On work and “feminine” behavior

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(Full cartoon here: http://thecooperreview.com/non-threatening-leadership-strategies-for-women/)

I recently stumbled across the above cartoon. While I appreciate and agree with its sentiment – that women (and those who identify as women) are often judged harshly for merely trying to communicate in a direct way – it brings up an interesting point that I’ve been mulling over for a while. The politics around how women talk – or “should talk” – is not a black and white matter.

First, I want to affirm that I believe that there are different ways that men and women are socialized to interact. And I don’t dispute that women often have been socialized to ask for things in a softer, perhaps less direct way, etc., and communicate in ways that we’ll call “stereotypically feminine” for the sake of brevity.

But of late, I’ve heard some of my colleagues, “strong” women in journalism, argue that they have no patience for women who don’t choose the path of “direct” communication – that those of us who present and interact in a more “stereotypically feminine” way are therefore, implicitly, weak, ignorant, and helping our oppressor oppress us.

I find this type of judgement myopic to the extreme – to the point that it’s engaging in another form of subtle sexism.

The obvious reason why all women don’t just simply start interacting in a more “stereotypically male” or a more “direct” fashion is that there are very real consequences. Studies have shown that women are judged more harshly, disliked more, and even punished professionally when they adopt “stereotypically male” methods of communication, especially when they are in leadership positions or positions of authority. There’s a distinct double standard.

I’ve also personally found this to be true – many people in the various places I’ve worked react badly when I’m communicating my needs and wants and thoughts in a direct fashion. (Women in addition to men, interestingly.)

This is, of course, ridiculously unfair. It should change. But we should also realize that the issue is complicated. Humans are rational beings – it’s rare that we’re not thinking about our best interest on some level. It’s not that many women don’t know how to be direct, or are too scared. (And that’s not a helpful line of thinking.) I believe it’s that we’re well attuned to the complexities of existing in a world where the patriarchy rules everything around us. It’s also that many of us would rather get along with our colleagues, get the work done with minimal hassle, and err on the side of caution if our chances for a promotion are on the line.

And though I strive for direct communication as much as the next person, and am constantly trying to be better at it, there should be a distinction between pointing out how you think people can improve their own struggle for equality and thinking that everyone who doesn’t follow that path is wrong – a point I’ve heard some of my female colleagues make.

Which brings up another point – there’s a difference between communicating in a direct way and adopting certain obnoxious “stereotypically male” characteristics.

On more than one occasion I’ve noticed women talking over me in meetings, and I’ve had my pitches and ideas for stories stolen by women colleagues and passed off as their own.

In no situation should it be considered ok to ‘splain to people, drown them out with your voice, interrupt them and take credit for their ideas, no matter your sex or preferred gender.

We would be doing a lot more to support equitable treatment at work if we were to accept that presenting and communicating in “stereotypically feminine” ways, which may involve lots of smiles and “does this make sense?” type of phrases, is a valid form of communication, and that we shouldn’t judge nor take people less seriously for it.

We should validate that that type of communication, too, deserves to be listened to, and treat our colleagues with the respect we afford every other human being.

That’s one way we can break the cycle of sexism.

Better that we build each other up, and use techniques like amplifying one another’s voices in meetings. Sure, be direct if you can and want to. Directness is good. I think calmly telling someone “hang on, I’m not finished” when they interrupt you is a great method.

But we gain nothing by giving in to our worst impulses, or adopting attitudes that repress and oppress one another, or accusing each other of being cogs in the wheel of repression because we communicate in different ways.

There’s no set way women should act or interact. If we can understand this, we will have a far better chance of succeeding.


An update + a hopeful promise

This blog seemed well overdue for an update. It’s been a little over two years since I finished my fellowship program at AUC and moved back from Cairo to the U.S. I’m living in Oakland again and working for AJ+, Al Jazeera’s digital channel. Every once in a while I get a chance to travel back to the Middle East; I just returned from six weeks in Doha, where I was working with our small video production team at Al Jazeera HQ.

I haven’t had much time to write over the past two years – the nature of having a full-time job –  but I have penned a few pieces for AJ+’s medium account about topics as varied as how African American girls are targeted in schools, homelessness and the tech industry in San Francisco and the history of persecution of minorities in the U.S.

