Amid Antiquities, Egyptian Woman Leaves Lasting Impression
Cruise Flashback; Galveston to Dubai 2013
Cairo, Egypt; May 10, 2013
FEB. 9, 2021, DALLAS – Only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still stands – the Great Pyramid of Giza. I feel so lucky to have visited it up close in 2013.
Our timing was fortuitous. The turmoil of the Arab Spring uprising in early 2011, marked by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, had died down enough that cruise lines were once again stopping in Egypt. That would end just a couple of months later with the overthrow of Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi.
In May of 2013, the country seemed relatively quiet, but during my overnight tour to Cairo from the port of Alexandria I saw the physical and economic ruins of the protests against authoritarianism. Burned out buildings lined Tahrir Square just opposite the Egyptian Museum. Tourism-based businesses were shuttered. Many Egyptians expressed their appreciation of tourists coming back, ready to spend money.
Our private tour carried on almost as if the revolution hadn’t occurred just over two years earlier. I wrote in 2013 about visiting the top tourist attractions – the pyramids and sphinx at Giza; the Egyptian Museum with relics of King Tut’s tomb; the ancient city of Memphis and its statue of Pharaoh Rameses II and the Alabaster Sphinx; and Saqqara with its step pyramid and the oldest stone building complex known in history.
Our visits to ancient sites were punctuated by a modern light and sound show projected on the pyramids and sphinx at night and a wonderful stay at the Mena House, a five-star hotel with a awesome view of the Great Pyramid from my balcony.
Rather than rehash my travelogue from 2013 with details of these amazing sites, I’ll leave you to read my original post.
As I reflect back on Cairo, my memories aren’t so much of the ancient tombs, statues and pyramids. (Although for someone from the Midwest where buildings more than 100 years old are considered ancient, it is mind blowing to think of thousands of years.)
Instead, it is one of a culture very different from my own. Until now, my foreign travels were limited to North America and Europe — “westernized” countries based in large part on a common history and worldview.
The sight that epitomized my journey outside the west came on the road to Memphis. A young couple rode by on a motorcycle — he wearing jeans and a T-shirt, she covered from head to toe as she tucked in behind him.
I wondered what she thought of a society that imposed such different standards for men and women. My career had been full of fights for equal treatment, equal pay and equal opportunities. It was hard for me (then and now) to simply think “different rules for different societies.”
But since my 2013 visit I’ve become more open to nuances. I don’t see everything through my red, white and blue American lens. Yes, I still yearn for more freedom for suppressed women. But I realize the world is complex, and my goal in traveling is more to observe and learn rather than judge.
I wished I could have talked with that young woman to understand her thoughts and attitude about her life. It’s impossible to do that from the seat of a tour bus. More often now instead of taking a basic tour, I seek experiences that place me with local residents. For example, when last in Bali my friend Joyce and I took a walking food tour of downtown Denpasar. Our driver said, “Tourists never ask to go to Denpasar.” Our guide was a young woman who led tours to supplement her earnings as a midwife. We chatted about our lives as she introduced us to street vendors and proprietors of local markets. I was glad I hadn’t chosen to spend the day at a beach resort surrounded by tourists just like me.
Since touring Cairo in 2013 I’ve been fortunate to visit more of the non-Western world. I’ve never forgotten about the young couple on the motorcycle. They opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about people around the world. That was just as impactful as seeing the amazing sites of ancient Egypt.
6 thoughts on “Amid Antiquities, Egyptian Woman Leaves Lasting Impression”
Jo, when I worked in Egypt my translator was “covered.” She had been a flight attendant and after 9 years she decided she had had enough of the “meat market” and took the Abaya. She did it by choice to free herself of the fashion world and said “I can look out but you can’t see in.” Several of my female students at Cairo University took the veil as a rebellion against their parents and, what they considered to be western imperialism. Their mothers (one was a colleague of mine) were appalled that their daughters had willingly taken what they fought so hard to be free of. And then there are the women who became covered because their husbands were doing business in the Gulf or Saudi and did it to promote their husband’s business. Some of them were not so happy.
Rich, that’s so interesting. That’s what I meant about nuance — I am trying not to make assumptions based solely on my world view. And in some cases, two steps forward and one step back. Thanks for sharing your experiences — you’ve had the advantage of spending more than a day in many of these places around the world.
If you want to read more about women in Islam today look up “Nine Parts of Desire” by Geraldine Brooks. She was AP bureau chief in Cairo before becoming a noted novelist. She talks about how her office assistant moved from being a mini skirted young woman to a covered woman. She also interviewed the Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini’s wife and lots of other women in the Arab world. Thank you for posting these. I love your thoughts AND especially your watercolors. Suzi and I went to Mena House for tea at sundown sometimes when working in Egypt. It was wonderful and peaceful. Suzi’s flat was on Zamalek, an island in the Nile just off Tahrir Square. During Arab Spring Suzi had a ringside seat from her flat, from safely across the Nile.
I am really enjoying reading the flashback blogs Jo! Adding your perspective now years later is interesting as well.
Thanks, Nancy. It’s encouraging to get comments that others are enjoying these posts.
Facinating. Thanks for posting.