Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: Anthropology

Writing about Egypt

It’s been almost three years since I moved to Egypt, and I still can’t write about it like I used to write about Lebanon. When living in Beirut, it felt like life just kept presenting me with scenes, images, stories that could represent bigger things that were going on in the country. I could also write about little things that were not necessarily representative, but at least in some ways typical or extreme versions of usual occurrences. In Egypt, I hesitate to take anything that happens and write it up to highlight a bigger underlying issue. I live my daily life in Cairo, I encounter people and situations like I would anywhere else, and yet I come home and nothing stands out enough to be able to use to it explain or illustrate any description of Egyptian life. And I wonder: why is this?

With great regularity, Lebanese people would tell me to give up trying to understand their country and society, because I would never be able to. I never felt like that was true. Sure, I probably misunderstood some (or many) things, or have explained or interpreted things in ways that many Lebanese would not agree with, but that just makes me human - it doesn’t mean that there is something inherently incomprehensible about Lebanese society. It helped that I was mostly hanging out with thoughtful, analytical people, who weren’t generally fazed by my many questions as to why, why, why certain things are done a certain way (and not another). It also seemed that even if different groups in society completely opposed each other’s (political) views, they were never baffled that anyone could, in fact, hold such views. It was as if their differences were on the extreme end of the same plane, somehow.

In Egypt, no one has ever told me it is impossible to understand Egyptian society, but many have shaken their head at my attempts to do so. My questions have been met with sighs and ‘well, I don’t understand it either.’ Sometimes I feel it’s a matter of scale – can you ever truly feel you understand a country of 80 million people, a society where people are as baffled by each other as they are with things they see on National Geographic? With a country of this magnitude also comes a tremendous variety in terms of language, traditions, ways of living and positions in society that make it hard to take anything as a vignette for the rest.
But even if I take ‘just’ Cairo and leave regional differences aside, there is still something else at play. It has something to do with the way Egyptian society can be overwhelming and intrusive in its massiveness that makes every encounter with it disappear into a blur after it’s over. Its noise, the way it demands your attention at all times (a short bike-ride is 50% tiring because of the physical effort required and 50% because of the constant barrage of words and cars and honking horns and scooters and stares, for example), that makes it so that nothing particularly stands out once you retreat from it. A retreat that is only partial, because even in a beautiful apartment on the third floor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, the soundscape of daily life still enters, and that makes it hard to step back and analyze it.

I’m forcing myself to try though, this month. Maybe I’ll be a little wiser by the end of it.

To headscarf or not to headscarf

- or: what to wear when in Yemen. 

Almost all men here wear either a futah (a wrap-around skirt) or a long white dress with a dark jacket over it, with a beautifully decorated belt that holds their jambiyah (dagger) and a scarf wrapped around the top of their head or on their shoulders. Almost all women here wear black from head to toe, including a small black veil that covers their face except for the eyes. I wear something completely different: loose pants and an oversized shirt almost to my knees. My shape is covered, my elbows are covered, my neck is covered – but not my face, nor my wrists, nor my hair.

The other day, as I was wandering around the Old City of Sana'a, I caught two little girls staring at me. As I came closer, I heard them debating whether I was a man or a woman.

                "Is that a woman? Look at her face."

                "No, no veil – must be a man."

                "Yes, and pants. Definitely a man."

When I passed the stoop they were sitting on, they saw my pony tail. "A woman!" one of them screamed out, after which they both burst into laughter.

At Dar el Hajjar, this family (like many others) insisted that my friend take pictures of their children.

Some people may find it disrespectful that I don't cover up more, or they may think 'why not' – when in Rome, do as the Romans do. However, Yemeni law does not require women to cover their hair or wear a (black) abaya, so it would make me feel like a hypocrite for following traditions (Yemeni or Islamic) that are not my own, especially after having been here for only one week. I don't mind standing out, for now. It also gives me a special position in society that in anthropological circles is known as the 'honorary male' – a woman who is so clearly different that she is not seen as part of the female world, and therefore allowed with the men. It makes it possible, for example, for the men to invite me into the wedding tent and chew qat with them, something a Yemeni woman would most likely never do. As a Yemeni anthropologist I met pointed out: once I start wearing 'women's clothes' (Yemeni women's clothes, of course), I will most likely lose this position and be expected to behave like women here do.

Maybe what I am doing is not fair to the women here. Just because I am a foreigner, I can walk around bareheaded, sit with the men when having lunch in a restaurant (for as many women I have seen on the street, I have hardly seen any in restaurants), and generally disregard the fact that there are very few women out and about after sunset. On the other hand, a Yemeni friend told me that some of his female friends here don't wear a headscarf and get to behave the same way – and that is probably because it is so rare for a Yemeni woman not to wear a veil that it is automatically assumed she is a foreigner if she doesn't cover her head.

At Dar al Hajjar, these girls wanted to take pictures of us. We said yes, but only if we'd get one of them too. We did. 

