“It’s funny,” our Egyptian guide says when she tells us that Sally is her given name. “Nobody can believe it.” Indeed, her perky, American-sounding name belies the fact that she is 100 percent Egyptian, a modern Muslim woman who is passionate about her country. Waif-thin but wiry, she exudes confidence and determination. And in a culture where womanhood is not much celebrated, she refuses to take a back seat to anybody.
Her responsibilities to the 15 of us in her tour group are to explain the astounding antiquities we visit while shepherding us through the fascinating culture — a culture ages and ages older than our own and fundamentally foreign to us. Her intent is to make history from thousands of years ago come alive.
With her prodding, we learn to separate the mythological world of gods and goddesses from the pharaohs who millenniums ago walked where we find ourselves walking. Maybe, it’s more correct to say we try mightily to get all of it straight and don’t entirely succeed (it’s complicated).
More important to our experience, however, Sally treats us to something else. Through her, we see the face of emerging Egypt, proudly modern, female as well as male — not yet culturally acceptable but inevitable.
We aren’t long into the tour when we experience Sally’s feminist ire. Unfailingly friendly toward tour members, she erupts when a male guide of another tour group acts as if his group need not allow our group to pass.
After a tirade in Arabic, she explains in English that some male tour guides feel superior to female tour guides and enjoy putting them in their place. She has to make it absolutely clear that they can’t get away with pushing her around or it will be worse and worse for her. We have no reason to doubt her. Now in her mid- to late 30s, Sally has been a tour guide for 13 years.
In truth, the more we see of Egyptian society as days go by, the more we understand why she is so prickly.
Yes, Egypt enacted many legal rights for women and appears to be far ahead of some of its neighbors in that regard. But legal rights don’t tell the story. Culture and religious tradition still stand in the way of real equality. Sally believes those barriers won’t last because of education. Education is free for girls as well as boys and already is changing the face of the country, so much so that one of Egypt’s great problems right now is more educated Egyptians than there are jobs that demand their skills. No question, an educated public challenges old-style customs that don’t make sense.
A dedicated Muslim
Still, Sally is a dedicated Muslim who, like many other unmarried adults, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment in central Cairo (it is unusual for single adults to have their own apartments no matter what their age). She seems resigned to Egyptian law that makes sex before marriage a crime. At the same time she is not among the Muslims who reject coupling modernity with Islamic teachings, nor does she have patience with the notion that modernity must be rejected as a Western imperialist intrusion.
Sally seems amused by the current popularity of the hijab — the head scarf worn by many Muslim women. She doesn’t wear one and says there is nothing in the important teachings of Islam that says she should. (Right now she sees the popularity as a fashion statement that won’t last. She also rolls her eyes at the Muslim men who have black marks on their foreheads from praying so much. She says for many it’s a pretense.)
And yet, Sally can’t entirely escape the constraints of a society with one foot in modernity and the other in centuries of tradition. Sally’s boyfriend is a Coptic Christian who is from a traditional family. “There’s no hope we can marry,” Sally says. “I cry and cry.” She says her Muslim family isn’t the problem. They wouldn’t like it but they could accept it; his family couldn’t.
We ask what would happen if they married anyway. “He has crazy uncles and cousins,” she replied. “They would kill us both for family honor.”
We must look incredulous, because she shrugs saying, “Someday it will change, but …”
A writer and columnist from Fargo, N.D., Jane Ahlin also has taught English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.