Egypt Update #2*: Haircut Harassment Revolution (excerpt)

Excerpt from email update to family. February 16, 2013:

…In more serious matters, I’m still safe! I’ve gotten an email every week from the US State Department warning of protests going on in downtown and Heliopolis–in other words, far far from where I am. 

In class this week, my teachers and I have been talking about post-revolution Cairo. They–and others–talk about how much less safe the city is. How the police are no longer respected. The army is gone, back out protecting the borders, and now there’s more disorder than ever. More unemployment, more people on the street, a weakening currency, a rising dissatisfaction with the government. It used to be fine for women to walk alone at night, but now you really shouldn’t be alone after 9. 

Anti-sexual harassment groups–volunteer organizations–are hard at work to curb the harassment in Egypt. One in particular patrols Tahrir Square in highlighter vests (think construction workers), looking out for women who are being sexually harassed. It’s not really harassment, though. This isn’t cat calls, and it’s not even just (“just”) groping. In this video are numerous clips of the same scene: a crowd of men surrounding a woman, surrounding her so tightly that I can’t even really see it’s a woman, and her being swept along, out of the crowd and onto a side street. This organization works to rescue these women, but it’s like rescuing a drowning woman from a swiftly moving river. These men move so fast, so crushingly, that I don’t know how this group is ever successful. There’s no life vest to prevent it, no inner-tube to throw out to her. They have to spot her and beat these men off. They do and they don’t. When they do, they use flame throwers to disperse the men, and belts and clubs. They have blankets and clothes at the ready because when they do get to her, her clothes are in shreds. 

I was thinking of it last night, coming back late from yoga. It was after 10 and I was in Zamalek, which is filled with people (good!) and traffic and taxis. The night before I had been out at the same time and found a taxi immediately. But this night, they’re all full. 

It’s Thursday night and groups of shabab–young egyptian guys–are roving the streets, and men catcall as they pass on motorbikes. I live just across the 15 May bridge in Mohandiseen–a 20-minute walk, really–and so I surrender my taxi search and start walking across the bridge. It’s dark and I’m alone and feeling uncomfortably conspicuous to the passing cars and shabab. I pretend to talk on my phone. I cross the street to stand on the median with the men and women waiting for the microbuses, who pay no attention to me. It’s loud and busy, and not all that dark by the street light, but I keep thinking about that video. I keep thinking about what my teachers said about prisoners being released/busted out after Mubarak left and I wonder if any of these shabab are ex-cons. I know it’s just my own nerves, but I know too that I’m a woman alone and every minute I’m out is a minute later than 9 PM, and it’s generally agreed–at school, with teachers and classmates–that I, a woman, shouldn’t be out alone at night after 9. I tell myself that Cairo is just like any big city now. I’ve walked numerous big–American!–cities late at night. I don’t usually feel this nervous. I grip my phone a little tighter.

Shortly before 11, I give up and walk the dark, deserted stairs to Zamalek’s main road to catch a cab going the opposite direction. Better to U-turn than to spend more time on the bridge. The cab driver is talky and I am not, and he keeps turning around to ask questions and I can’t decide if I am uncomfortable about this or just annoyed. He asks if I am here with my family. No, I say, but quickly add, but my husband’s coming in a week. No, he doesn’t need a ride from the airport. I take the driver’s number anyway, and tell him to drop me off at the end of my street, because it’s stupid but I don’t want him to know where I live. 

I don’t feel safe until I am back in my apartment, the door bolted behind me.


I didn’t want to study in Cairo. It was dead last on my list. But when it came down to Cairo or no Arabic at all, of course I wanted to study in Cairo. I knew all the things I wouldn’t like about it–the harassment, the grime of the city, the general chaos (which, actually, I also love), the traffic, the pollution–and so I mentally prepared myself to deal with it. It’s just four months, I told my self.

What I was not prepared for was a post-revolution Cairo. That, like, revolution doesn’t stop with the fall of the system. That society changes, and not just becomes different, but becomes different fundamentally. Essentially. That there’s more lawlessness and more tension and more fear and more anger, and of course these are things we all know about a post-revolutionary state. But I didn’t know them. Not really. I grew up in California and Utah and Dubai. What on earth do I know about revolution?

The other night, before we caught the back from Zamalek, I walked past graffiti on a median. Viva la revolution

How totally cliche that phrase is, so many times have I seen it and heard it in my life. But on TV and in songs and movies. Never on a median. Never in a living revolution.

But in those words, painted flat against a concrete median, I see the revolution living before me. I see the demonstrations, the toppling of Mubarak and his 30-year regime,  the election of Mohamed Morsi, the protests, the violence, the anger and tension and frustration. The decreased security. The increased fear. 

I see the whole of society, turning and turning and turning.



*You didn’t miss anything. I never posted the first one and in this excerpt, I skipped out the part about the haircut–and all parts that included stories about my friends and roommates here, as I never asked for their permission to write about them. They’re good stories, though, and, with their knowledge and consent, I will post them here in the future, Inshallah.

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