One more story: an Irish journalist I met recently used to wear pants and a shirt in the first few years she was here. To make matters more confusing, she has short hair, boyishly short. Because here men often hold hands while walking, it happened to her once during the revolution that an old man (presumably with bad eyesight), who had consistently addressed her as a man, took her hand to walk her across the square. She didn't know what to do: tell him she is female, leaving him with the problem of having touched a strange woman? Or not tell him, and hope he wouldn't find out from the stares and comments of the other people who did see she was a woman? She's been wearing an abaya and black veil ever since…


Sometime back in 2001 or 2002, I went to visit a friend who was working at a hospital near Kisumu, in the western part of Kenya. I hadn’t told him when I was coming, though, so when I arrived he had just left for a long weekend at the beach and since I had no way of reaching him, I had to change my plans. I called the guy I had been chatting with on the bus on the way there all those hours. He told me to stay put; he would pick me up in an hour and a half. And he did. Getting to his family’s compound somewhere in the hills around Kisumu was a small adventure in itself; it took almost two hours of walking, sitting on the back of a bicycle, crossing a river in a dug-out canoe, and more walking before we arrived. Once there, I was told to sit down with the men on the side of the house made of dried red mud. So I sat there in the shade talking with his father, some of his brothers, uncles, and probably some neighbors, talking about life in Africa and Europe, about work and jobs and salaries. After a while I asked my new friend if there were any women. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but they don’t speak any English.’ His sister who served us drinks and food just smiled when I thanked her in English, so I took his word for it, but after I while I had enough of sitting with the men and their crackling transistor-radio, so I wandered over to the kitchen-hut and motioned if I could come in. Of course I could, the four women in the kitchen welcomed me in perfect English.

As it turned out, his oldest sister was the head nurse at one of the biggest hospitals in Nairobi, and had just come over to her parents’ village for the family gathering this weekend. We talked about life in Africa and Europe as well, and about their specific jobs and lives, their marriages and children. I was 20 at the time, and they were wondering why I didn’t have children. Suddenly my friend’s oldest sister looked me straight in the eye and said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Of course she could. ‘What do you use for contraception?’ All eyes were on me. Two more women had arrived in the meantime, but no one made a sound. ‘Uh, well, condoms?’ I said, ‘and… the pill?’ ‘So white women take the pill as well!’ said the oldest sister, the nurse. ‘Yes, most of my friends do… why would we not?’ I asked, naïve enough. ‘Well,’ was her answer, ‘I thought the pill was meant to make us African women infertile.’

I am still glad I didn’t know back then what I know now, and that I was able to answer that question in full honesty. After that trip I went on to study anthropology, and I learned about the secret sterilization programs that have taken place in many countries in Asia, Africa and South America in the name of international health care and aid programs (and even in the USA itself, mainly on the black population). Still, I thought, that was in the past, and although it’s understandable that rumors about it are still going around, we can safely assume that health programs these days do just what they are supposed to do instead of carrying out a secret political agenda. And so from then on I would make a conscious effort when traveling of convincing people to trust international health care programs and use the medication against malaria and AIDS that they provide.

Unfortunately, I was naïve again: in its urge to kill Osama Bin Laden, the USA has set up a fake vaccination program to capture his children’s DNA. As the author of the piece writes; ‘People's faith in their doctors is critical to the ability to provide health care, and it's unconscionable that the United States would use the single most delicate health issue in the Muslim world as its cover. […] People believe in their medical care. They want to be healthy, and they want more than anything to have healthy children. Accordingly, they believe in their doctors and nurses. And it's the duty of health-care professionals -- and governments -- to return and protect this trust. It is not acceptable to weaponize health, to use Christopher Albon's brilliant turn of phrase. But it's clear -- and interesting -- that doing so is remarkably easy. In a world where social cohesion is eroding rapidly, people still trust their health-care providers.’ It may be clear from my story that this trust people have in their health-care providers is not blind, and may have taken a long time to grow. Stories like this can break that trust in a minute – especially if they cannot be dispelled as a myth by an honest 20-year old backpacker.

Marginalization and Mobilization of Youth in the Near East

“…More than other groups, [Youth in the Near East] have to face situations in which the cultural scripts, messages and codes of the various agencies of socialization are often inconsistent and irreconcilable. Just witness the disparate and conflicting messages they are being subjected to: religious authority, state, national or secular ideologies, family and kinship groups, peer subculture, popular and cyber culture and, as of late, all the seductive appeals of global commodified consumerism, virtual images and life styles. Arab youth today are consequently caught between a poignant and unsettling predicament: traditional vectors of stability and loyalty (family and state) are being undermined, while the modern alternative sources of education, employment, security, public opinion have proved unable to fill the void. The young are also afflicted by another dissonant reality. They are often conceived and celebrated as the “hopes and builders of the future,” yet stigmatized and feared as disruptive and parasitic forces.”

I’ll be speaking at this two-day conference at the American University of Beirut tomorrow afternoon. Come join us if you have the chance! The program can be found here.

I believe this is what we call ‘irony’

The Lebanese are an opinionated people. (According to many of my friends, this is the reason I feel so at home in Lebanon.) (Many of my friends could very well be right.) And the Lebanese are specifically opinionated about themselves and their society. “We are like this”, they will say, or “we are like that.” As an anthropologist, I also have an opinion about Lebanese people, or rather, about Lebanese society. It is based on doing fieldwork here, combined with anthropological, sociological and psychological theories on why people do what they do and act they way they act. However, this opinion does not always correspond to the opinion a Lebanese person may have of his/her society. And when a discussion comes to a point where people say ‘We do this because we are like this’ and I say ‘well, I think you do this because you are like that’, it usually ends with the ultimate dead-end argument from the Lebanese person I am speaking to: “But you don’t know, you can’t understand, because you are not Lebanese.”

It's an argument I obviously cannot refute.

Recently, I participated in a workshop about collaboration between NGOs in Lebanon (of which there are a stunning 3000 to 4000 registered with the Ministry). We learned how to initiate, manage and sustain collaborations between NGOs of different backgrounds and with different goals and missions.

On day 3 of the workshop, it became clear we wouldn’t have time to cover all the subjects our American trainer had in mind, so she drew up a list of the remaining topics and let us choose, collectively, which ones would be dropped.

It didn’t take long for the group to decide that we didn’t need to learn ‘communication skills’, nor learn more about ‘conflict resolution’. The general argument: “We know all that already.”

I could hardly keep myself from asking “really? Is that why we still haven’t elected a president and are on the brink of a (civil) war?”

But I can’t say that. Because I’m not Lebanese…