January 14, 2006

A Woman Traveling Alone

CAIRO – Egypt doesn’t do many things better than Lebanon, but it does do the Internet better. Free wi-fi is both fast and ubiquitous.

So I went to a cozy restaurant and pub, ordered a four-cheese pasta from the waiter, flipped open my laptop, and poked around the Web for contact information for the Muslim Brotherhood.

A twenty-something Western woman sat alone at the next table reading an English-language newspaper. We smiled hello to each other.

“Are you a student here?” she asked in an Australian accent. Everyone thinks I’m a student when they see my notebook and laptop.

“No,” I said. “I’m a writer. You?”

“Just traveling,” she said.

“By yourself?” I said.

“I’ve been traveling alone for four months. I started in India and I’m working my way to Spain.”

“Did you go through Iran?” I said. I want to go to Iran, but it doesn’t look possible with the current batshit “green aura” nutcase in charge of the place.

“I can’t go there,” she said.

“They’re blocking Australians, too, eh?”

“Well, not exactly. What I mean is I can’t go there.” I figured she must have been to Israel then. Of all the Middle East countries, only Egypt and Jordan (and maybe Iraq?) will let travelers in if they have an Israeli stamp in their passports.

She whispered: “I work for the Department of Defense.”

It’s a good idea to whisper that sort of thing in the Middle East. Conspiracy theories are out of control, especially in Egypt.

If she and I had some privacy I would have asked about her job. But I couldn’t expect her to tell me anything interesting where others could hear. Australia doesn’t have sinister designs on Egypt, but neither does the United States. That doesn’t stop Egyptians from thinking otherwise.

The waiter brought my pasta. It wasn’t fully cooked and was therefore barely edible. I should have sent it back, but I didn’t feel like being “difficult.” He, like many Egyptian waiters, was so embarassingly friendly and charming I didn’t have the heart to complain.

“What’s it like traveling by yourself in Egypt?” I asked her.

“Difficult,” she said. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Is is difficult because you’re a woman?”

“This is the absolute worst place for a woman to travel alone,” she said. Men harrass me constantly. They hiss, stare, and make kissy noises.”

“A Syrian friend told my wife if she ever goes there to carry a spare shoe in her purse. If any man gives her trouble and she whacks him with the bottom of the shoe, a mob will chase him down.”

She laughed. “Syria is wonderful, though. I mean, it’s much more oppressive than Egypt. But it’s also more modern. No man ever bothered me there. No men bothered me in Lebanon, either. I was surprised. Lebanese and Syrian men are more respectful even than European men.”

I had never heard that about Lebanese and Syrian men. But I also haven’t heard any complaints. No one hassled my wife or my mother when they visited me in Lebanon.

“The worst part,” the Australian woman said, “is that Egyptian men won’t back down when I tell them to leave me alone.”

I remembered Cairo’s subway, how the first car in the train was only for women. Women can and do ride in the other cars, too. It’s not that men and women can’t mix. The first car is for women who are sick and tired of strange men grabbing their asses.

“I’m having the time of my life, though,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll be in Spain. It will be fun to be a single woman in Spain.” She winked at me, gathered her things, and got ready to leave. “Happy travels,” she said, and then she was gone.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 14, 2006 06:18 AM

That could have been my ex-wife, but she doesn't work for the "state dept". But she is fearless, brash and adventursome, and she was always an easy mark for latin lovers.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Posted by: Papa Ray at January 14, 2006 07:07 AM

Wow...she's pretty gutsy. I doubt that I would have the guts to travel alone like that in Western friendly countries, let alone Lebanon, Syria, or Egypt. Sheesh.

Posted by: Megs at January 14, 2006 10:27 AM

Michael the internet problem in Lebanon is due to political fights between Lahoud and Hariri. It is not a technical problem.

But the problem is going to be resolved in a few months. Ogero (aka Hariri corp.) is going to update the network this spring. I heard that there wasn't any public auction for this contract (surprise!), but I can't confirm this information.

Posted by: The voice of the people. at January 14, 2006 11:37 AM

" Lebanese and Syrian men are more respectful even than European men.”

No, they are shy, like most Middle Eastern people. We are raised to become introverted people. We are cocooned by our families. This is one of the reason of the problem in this part of the world. Introverted people don't know how to deal with the others.

Posted by: The voice of the people. at January 14, 2006 11:44 AM

"Introverted people don't know how to deal with others."

Now THAT is an interesting perspective. One wonders what sort of socialization and training would counteract such a thing... and how one would go about enacting it on a large cultural scale.