I also published a short story in Cleaver Magazine and interviewed an Egyptian author about her newly translated, dystopian novel for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

I’m currently in the middle of reading “عايزة التجوز” – “I want to get married” – published in 2008 by Ghada Abdel Aal. It’s a good way to keep up my عامية or Egyptian colloqial, I’ve found. Both the book and the 2010 muselsel by the same name, starring Hind Sabri, are pretty entertaining.

More musings/updates/writings of all sorts to come soon, one hopes.













I spent a few hours browsing the book stalls at the Azbekeya book market earlier today. A friend who works in the archives here needed to go for research purposes and she brought another friend, a professor (originally from Gaza) who is currently teaching Middle East History at my Alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. Such is the small world we inhabit.

The weather has been exceedingly hot lately and it being Ramadan, not a lot of people were out and about. I’m working on a story about the publishing industry in Egypt and asked a few of the vendors what books have been selling lately. Most people answered: lots of books by Ahmed Mourad and Youssef Ziedan. There were a few outliers, like Radwa Ashour’s  ثلاثية غرناطة (Granada Trilogy). I found a copy of Ghada Abd el-Aal’s عايزة اتجوز (I Want to Get Married) for five guinea, which seemed like a pretty unbeatable price. My friend was looking for magazines or newspapers from Alexandria in the 1920s but didn’t have much luck. I might head back to the souq on Sunday before I fly back to the states on Monday – a fact which I’m still coming to grips with. Here are a few pictures from the trip.








Scenes Before Departure

Over a year has passed since I first moved to Cairo. I’ve been terribly neglectful about blogging but there’s no use apologizing, what’s done is done. I still think this blog space spot will serve as a record of sorts for the past year, despite the omissions and general writerly neglect.

Last month, I finished the CASA program (or the program formerly known as CASA, since the U.S. consortium of universities pulled funding after the coup and officially relocated the program to Jordan, which means we lost the name and had to be retitled CAASIC – Center for Advanced Arabic Study in Cairo – and sometimes, inexplicably, CASIC) in mid-May. Afterward, I traveled to Mansoura with my husband and a colleague to cover the presidential elections for Mada Masr.

The take-away from the trip? Sisi won; many young people boycotted. We talked to several students who had been imprisoned or beaten for taking part in anti-military protests after June 30. A bookstore/music venue owner told us that he had, of late, observed many young people turning away from political activities. They were disillusioned with the course the country has taken under what is essentially a military government, and have been, instead, investing more of their time in music and art projects.


Sisi and Sabbahi signs in Cairo

A street book seller in Mansoura

A street book seller in Mansoura

Mansoura residents voting

Mansoura residents voting

Sisi signs in Mansoura

Sisi signs in Mansoura

A poll in this bookshop/cafe revealed that half the students were planning to vote, and half were boycotting.

A poll in this bookshop and cafe revealed that half the clientele were planning to vote and half were boycotting.

Owner of Books and Beans

Owner of Books and Beans, and one of only two Sabbahi supporters I met.

Outside of Mansoura

Outside of Mansoura

Leaving Mansoura by train

Leaving the Delta by train

Upon our return, friends from Oakland and Boston visited and we took a second trip to Dahab, which mainly consisted of downing too many Stellas next to the Red Sea, snorkeling, and climbing Mount Sinai a second time. (I also had the opportunity to see the pyramids twice in a week’s time – once during a sandstorm.) After our friends left, my husband and I moved out of our flat on Abd el-Rahim (Basha) Sabry and he returned to the US to start a fellowship in Washington, D.C. I’ve resettled temporarily with friends in Agouza, a neighborhood a little to the north of Dokki.




Mount Sinai

Agouza (which means ‘old woman’ in Egyptian Arabic) is a little more working class than Dokki, a little older, and wearier. I like it best at dusk, when Sharea Shaheen is full of people leaving work and walking in the streets with their messenger bags and briefcases, and there are no free seats at the qahuwas.  The side streets are mostly rubble and garbage, and there are more men hanging out on street corners. I woke up yesterday to the cry of a solitary vegetable seller wandering up and down  Mohammed Shokri street. “Yes, Mint!” he bellowed, over and over.”Yes, Mint!”

