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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