We perused the Sephora, we weren’t quite sure was a Sephora, one more time. I was drawn to a Spiderman cologne, which ended up smelling like lemon cleaning substance. Nadia headed to a shelf with a scent she knew. “Need a tester?” I offered. Nadia declined– “I know this one,” before liberally squirting.
She sniffed her wrist and offered it to me. Ughh…something was wrong! It doesn’t smell right, she lamented. Too late.
We headed out of the ”Sephora” laughing.
Our suspicions seemed confirmed. We were now pretty sure the store must be hiding a disclaimer or facing a lawsuit (if anyone bothered to notice or care).
I’m non-material, don’t much like shopping and have little brand loyalty. Despite, it is always surprising when you realize the product you’re seeing only shares a similar name and packaging style. This applies for food, clothes, makeup, jewelry, accessories etc.
Sometimes the differences are very easy to spot, as Nadia and I discovered last week. Others are are less obvious if you’re not suspecting.Plus, the practice obviously isn’t confined to expensive brands, to which the shampoo example attests.
It happened to me a couple months ago with shampoo. I bought a bottle, which I could have sworn was Herbal Essences.
Silly me right? But hey, it even had the same picture of the fruit/flowers, green top and pink color.
The other thing I find most entertaining about the whole brand knock-off practice, is very often descriptions and product details are spelled completely incorrectly too, raising the question–is the brand misspelling always purposeful? Very likely if these fakes were trying to be legitimate they would have typos, which would give them away despite
Back in Mohandaseen Nadia and I have moved from the “Sephora” to two amazing accessory stores which beckoned with their glitter and lights. Beside the photo-worthy brands featured here, highlights were a large selection of snake sunglasses (Nadia modeled every pair), belly-dancing beads and endlessly shiny, big and beautiful earrings.
It’s the end of another long workday at RLAP, I rise from my laptop, in conversation with another coworker across the room. As I walk by *Samira, a favorite Iraqi woman who has worked in our office as translator, in St. Andrew’s library and most recently as one of our start cooking teachers, pokes my right hip.
“Ahh you are getting fat!” she scolds me.Her inquisitive eyes look over my stomach, covered by a thin purple t-shirt and draped with a veil going down to my thighs. She shakes her head with concern. “Your form, ” she mourns, “it’s because you sit at a desk all day,” she concludes.
Our legal director, Stephanie, and the other remaining intern in the office look on horrified.
After being in Egypt, and in particular with Iraqis, for over 6 months I’m neither concerned or surprised by Samira’s remarks. At a party a couple months ago a different Iraqi woman poked at another interns fat and similarly advised a course of action. Once, twice in a day, clients asked Stephanie if she was pregnant when she wore a slightly baggy shirt.
A former figure skater and someone who takes pride in her body, I’ve reached the point where these comments are amusing rather than traumatizing. Though I don’t go to the gym here, (no time!) I do yoga at home (occasionally,) walk a lot and eat a relatively healthy array of foods. (Well if you subtract all the oil and frying). Plus, I cannot be too concerned since my clothes still fit!
Not limited to Iraqis, I’ve had similar experiences with Egyptians. After not seeing an Egyptian friend for a couple weeks, he greeted me with an enthusiastic, “You gained weight!”
“What?!” I said, not reacting with the same nonchalance I showed to Samira today.
“No, it’s good,” he tried to assure me. “It’s in the right places. Egyptians like women who aren’t too skinny.”
Though I explained how my American culture typically views weight, how the youngest boys know women don’t like to hear such comments, he was only amused.
As we walked out the door moments later he commented on how my butt filled out my jeans.
Though my Egyptian friend might have approved, Samira is having none of it. ”You must do 10 minutes of Arabic once a week,” she prescribed.
“You mean aerobics,” I correct. “But I don’t think it will help. If I’ve gained weight it’s because you cook me too much delicious food.”