We have a small pharmacy and a bakery in our building, where a guinea buys you four hot pieces of bread. A few feet away is a small grocery often run by the owner’s 12-year old daughter, and an alcohol store which sells Stella and Omar Khayyam on the cheap. One of the shebab who hangs out by the store has adopted the moniker ‘Turbo’ and he can (apparently) get you any kind of drug you desire.

The window of the bedroom of my sixth floor apartment looks out on the debris of some chicken coops on the roof of the building across the street; torn barbed wire, pointed roofs. I’m reading Ahdaf Soueif’s book The Map of Love, and I’m struck by her lamentations for a Cairo of bygone years, when buildings were new(er) and there were no garish lights adorning the Cairo tower near Opera. What things must have been like before Sadat and his open door policies. It’s hard to make out what Agouza could have been in its heyday, but the crumbling, abandoned chicken coop and the overgrown yet still surviving greenhouse on the roof next door are clues. It’s also interesting to think that in the face of all of our talk of food deserts and new urban agriculture projects in the Bay area, Cairo neighborhoods have been locally producing food pretty much forever.

Over the course of the slow march toward summer and Ramadan (in July!), I’ve seen the fixtures of my community here melt away in a flurry of bright going away parties and send-offs. But Cairo, for all of her pollution and frenetic energy and deep-set problems, is a temptress. Most don’t plan to return but history bears witness to the fact that everyone (that we know, at least) usually does.

It’s growing dark outside and the fireworks – the pop and then the sound of fire dispersing, so like the sound of ice scudding across a linoleum floor – have begun. When I first arrived last June I stayed at Dahab hostel, and I remember being surprised to see this nightly display light up the sky through my window shutters. Now, I think of them as part of the landscape, but they still somehow convey that feeling that this night, this particular moment is worthy of celebration. I will miss it here – Egypt, with its arbitrary time shifts (thanks, new government) and indefatigable ability to hope for something new and different and better. I will most certainly be back.

The following paragraphs include some sketches and thoughts which I had intended to add to the blog but never did: a few scattered scenes to add some color to the last few months.

March 27:

Sisi has announced his candidacy, which basically means everything is wrapped up. The Khamseen is upon us – the seasonal winds that coat Cairo with buckets of dust. I asked a friend the other day how he would describe the weather in Arabic and the immediate response was “depressing.” The word for dusty is مترب, I found out, which immediately reminded me of ‘moribund.’

The traffic was terrible today as I was trying to get to the Tahrir campus. A fine dust sits on everything. While walking to class, I saw a young man touching up some of the street art on Sharea Mohamed Mahmoud. He worked quickly, and used a paint brush to apply expert strokes. I wonder how much longer the revolutionary art will remain.

Late April:

It’s Friday morning, and a fortune teller is walking up and down our street in Dokki, calling out to people that she’ll read their palms. Later, a vegetable seller with his two sons drive by on a wooden cart and donkey, advertising fresh produce through a bullhorn. In the lead up to the presidential elections it feels like things have settled down; but just this morning there was another attack in the Sinai, and a bomb in Heliopolis.

My roommate’s boyfriend had an accident today on the Sixth of October bridge – a man in a car almost ran him off of the side of the road, while he was riding his scooter (moped) – and so the house was thrown into chaos this morning, between wondering who was occupying the bathroom (the other roommate’s boyfriend) and wondering whether the landlord had seen the first boyfriend come upstairs (which is not allowed) in betwixt all sorts of other chaos. Finally, we rushed to one of the several nearby hospitals and waited in the sticky plastic chairs, baking in our own sweat, wondering what to do.