It ties in to the idea that every culture has its slight craziness. Some are more globally acceptible than others— obviously, if it's just being a little averse say, public urination, that's not of global consequence, while frothing at the mouth if somebody mentions that your country is tiny (made-up example) and declaring war on the perpetrator is a bit much.

Posted by: B. Durbin at January 14, 2006 06:19 PM

Confused about Introverts? Here is an article in The Atlantic you might find interesting:


Of course, there may be a huge difference between Occidental introverts vs. Oriental introverts.

Posted by: Impacted Wisdom Truth at January 15, 2006 06:15 AM

Sad to say that the women-only train cars, for women sick of being groped by strange men, are also being introduced in some places in Japan, a country that otherwise has a lot going for it.

Posted by: CB at January 15, 2006 12:12 PM

I assume that only happens to women traveling alone, right? I would think anyone who did that to a woman who was accompanied actually was seeking an ass-kicking.

Posted by: John Jenkins at January 15, 2006 03:36 PM

Interestingly, a while ago I read an article about genetics which alleged there may be a genetic basis for introversion, but I don't doubt culture plays an influence on just how introverted or extroverted people are.

Posted by: lindenen at January 15, 2006 10:58 PM

So Michael, what's your plans now? Are you planning to return to Lebanon or are you going to Kurdistan immediatly?

Since you're in the Middle East, you musn't forget to visit Dubai before. It's worth it ! It's like a trip to the planet Mars, only it's cheaper. It's hideous and beautiful at the same time.

Don't forget your skis.

Posted by: Montreal at January 15, 2006 11:38 PM

There were Ladies' compartments on British trains as late as the 1950s.

Posted by: Don Cox at January 16, 2006 12:53 AM

I'm Egyptian, and unforunately, what this lady traveller said is completely true. The problem is also there for Egyptian women who are unveiled and dressed in a way considered "revealing". Part of the reason for this is that more women are get veiled every day. Thus, this causes these men to consider anything unveiled to be revealing. Thus more women get veiled to avoid the hassle, and a catch 22 situation occurs.

Posted by: hassan at January 16, 2006 01:13 AM

Hassan, it's not Catch 22 -- it's the evolution of a "fear society", based on local terrorism according to the Real Law (Real Law is that which is enforced, whether formally written, or not.)

It's similar to the KKK against blacks before WW II. (In Egypt, Woman is the Nigger [of the Nile]).

Michael, didn't you give the lady your blog url, and email, in case she read something she was interested in responding to. She could do it without giving you her name...

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at January 16, 2006 01:42 AM

The woman's experience reminds me of a comment in a British newspaper back in 2000 that will live in infamy due to its citation in my well thumbed Lonely Planet, that Egypt is the home of “the creepiest men on earth.”

My two small daughters are constantly on the receiving end of the kissy noise here in Cairo. What is the culturally sensitive expatriate housewife to do?

Posted by: LDW at January 16, 2006 04:17 AM

As an Egyptian unveiled woman i can tell you it is even worse for Egyptian women than foreigners: A European woman might have the right to wear revealing clothes but for an Egyptian woman, wearing such clothes or even being unveiled in some parts of Egypt is considered an open invitation for harassment. I can hear men telling each other "she wants so- otherwise she wouldn't have worn such clothes". You can consider this a part of the modern Egyptian masculine culture.

Posted by: W at January 16, 2006 08:01 AM

LDW, this is one matter that's beyond cultural sensitivity. it is universally unacceptable. the only sort of 'attention' from strangers that is acceptable is that rare sort of cute comment that some women find pleasant and some guys use to justify more aggressive behaviour ("but girls like it"). i'd say solidarity's more important that cultural sensitivty in this issue

concerning the veil, many veiled women get harassed just as badly as unveiled women. being unveiled or wearing revealing clothes might harassment more likely and the whole 'look how she's dressed she deserves it/ wants it' logic does prevail. horrible stuff.

the egyptian center for women's rights recently started an ambitious anti- sexual harrasement campaign. check it out...send in your stories... finally someone's doing something serious about it. here's their url: http://www.ecwregypt.org/English/

Posted by: gayyash at January 16, 2006 02:55 PM

"“Tomorrow I’ll be in Spain. It will be fun to be a single woman in Spain.”"

I am surprised that no one had addressed or pointed to this earlier, as it is indicative of another problem, though one located in Spain and not Egypt. The fact that Spain is such fun for single women in itself is leading to what will almost certainly be the end of Spain as we know it today, thanks to birth rates lower than the replacement levels. This piece by Michael has revealed more than one dark truth.

