Sunday, May 2, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Misconceptions

Photo: the
It’s about that time of year again, one that I like to refer to as “Gulfie Season.” This is in reference to the influx of Arabs from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. They come to Egypt and wreak havoc on all its inhabitants, throwing their money around at any given chance.

Egyptian television begins their yearly campaign in an effort to teach manners and etiquette by placing strategic ads. One of the commercials last year showed a man returning  to his parked car only to find that it had been hit with no culprit in sight. As is the norm here, he begins yelling and asking others nearby if they saw anything. Then he finds a note on his car with the number to the person responsible for his new dent (probably one of many considering the driving techniques or lack there of embedded in every Egyptian). While this ad was undoubtedly also to teach fellow Egyptians about proper actions after such a situation, it is notable that it appears right before and during Gulfie Season gets underway.

I have always had a dim view of Gulfies, particularly Saudis (as I loved being grabbed in appropriately while trying to smoke a cigarette in the airport by a Saudi, whom pretended to be blind, but carried out his actions in front of a group of people). The women have no concept of personal space, nor do they have an issue knocking you out of their way.

However, I recently read Princess: The True Story of Life Behind the Veil. I agree with one comment I saw posted about the book: it is not for the faint of heart. It was taken from a Saudi Princess’ memoirs, written by American writer Jean Sasson. Not only did the entire book make me angry, but what really upset me was every reference to the Saudis coming to Egypt and actions that they would carry out. One such passage describes a lower class woman selling females as young as eight years old to these male royals around the age of thirteen or fourteen. The male royals raped the girls repeatedly – taking their virginity – and just throwing them back out into the street.

I will admit that I cannot speak on such actions as I have not been personally witness to any of them – thank God – but this book did something else for me. I pride myself in being open-minded, but perhaps I’m not. After reading this book, I felt horrible at all the preconceived notions I had regarding Saudi women. I assumed they were happy, with tons of money to spare, and little regard for anyone else. How close-minded I found myself to be. How could I have prejudged an entire group of people based on only a handful of personal incidents and a magnitude of heresy?

As I’ve admitted in previous posts, discovering this about myself is disappointing.

I was sitting at my favorite restaurant, Taboula, with a couple of friends about two weeks ago. A group of about eight Saudi women came and sat at the table next to us. I was immediately put off by their constant stares. I – once again – assumed they were staring because of the way I was dressed and my table drinking a couple of bottles of wine plus beer. Then a little girl they had with them got on the table and began to belly dance (about as much belly dancing as a two-year old can do) and we all started smiling. Next thing I know, a beautiful cake was brought out and the women promptly sent two pieces over to my table. How quick I’d jumped to conclusions when the stares could have possibly just been in wonderment.


  1. I live in Egypt and find your posts amusing to say the least :-) Just wanted to mention one point here, the book you mentioned, its author Jean Sasson was in fact sued for plagiarism. Please see this article:

    "The suit maintains that Ms. Sasson has admitted to several people that there was no such individual as Sultana, and it alleges that her books copied from Ms. Adsani's manuscript "many of the characters, the character development, the interaction of the characters and plot structure."

  2. Hi Fatima -

    Thank you so much for the article.

    Excellent point although the article doesn't show a clear-cut case for Sasson's plagiarism. What the book did for me was open my eyes to my very own fallacies (or rather highlighted them more). What I will also point out is how much influence that Saudi has, and as we all know, money has a way of talking. Therefore, another side to this could have been the Saudi government persuading the US government, with whom it garnishes a great deal of leverage, to publish this to discredit the book. Either way, fictional or not, I am thoroughly glad I read it although it is still hard for me to admit or see how closed I've become.

  3. There are always two sides to the same coin. People always assume when I complain about Egyptians I am racist or hating on the whole country.. when in fact some Egyptians are very wonderful people. Especially my hubby :)

    Similarly, people assume things about Saudis or about women in burqa etc etc etc

    And I dont think there is anything wrong with wondering or worrying about people staring at you for how you are dressed or whatever, because we do this even outside of Muslim/Arab countries, no? We are all a little self concious that we are sticking out and that someone is going to behave a certain way because of it.

    I fact, I always feel that way wherever I go - even here in Egypt, people stare because I am completely covered and want to take my picture! (tourist areas obviously) And I do get angry! But Allah only knows what they are thinking or feeling, and I am only reacting because of my own insecurities.

  4. Listen, we all hate our lives to a certain point in Egypt (that’s going to get me a lot of backlash). There are so many frustrating things here and constant struggles that I, in particular, face just attempting to do simple things. However, there are things that I love about this place. It has a magical feel to it that even when I was visiting the US for a month, I found myself missing certain things about Egypt. When you do find the genuine kindness here, it is one of the most purest forms of kindness I’ve seen.

    I have a very poor view of Saudi men in general for many valid reasons just from my experience living here and traveling for work. It was hard for me to admit that I had pre-judged the women on the same scale, but I did and it made me angry with myself. I wasn’t raised to believe and feel like that, but another point I’ll bring to the table is how I was much more open minded before I moved here (which will also get me a lot of backlash). It’s unfortunate, but Egypt has made me very hard/angry about many things.

    We all have insecurities and for those out there unwilling to admit it, they’re just living a life of denial. While you have tourists taking your photo, I’m constantly followed by locals trying to take mine (Al Ahzar Park was a nightmare in this aspect).