It’s inevitable: we’re overwhelmingly inclined to interpret new experiences through a lens colored by the past. But so much gets lost in translation that way. More than anything so far, this trip has encouraged me to loosen up the straps of my Western goggles when it comes to anything from accepting Cairo’s constant clamor of honking cars to understanding Islamic conventions.
It’s easier to accept the honking, naturally.
The other night, Katie and I realized we barely hear it anymore. When we do, it’s sort of charming. But that won’t make a honking horn in Boston any nicer – because interpretation relies on an evaluation of intent, and Bostonians will still be honking out of aggravation. Meanwhile, Dennis told us that Egyptians honk to say, “Hello.” It’s a stress-free exercise. A sonic head nod. Considering the national contempt for traffic laws, it’s hard to imagine they’d honk for any reason except to save themselves the trouble of cleaning your body off the street. But, nope! The honking has little to do with how close they’ve come to committing vehicular manslaughter. Just saying hey.
When it comes to heavier issues, it’s harder to accept the Egyptian status quo. As an American, I immediately view double standards as discriminatory, in this case, the different rules for Islamic men and women. Burkas seem oppressive. It’s insulting that women have to perform prostrations behind men in mosques. (Men and women alike kneel on the floor in deference to Allaah, and facing the direction of Mecca.)
Yesterday, on a walking tour of Islamic Cairo’s historical mosques (more on this later), Iman Abdulfattah reasoned the latter in a totally different context than I’d ever considered: A woman wouldn’t feel comfortable kneeling with a man behind her, she said.
I struggled to reconcile this apparently sensible notion with my own principles. Muslim women live lives of modesty, so perhaps their religion should operate with their comfort in mind. Maybe the constrasting laws the govern men and women are practical and thoughtful, not suffocating. But Nick articulated the roots of my apprehension.
“[It’s OK] when it’s a personal choice, but not when it becomes a rule – that a woman has to be embarrassed about her body, but a man doesn’t,” he said. “If the modesty went both ways, I’d understand, but it doesn’t, which makes a woman subservient.”
Ultimately, I can’t condone any law that puts one man or woman behind, above, below or before another. But at least I’m learning – I hope – to suspend judgment when perceiving these cultural differences.