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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

From the diary of a single white female in Egypt

I am now sitting on my cozy sofa in my new living room absorbing the warm orange tones that surround me. The walls, the sofas, the carpets, and the radiant heaters in my fireplace seem to congratulate me on my long-awaited hard-earned independence. I have moved into what I hold as my biggest achievement; I have moved into my new home … my very own home. People make homes everyday. I know it is not such a big deal. But you do not see everyday working middle class Egyptian girls buying, finishing, and furnishing their own homes regardless of the absence or presence of a man. You rarely see that sort of utter independence and autonomy in a society that did, and continues to do, its very best to keep its female half handcuffed to their male counterparts. I am writing this article in celebration of female supremacy. But before you share my feelings of pride, joy, achievement, fulfillment, and warmth I want to share with you my interesting experience in a perplexing patriarchal society.

First of all, I have discovered that, in Egypt, workers, doormen, shopkeepers, and security guys will call you “madam” as the only sign they know of respect. Whether you are married or not, wearing a ring or not, it does not make a difference. I am not bothered by the title as much as I am intrigued by its connotations; I am “nothing” and a “nobody” if I am not “someone’s” wife! My studies and achievements in life and the workplace do not guarantee me respect and social status. Why couldn’t they call me “ostaza” or doctor or even miss? I was tempted many times to correct them that I am not “Mrs. Anyone” but I decided to spare myself their suspicious looks and inquisitive eyes or pity and sincere prayers that I found “the good man who would make me happy”. I held my peace.

A male friend of mine volunteered to help me out but my bossy demanding self, instead of gratitude, I felt controlled and restricted. Naturally, when someone goes out of his way and offers you sincere help, he would develop some sort of emotional involvement. My friend began giving me suggestions, advice, and opinions on where, when, what, why, and how things should be done or placed. My never-ever-try-to-control-me sensors picked up negative vibes and I gasped for air in my invaded space. The decent me was immediately replaced by a vicious aggressive creature that turned ugly and nasty in every possible way. I drove the friendly hand away and, to avoid more losses, I made a conscious decision to keep my friends out of the way and sight of my green-eyed monster. Bottom line: I am not marriage material … I was created a loner.

Since I mentioned my male friend let me highlight another point in the day to day dealings with our very own Egyptian proletariat; they all spoke to him! It is my apartment, my decision, my choice, my life, and my money – mine alone – yet whenever he was there they insisted on totally ignoring me, and what I said, and only addressed him. I cannot even begin to describe how offensive that felt. I – a very worthy human being – was turned into an invisible person by some ignorant people who denied me the right to be independent. The presence of “a man” made it much easier for them to communicate than to deal with me – a woman! Thus, the man had to go!

Speaking of that I have to share a first of a kind anecdote; in one of the governmental offices, I was kept last – I mean the very last person regardless of whose turn it was – after the employee in charge was done with all the veiled and the “monakaba” ladies in the waiting area. In his eyes, I did not deserve to be served and I certainly deserved to be punished! In another office, the cashier looked me in the eye as he handed me my receipt yet overlooked giving me back the 20 Egyptian Pounds change. In that same office I have been yelled at by some other employee who got so offended because I asked about the approximate time the technician was expected to visit me. It is only fair to say that I have encountered some very cooperative and sincere employees who went out of their way to help me with the procedures and who voluntarily called me to update me on the status of my papers or applications.

The other thing that drove me insane was the fact that almost everyone that I interacted with in the process of finishing and furnishing my home – from plumbers, carpenters, electricians, to government officers like the telephone or electricity guys – they all assumed that “someone will be at home in the morning”. Who could be at home? Even if I were married, I would be at work and so would the husband. Do I look like someone who would have a live-in maid? Or maybe they got the fact that I was single so it was only natural that I lived with my parents – who had to be at home! This made me wonder about the concept of shifts … why don’t we have shifts? It would solve a big deal of the unemployment crisis that is eating away the zeal of the youth of this country. If I finished work at five and drove home in an hour then why couldn’t they send me someone at seven or eight?

I did drugs!!! Yes ... I smoked! On the verge of a heart attack and a nervous breakdown, a friend of mine handed me a joint. Perfection and commitment are two things that are unheard of in this country – ok maybe a few people have heard of them. From leaking new pipes, broken new faucets, and worn out new furniture to unmet deadlines and continuous lies and empty promises, I was always in tears or in rage. I thundered and threatened to use my media power – first time ever – and I exploded with curses and ultimatums at least fifty times in the two weeks that I had to take off from work – remember the previously stated assumption: someone has to be home!

