Day 3: Walking Like An Egyptian

I got into downtown Cairo today, and it didn’t disappoint.

Classes are moving quite quickly, so after school a bunch of us decided to head downtown in search of note cards and other study paraphernalia. Five of us piled into one of Cairo’s ubiquitous black-and-white taxis and headed for Sharif Sharia (Sharif Street), which our teacher had recommended as being good for school supplies.

Though we were travelling at about 2:30 p.m., the streets were packed and traffic was crawling. It was hot in the crammed taxi and the air smelled like pure carbon monoxide, but it was a great chance to get some introductory shots of downtown Cairo:

First things first when we finally tumbled out of the cab, we got ourselves some lunch from this food stall that smelled even more delicious than the rest – the falafel patties, tomato-yogurt-dip-stuff and vegetable-balls-with-hard-boiled-egg-inside were particularly scrumptious:

We found our school supplies, but shortly afterwards, the others in my group started complaining that the downtown air was too polluted and was making them nauseous and wheezy, etc etc etc (see, people, that’s what you get with all these smoking bans: A younger generation whose lungs can’t take a little strain now and again! Pffft!). So anyway, they all headed back to Mohandeseen looking slightly green, and I was left on my own to wander the area. That’s when the fun started.

I decided to look around and see if I couldn’t find myself a special kind of “easy-use” hijab that I’ve seen some younger women wearing. It’s not like I’m getting harassed or mistreated at all here with my uncovered head – honestly, the men in Cairo so far are proving far more decorous than their counterparts in New York, Brussels, Philadelphia, Rome, etc, and aside from a few leers, the occasional cat-call and one strange man in a brown suit who followed me all the way to school yesterday morning, I really have nothing to complain about. Still, what can I say? I like to blend in a new place – it just smooths things out to try and fit in as much as possible, and definitely makes it easier to meet locals.

Anyway, after a lot of asking around and fumbling with my phrasebook, I managed to find what I was looking for. Of course I could have just tied one of the four scarves I brought with me around my head if I wanted to go covered, but it’s so fussy to keep wrapping on and off – I only want the hijab for when I’m out and about, not in class or anything – and besides, I’ve tried and I just can’t seem to fasten it as tight and neat as Muslim women do.

So what I wanted, and eventually found, is sort of the hijab version of a clip-on tie – it’s great! It’s made of a kind of elastic-silk-polyester-knit-jersey, and is pre-cut and sewn so I can whip it on and off in half a second. It’s basically my “McMuslim” headgear (unless that’s too offensive for words, in which case forget I said anything!).

Ironically, the woman who sold it to me (for LE30, or roughly $6) is among the small minority of Cairene women I’ve seen who doesn’t cover her head:

I felt like a new woman when I stepped outside the store. Like I said, people have been pretty friendly and respectful, but they have been noticing me. Once I had this on my noggin though (along with my sunglasses) I got nary a second glance. And it wasn’t uncomfortable at all – the heat hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared, and this really didn’t make a difference one way or the other.

Anyway, I think it’s already started to pay off. After I left the head-covering store, I decided it was time for me to try the metro to get home. I approached a random woman on the street and asked her if she could tell me where the nearest station was (of course the phrase for “where is the” is the first Arabic I memorized when I landed!). She immediately wrapped her arms around me and told me to come with her, since she was heading to the metro as well. Her English was very good, but she was really sweet about letting me practice my Arabic on her. She was going in the same direction as me on the subway, and insisted on babysitting me the whole way. Her name was Bereena (I’m sure I’m butchering the transliteration) and she couldn’t have been nicer. Soon we were nestled comfortably in the women’s car of the subway – a pretty refreshing experience, actually, definitely one of the most relaxing subway rides I’ve ever taken (I frankly wouldn’t mind seeing this gender separation taken up by metro systems around the world):

She started asking me all kinds of questions, starting of course with whether I’m Muslim. I told her no, and she seemed to understand why I was wearing a hijab anyway – I asked if it was disrespectful to wear one though I’m not Muslim, and she assured me that it’s not. Then we got on a long, very interesting conversation about hijabs and the varying degrees to which different women observe Islam’s dress code. She told me that she herself didn’t start wearing a hijab until a year after she was married. I asked her if this was because her husband wanted her to.

“No, no,” Bereena said. “Well, he did, but that’s not why – I always wanted to wear it, since I was a young woman, but I didn’t before because I worked for Rolls Royce, the big English company. I worked with lots of foreigners every day, and it makes them uncomfortable to see women in a hijab. But now I work for the stock exchange downtown, and they are all Egyptians so I can wear it and not feel strange.”

So basically she didn’t wear the hijab for the same reason I was wearing one today. Kind of. Hm.

Anyway, bottom line is that Bereena is definitely one of the world’s Kind People, and she surely would have given me directions and assistance no matter what I had on my head. Still, she’s the first local buddy I’ve made here – and boy did she embrace me quickly – and it doesn’t feel entirely coincidental that I met her just minutes after donning a hijab. Sometimes it pays to be a follower.



3 Responses to “Day 3: Walking Like An Egyptian”

  1. lulu Says:

    Love it all. Just gets better and better reading your blog. What a brave and valiant stoic you are, shrugging off the pollution and going in search of your quite fetching hijab on your own. Particularly love all these nice, helpful local ladies you’re meeting and of course the lunch you consumed downtown intrigued me greatly and sounded delicious — thanks for this excellent sitrep. xxx

  2. El Matamoros Says:

    Annie, holy cow, you look like a “*”°!^in’ nun!

    Who knew?

    (I knew all this multicultural messin’ about would come to something like this….)

  3. Day 38: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 3): About This Hijab Business « Annie’s Cairo Weblog Says:

    […] One of the first women I spoke to was middle-aged, and told me that she had gone half her life without wearing the hijab. She told me this was because in her 20s and 30s she worked in a foreign company, with Westerners, so that – even though she had always wanted to cover up – she thought it would make her coworkers uncomfortable. Now that she works in the Cairo stock exchange, where all the women wear the hijab, she can wear it constantly without feeling strange. […]

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