In the end, Rami was fine, just shocked and a little bloody, and as we walked  home I noticed a crowd of well-dressed party hacks in suits and leather lace-up shoes milling around outside of the Wafd party headquarters. When I bought a bottle of Baraka water from our local kushk, I asked what was going on, and the owner told me that it was local elections day – planned for Friday so that people who worked could come out and vote. Huge billboards with giant pictures of candidates at Mecca, and other such pious places, now line a portion of our small street. Men stand around and smoke and talk with the type of affected, understated, controlled excitement that characterizes political events. I find myself wondering how similar- or different – elections are now in comparison with elections under Mubarak’s time. Are things less cronyish? Do people have more freedom to establish themselves – is there any type of diversity in the rolls? Or is it the same game but under a different name? Does revolution ever change anything at the local level?

Mid-May (Dar al Kutub):

As a last hurrah for my literature class, our professor offered to take us on a tour of Dar al Kutub, or the Egyptian National Library and Archives, across the Nile from Dokki on the Corniche. On our way, we get into a fight with the cab driver, who demands five more guinea. We are shown several floors (mostly empty of researchers, only a few employees proudly indicating collections here and there) and I take a few pictures of the periodicals room and another manuscript room which was cluttered and filled to the ceiling with envelopes. Everyone is very nice and one gets the feeling that you are in the 1970s, not unlike the feeling I had when touring the local broadcast news station I visited in San Francisco a few years back. The building itself is desperately in need of renovation.





Magazines, some from the turn of the century

May 24:

Summer has returned – the days and nights are hot and muggy once again. We’ve removed all of the blankets from our bed, and it’s once again impossible to keep the windows open at night because of the multitudes of mosquitoes. Last night, we turned on the fan, latched the shutters closed, and hoped for the best. I remember this feeling – and realized that I have to accept the fact that again, I will be spending much of the the summer sitting in my own sweat. It’s a fact that takes some readjusting to.

It’s the weekend, and my husband and a friend and I take a taxi from Dokki to the Um Kalthoum statue in Zamalek to have coffee with a friend who works at the embassy. She brings other friends: a German PhD student, some Iranian embassy personnel. It strikes me that, to outside eyes, we could comprise an outrageously suspicious group.  Later, working at the Left Bank with friends, there are translation discussions taking place about various pieces people are working on for commercial firms. We decide to embrace the bougieness and order peach iced teas, which is a very good choice.

Later that night, the power’s out so I’ve cracked open the last Saqqara in the fridge and am sitting on our balcony and trying to read a post-revolution novel, Bab al Khuroog, a political thriller set in the future. The power outages have become more frequent lately; sometimes three or four a day. The other night I came home in the evening and our muezzin was standing on a wooden stool outside of the mosque on the first floor of our building, calling people to prayer with two hands cupped around his mouth. The loudspeaker wasn’t working. I’ve heard the power outages are supposed to get worse until July, after which they will, for some reason, improve. I may be gone by then, but hanshuf.


Post Referendum

Friday morning is all quiet streets and the sound of our boab rolling up the prayer mats after noon prayers at the mosque on the first floor. It’s the Bekya (junk) man and his wooden cart, sandwiches from the Salafists who own the shop around the corner and Nescafé. There’s a cool breeze, and the Spanish girls on the first floor of our building are opening their shutters just as we close ours, to avoid the incessant rapping of a bird that wants to get in.

Egypt’s new draft constitution has just passed, with participation near 40 percent. Over 97 percent of people voted yes on the new document, though that’s hardly a surprise, as any dissenting voices were intimidated or arrested and ‘no’ campaigns were effectively banned. At a birthday party this weekend, an Egyptian lawyer who protested against the SCAF told me he was disgusted with the army-backed government and the referendum process and the direction of the country in general. “I’m extremely depressed,” he said.

For all of the mocking of Morsi’s overuse of the word شرعية (legitimacy) in his last major televised speech, the siren song of stability has replaced it. This word is repeated again and again on news programs and in taxi cabs, intended to evoke an air of necessity, and to justify supporting the new constitution and the military crackdown. For the sake of stability, we have to arrest journalists, beat back protesters and prosecute them. For the sake of stability, we must give up rights. Because of stability, we must kill terrorists, a word that can apply to anyone who doesn’t agree with the powers that be. It calls to mind the United States’ constant references to national security. The US, for all of the conspiracy talk that they are backing the Ikhwan, is one of the biggest believers in the religion of stability. While rights groups were decrying the oppression of political dissent in Egypt ahead of the referendum, Congress announced that they had decided to award Egypt’s military-backed interim government $1.5 billion in aid.

