Just to answer the two most frequent questions I got before leaving for my trip:
1) Was I going/would I have to wear a head scarf?
No. None of the countries I’m visiting have any laws requiring it, and I tend to think tourists who adopt this look when traveling anywhere but Iran and Saudi are a little dopey for doing so. First of all, their scarf-wrapping skills are inevitably bad, and they look all lumpy. And they are probably not Muslim, so not required to. Cairo is a giant city with a global outlook, and the fashion on the street is more cool urban than frumpy babushka.
That said, wow, there are a lot more women wearing the hijab (head scarf) now, and even quite a few wearing the full black niqab, and even a couple doing that spooky thing where they put the sheer black veil entirely over their faces, so they look like ghosts. I’d say the split ten years ago was maybe 60/40 covered to uncovered, and now it’s more like 90/10.
Which doesn’t mean everyone is looking all modest and pious. Lordy, no. I haven’t seen so many tight clothes since Queens. And the care lavished on selecting the colors of scarves and the pinning and so on–straight off the pages of Hijab Fashion, and I am not making that magazine title up.
I’ve never been too bent out of shape about the hijab. It is not keeping women down–although it can be used to do so, along with a million other things. For the most part, it’s just another piece of clothing, and taking it off is not going to liberate anyone by itself. That’s not what women thought a generation ago, though–and it’s these older women, resolutely in polyester business suits and perfect coifs, that I don’t see much in Cairo anymore. The same backlash against overt feminism is happening in Egypt as is happening in the States–it’s just manifested differently. In the US, “I don’t consider myself a feminist” goes with midriff-baring tops and visible thong underwear; in Egypt, it goes with a bright-blue hijab tied to show off your earrings and a super-tight long-sleeve shirt and ankle-length skirt.
I’m sure there’s more to it, and every woman has a different reason/explanation/story (or none at all) for why they wear the hijab. It’s none of my business, really. I just appreciate the fashion parade.
(Though I do carry a scarf in my bag for wearing when I visit mosques, which is just polite.)
2) Don’t they hate Americans?
No. A lot of people really, really hate George Bush & Co., but they’re perfectly capable of distinguishing me from George Bush. No Texan accent, to start with.
There has been so much talk of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East that even I was starting to believe it might be true, even though I could not imagine someone in Egypt or Syria actually telling me they hated me because I was American. And it’s not like I believed it enough to start telling people I was Canadian or some crap.
Yes, I counted exactly two awkward silences following our admission of nationality–if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, these two guys were clearly thinking.
More often, though, we got smiles, thumbs-up, “Ahsan nass!” (The best people!), “Yankee doodle!” and even “Hotsy-totsy!” (Huh?) One Syrian security guard said, “George Bush!” with a thumbs-up (we told him he was nuts), and another guard said, “George Bush bad!” while smiling apologetically. People in the Middle East are smarter than the American press gives them credit for.
And they are still kinder than most Americans would ever be to visiting Middle Easterners. I feel especially ashamed about this last point, and I will be practicing my crazy hospitality skills on anyone who comes within range–brace yourselves.