Breaking the Fast

When my husband and I were living in Cairo we had many crazy, fascinating, and maddening experiences. The best way to describe living in a culture, environment, community that is so foriegn (linguistically, socially, economically) is “culture shock therapy.” The brain is jolted into submission or further madness by the constant assault of differentness. One can be flexible and plastic (as we are biologically inclined to be) or one can cling desperately to the patterns of thinking and feeling laid down by his or her home culture. How did I respond?

Well, at first I was thrilled by it all. The call to prayer was magical! The chaos was enchanting! The people were mystifying and lovely.

Then I was tired.

Then I was pissed off. ARG!!! “What is that smell?”  I once asked my roomate as we were walking to a friend’s house.

“I stopped asking myself that question a long time ago,” she quipped. Indeed.

Then, I started carrying mace with my finger on the trigger and my other arm draped across the front of my body with my elbow poised to jab. Do I sound like a monster? Well, to give you some insight, I took on the mace after being grabbed on two different occasions on the street. First, in broad daylight I was grabbed from behind by a police officer; he grabbed my tit and twisted my nipple!!! Incredible precision! As if he had had substantial practice! The second “twister” (same technique, I wondered if there was some sort of underground workshop on grabbing techniques) took place on the first night of Ramadan on a very busy midan  (traffic circle). That one left me shaking, terrified, and distraught. This is war. An acquaintance of mine armed me with mace and I spent the next several months hunkered around it, deeply suspicious, poised to defend myself however necessary. I was miserable. It was as if I was protecting my body from being nationalized! This is private property, people! “But you are foreign, and he was confused because you were wearing short sleeves.” ??? Heh? “Kelly habibty, it happens to girls all the time but we do not say because if we do then people will say, ‘that’s the girl who was grabbed, she is not nice.'” And so, I tried to wrap my head around this…how did I fail to make deeper connections with the Egyptian women I worked with, went to school with, or saw around town. So poised for battle, I shut down.

What happens in life when we are so committed to a prescribed and predetermined series of inputs and outcomes? In the above context I operated–with little intervention from the frontal lobe–on the assumption that any male movement in my direction was an instance of imminent sexual assault. Until one day, again during Ramadan, I was shaken awake and deeply humbled by a random and silent exchange.

I was in a taxi headed somewhere in Zamalek. It was late afternoon and the sun was soon to set. For those of you who don’t know, during Ramadan much of Cairo is shut down as millions fast–no food, water, or cigarettes–during the daylight hours. Once the sun sets millions sit down for the iftar–breaking of the fast. Cairo is a brutally hot, densely populated, and chaotic city. Even in the back of the taxi, I was holding tight to the mace and still with my elbow ready for jabbing. That’s when it happened. The taxi was creeping along in the packed traffic when I saw an arm reaching into the back window. I panicked and prepared to dose the guy with a good eye washing but was caught by the grace of observation: He was handing me a bag of juice…to break the fast. He was out in the street giving passers-by bags of juice to break the fast. To him, I wasn’t a foriegner, a hussy, or something to be grabbed…I was a member of the community and he was reaching out to me in fellowship. My entire body gasped…and my brain changed…I know it did. And my heart grew…that stranger…with his bags of juice for breaking the fast…who didn’t even take pause before moving on and handing another stranger some juice…initiated a dialog with me that established a bridge between the deep patterns of habit and the unbound possibilities for connection when we dare to move against or away from our practiced ways of seeing, being, and living…even though there is risk (there is always risk–stasis does not eradicate risk)…

It took a long time for me to process that culture shock–perhaps I am still–but one thing I know is this: The conversation is dynamic between an individual and her environment and just as it would be absolutely absurd to respond in a conversation with your friend with the same one line, it is absurd to respond to life experiences with the same old line. To be engaged in this narrative with others, our environment, our religions…requires creativity, expression, and risk. This is what I think. What about you?

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About kalisaddhu

"The Method is to Know the Mind." View all posts by kalisaddhu

23 responses to “Breaking the Fast

  • Darin

    I am angry now! Grrrrr……

  • kmariej

    Are you experiencing culture shock?!

  • elteee

    Here’s physical, living proof that one person CAN make a difference… positive and/or negative!