Brendan, a fellow Northeastern student and coincidently RLAP legal intern, draws her attention to his stomach. Our Iraqi friend is undeterred.”You’re a man. It’s Ok…but Lily! ” Laughing, trying not to, I nod seriously in agreement. “Obviously women like men with bellies.” Missing my sarcasm, Samira insists any weight Brendan gained is inconsequential.
I ask Samira if the aerobics can be belly dancing and she raises her hands and slightly shakes her hips.
“So, is your only concern my stomach?” I ask, remembering another time when an Iraqi commented that my cheeks looked fuller.
“Yes,” she verifies, seemingly slightly concerns I’m stuck on the subject. “Here in Egypt, you’re normal, you’re how they like it.” Unlike my Egyptian friend, she at least has one part of American tastes right. “In America they like skinny,”
She does a model walk, raising her hands and shaking her hips slightly. “You must walk like this in your bathing suite in America. I’m tempted to point out I’m destined to spend the next few months in freezing Boston. Instead I just smile, nodding at the severity of my new challenge.
” You’re Ok now,” she confirms. “But I like you. I want you to be number one!”
The last word: I’m looking forward to some belly dancing classes!
*I’ve changed her name in an effort to not put her on the spot. Though, I actually think she’d be flattered by the attention.
I’m always searching for new ways to describe Cairo to family and friends who have never been here.
Before I left, I had a fun night out with two of my closest friends Sarah Gordon and Chrissy Speich. Walking down the streets of Boston they were singing Taylor Swift songs.
I was out of the loop and didn’t know the words, so before I left, I downloaded a couple.
“The Way I Loved You,” goes like this:
“He is sensible and so incredible and all my single friends are jealous
He says everything I need to hear and it’s like I couldn’t ask for anything better
He opens up my door and I get into his car and he says you look beautiful tonight
And I feel perfectly fine
I miss screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain
And it’s 2 am and I’m cursing your name.
So in love that you act insane
And that’s the way I loved you
Breaking down and coming undone
It’s a roller coaster counter-rush
Never knew I could feel so much
And that’s the way I loved you.
OK. Thanks for reading through that. You either secretly (or openly) love it or you’re really wondering where I’m going….
Cairo is infuriating, crowded, hot and filthy.
Males constantly harass me in the streets and sometimes I get sick from the food.
People try to overcharge me because I’m female and foreign.
Sometimes I end up in the wrong place because I can’t communicate with cab drivers, read building names, or maps in Arabic.
Sometimes I really want delicious grilled chicken with onions and peppers and the cook, smiling, gives me fried chicken fingers and fries. “American, yes?”
Other than the teas, things aren’t sugar-coated here. Bathrooms usually don’t have toilet paper and the tastiest restaurants might be in the dingiest allies.
The perfect flat might be in a dilapidated building with an elevator which only goes up, not down.
Going to the beautiful cave church requires a trip through a village of horrid smelling garbage.
Taylor sings on about respecting space and talking politely but concludes–
“And my hearts not breaking because I’m not feeling anything at all.”
The range of emotions and types of experiences in Cairo is boundless. Feeling nothing at all, being bored, is virtually impossible.
People who barely knew me have welcomed me into their lives and homes.
I’ve met so many eager to talk and share ideas. They want to talk about politics,
religion, culture, gender and freedom. They read the news and feel invested in unfolding events.
I’ve found a library downtown with free internet and seen new parts of the city searching for flats.
Exploring the last few days I’ll be in an upper-class area with trees and guards and turn the bend to behold crowded streets decked with juice stands, koshari, and all sorts of people interacting.
I’ve met Americans, French, Palestinians and Britons who navigate life here as comfortably as Egyptians.
I have relied on myself and put more trust in others–sometimes strangers–than I thought I was capable of granting.
I have been scared, alone and overwhelmed. I’ve been ecstatic when I’ve gotten things right.
Loving and appreciating Cairo–just living here is not always easy. Every-day-things–making a copy of my resume, finding a new street– can feel like an epic odyssey.
Yet at the end of the day, if I’m dirty from walking outside, physically and mentally exhausted; if I’ve learned a new word or made a new friend–it’s a day well spent.
