I could write about the bad. I could share stories of dismissed heartbreak and careless games. I could dramatically discuss my self-worth, how it was propelled to new heights by meaningless compliments and then shot down to nothing by tradition and lies and assumptions. I could tell you about the men I dated here in Egypt. The three men who twisted my emotions and toyed with my established feminism. Man 1: afraid to date for a year; Man 2: swear off Egyptians; Man 3: sigh, and be done with dating all together.
Or, we could commiserate on the hundreds of men that shout across streets, walk too close, or tell me that they love me under their breath. We could exchange advice about hugging the buildings and staying close to the guards, or pulling back our hair because maybe, just maybe, the harassment decreases a bit with the help of a ponytail. No one really complimented my appearance before coming to Egypt, and now, I hardly want anyone to compliment it ever again. Nothing creates more vulnerability, fear, annoyance and frustration than being stripped down to nothing but blonde hair and female curves, every time I leave my apartment.
But instead I will tell you about the three men that Egypt sent me. These three men defy the norm and prove that Egypt has hope of becoming more than the daily dose of harassment most women experience on the street.
Ahmed, Taxi Driver
I met Ahmed, a quiet, hard-working driver, when Angela force-fed me his number in my first month. “He’s the best,” she explained, simply. Without a car and living in the suburbs, I started calling Ahmed now and then. I was still trying to walk or ride my bike to work and fill my backpack with groceries on the way home. Eventually, the harassment left me too vulnerable and I no longer enjoyed walking alone. Ahmed started taking me places almost daily, and his business grew as others learned of his dependability and trustworthiness. His fees are modest, too modest, and many of us press him to increase his fares. He humbly refuses.
Ahmed is more than a good business man, though. I can fall asleep on a long ride and feel safe. He plays Top 40 radio, and smiles when I sing along. He waits for me to get inside safely and walks me in if he feels uncomfortable about my surroundings. He politely tells me I look beautiful when I dress-up. He drives slowly and calmly, while the Cairo traffic swirls in ridiculousness around him. And he always, always gets me home, no matter how late, or tired, or inebriated I am. He is younger than us, but in a way, he protects us all like a parent might protect his children. Ahmed is the main reason I still feel safe here.
Ahmed, Dance Teacher
I was hesitant to continue my ballroom education in Egypt. There are cultural ideas, here, that imply inappropriateness when a men and women touch more than a handshake before marriage. What type of man would teach dance in Egypt? Would it be someone who wants an excuse to touch women all day?
My fears were quite unreasonable, but they were based on a year of experience, a year of the implication that if I danced with someone, I might accidentally give him the idea that I also wanted to take off my clothes. One courageous day, though, I boldly called the dance studio and requested an intro lesson, knowing that if I did not like it, I could leave and disappear into the Cairo streets to never encounter him again. That is when I met Ahmed, and 15 lessons later, we are still dancing.
Ahmed forces me to smile. I come in after a long day, after hours of teaching and rehearsal and answering parent emails, and he teaches me the jive and the cha-cha. Post-school-day me barely wants to walk, much less dance. But by concentrating on my strengths, with patience and encouragement, he makes it impossible not to enjoy that hour. When I am there, I feel safe, and best of all, I am actually learning something. When I leave, I feel confident and energized, able to bravely walk home and conquer Cairo. As a teacher, I appreciate good education and I know how hard it is to achieve. Ahmed has given me a long-lasting, positive relationship with dance, and with myself. For that, I am extremely grateful.
Bassem, Diving Leader
I get along with people who work hard. Perhaps it is my Midwestern upbringing, but when I look around at my friends, we are all people who take our jobs seriously and personally. In Egypt, I have had to adjust my expectations. Culturally, Egyptians enjoy life and build relationships. They work to live, whereas I live to work. This new attitude has taught me to relax (a little) and recognize that there (might) be more important things in life than my job.
But Bassem fits into the category that feels like home. If I were back in my comfort zone, he is exactly the type of friend I would have: hardworking, honest, hilarious and kind. Our relationship was purely business for quite some time. He is a business-smart owner of a dive center in Dahab, where I spent my summer, and I was an overzealous trip-planner with annoyingly obsessive organizational skills. As I got to know Bassem, I realized that I was being my most true self around him. He has seen me at my worst and best—melting down after a bad dive, or when a trip does not go as planned; or, finally completing my divemaster certification, feeling happy and accomplished. Yet, he still wants to hang around me, worst me and best me. It is his supportive advice that got me through the last of my poor dating choices. Our simple, natural friendship has encouraged me to remember that men and women can be friends without the expectation of anything more (an idea that has become obsolete since coming to Egypt). I admire him greatly and so appreciate our friendship.
Those are the three men that Egypt sent me. Not the three that I dated, the nameless three that broke my heart, not all of the men from the streets, cafes and stores that cause me daily discomfort, but these representative three: a driver, a teacher and a friend. It is them whom I will remember when I leave here. They made my experience in Egypt unforgettable.