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.