  • jana

    it’s that creativity one acquires though traveling between cultures, traditions and religions, fueled by willingness to adapt that i consider to be the most valuable possession i have brought home with me from my travels.

  • Becky

    Life can be so contradictory, whenever we form fixed opinions it has a way of proving us wrong, if we’re open to it… Otherwise we remain stuck & suffer.

  • tanyahaze

    I know what you mean, I’m actually going through something similar myself at the moment. I’m on holiday visiting relatives in Sri Lanka and my mum makes me change about three times before I leave the house, because she’s scared of people grabbing me on the road. Like, she’ll make me change from a skirt that back home would be a fairly conservative length into jeans that stick to my legs in the heat and are extremely uncomfortable.
    Nothing’s ever happened to me, but it just makes me so angry.

    • kmariej

      I’ve never been to Sri Lanka. Is harassment a big issue there? Ugh, jeans are very uncomfortable in the summer heat. In Cairo it didn’t seem to really matter much what a woman was wearing. Women and girls who dress very conservatively and wear hijab are also verbally and physically harassed in the streets. It’s a really big problem. What frustrates me the most, is the fact that women are expected to be responsible for men’s lack of self-control. It’s not my responsible or your responsibility to make sure some jerk in the street doesn’t find himself overcome with desire because an ankle is exposed. UGH. Take care, you. 🙂

      • tanyahaze

        Apparently it is pretty bad here…well, nobody’s ever done anything worse than stare at me, but the way my mum carries on kinda has me a bit freaked out. I agree, it’s completely unfair that we have all the responsibility placed on us to stop men from behaving badly. I don’t know if you heard, but a few years back this sheik in Australia made headlines because he compared women to uncovered meat and basically said that if cats eat the meat, it isn’t the cat’s fault, it’s the fault of the person who left the meat uncovered…charming, I know. It’s annoying though, when you pack taking into account the heat then realise you won’t be allowed out in half the stuff you brought.

      • kmariej

        Well…if women are uncovered meat is he the Sheikh ‘N Bake?

        Your Sheikh reminds me of a comment that the minister of labor in Japan made headlines with last year. In short, he claimed that women are baby making machines and that they really need to focus on that responsibility. Ha ha. I’m a ma-SHEEEN. Or a meatsheen?

        It’s a nightmare. I’m goofing about it now, but you can see that “you need to dress in wide garments and avoid certain public areas who are sexually deprived” as Tarek commented. The thing is, many of my Egyptian friends who veiled and dressed very modestly STILL were harassed in the streets, were STILL grabbed but more often than not were to fearful to report it. And, there isn’t much use in reporting it as it only results in the woman being castigated as ‘asking for it’ in one way or another. Tarek makes some good points about who people interpret others clothing choices as a signal of some sort or another. It’s certainly true that there is much misunderstanding in the west in regard to higab, which sometimes results in violence and harassment. Ugh…I don’t know Tanya (it’s Tanya, no?)…this is an old old story and I’m not sure how much progress we can make in addressing that urge to grab.

        Oh, one last point: Tarek, how does one determine whether or not an area is populated with individuals who are “sexually deprived” as opposed to one in which individuals are “sexually nourished”? It seems a pretty unrealistic piece of advice that in the end supports the culture of hiding. I don’t know how healthy this is for any society. What do you think?


  • Nikhil Kardale

    Perfect title to the article! I can guess how different the experiences must have felt.. and how strange it must have been to relate them to the same place and with the same people. But you’re right, it is unfair to judge a culture based on prejudices, though it seems the easiest thing to do sometimes. Expression can come in a million different ways. As you said, you’ve not just got to be alert but also take a risk and communicate!

    • kmariej

      Thanks for the feedback Nikhil 🙂 Since I’ve been living as a ‘foreigner,’ I’ve learned that *culture shock* can really help to expose a person’s habits of thinking and doing. The problem is, the stress of it can sometimes cause us to break (down) and we miss the opportunity to cultivate our own liberation by uprooting the habit patterns and dissolving them or at least recognizing them as the programming that is making those in my environment (with much different programming) appear so strange, maddening, frustrating. Although I was grabbed twice in Cairo, there were many many instances of kindness and compassion that I must have overlooked or failed to recognized because I was trapped in the pattern of defense: looking for only one thing, and prepared to pounce. What a relief to catch that bag of juice. 🙂