To finish on a note—
“….You were wild and crazy, intoxicating
And that’s the way I loved you…..”
A couple days a go a few of us interviewed young women affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood for stories we are writing. One of the young woman Sondos, invited us out for dinner, along with her sister, Marwa.
They showed us unbelievable kindness and welcome, put up with endless questions (this was not supposed to be an interview!) showed us how to tied headscarves and encouraged a photo shoot. To be fair, they asked their fair share of questions in return. These are the types of friendships which truly lead to cultural understanding. Marwa puts the hijab (headscarf on Rachel). Headscarves are a sign of modesty. They are also a huge part of the culture. Most Muslim women in Egypt where them out of choice. At least here, it’s as much a fashion statement as a profession of religiosity.
Thanks Marwa and Sondos! I look forward to seeing you when I return to Egypt.
What do the words Islamic blogger bring to mind? Young extremists hacking away on old computers. Youth from poor backgrounds who have turned to Islam after secular dreams failed? Maybe you already know better.
Raya Shokatfard is a 63-year old female blogger for Islamonline.com and lived most of her life in the United States. She came to speak with us at Professor Sullivan’s flat and because of popular demand, spent the majority of the time sharing intimate details of her personal life. Ask some journalistic questions, Carlene chided us an hour or so into the conversation. It was little use–Raya’s story had us hooked.
A native of Iran, Raya’s family migrated to California in 1969 when she was 20 years old. A mini-skirt wearing model who owned a clothing store, drove a Rolls Royce and spent her time at a beach house, religion and modesty, so central to Islam were far from her mind.
At some point, these luxuries grew old. “I have everything but I’m really empty,” she remembers realizing.
Through Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity (she practiced as a Christian seven years) she traveled, still at a loss for what she sought. Then she read the Koran. “It was so plain, so clear. I felt I did find God here,” she told us.
Divorced with two children Shokatfard retreated to the mountains of northern California to home school her children in Islam and lead a more peaceful life. As her understanding of Islam deepened so did her desire to share and combat misconceptions about the religion.
Raya spent 16 years speaking in schools, churches and wherever she was welcomed about Islam. At the same time she operated as a highly successful real-estate agent.
Around September 11th she married a “strict” Egyptian husband with two other wives. He asked her to give up her real estate business–which she said was earning her $30,000-40,000 per month. “When you say you believe don’t you think Allah will test you?” she said of the financial sacrifice.
She also adapted the niqab (face veil) in addition to the hijab (headscarf) and abaya (full-length dress) she already wore. She continued giving lectures in rooms where men and women sat separately–she removed her niqab only facing women. She said she wanted to learn from her husband, who was under Allah. Women are vessels under their husbands, she told us. “Everything he asked me, I did,” she said of her second husband. “He was a very knowledgeable sheikh.
When she could not reach her husband to gain permission, she missed her own lectures.
After September 11th she wanted to do something more. I wanted to expand my audience, she told us.
She came to American University in Cairo and earned her Masters in Communication and Media. During this time she divorced her Egyptian husband–something common in Islam. After graduating in 2007 she was hired by Islamonline.com, the most widely read English Islamic publication. Today accepts a promotion to the position of chief editor
How are you guys grappling with all this? Carlene asked us mid-way through. I think we can talk freely here, she said. Raya has children who grew up in the United States. She spent her life there.
We did not hold back. We asked Raya about polygamy and feminism, her multiple divorces and relationships with her children.
“No matter what I did I was the smartest in everything. I became proud,” she told us. “I had the body of a woman but a mind of a man. When I really looked at characteristics of a believing woman, that is not me.” She described Saudi Arabian women who isolated and insulated themselves from the outside world.
What you’re saying is woman shouldn’t work? Isn’t that a privilege of the elite? I questioned her.
She held firm. It’s not women’s natural role. Their characters suffer. Raya considers her own activism different–not a financial enterprise she is doing the work of Allah.
After the session ended Stephanie Daly and I asked her questions for an article we’re writing about dating (stay tuned!).
Steph wanted a picture with her. Come in, come in, she encouraged me.