Tips and bribes are two concepts that got so messed up in my head; at first I thought that a tip is money you pay in gratitude to someone who served you well. I also thought that a bribe is money that you were forced to pay to get served well. Today I am no longer sure which is which. I just lubed my way with money – be it tips or bribes – to get things done. I avoided eye-contact with whoever I gave money lest they see how much contempt and disgust I felt towards them. Very few people had integrity and pride – those were the people that I had to “beg” to accept my little token of gratitude for their assistance.

This was a very educating and enlightening experience; I saw the real face of Egypt. I got in touch with the nature of Egyptian labors; lethargy and apathy run in their street-wise smart-ass veins. Even those working in big stores need intensive customer service training; they need to learn how to handle angry frustrated customers instead of switching off their phones. Business owners need to invest in their employees otherwise they will lose customers – and eventually money – because of how unprofessional their employees are. I was swallowed in red-tape and bureaucracy. Two weeks off work were not enough; you waste a whole day to apply, another day to sign a contract and pay, and a few other days with the installation.

I also saw the warm sincere helpful nature of other workers and employees who just needed to be acknowledged as human beings. People never notice them and their services are taken for granted. So many people volunteered to help me and went out of their way to make this tiresome mission less consuming just because I showed some respect or because I smiled while addressing them. Some stores really have gems of employees but they are buried amidst the rubbish of their colleagues and some owners have no clue how much customers are bad-mouthing their companies because of their insolent employees. I have heard of women who suffered during pregnancy and childbirth that they did not want to embrace the baby after it was born; like those women, I have had moments when I hated the apartment and just wanted to back off on my dream. Today as I type this article I could only say that it was worth it … every bit of it.

(Identity - Feb 08)

29 comments:

Askandarani said...

bribe is money you pay to get something wrong/illegal done.

Allah yetamenek, maybe in a couple of weeks i will be walking the same path, but thought with ur looks things would move along easier ;-)

Arima said...

Excellent post as always Marwa. I think you capture the frustration that all Egyptian women experience exactly. I think you are very brave to make the move on your own. I would feel very uncomfortable to live on my own in Egypt, simply because of the treatment that you describe and the way that some people gossip. I congratulate you on your achievement.

Anonymous said...

i couldn't stop myself of clapping out loud after i read that article.

thanks Marwa for your tolerance, open mind and honesty to post that article.

i hope we all Egyptians stop such acts which is really a direct insult to our Egypt.

if foreigners is responsible of the 1% of creating that bad reputation of Egypt, the 99% is because of us.

R. Elgayar said...

Alf mabruk Marwa, on your new apt. Good old Egypt, she can never give a chick a break;-) Enjoy your new place and don't throw too many wild parties. You wouldn't want to give the people more to talk about you crazy, independent, living alone without a man, CHICA. Ya salam!!!!!

Anonymous said...

marwa, Mabroooooooooook for your flat. your post has a lot if issues that need to be discuss and i will discuss each one of it later but nice post and enjoy your days in your flats and why u don't make episodes on how you can deal with employees in egypt. :).enjoy your time my guru
Fido Dido

Marwa Rakha said...

Hello Askandarani ... looks have nothing to do with that:)

Marwa Rakha said...

Thanks Arima:) This society is a graveyard for women .. darn!!!

Marwa Rakha said...

Hey anonymous .. I am glad you like that post ... it is just so frustrating how I am expected to be chaperoned at the age of 33 .. almost 34!!!

Marwa Rakha said...

Hello R:) Summer is coming and let's see what they would have to say about crazy me:)

The bedroom is coming soon .. I am so tired of sleeping on the floor and of getting dressed out of a suitcase

Marwa Rakha said...

Thanks Fido:)

Mo'men said...

Congrants on your new nest, I've been in this torture for 7 months and counting, I switched 2 engineers, 3 crews, been cheated out of money, remade the plumbing and other sorts of torments. I've smoked shisha on a daily basis to calm down (as I hate cigarettes). I fought with my fiancés for the slightest of reasons .. Basically I turned into an asshole because you have to be one to deal with these mentalities.

Wish me Luck !

Marwa Rakha said...

Good luck sweets .. I know it is a dreadful experience .. but "home" feels so good.

PS Whys is fiances plural?

Mo'men said...

Cuz I'm a PLAYAA .. hehe

relax, even you know it's a typo mistake :))

Marwa Rakha said...

hee hee:) That's cute Mo'men:)

Anonymous said...