Posted by: Final Historian at January 16, 2006 04:29 PM

Groping is not as common in Syria or Iraq as it is in Algeria. The worst excesses I've heard were from Women in Algeria, which is, to me one of the more egregious totalitarian states (same as Lybia, just a different brand of Socialist Utopia...Red Chinese influenced, as opposed to Soviet).

Michaels article on Libya addresses the anomaly of simply no women visible, this, I find psychotic...even in Algiers or Oran there are always women on the Streets. But, my impression was of widespread abuse. However, western or european women were seldom bothered. But, the most visible and well known clue to how women are treated in Algeria, is a huge Womens Prison in Oran. The only way out for a woman unfortunate enough to be condemned to this monument to tyranny, is the Brothel attached to it.

In Syria I never heard complaints from the Ex-Pat wives, nor, any of the few Syrian women I talked to, but, that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

But, here in Iraq, the Iraqi women I know don't seem to have this problem, but, then, I'm in Baghdad, and, the ones I know all work in the State Department, or, for American/Foreign Companies. Matter of fact, many of them seem a bit aggressively, even militantly, liberated.

Posted by: Gordon DeSain at January 16, 2006 05:47 PM

Harassment or any form of violence against women in Egypt is not taken seriously. I think if there is a real deterrent, that would limit how men treat Egyptian and non-Egyptian women. Police officers and solidiers who are supposed to protect the citizens usually flirt with walking women in the street. But at the end of the day, I think it is part of the Egyptian people friendliness. They are over friendly. I visited Aswan two months ago with some foreign friends, I had all the city talking to me everywhere I go and some asked very personal questions. But I usually take it easy...I do not think they understand the magnitude of the privacy issues. They are kind and spontaneous.

Posted by: Freedom for Egyptians at January 17, 2006 05:16 PM

I think Freedom for Egyptians is right . . . with respect to children, Egyptians simply cannot help their inclination to hug, kiss, and indulge. The affection is real. And it is not that it is so creepy; rather, it is, in the course of walking down a residential block teeming with bowabs, drivers, soldiers, and others,just over-abundant!

Posted by: LDWorldWide at January 17, 2006 08:10 PM

Michael, didn't you recognize Valerie Plame? She's now tracking down yellow-cake for Rummy. She definitely wanted you to follow her to Spain ...

Posted by: John at January 18, 2006 10:23 AM

Reaching back through time to my earliest trips to Saudi, my most unpleasant memory is of a large Saudi woman on the stairs of the clinic in Dhahran University. I turned the corner, started up the stairs and found myself riveted to the spot by a, literally, hair raising scream, followed by a screaming, wailing tirade of Arabic that I couldn't understand.

I slowly backed down the stairs looking up at a very large Bedoin Woman in full Chador, with a One-eye Veil, as people came running from all directions.

The only word I caught was, "Ferangi," before she was taken in hand by some of the nurses and orderlies, and, gently escorted out the door as they patted and soothed her outraged feelings, with what sounded like Baby Talk. I didn't move until one of the orderlies came back and assured me everything was all right, she'd just never seen a foreigner before. And, that was in 1978.

I was still shaking when I finished giving blood for my Drivers License, an hour later. That woman had a voice that was big, even for her size, which must have been 300 pounds. I think the walls were still thrumming when I walked outside for a Cigarette, thinking about the event, and, looked up to see the northwest tip of Bhahrain across the straits.

This snapped me into a state of Deja vu, thinking back to the night before, when I read something very unusual in a new Archaeology Magazine. It was in an article about a dig on the Northwest tip of Bhahrain where they were uncovering a small 6,000 year old Port. They had found a huge library of Clay Tablets in a small Shipping Agents office, and, all but one of them were Bills of Lading, listing nothing but items received and shipped.

This one small tablet contained a single whimsical comment from the life of the Scribe who worked in that tiny shop, which said, "From this place at night, you can see the lights of ancient, shining Dilmun."

I was standing on the very spot he was looking at, which is a huge mound that has had the top sliced off to build Dhahran University. That connection across time sent me spinning out across the parking lot, like and idiot, looking in all directions. I could see it, the marks of an ancient city in every untouched section within sight.

Arcaeologists may not agree on the location of ancient Dilmun, but, I trust that ancient scribe to know where he was, what he was looking at, and, his thoughts on the age and visibility of "ancient, shining Dilmun," in his single moment of whimsey.

Gordon DeSpain

Posted by: Warsong at January 18, 2006 01:33 PM
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