Monday, August 31, 2009

Letters from Egypt: Harassed? Ma3lesh (Whatever)

For the first time in awhile, I thought I was going to have a positive story to tell about the genuine kindness of strangers. As it turns out, I have exactly the opposite.

I snapped this picture unbeknownst to my friend nor the man helping us because I wanted to illustrate how I might’ve had a couple of bad weeks, but genuine kindness does exist. You see, as Amelia** and I were parked outside a cafĂ© near my apartment, her water hose burst. Immediately a cab came to the rescue, discussing the problem and assuring her that it was easily fixable. As the cab drove away, a man in a 2009 charcoal Kia Cerato began speaking to us and said he was a mechanical engineer and asked if he could take a look. He concurred that it was a small problem and offered to take us to a nearby mechanic to get the part.

Since my apartment was nearby, I asked if he’d like some water. Amelia realized he might be fasting as it is Ramadan, but then saw he was smoking a cigarette. He said he was Christian as Amelia wears a cross around her neck and then once again, offered to take us to the mechanic. Since we were together and he seemed nice, she said okay.

I was shocked at the kindness and made mention to my friend. She said, “LeAnne, you’ve just had a few bad experiences, but Egyptians are extremely kind.”

I know she wishes she could take back those words or at least the timing of that phrase.

I will narrow down the story just a bit: we get into the car and I see what I thought was a Bible – since he proclaimed to be Christian. I asked if I could see it since I haven’t seen a Bible in Arabic before. He complied, but as Amelia and I looked, it turned out to be the Quran. Why would he lie about his religion? Was it simply because he saw that Amelia was Coptic and noticed her cross around her neck?

Warning sign #1: abort mission.

As we picked up the mechanic, “Good Samaritan” receives a phone call and immediately tells Amelia to be quiet with his hand gesture. Why – this was probably his wife.

Warning sign #2: abort mission.

The mechanic looks at the car and then we take him back to complete his Iftar (first meal of the day at around 6:30 pm). We drive back and wait for the mechanic to call for his return visit. And we wait. And wait. And wait. I begin growing impatient and was starting to feel uncomfortable.

It took this long?

My Arabic is limited and honestly, I stopped listening awhile back. He had already grazed Amelia’s leg.

Warning #5916: ABORT MISSION

Long story even shorter, he begins discussing Amelia’s body, how he can offer her a job plus an apartment and wait – inappropriately grabs her chest. Then as she screams “La2a” (NO), he does it again and just says, “Ma3lesh, ma3lesh” while he gropes her chest. She instantly gets out of the car. Angry, humiliated and upset that she froze and didn’t knock the hell out of him.

Here she was telling me that I’d just run across some bad people, and reminding me about the positive things and then – she had this happen because she thought he was doing a good deed.

It is Ramadan, Muslim Holy month, and while that might not mean much to some – for the majority of Muslims here – whether it is because they believe it or for show – they respect it. However, I have incurred just as much harassment Ramadan or not, but I guess the difference is you expect it to somewhat subside.

Two years ago for the end of Ramadan celebration, Eid, in downtown, Tahrir Square, hundreds of men became frantic after seeing a dancer and rampaged through the streets ripping off women’s clothes – even women wearing the fully covered niqabs. Women began running in a frenzy begging shop owners to open the doors to escape the pandemonium. If you are able to find a news source detailing the event, please leave it as a comment.

Even going to the police stationed on every corner is virtually of no use as most of them also continue the harassment.

And now I’m angry. I’m angry because Cairoenes will tell you that 10 years ago, women were less covered – with old movies showing ladies in mini-skirts. You know what else they say? That harassment was also far less. More women are fully covered these days and the harassment is on the rise. It’s so bad that one of my other friends was grabbed on the street, onlookers just watched as though it was a screenplay, and she started screaming in distress. No one came to help her until she started screaming “Thief” in Arabic – then the onlookers became an angry mob and chased the perpetrator.

How has this been allowed to grow so out of control that now it is seen as the norm? I said before that moving to a foreign country means you must compromise, but there are some things you should never compromise and this is one of them. I feel as though harassment increases daily the longer I stay.

Change has to come from within and I certainly hope the scales tip and women are respected by the majority – not just a few.

And to the man pictured above, I hope you get exactly what you deserve and let me tell you, it’s not 40 virgins waiting for you in Heaven.

**Name given to conceal identity


  1. It's so sad that men try this under the veil of kindness.
    Wishing you better days to come!

  2. Sorry to hear this. unfortunately it is a zoo and going downhill...really hope you better... once I was told : whatever does not kill you makes you stronger, if you face this again...just leave the car and call a trusted freind you know....beko.

  3. In my opinio many men look at me like they have never seen a woman. It is very much true that in Western culture it is not polite to stare at people and that many social customs in Egypt vary from what Westerners are used to but there's a limit with everything. I mean for instance if I'm with my boyfriend and a guy staring at me while he sits next to his wife and 2 kids is inappropriate.

    Sometimes I wonder if I let my house without putting a shirt on or is it that I have 2 heads when men stare.

    Egyptians are friendly people and it is a shame that some men (the ones who wait for their virgins in Paradise and follow discriminative readings of the Quran) are ruining it for the rest of the Egyptians.

  4. salam alikum peace be upon you
    i am a muslima and im actually english.
    i am very saddened and angry to hear tht u and ur friend experienced this. Its defintely NOT Muslim behaviour of course, and some peoples culture makes it seem ok to do such a thing, not to do with Islam. But i just also like to say that at the end you said , "it’s not 40 virgins waiting for you in Heaven." this is not true at all I dont like non-muslims to get incorrect information about Islam like this. The people who say that are islam haters.

    Still, this really needs to be stopped it angers me as a woman and a muslim!