It would be wrong to say that the new constitution, which was surrounded by an intense media campaign (thousands of posters and billboards exhorting Egyptians to vote yes if they loved their country and if they hate terrorism) has become a bellwether of voter’s individual politics.

photo: ABC News

photo: ABC News


“Yes to the constitution, no to terrorism”

However, I think it’s fair to say that many of those who support the army and General Sisi equate this document with the continued reign of the military-backed government, and see it as an extension of Morsi’s removal on June 30. Many of those Egyptians who still support Morsi or who are wary of the army and its slow consolidation of power have decided to boycott.

The new document itself, though heavily endowed with political symbolism, deserves some independent consideration. It was drafted by a fifty-person committee of (mostly) secular Egyptians, and it has been criticized and commended by disparate groups: commended for the new protections allotted the disabled and women, and criticized for its expansion of powers for the military, such as enshrining the right to try civilians in military courts.

Samr, a twenty-something student working as a tour guide in Cairo, said she was pleased with how the constitution handled matters like women’s rights, but unhappy about how the military (the people who were responsible for writing the constitution, she said) was allotted so much power. In the end, though, for the sake of tourism and stability, she planned to vote yes.

This sentiment – that tourism required stability, and a yes vote on the new constitution was the way to get there – resurfaced over and over again in conversations I had with people in upper Egypt. In Luxor and Aswan, the political unrest in the country is clearly having an effect; the last time I visited in 2010, even though it was July and several of our group were stricken with heat stroke, the sites were crowded and lively. This winter, we often had the ancient temples to ourselves.


Temple of the female pharoah Hatshepsut

A horse and buggy driver in Edfo that I spoke with said that he would vote yes because stability had to come before tourism would improve, as did a taxi driver in Luxor named Abu. Both equated stability and increased tourism with the new constitution. “I don’t want to be afraid that someone is going to come into my house at night and take my son, or my wife, away from me,” Abu said. “This is why I’m approving the new constitution.” He added that there were problems with it because the same people who were ruling the country were the ones responsible for writing the constitution, but the problems were not going to be solved before the new constitution was put in place. “The country has to move forward,” he said.

Mohamed, a tour guide operator in Luxor, said that the document had a solid basis and he was going to vote yes, since a yes vote on the constitution represented a yes vote to the June 30 revolution. At the end of our conversation, he delicately inquired why the US was supporting the Brotherhood.

The lone dissenter was a taxi driver in Cairo called Ali, who said that he was voting no because “that’s my right,” and that there were a lot of problems with the document, which he linked to the erasure of rights for most normal people in Egypt.

(In the middle of our conversation, a car with a dozen people in it, including several young children wearing kohl around their eyes, pulled up next to ours on the freeway, utilizing that careful, speeding dance that Egyptian drivers seem to be so good at. A harried-looking woman leaned out the window and asked Ali if he had a plastic bag she could use. He did. They chatted for a while before the traffic started to move, and the station wagon’s passengers said that they were on their way to a wedding. Our driver smiled and wished them luck. We never found out what the plastic bag was for.)

Another taxi driver called Rami said that there were problems with the constitution as there are in any document that man writes. “But we need a strong Egypt. We want to be a progressive country that is moving forward. We are the center of the Middle East, you know,” he said.

We arrived the day before the referendum, and driving back from the airport, I noticed that someone was using a high power beam to project “Yes to the Constitution, for Egypt’s sake” on one wall of a giant highrise building downtown. I flipped through some news channels the next day, and the phrase ‘Egypt Fights Terrorism’ was emblazoned – in English – on the lower left corner of the screen, during a CBC news program about the referendum. Later that night, after dinner in Zamalek to celebrate my mother in law’s last night in Egypt, we passed a group of children and a few adults spontaneously cheering in the street and clapping their hands. “Egypt, Egypt!” the children shrieked. “Sisi, Sisi!”