  • Becky

    I’m posting a section of this & responding to it on my blog 🙂

  • Culture shock & conversation

    […] shares an experience of sexual harrassment and culture-shock while living in Cairo: It took a long time for me to process that culture shock–perhaps I am […]

  • TareX

    Wow. I’m really sorry about those two incidents… it’s awful. But as you see, there’s a lot of good and a lot of bad at the same time. It’s a city of contrasts, Cairo. Unfortunately, you need to dress in wide garments and avoid certain public areas who are sexually deprived. I was once walking with a cute Egyptian -a blonde Egyptian- who wasn’t the type who would go out to public areas, and we were visiting the public book fair. From the moment I laid eyes on her, I knew it was going to be a rough day. She wasn’t exposing anything, but I knew her tight clothes and voluminous figure won’t go unnoticed. Of course because I was with her, any harassment was limited to the verbal/vocal type only (boys were literally singing for her)…. Egyptians vary from men who don’t even look at women, to others willing to grab them… and that’s thanks to Western Media sitcoms and movies with women having liberal (out of marriage) sexual relations with men on TV all the time, which may give Egyptians a wrong idea about western ladies. These specific men think it’s not a big deal to be touched by a stranger…. so, sorry again!

  • TareX

    In addition to that, they look at you and “interpret” your dress according to their beliefs. For instance, in the US, an Arab in hijab would be looked upon as backward, uneducated and uninspiring. Similarly, a foreigner in a skirt or a tight top would be looked upon as promiscuous, revealing too much, and wanting attention. That’s when those who are sexually deprived and predisposed to “grabbing” will go ahead and do it…

  • TareX

    Actually, I’m pretty confident in one fact: It’s not the religious ones who are inclined the grab. It’s the non-religious ones who by misinterpreting foreign women’s wear with the aid of western sitcoms and TV/Movies showing sexual promiscuity who are the ones predisposed to grabbing.

    • kmariej

      Hmm. I would guess that many of the religious men in Cairo are more likely to abstain from sexual relations before marriage and would thus be more likely to be “sexually deprived.” Of course, that’s a ridiculous over-simplification on my part. “Religious” carries on over a broad continuum and non-religious doesn’t equal a lack of morality of self-restraint. There seems to be something in the culture at large that creates an atmosphere in which women are not safe in public. Again, this is a complaint that I’ve heard over and over from my female friends in Egypt, who in terms of dress and piety are situated across the board (some very conservative, some not so conservative). I think that the tendency to put the responsibility on women (you must wear this, you must wear that) and western media underestimates the intelligence and will-power of Egyptian men. Egyptian men–all Egyptian men whether they are religious or not–have the capacity to exercise self-restraint and to show all women respect but as long as their is a silent permission (for example, police looking the other way OR women being made responsible for a man’s behavior) it is unlikely that men will take the time or make the effort to reflect on their behavior and misinterpretations of social cues. That’s my take 😉

      • TareX

        Allow me to reiterate. Religious men i.e. those who abstain from physical engagement with women. I haven’t had sexual relations with women yet, however, I am not “sexually deprived”. What I’m saying, is that in a environment of sexual deprivation, in addition to not being religious enough (to abstain from physical harassment), in addition to misinterpreted messages from western ladies, creates the problem some unlucky lone western travelers may encounter. Another problem, you’ve mentioned, is that a woman who complains of that brings “shame” to herself, as being “handled”. I remember an incident close to home, where a girl actually filed a lawsuit against a man who grabbed her (he was eventually convicted and got a 6-yr sentence in prison), I was shocked to learn that at the time of the incident, the people around her were trying to convince her to let him go, and that there “no use making the matter bigger”. This chain of thought, in addition to the aforementioned factors, contributes -no doubt- to the problem.

      • kmariej

        Hi, Tarek, Thank you very much for the clarification. I ave a much better understanding of your position now. Too, I understand the distinction you are making between sexually deprived and not engaging in sexual relations. This is a very interesting topic. Tarek, I’m wondering if you’d be interested in writing a guest post for my blog on the subject? warmest regards, K

  • TareX

    Well sure, i’d be happy to share my input 🙂

  • 2010 in review « Minute Particulars

    […] Breaking the Fast May 2010 22 comments 3 […]

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