I’ve just come back from a trip to Dahab in Egypt (an hour north of Sharm El Sheikh in South Sinai) and one of the fun parts of the holiday was teaching my friend silly English words and phrases in exchange for Arabic ones.
I told him a story about a person I know who loves it when things go wrong in my life, so I’ve stopped saying anything negative about what’s happening to me on social media. If I post something really positive, with only an iota of negativity, she will pick up on the latter and exclaim, ‘poor you!’ This makes me feel angry.
The Egyptian, as he has become known, seemed to pick up on this phrase and repeated it back to me randomly the next day, pulling the pseudo-sympathetic face that goes with it, that I’d obviously used the day before. It made us laugh so much – everything that didn’t go to plan came with an explosive ‘poor you!’ and we’d collapse into giggles.
This happened on a day when the British were exercising their right to vote (well, 66% of them were) and I was struck by the ridiculousness of The Egyptian exclaiming ‘poor you!’ when I told him of the horrific result. Just the fact that we are allowed to choose our own government and vote in a democratic and free society is something of a privilege. Yes sirree, I checked my privilege.
The election happened to be in the same week that disgraced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was due to find out his fate: just three years’ imprisonment for embezzling millions of pounds of state funds. His earlier life sentence for the deaths of 800 protesters in the 2011 Revolution had been thrown out the previous November. The month before my trip, Egypt had seen its first democratically elected head of state in Egypt sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mohamed Morsi had used his status to grant himself unlimited power, resulting in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The Egyptian said that the freedom everyone felt after the Revolution was so sweet, but so fleeting. There was no follow-up plan, so corruption and power-wrangling quickly set in.
The Egyptian had been working in one of the restaurants in Dahab where three anti-Mubarak nail bombs went off in 2006. He’d been lucky, but he stumbled outside to see bodies everywhere and people running into the sea. The emergency services were not quick enough to save all the casualties. Twenty-three people died, mostly Egyptians.
Now, the police crawl all over Sinai, ostensibly to protect the tourists from the threat of terrorism, but the reality is that they prefer terrorising innocent Egyptians. There are two checkpoints between Sharm and Dahab, but the police are only interested in who the drivers are, not who’s in the back of the cab. They make a huge deal out of making people wait, checking ID, being suspicious. If they think that tourists don’t notice what they are doing, then they are very wrong. It stinks.
The general consensus is that the police are bored, just making stuff up to give them something to do. Their directive is to leave the tourists alone – even if they’re the ones committing a crime in public, they will pick on the Egyptian with them and ignore the foreigner. It’s horrible but a fact of life and the locals’ response is a chilled ‘what can we do?’
I ended up going on a glorious day trip with a group of women of all nationalities: Egyptian, Swiss, Austrian, Anglo-Greek and me, Welsh. One of the main topics of conversation was the ‘woman problem’. Apparently the women of Egypt are rising up in a way that is making the male population uncomfortable. Of course, being a feminist, this was music to my ears. Some women are not happy with the deal – just staying in and looking after children and cooking for their men. (Some of them are, it has to be said, and some of these aren’t Egyptian. Russian women seem to enjoy it and many Egyptian men in Dahab marry them. It’s a good match.)
One night, I saw two Egyptian women having a ‘ladies night’ out – their kids were running around outside while they sat in a restaurant, chatting and drinking tea. One was breastfeeding. One was sitting alone with her child. It was so great to see that.
Initially it wasn’t as great to see little local girls running around the town all day selling homemade bracelets. I’d see them walking on isolated roads carrying their wares from town to town, and worry for their safety. No, the women told me, this is their moment of freedom and they are completely safe. As soon as they start their periods they are confined to the house, drinking tea with the other adult ladies of the family. It seems as though some mothers have started hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the men in the house, just to prolong their freedom, even to the point of trying to make the girls look younger. It seems to work.
As I sat there in my bikini, being served Bedouin food by a woman fully covered except for her eyes, I checked my privilege again. I could stride into Dahab and into this beautiful Bedouin isolated beach settlement (Ras Abu Galum, in case you’re interested) and literally let my hair down, wearing a bikini.
I may never say, ‘poor you!’ again, unless in jest with The Egyptian. Poor, poor us, and our democratically elected government who aren’t embezzling millions of our pounds to fund their palaces (I’m sure someone will point out that they are doing this), or killing 800 protesters who happen to disagree with their policies. Poor us, and our freedom as women to go about as we choose after we become adults, to have jobs, wear what we want and have sex outside marriage.
Yes, yes, I know everything is relative, but it is worth putting things in perspective every now and again.