Being a half-breed and therefore neither here not there has always had the curious effect of inducing a longing to ‘fully’ belong to some(any)thing while simultaneously preventing me from signing up 100 percent blood and soul for anything. It is the Wizard of Oz effect: intimately belonging to two worlds somehow means that it is impossible to see the wonders of one without seeing the feet underneath the curtain of the other.
The quest for identity has taken me has taken me through some interesting scenery, including: a brief spell at the local Croydon mosque where I watched, baffled, the Qu’ran teacher bark orders at the kids in Bengali; my mother’s horrified reaction when I came home from school and proudly announced that I could recite the Lord’s prayer; being mildly taunted with the Bangles’ friggin ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ dance in the playground; being informed that I have inherited the English coldness; being the only kid with special dietary requirements in a school full of English northerner rednecks; being the only foreigner in a family full of Egyptians…and so on.
The above isn’t meant to be read with the sound of distant violins, I mean being half half is hardly like, only having one leg, or being forced by economic circumstances to appear on the Tyra Banks Show (every time, without exception, that I have the misfortune to stumble across that woman she is boring people with anecdotes about her weave.) But there are nonetheless times (1990 World Cup/upon being asked by Egyptians about the English/upon being asked by the English about Egyptians) when it would be nice to be able to back one horse without mild but nagging inner conflict and the feeling that I am either faking an identity or denying the existence of a parent. Oh and my spiritual life would undoubtedly be in a healthier state as well, as would my ability to fully endorse political and social movements and tick ethnic identity boxes on questionnaires (I resent ‘white – other.’ I am not a variety of wall paint.)
I pondered this the other night as I endured the mostly purgatory-level agonies of the Boussy production at the American University in Cairo, where for an hour and a half I listened to women complaining (the play is a take on the Vagina Monologues). To be fair, and to get it out of the way now so that I can go on to rail bitterly against it, Boussy does have some good moments, explores interesting themes and is undoubtedly something of a pioneer in the Egyptian context.
But bloody hell they didn’t half go on, those women, and about what! The good stuff which was presented was almost undone by two, particularly odious, scenes: in the first we are treated to a ten minute sigh by a furrowed-of-brow woman who, we understand, has been propositioned by a married colleague. This has apparently torn through her soul, heart and mind! And cheapened the meaning of love! And destroyed three lives! (how exactly given that the wife hasn’t found out I don’t know) And done away with all her trust in men and love and everything! And set back the race for a cure for cancer by ten years! And oh oh oh Mr D’arcy!
In the second, unbearable, scene during which I lamented the fact that I was ever born we were forced (the theatre was packed, I wouldn’t have been able to leave without making six seated people, and five people sitting in an impossible formation on the floor, get up) to listen to a furrowed-of-brow woman essentially moan about being dumped, in that whiny high-octave undulating voice reminiscent of a car alarm that devastated dumped women often assume: he was a bastard…but it was my fault too AND I LOVE HIM…and I don’t care that he sold my eyes for crack while I was asleep cos HE’S GOING THROUGH A TRANSITIONAL PHASEEEEEEE.”
While exploring the female condition fully is in theory acceptable, airing every single gripe possibly attributable to a male surely undermines the strength of the argument: it is rather like charging some despot with genocide, crimes against humanity and forgetting to put the toilet seat down. All I know is that I and at least two other women emerged out of that theatre wanting to smack sense into a woman, any woman, even each other. Or ourselves.
But then I have always had problems with the way in which the feminist argument is framed anyway, and for a long time thought that it might be due to the inability to sign up to anything described above. The problem is I think, that feminists are often accused of being humourless and frequently rightly so – or at least their public campaigning is just so serious.There is also the fact that many of my self-described feminist friends have a what I consider Where’s Waldo-type approach to female oppression, seeking to define anything and everything in gender terms. My wonderful friend the Thespian with whom I lived last summer banned me from using the words ‘tits’ in her house, not on the grounds that it was crude (fair enough, I have similar problems with the C word) but because it was ‘denigrating to women.’ She applied the same ban to the word ‘bird’ when used to describe a living creature which does not possess wings.
It was also suggested that I cannot empathise fully with the suffering depicted in Boussy because I am not an Egyptian woman who had a conservative Middle Eastern upbringing. To which I say I am not a 70-year old male retired army veteran, and I still cry at Platoon every time. And as a female but of course I have experienced sexual discrimination. One memorable occasion was during an English A-Level History class for adult learners at some dustbin of a college in Croydon. The teacher was a windsurfing enthusiast with a penchant for shell suits who, we girls noticed, never picked a female to answer questions. Eventually someone asked him why this was to which he casually responded, “d’ya know, I just never see girls’ arms when they go up!” I wondered silently whether he would see my arm as I pushed him off his windsurfing board into shark-infested waters.