece of paper with me. It was a note from my father, handwritten in Arabic. I walked through the airport in Cairo delirious from the long trip and mesmerized by my surroundings. I was trying to read all of the signs in Arabic while also trying to take in the sea of faces—more faces similar to my own than I had ever seen in one place before. I noticed the people staring at me, but it did not matter because I was finally in the land of my mother and my father. I thought of my mom, who we lost in childbirth when she was very young, walking through this same airport; and I felt a happiness I can’t describe.

I approached the customs window and handed the man the piece of paper, as Baba (Dad) instructed. I can barely read my Baba’s handwritten English, let alone his handwritten Arabic, but I knew that the piece of paper told the man behind the window who I am and to whom I belong—which, in Egypt, is key. In Egypt, and other collectivistic societies, who you are is all about who you are in relation to others: It is not so much a question of what you have become; but rather, from whom do you come? Whereas it may matter more in America that I am Dr. Abdou, it matters far more in Egypt that I am the daughter of Nagueh Abdou. The customs official read the note and simply nodded me through. It seemed a lot like magic to me at the time.

When I traveled to Egypt alone a few months ago, there was no magical piece of paper. Just me, with my unmistakably Egyptian face, my tall body raised on the hormone-injected foods of the U.S., and my horrendous accent. This time when I approached the customs window, I was asked a series of questions about who I am and to whom I belong. But I was still instructed to purchase a visa to enter the country like all of the other foreigners and then get back in line.

Among the questions the customs official asked me were: Who is your father? Who is your father’s father? And who is his father? From what part of the country do they come? 

I walked away wondering why they did not ask me about my mother, or her father and grandfather.

As I was leaving Egypt, I was asked the same series of questions by a different customs officer. I answered the questions as I had the last time, but this time I added: “And my mother is—.” But that was the end of the conversation. They weren’t interested in hearing about my mother. “Tamam, shukran. Ma salama,” I said, as I gathered up my passport and walked away. (Okay, thank you. Good-bye [literally ‘with peace’].) 

But it wasn’t okay. It was sad. I did not want my mother to be invisible, just like I don’t want my sisters to be invisible, just like I don’t want to be invisible, and just like I didn’t want the woman in the customs line to the right of me to be invisible, either.

The woman to the right of me was covered in black fabric from head to toe. Literally. It wasn’t just her hair, neck, and body that were covered. This wasn't even just your usual niqāb (where the entire face is covered with only the eyes visible). Her eyes were covered, too. And so were her hands and feet. Does anyone ever smile at her, I thought, trying to put myself into her shoes, imagining what it would be like to live in a world where no one ever acknowledges or affirms your existence? I decided that I would smile at her. Or at least in the direction of her face. How can we know whether she is happy or sad or afraid? And how does she come to know herself with so little exchange with the outside world, I wondered? Even her exchange of air with the outside world is guarded. Does she remember, from her days as a child before she became this invisible woman, just how bright and healing the sunshine can be, or just how black and magnificent the Nile is at night?

And maybe it sounds silly, but one of the most painful parts of watching this woman who is invisible to the outside world try to navigate the world, was that she was out in the world all by herself. Surely, invisible and alone is far worse than just invisible. And if she is too precious for even one millimeter of her to be exposed to the outside world, then certainly she is too precious to have to walk out into the world alone with no one to guide the steps that she can barely make out past the black fabric.

But Egypt and the Middle East are not the only places in the world where entire segments of the population remain invisible in 2011. Although they often look different from the woman to my right in the customs line in Cairo Airport, we have invisible men, women, and families right here in the United States still today. In fact, my mother's passing was, in its own way, about invisibility. (And this was not Cairo. This was New York City.) After all, if you really, truly see someone—if you really look into her eyes—then it is much harder to treat her as though she is not human, or to give her sub-standard care, as in the case of my mother.

It is one thing if the woman from the airport is invisible to the outside world by choice, but it is another thing entirely if she has no choice. A healthy Egypt, and a healthy world, are dependent upon equal chances, dignity, and choice for all people. This means that no oneno groupcan be invisible. Even those who, by choice, cover their hair, faces, bodies, hands, feet, or any other part of themselves cannot be invisible when it comes to their inherent value as human beings and their natural right to become.

*The ideas and opinions expressed here do not represent the University of Southern California, the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, or any research funding agency.

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