Nelly Ali: Egypt and the Dysfunctional Compass of Blame

Posted on August 6, 2012 by

 Photo: Ahmed Khattab

I was not going to write about last week’s attack on the street. Yes, reader, last week I was attacked on the streets of Cairo and subsequently blamed for my choice of timing being on them. However, after having been rammed into a parked car today, and also blamed, I decided to write. This post is not an attempt to evoke pity. What this post does attempt to do is take a quick look at how the compass of blame in Egypt generally points in the wrong direction.

Today, I threw a fit in the one place I could these days. I launched my Twitter app and had my rant. I wished this rage could have been translated into anger and directed at the idiot who had upset me earlier, but how could I when he was in his car and I had already seen he was willing to harm me for “fun”.  After squashing me against the parked car; stripping me of my power, my balance and my control, the driver then parked up temporarily, with his head out of the window sporting a wide smirk, commenting on the size of my breasts and waited to see if I would join in with the sadistic fun and get into the car with him. This only lasted for seconds. A homeless man with obvious learning difficulties saw the incident and I was touched at his rage. He took off his ripped and well-worn slippers and threw both at the car trying to stutter the words “Leave! Leave!” Egypt is, as always, everything and its opposite at every moment.

Last week I was invited to Iftar at a cousin’s house. I went to the local sweet shop to buy an ice cream cake, a favourite during the heat wave that has recently hit Cairo, and waited for a cab, like you do. The roads were quite, as they are just before Iftar time, with the few cars on this main road, driving at break neck speed so they could make it to which ever home they were going to break their fast in.

I could see two guys on a motorbike go round the U-turns a few times. Each time they went round, they parked for a few moments a few feet away from me. They were bare foot, dirty skinned, with unkempt hair and they both had scars across their face – signatures of life’s experiences that they had have suffered, some worn with pride and others with defeat; I had learnt this scarring system through my work with street children: a curved scar under the eyes of a girl, for instance, marks the first time she has been raped, other vertical scars represent each of the subsequent sexual attacks. Out of principle, I am not scared of those who wear the “look” of the street. On the contrary, I am blessed that I can, at once, see beyond the dirt to the handsome jawlines and passed the drugged out drooping eyelids to the fiercely intelligent eyes. The hard callused feet are not unattractive, but instead they tell the tales of the many times they have had to run for survival, from abuse, the times they have had to run for their lives.

Their presence did not affect me. I took my mobile out, made a call and was generally comfortable. It was only when they practically drove their motorbike a hair away from me that I jumped at the proximity of the bike and fell backwards between two parked cars. They weren’t able to grab my bag like they had obviously been planning by the way they grabbed my arm and as they were coming for me one more time, a cab driver stopped and I jumped in.

The cab driver, seeing I was distressed, said that he wanted to offer me some advice. He told me not to take offence, that I was like his daughter, but this was my fault. He said I should have never gone out at least an hour before Iftar time. Despite appearing concerned and kind, as soon as the sunset call for prayers started, he parked up in the middle of nowhere and said he wanted to go to his kids to break his fast and that where I was going was out of his way. No doubt he was thinking abandoning me was my hosts fault for not living en route! I got out, just folded in and sat on the pavement and started to cry. Then, true to being Egypt, the opposites started to appear. Scenes of young men and boys on the street giving out drinks and dates to any car that was still driving during Iftar time, and of course, the kind female beggar who left her food for the few minutes I sat by her on the pavement crying, offering me comfort and advice.  The beggar, opening one of the tissue packets that she sells at the traffic lights, taking it upon herself to wipe my face and further smudge my makeup, told me, “sweetheart, how could you do that?! How could you be go out at this time?! You are the one who is wrong, you are crying because you didn’t think!”

Everyone, who was not part of my twitter community, said some variation of “It’s your fault, you should know never to go out during this time, that’s when the roads are quiet and the muggers operate”. Well, I assure you it never even occurred to me, it was in no manual or travel guide. And is this not what happens when someone is sexually harassed? Some clever disillusioned commentator will make some observation on the way the girl is dressed, the time she was out, the way she was standing, and if it’s a close female perhaps suggest she try minimizing bras.

Then there are others who try to comfort you by saying, “you should thank god that it came to this and you were not hurt, god protected you because you’re kind and did not deserve anything bad to happen to you”. I actually thought this was worse! Are they trying to say those who are seriously harmed deserved it?! How our culture comforts us by saying crap that wasn’t true that we ended up reproducing the thoughts and reproducing the ideas that encouraged inaccurate blame! But how many of the 85,000,000 will be convinced with your speech of social reproduction through language? How many mothers and fathers have you seen hit the floor telling the toddler who had just fallen that the floor was naughty for making the little kid trip over and so we would hit it?

I began to believe that I had taken a horribly wrong decision to have left London, three weeks after getting married to an incredible man, to come to Egypt because I believed in the change that was happening here, because I ached to be a functioning part of a society that was trying to change from the bottom up, from the inside out. I left the place I was born and grew up because I felt I had something, even if it was only my good intentions and willingness to work hard, to offer. I thought that my love for my family here, the people here, the children here, would make this country my home, but the bitter reality is, every time I leave my front door I get a panic attack just thinking what the streets today have to offer, what they have to take away and how I will be blamed. Today I realised my definition of home was where I felt safe.

As for Egypt, it’s important to lay the blame where it is appropriate. Only then can we work towards making things right and fixing them. But, if we continue pointing fingers at the mugged for carrying valuables, the attacked for not being vigilant, the raped for not dressing appropriately, the murdered because their time had come, then we might as well forget society as we know it and start looking for Adam and Eve to blame.
Posted in: Egypt