The life and times of an ethnically ambiguous little lady.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

A Camel for Your Wife

Samet stopped talking to our tour group and simply stared at the boys. He said something to them sharply in Arabic, but the boys only looked back at him reproachfully, one of them sassily cocking his head to the side and narrowing his eyes in what seemed to be a challenge, all the while they continued to record us with their video camera. Tamara, my traveling partner and fellow American, who was standing in front of Samet in the middle of the group pretending to be a pyramid, held her pose with her arms up in the air and her fingers touching, a comical look on her face.

We were in Egypt, an actual stone’s throw from the Sphinx, her noseless blank face hovering behind us, and Samet was our own personal and literal Egyptologist. The sun was hot on our backs, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, which might partly explain the 107 degree April temperatures.

Our tour group started to wonder if there was going to be a fight. And then, just like that, a policeman appeared, oversized gun swinging casually at his hip, and the boys were led out of our sight without another word.

“Sorry for the interruption, SamSemians,” Samet said, using the name that he had given our group, after his own nickname, like he was our conqueror. Retaking his position behind Tamara, “now, as we were saying, the Sphinx—”

“Wait, what was that all about,” I asked. I imagined the boys being thrown into a dark and grimy prison similar to that in the movie Brokedown Palace, where if they ever got out of jail, their only job opportunity would be to become a drug mule.

“It’s nothing,” he said. And then, as if reading my mind he continued, “Don’t worry. I know all the police around here. They’re not going to get in trouble, just be strongly reminded to not lurk like that.”

“But what happened? Were they making fun of us?” I implored.

“Come on, Samet,” Tamara asked, her brown eyes sparkling, her pyramid stance still strong. “You know we won’t let you go on until you explain.”

Samet sighed. He knew it was a losing battle. “Those kids weren’t Egyptian, but they were Arab. They were trying to record us. When I told them to stop, they asked me to move.”

“Why would they ask that,” Tamara said.

Samet continued reluctantly with a smile. “They thought that Tamara was ‘hot’ and just wanted to record her.”


“Hello beautiful ladies. Your husband is lucky man. How many camels to trade for you to become my wife?”

“Where you from? American? Welcome to Alaska, ha ha!”

“I love you!”

The storekeepers were relentless with commentary such as this as Tamara and I walked through the bazaar. Despite wrapping our heads in pashminas and keeping our knees covered to try and be respectful of the culture, it was no use. The men would yell just about anything to get our attention, and then beckon us into their stores filled with colorful scarves, small wood Egyptian sculptures of everything from pharaohs to scarabs, or huge containers filled with saffron, indigo, or lotus flower. If they didn’t say something to us, they’d stand right in our path and drape their wares over our passing shoulders, as if our contact with the goods was the missing link to change our minds. They would never say such things to Egyptian women, but foreigners? We were fair game.

One of our first days on our trip Tamara and I went in to a small store to get water. The shopkeeper was very friendly but respectful. As we handed him our items he asked if he could take a picture of us. “I guess so,” I said, looking at Tamara. She shrugged in agreement. The shopkeeper, a portly, older, balding gentleman gathered me in close first and took a picture on what seemed to be the first camera phone ever invented. He then kissed me rather aggressively on the top of my head. Tamara followed suit, trying to keep a little space between her and the man, but wanting to honor her promise. After the pictures, he gave us lollipops.

“I feel like we’ve been lured into some man’s unmarked white van,” I said.

“I just hope we don’t end up on the internet with a caption under our pictures that we’re his ‘wives,’” Tamara said in agreement. When we got back to our hotel we told Samet and the rest of the group about our encounter, much to the group’s delight. Tamara and I googled “American whores” for a while just to make sure our pictures didn’t come up.

The next night, just as we were about to explore the night markets in Aswan, Samet pulled Tamara and me aside.

“I know how independent you girls are,” he started running his hands through his dark curly hair and straightening himself up as tall as his 5”6 frame would allow, “but…it might it be better if you walk with one of the boys.”

“Why? We can take care of ourselves,” I said.

“Oh, I know that,” Samet said, “but I think you’ll make things easier for yourselves. You’ll get less…unwanted attention that way.”

“You know what—”

“Sure, Samet,” Tamara said, cutting me off, as she escorted me away.

“I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. We’re grownups! We’re covered up! I don’t need some MAN to take care of me.”

“Em, why are you getting all wound up? Samet’s just being protective.”

My boyfriend jokingly likes to call these my “Independent Woman” moments, complete with Destiny’s Child accompaniment, where I assert righteous indignation, not unlike Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, at something feminist-oriented. I wasn’t sure if I was upset that women in Egypt couldn’t just go about their business if they weren’t covered up. Or maybe I was mad because these men didn’t know me, and yet they assumed that women from outside their country were all cut from the same whore-y cloth. Maybe I was just delirious from the heat.

“Maybe I’ll catcall them.”

“Good idea,” Tamara said. “Maybe you can get us kidnapped.” Before coming to Egypt, we had both been forwarded lots of information from our overprotective parents about Jewish tourists being kidnapped.

“You think Bill Clinton will come and rescue us, like he did those journalists in North Korea? That could totally be worth it.”

Tamara just ignored me.

As we wandered through the market, I tried to calm down. We looked at knickknacks, took pictures, and marveled at the number of feral cats wandering through the city. (Seriously, Egyptians have a weird reverence for cats. There is a cat goddess. In ancient Egypt, if a cat died of natural causes, it was mandatory for the cat’s human family to go into mourning.)

And then it happened. I noticed a man staring as we walked past his stall of spices. Without breaking his gaze he screamed at us as we passed in fast succession: “You are in my dreams! I love you! You have nice shape!”

That was the final straw.

“Seriously, dude? I like your shape? What is she a cantaloupe? Maybe I’m more of a pear?”

He sputtered and looked at me with confusion. “What is cantaloop?”

“It…it doesn’t matter. Would you talk to your mother that way? Your sister?”

“My mother is dead. And it is a compliment.”

“No, it’s not, you creep. Seriously, if you know what’s good for you, do not say another word.” And with that I turned on my heel, glared back at his speechless face, and pulled Tamara with me.

We walked for a while in silence. “Do you feel better now?” Tamara asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “I feel great. Now let’s go look at some more head scarves. After all, I wouldn’t want to offend anyone’s culture.”

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