Seventeen Checkpoints

Much has happened in Egypt since I last wrote; probably too much to summarize at this point. Between Arabic study and work, I failed to write much of anything over the past few months, but I intend to remedy that now. As promised, here are a few impressions of our trip through the Sinai Peninsula back in October.



It’s Eid al Adha. I wake early, and shake off my five hours of sleep. While gathering my still-wet clothes from the clothesline, I think about the nine-hour trip that lies ahead. My husband and I and a few friends are taking a bus from Cairo to Dahab, an idyllic-sounding beach town on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba.  I have a few days off from my Arabic program because of Eid, and getting out of Cairo (it would be the first time in several months) seems like a good idea. Fresh air, a change of pace, that sort of thing.

Beyond that, Cairo is still recovering from a recent paryoxysm of violence. Fifty people died last weekend when protesters turned out to demonstrate against the military-backed government during Egypt’s national holiday marking the 1973 war with Israel. Egyptian security forces attacked the pro-Morsi protesters with live ammunition, and followed some of them into our neighborhood. From our balconies, my neighbors and I watched people fleeing the army on our quiet side street. Following the Sunday protests, there were three more attacks on Monday – one in Suez, one in Sinai, and one in the Cairo expat neighborhood of Maadi, where armed gunmen with RPGs targeted a telecom station.

Dahab, in contrast, we were promised by friends, is serene. Guidebooks present it as an old backpacker stop-off, where visitors can find good hash and always stay longer than expected. It’s located in the southeastern part of the Sinai peninsula, close to Sharm el Sheikh, but lacks the over-the-top luxury, the Russian patronage, the Vegas-like casinos and hotels. I want to get there and relax in short succession, but in order to do that we have to travel through Sinai, which has seen three separate attacks in the past two weeks alone. There’s a small risk that something could happen during our bus trip. It’s not significant, but it’s enough to keep my mind working overtime.


Leaving Cairo by bus

My husband and I and a friend who is traveling with us hail a taxi on Tahrir street to Turgoman bus station. Our taxi has to take a winding, circuitous route to bypass several maydans that are blocked off with army tanks and barbed wire. We pass Tahrir Square, and I notice that it is completely closed by six tanks and several police vans. Like the rest of Cairo’s 20 million inhabitants, we have grown accustomed to the traffic jams and the uncanny feeling that we are under some vague form of people-approved military occupation. But today, it seems a bad omen.

At the station, the three of us buy tickets, then descend two escalators and purchase some sustenance for the trip – the ubiquitous Chipsys, Snickers, some water and soda. After meeting up with two more friends – we now number five – we follow a man yelling “Dahab” and board the bus.

I discover that we know two of the other passengers, which isn’t really a surprise. The expat community here is small, and everyone seems to be getting out of town for the holiday. As our bus weaves its way through Cairo, we pass people pouring out of the mosques. Two different coalitions have called for more protests today around the city, and I wonder if we will get caught in the ensuing traffic. We finally reach the outskirts of the city around 1 pm, and I slowly let all of the air that was building up in my lungs. We have beat the traffic and avoided getting held up in any protest marches. Now the only thing that lies between us and Dahab is the peninsula.


Kushk; leaving Cairo

Leaving Cairo, we pass wealthy compounds with tall walls which shelter palm trees and villas. Their red tile roofs remind me of gated communities, or a Los Angeles suburb. Up the road is Cairo English School, with its fleet of sleek buses parked outside. Billboards advertise Mirage Mall, where one can ‘Shop with Style.’

We also pass miles of empty, square, unfinished brick buildings which litter the horizon with their cereal-box shapes. The brick melts into sand, and we see nothing for miles and miles save for a few soldiers in small lookout posts, their green helmets poking out from behind walls of sandbags.  A motorcycle gang in leather passes us. ‘Arabian Knights Riders’ is emblazoned in gold on the back of their vests.


