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 6:18 AM
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