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West Denial Virus

By Rebecca D. O’brien

CAIRO, EGYPT—I was delighted to learn, within minutes of landing in Cairo, that Egypt has a sense of humor as loud and unconventional as my own. Humor, more than anything, has been my saving grace in Egypt, even as I navigate its crowded streets in the nervous anonymity of an analphabetic foreigner. My relationship with this country has been, from day one, founded on the fact that I find Egypt funny—and Egypt finds me funny.

First of all, there is much fun to be had in Middle Eastern airports. Okay, okay, allow me to rephrase: some of my funniest experiences have centered around my travels to, from and around the region. From negotiating for my visa stamps in abysmal French and refusing marriage proposals from Egypt Air flight attendants—note: the correct response to such a proposal is not “But you’re married!” because the response will invariably be “But in our law, men can have two wives!”—to watching Nasser-era Egyptian films and skirting eager cab drivers, airports have offered me hours on hours of good fun.

Here’s an example: The middle-aged assistant in the business class lounge at the Cairo airport (I arrived there through a travel agent fluke, a story for another day) showed me the various lounge rooms with a mischievous smirk: “This is the English lounge: it’s cold and dark, like the English! This is the American lounge: it’s big and bright, like Americans! This is the French lounge: there is no service here!” Though it’s illegal—you will find no books of “Mubaraq-isms” here—Egyptians are even known to poke subtle fun at their own government, although they really love to tease George Bush.

What will strike most visitors to Egypt—torn between urgent and exaggerated preservation of tradition and the promise of growth, the schizophrenia of globalization—are Egypt’s glaring contradictions and ironies. It is not uncommon to walk through bazaars and see women covered from head to toe in black, veiled except for their eyes, rifling through gargantuan vats of skimpy thong underwear. It is perfectly acceptable, even normal, for male soldiers to hold hands and kiss one another on the street, machine guns slung casually by their sides. At the same time, though, wives follow their husbands in the street and women are not supposed to make eye contact with men. A skirt that falls just below the knee will draw whistles and disapproving stares from across the Nile, but Britney Spears and Kelis dominate even the Egyptian music video channels. These ironies struck me as simultaneously amusing and sad.

And if you thought Harvard was choked by its own bureaucracy, I suggest trying to order a chocolate milkshake and french fries at your typical Cairene Hardee’s (look, even the most cultured of us crack under the pressure of daily falafel and pita, so give me a break). One man takes your order while another stands and gapes, a third grabs a cup, a fourth corrects him, a fifth pours the shake before a sixth puts on the cap while a seventh fumbles with the register and barks orders to an eighth who will fetch your shake…and they still will have forgotten your french fries. Oh, and when you get your change, don’t be shocked if in place of small change you are gifted with individually wrapped pieces of gum. You just can’t beat a barter economy, or minty-fresh breath.

I think the restrictions of Cairo have done nothing but exacerbate my restlessness and stoke my exhibitionist urges. I have belted Bob Marley while careening through the Sahara in an ancient Humvee, friends at my side, to a campsite in the white desert. I have reclaimed my independence atop a desert ridge, ripping off my shirt and claiming the land for myself—“Operation O’Brien Freedom,” I called it. Then I scampered back down to find our Bedouin guides laughing at my idiocy. I’d left my only water bottle at the top of the hill.

I have danced on a boat in the Nile, in Cairene nightclubs and in pain when I banged my head on the door of the bus to the university where I am studying.

I have been laughed at by young and old: young boys on the street trying to sell me rolls of toilet paper and by my ancient Arabic teacher, who calls me amira (“princess”) because I am always complaining about the air conditioning. I have been laughed at by the men in the Egyptian travel agency, who had me repeat Arabic phrases but wouldn’t tell me what they meant. I have been laughed at by the guard in front of my dorm when I flinched at his casual toss of his semi-automatic. And though I might have been cold, embarrassed or scared, I laughed back.

When I am not dancing or probing the ends of the earth to stake out land for my Irish countrymen, I have sought stability in subtle reminders of normalcy and my routine at home. The people at the local coffee shop already know me, and they are ready to prepare my double-shot cappuccino when I stumble in, grouchy and disappointed by the extent of my addiction, every morning at 8:15.

Following a summer spent entirely at home, and then a hectic school year, my time so far as a student, tourist and one-woman show in Egypt has been one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life. Along with the laughter, there have been painful reminders of economic discrepancies—incomplete, rundown houses with state-of-the-art satellite dishes trumpeting their poverty—and moments of utter discomfort (other than sunburns and mosquito bites) when we encounter local hostility.

But the clash of cultures has been more of a slow series of culture shocks (both pleasant and unpleasant), and where a lapse in language comprehension would make things difficult, honest, if surprising, efforts at mutual understanding have compensated. After all, as I played peek-a-boo with the giggling baby girl on the seat in front of me en route from New York, I realized there are two acts that can transcend language and cultural gaps: laughter and frantic hand gestures indicating missing french fries.

Rebecca D. O’Brien ’06, a history and literature and near eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Kirkland House, is a news editor and beat manager of The Crimson. She plans to spend the first part of the summer immersing herself in sand and Egyptian culture and the second part of her summer immersing himself in Crimson sports.

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