Thursday, September 6, 2007

Shifting Gears

I had intended to share my South American summer from the perspective of a Muslim-Egyptian-American woman. Attempts at a themed reflection during my travels resulted in an awkwardly superimposed, self-conscious analysis. Such a weighty string of modifiers certainly counters the free spirited nomadic way!

Instead, I chose to send crude ‘snapshots’ of my time in Peru. For the sake of continuity from my previous posts, I’m dedicating this entry to a few thoughts from my summer before beginning more frequent updates from my current setting in Cairo.

The research frame of my summer was enlightening. Many of us enter international experiences in the public sector with a sleeves-rolled up, elbows out, reformist attitude. I like to think that with the number of Tar Heels out trotting the globe, many with a mission to ‘save the world,’ the adventures leave a lasting impression on our deeper ideologies.

It took me months to work through my time in Egypt last summer. I settled with the understanding that the world did not need ‘saving’ but rather more earnest efforts at listening. This time around I started the journey with palms out in a neutral stance and abandoned an instilled dependency on the scientific method for a shameless subjectivity.

In the simplicity of my approach, I found it easier to transcend the method itself and to relish the experience. The dualistic battle between form and substance plays out in my course schedule this semester. On a whim, I enrolled in a Metaphysics course only to find that my Physics class falls directly afterwards.

Simultaneous to my experiential absorption this summer, I imparted a continuous impression on my surroundings. I wore my image to a place where it is grossly unfamiliar. The extroversion of Peruvian culture means that when people stared they stared hard, unabashedly and extendedly. Stares latched onto me, swiveling necks a full 360 degrees. I bear the responsibility for causing many a head on collision between onlookers and fellow pedestrians, light posts, street signs, garbage cans…

The stares weren’t hostile, for the most part. It was only in the trendy shopping district by the Larcomar cliffs that I incited decidedly disapproving gawks and lung puncturing elbow pokes. My 17 year old brother was more jarred by the intrusiveness than I was. In an unprecedented move one evening, Mohammad presented me with a blatant compliment. “Aisha, there’s some trait about you that I really admire but I don’t know the word for it”.

I expected a classic shot at my frogger-style street crossing or yet another crack at my lame jokes, but for once Mohammad surprised me with a serious tone. “People stare at you ALL the time, and you never say anything. If it were me I’d get so mad.” It was a rare and touching sibling moment; out of sincerity deeper than empathy Mohammad took personal offense for my discomfort.

I think the trait Mohammad alluded to is part tolerance, part stubbornness, and part indignant self-affirmation. My hijab experience bears face-value recognition – I am assertively expressive of my identity every moment of public life.

But Mohammad wasn’t with me during daily trips, when my hijab opened up delightfully curious conversation and invited unconventional friendships. In Peru the taxi drivers were bold enough to make prodding conversation, the street vendors playful enough to toss back comments with my change, and the waiters attentive enough to carry a continuous conversation with service.

Occasionally I was mistaken for a nun, “Una monjita!” Though I imagine the Catholic Church wouldn’t look too fondly on my collection of brightly colored and fringed hijabs. Perhaps out of overcompensating self-assertion, I loved waving down to upturned faces while paragliding over the coast, feeling the wind in my hijab as I tumbled down dunes on a sandboard, and unfurling my red hijab to stake my presence on a mountain summit.

In time, even Mohammad found a way to cope with the stares that wasn’t my passive indifference nor his initially aggressive scowls and growls. He would return every stare with an exaggerated grin and call out “Hola, Amigo”.

What a contrast it was to transition from being a novelty in Peru to blending in as a common and monotonous image since my arrival here in Cairo. I prefer the clean slate of the unfamiliar when I have free reign to define my identity.

City life has put a damper on the nomad thing, so for now it’s only in my mind that I’m wandering; on the street I’m back to pursuing a purpose.


Marium said...

What has always intrigued me is the fact that muslim women are the ones that are given the right, nay, the honor of representing the muslim identity. They become the ambassadors of Islam with the hijab because it is the symbol of our religion.

More power to you, my friend. The Khan has some great hijabs. Tiny stalls in the corner. But I'm sure you already knew that :)

salma said...

i'd disagree that muhajjibat have always repped islam/are the symbol of islam. sounds too much like sexist anti-colonial rhetoric that imbued women's bodies with the burden of the honor of the country. right now its constructed so that, for example, a book about jihad, characterized as violent, male, muslim premodern response to modernity, is repped by a niqabi muslim woman (jihad vs. mcworld ) but of course, historically (and contemporarily-- is that a word), muslim women aren't the only women to wear "hijab" nor did "veiling" originate with "muslims." quotation marks indicate social constructions ;-p i am a product of my major.

ah, aisha! i wish i could talk to you love. i could REALLY use your insights and understanding. (wish you could have come too-- but there will be plenty of opportunities next year iA.)
ramadan mubarak! as un-ramadan-like the sentiment is, i envy you a ramadan in egypt. i've never had a ramadan in a muslim country.
hope everything is well iA.