Egypt is a welter of contrast, and the road to Sinai is no exception. There’s something incongruent about boarding a bus and watching the jumbled mass of life that is Cairo replaced with asphalt, a few spare car parts, and scraps of cloth blowing across the desert. There’s something incongruent as well in the billboard images of planned building developments – green, lush images, showing women in short sleeves, looking joyful – surrounded by desert and power lines and empty, dun-colored buildings, reminiscent of the edges of the Rub’ al Khali. More images float past: a lone tank and a soldier with his gun on top, staring into nothingness. A tall, fake palm tree – a cellphone tower? Garbage piled up (whose?) and a stray dog, and standing armies of empty buildings.

We also pass several buses laden with Egyptian tourists, all straining to leave the city’s chaos for Eid. We are the wealthy ones, the ones who can escape. Most can’t.  It’s easy to forget this simple truth.

Our first real checkpoint is near Suez. It’s manned by a soldier, a tank and a red and white umbrella. A small distance away, five other soldiers stand around in fatigues, looking existentially bored. Two men sit in chairs reading the papers.  Our giant bus full of holiday goers is waved through.

A checkpoint


We pass other tanks, each one alone in the desert in a different way.  At our third, a boy who appears to be about fourteen and wielding a giant gun boards our bus. He walks up and down the aisles like the other soldiers have done, flipping through people’s passports. When he reaches the back, he stares at the five Americans taking up the back seat. He glances through my friend’s passport. Satisfied, though not looking it, he leaves. Someone whispers that if they army was really trying to intimidate would-be terrorists, handing adolescents big guns is an ingenious technique.

Eventually the road is flanked by a sparkling expanse of blue – the Gulf of Suez. For a while there is nothing but desert and water, and the occasional small domed mosque rising out of the flatness, which calls to mind the small churches that dot the central Illinois countryside. Later we pass fields of plastic bags, and kids squatting in the dirt beside their concrete block homes.  A mud dovecote breaks up the horizontal lines of the horizon, and summons memories of a childhood spent in Alexandria, indelibly marked by peregrinations across the Atlantic, a dividing line of cultures and continents.


small mosque in the sinai

We reach Dahab after several more checkpoints. We’ve been on the bus for eleven hours. There are some negotiations (our friend who has been in Egypt the longest take charge, loudly demanding a lower taxi price) but we are soon checking into our hotel a few blocks from the shore. The air conditioning doesn’t really work and neither does the bedside lamp but I don’t mind. We  pour ourselves a drink with the whiskey someone has brought in their backpack, and I slip my feet into the pool, and breathe. The air in Dahab is indeed much fresher than Cairo’s smog, which tastes like it has been in the lungs of hundreds of thousands of other people before it finally reaches yours. The air in Dahab tastes good.


The next five days are glorious. We snorkel, drink too many Stellas at cafes next to the water, watch Egypt lose a World Cup qualifying match, and sleep. There are very few people here. We meet a young Russian woman who owns a yoga hotel where patrons can stay in hot cottages with thatched roofs. We see some acquaintances from Cairo and share drinks with them on the beach at night. We lie by the water and feel at peace.  I can’t remember the last time I noticed the silence.



One night we decide to climb Mount Sinai in the moonlight. Our Bedu guide, who pronounces the letter jeem like the Jordanians, effortlessly makes the climb in sandals. We have to struggle, dodging camels as we slide our way up the rocky path in the dark. Near the top it is unbelievably cold and my husband and I and two friends eat hot instant soup and gulp hot chocolate and crouch under blankets in a small shack near the summit, waiting for the sun to rise. We are all in dark places – hungry, cold, exhausted. But then we climb the last part to the top, and it is worth the wait. I hear the monks chanting at Saint Katherine’s monastery from the valley below. They have only the wind to compete with. The trip passes too quickly; the guidebooks are right. I want to stay longer. A friend finds a driver with a microbus and our group – now seven – prepares to leave.


chaos at sunset

chaos at sunset

Heading down

Heading down


St. Katherine's Monastery

St. Katherine’s Monastery

Five days after our arrival, our second bus through the Sinai sets off at 2 pm. We are accompanied by one driver (there were supposed to be two, but despite an attempted rendezvous in a ditch on the side of an unnamed road, we are still left with one) and a rakish young tourist policeman. He arrives late, wearing a grey suit, an untied pink tie slung around his neck, and carrying a small, shiny handgun in his breast pocket.