It's 1:25 after midnight now, and i was really tired and sleepy after a very long hard day (which included the class that u r giving to us :P, but thanks God it was light today:) ), any way, i was just about to turn off my laptop and fall asleep when I noticed that I've clicked on ur blog address a while ago and forgot about it, Actually I was digging after you, cos for some unkown reasons to me, I find u interesting person, and that what i do when some one pay my attention, Dig after him :)...
And as almost usual, I was right, totally right...I found u interesting, now, U have my complete respect ya marwa, it's enough that u made me sit up again on my bed and keep read and read what u wrote :)...when usually when i want to sleep nothing could prevent me, but you did...
Chapeau and respect is all I have now to give...
Now I would say that I was really lucky that day when I told the advisor that I've chosen to take Marketing principles with Marwa Rakha without knowing who you are :):)
Mostafa El khafif

Marwa Rakha said...

Mostafa .. I do not know what to tell you .. I guess that I am honored by your testimony and your words made me very very happy:)

I know you will make it big in the corporate world and I know that we will be friends .. real friends:)

Arima said...

Hey...I tagged you to tell us 10 random facts about yourself.

Nora said...

Nice post...
I recently moved out and decided to face this big city all alone. Some people could not accept that I would chose not to live with my family. My family chose to live in denial. People in my new neighborhood think that I am the infidel foreigner. And all the workers, supermarket owners, and pedestrians in my new neighborhood try to rip me off... or thinks that I want to sleep with them because I now live alone. It is hard being a SWF in Cairo. I think more people need to get the courage and do it.. or just sincerely accept and respect it.

I once wrote a post about how society views me as nothing without a man... It was quite depressing. I am a little happy and sad that you feel the same.

Anyway, great post!

Marwa Rakha said...

Hey Arima:)

10 random facts?:)

1) I have a bad temper - guess you already know that:)


2) I was a typical nerd/geek growing up and I hated it

3) On my 15th birthday no one came .. no one at all ... it was me, mom, dad, bro, and cake.

4) The first time I met my publisher I had a feeling that I got my period ... we were in the street .. I turned around, looked at him, and asked him to see if there was blood on my .... behind

5) I am afraid of cancer

6) I used to write in Arabic .. then I forgot it

7) I used to speak French ... then I forgot it

8) I am a flirt

9) Right now I am waiting for the electrician to put 5 spotlights in my bedroom ...he is late and part of me does not want him to come

10) I do not know what I look like .. the person I see in pictures, or on TV is not the same person I see in the mirror.

Marwa Rakha said...

Hello Nora:) First time I see you on my blog:)

Family living in denial .. yeah I know about that:)

So you left your family back home and moved to Cairo?

Let me know if you need help with anything ... I am serious .. and let me know if you need friends .. I will lend you mine:)

Nora said...

I read your blog a really long time ago.. but never commented.. and I came across it again somehow today.
My family has been in denial about so many things lately I have become used to it.. ;)
I left my family back home and came here to live with my dad's family... and then left them a short while back to live alone here...
As of now I need nothing.. but I will definitely use and abuse your offer when the need arises... ;)
I have some pretty kick ass friends.. but I guess some more could never hurt.. When I am bored of my own I will also use and abuse this offer...

Anonymous said...

Well, Marwa, I just ran across your article (From the diary of a single independent female in Egypt) through my Google alerts that I receive daily about Egypt, I related to it immediately, it is like I wrote it myself, I always thought that life in Egypt is more repetitive and less original for everyone and your article just confirmed that, Anyway just wanted to tell you, keep it up, you are a breath of fresh air in this boring stereotyping society. . By the way I loved your “connected” poem. . You should think about writing lyrics for bands. . Good Luck

Marwa Rakha said...

hey anon:) Lyrics?:) I have done many things but never saw that one coming:)

Maybe I should give it a try ... are you serious?:)

Anonymous said...

Yes i am, I mean you have it all, the easy to relate to sentences, the not trying so hard to come up with difficult terminologies. . In my opinion you actually write in a very similar way to Alanis Morisette, and she is the best lyrics writer I have encountered . . Thank you for posting my comment, and by the way my name in Hana. . i am 30 . . female . .

Marwa Rakha said...

Thanks Hana:) you cheered me up .. this is the third time in 10 days that someone thinks that I am similar to Alanis one way or the other:)

placebo said...

Hey Marwa, congrats on your new own piece of this world..
but I was really puzzled, why the "white" thing?

Marwa Rakha said...

Hey there Placebo:)

Yeah ... I am loving my new home:)

Single White Female is the name of a movie:)

A Young Egyptian Woman said...

did that five years ago, it's a pain in the ass, but of course it's worth it to have your own place. sorry to say, i thought you were a boring egyptian girl when i read the first few entries of your blog, but this makes me think you're not that bad after all. please don't take offence, i don't mean it in a negative way, i'm actually impressed.

Marwa Rakha said...

No offence taken and enjoy your new home:)