We fill the time by eating Snickers, reading, sleeping. Near our first checkpoint, I watch four police officers push a black Nissan to try and start it. We pass through with no problem, despite the fact that one of our group doesn’t have a valid visa.

Eventually, our tourist policeman notices another member of our group, a young woman sitting up front. “Do you live in Cairo?” He asks. “Where in Cairo? Do you live alone?”

A beat.

“Do you have an Egyptian phone?”

Finally, “What’s your number?”

Another passenger reads Farther Away, a collection of Jonathan Franzen essays.  I stare out the window, watching giant mountains of rock and sand, red in the late afternoon sun, shot through with streaks of gray.

At another checkpoint, a green tank sits next to a hut covered with palm fronds.

I stare out the window some more. The soft curve of the mountains on the horizon is like so many bodies, lying down together.

Further on down the road, we pass some Bedu on camels. Next is Sharm el Sheikh, which looks like Malibu. White resorts, perfectly manicured lawns. We hit checkpoint number six.

A man in a blue plaid shirt with a revolver in his front pocket looks us over, then lets us pass. Our friend with the expired visa lets out his breath slowly. “Suez is the checkpoint I’m worried about.”

I stretch my legs as best I can in the back of the van. I’m sore from the midnight Mount Sinai climb, which is starting to feel more and more like a dream.

After Sharm, there are long stretches of nothing. Oil rigs in the distance, tanks, sand, scrub. I wonder if the police will give us trouble for getting back to Cairo after curfew.  The sun is setting over the water, and the desert starts to grow cold.

At another checkpoint, we see signs advertising the Moses Pool. We drive on.

Finally, we arrive in Suez. Our well-dressed escort gathers our passports and heartily greets a group of three stone-faced policemen who are sitting in plastic chairs.

“Yes, yes. They’re all American. Seven Americans.” Where to? “Cairo. Seven Americans to Cairo.”

One of the men reaches for our thick stack of passports. Our policeman stalls.

“They’re all students at the American University. All American university students! All students.” This is not actually true. Only three of the seven of us are students. He smiles widely. Money is pressed into a hot, waiting palm.

We are waved through.

The stressful moment passes, and we celebrate by eating more Chipsys.

By the time the light starts to fade I have borrowed the Franzen book. The book’s owner is translating a novel from Arabic to English using Hans Wehr, which he is trying to read by the light of his laptop.  The driver is snapping his fingers in time with some unheard music.

Around 9 pm we have reached one of our final checkpoints, and our driver addresses a man in a white galabeya and gutra, which is flapping in the wind. “Ya Aaam,” he calls him, in a wheedling voice. Uncle.  A group of policemen look curiously through the window at us, and then pull the sliding minivan door open. They look at us some more. We stare back.

“Do you speak Arabic?” one asks. It’s never clear what to do in these situations. If your Arabic is too good, there’s a chance they might think you a spy, which  is a common accusation tossed around these days. With no Arabic, you’re just a stupid tourist, but how many stupid tourists are actually in Egypt right now traveling through the Sinai on a lark? Someone replies in the affirmative.

The man’s face creases, heading in the direction of a frown, but ends up in a smile. “You all speak Arabic? Good, very good! Go ahead,” he says. Cairo awaits.


Sonallah and the Sinai


For our Eid al Adha break, my husband and I and a few friends decided to escape the political tumult of Cairo and take a 10-hour bus ride to Dahab, a small town on the Gulf of Aqaba in South Sinai. I’m still acclimating to the quiet and beauty of this isolated place, where you can drink an ice-cold Stella and contemplate Saudi Arabia’s rugged terrain across the water – but more about that later. In the meantime, here’s a thought-provoking, troubling interview with literary luminary Sonallah Ibrahim about recent events in Cairo.

Over the course of the interview, Ursula Lindsey (a journalist who blogs for The Arabist ) tries to make sense of Ibrahim’s current political position, which contrasts sharply with the current of anti-authoritarianism that runs through most of his writing, like the excellent اللجنة (The Committee).

Interview here, on Mada Masr: http://madamasr.com/content/voice-dissent-joins-nationalist-chorus