A friend of mine, let’s call her Shams, recently went to a doctor specialised in women’s complaints. Without wishing to conjure up too graphic an image, she had an intimate examination by the female doctor, and was suddenly surprised to hear:
‘mabrouk ya benty enty lessa 3ezraa2. masha2allah el 3’eshaa2 3andek gameela gedden!’ [Congratulations dear, you’re still a virgin. Your hymen is in excellent shape!]
She then left a flabbergasted Shams momentarily to share the wonders of this magnificent hymen with her female colleague, going so far as to draw a diagram of the specimen.
In her infinite wisdom the doctor recommended that Shams be tested for diabetes which (possibly after examination of her hymen) the doctor suspected she had. Shams spent a nightmarish eight hours waiting for the test result which – surprise, surprise – proved the doctor wrong. Needless to say her original purpose in visiting the doctor was entirely unrelated to her virginity.
This incident is an example of the generally strange world that Shams inhabits, a world she navigates according to a complex guidebook of moral, religious and social obligations some of which she has chosen herself, some of which are imposed on her and many which were so deeply ingrained so long ago that attempting to source their origins in either volition or imposition would be like asking her to remember and recount her first ever dream: an impossible feat of stripping away layers of fact from perceived reality, and perceived reality from the world and the word created by others, and the world and the word created by others from her own consciousness until she arrives at herself.
As a result of or perhaps despite her circumstances she is luckily not given to much introspection, and is content to regard the occasional imposition of moral standards controlling her behaviour as nuisance encumbrances and the family members imposing them well-meaning fools. She finds humouring them the best possible approach, yes sir no sir…listen to them until they stop talking. And she loves them, her family, after all. Her widowed mother who left her father long before he departed this planet, leaving behind him six children, all of whom bore his name but only one of which could tell you what he liked for breakfast, and a wife who would have spat in his eggs given the opportunity.
Moral guidance, school fees and new shoes were provided by her older brother Ahmed, who spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia with his father, the only one of the children to have done so. When he returned to Egypt he brought back with him a set of fierce morals, a strange accent and a beard, much in the same way that backpackers come back from Goa with stinking dreadlocks and a sense of having visited a higher plane. He discovered that while Egypt welcomed her wandering son his beard was persona non gratis and, after being photographed with it for his national ID card, he received an unannounced visit from a pair of polite men who greeted him warmly and spoke in a roundabout way and in semi-hushed tones about the necessity of not wearing one’s convictions on one’s face, or at least not in a government document. The words national and personal interests and unwanted attention were mentioned and Ahmed returned once more to be photographed for his ID, this time his face stripped bare and with a sense that the dangers and devils around which his existence was shaped had assumed a corporeal form, and that he had been vindicated, somehow.
Ahmed lives apart from Shams and the rest of them, but is near enough to be able to make frequent visits necessitating a modification of Shams’ wardrobe if she plans on going out while he is there. While she was at university he would convey her to and from classes, so concerned was he to protect his sister’s, and by extension his own, reputation. Shams dresses modestly, but in university she was veiled, and is the only one of the three sisters to have subsequently chosen not to wear it. She puts it back on during Ramadan, not because she is compelled to do so but because she adores the spirituality of the month and the sense of being subsumed into something greater and nobler than herself. She is able to lose herself and find meaning in the rites associated with Ramadan, and wearing a veil is both a mark of submission and a declaration of a brief freedom from her own existence. Ahmed of course cannot accept her rejection of the veil the rest of the year round, and seeing her uncovered hair is a constant provocation. But then Shams is a provocation, the family renegade, the maverick, constantly battling, refusing, demanding life on her terms.
And yet in so many other ways she is so compliant, so unquestioning. It has to do with her complete absence of curiosity in anything immediately beyond the limits of her world. I have never met anyone so uniformly and fiercely hobby-less. She does not read for pleasure nor watch television actively. She is only very remotely interested in a narrow range of music. She occasionally likes going to the cinema to watch Arabic films and will tolerate foreign films if the majority outvote her. She is not interested in the consumption of food beyond purposes of sustenance unless she has cooked it (I asked her when she travelled abroad whether she was enjoying eating the food and she replied ‘I am mostly eating fish and cheese’), and uses the internet only to check email and chat. This is a woman who will sit, arms crossed and statue-like in a room full of magazines and books for hours. It would not occur to her to pick something up and read or at least peruse it: books and magazines offer Shams about as much stimulation as rocks in a field. And this fantastic indifference is not attributable to a lack of intelligence. Shams has ambition, is witty and is rarely dull. It is rather that the art of passion for something rarely develops organically, it must seemingly be inculcated in a child in the same way that he must be taught to walk and speak. While Shams is deeply loved by her family they apparently did not put a high premium on anything beyond her material and spiritual wellbeing, and I have only witnessed Shams become unabashedly enthusiastic about anything on two occasions: once, when a visit to a moulid was proposed and secondly, whenever reference is made to her cooking: she inevitably makes ‘the best, the most sumptuous’ food the world has ever tasted.
The channels of energy which would usually be directed into supporting a football team or devotion to a singer or hiking instead flow into Shams’ two major emotions: pride and jealousy. Shams’ confidence and belief in herself is unfailing and dazzling – which is fortunate, given that bad luck and unfavourable circumstances seem to be just as routinely consistent. Her sense of outrage at a slight, whether perceived or actual is usually out of all proportion to what really happened and is always attributed by her to the fact that the miscreant in question ‘does not know Shams’ true worth.’ A sense of her own value is clear in her bearing, in her manner, which men find attractive and which inspires in many women a visceral dislike of Shams resulting in them dismissing her as a snob. But to call her a snob would be wrong simply because Shams’ self-confidence is not of the variety which is based on the belittlement of others. Rather it is self-sustaining, and drawn from the bubble of her own existence.
Which is not to say that Shams is indestructible or invulnerable. She has alluded to desperate times, to razors bought, marks on wrists and moments of hesitation with pill bottles in bathrooms. Contiguous with her unfailing self-confidence is an expectation that things must logically go her way. When – inevitably – they do not, her only explanation is either that she has a cursed existence or there is a conspiracy against her or both. Shams is quite unlike naturally depressive types with low self-esteem whose negativity – if it doesn’t actually precipitate it – at least prepares them for mental crisis. The flipside of Shams’ dazzling self-esteem is that she has much further to fall when despair seizes her and consequently strikes the ground much harder – she being so unequipped to deal with the emotional demons released upon impact, so unused to self-analysis, particularly analysis of her own existence within the wider context of the outside world.
The deadly combination of pride and jealousy makes Shams get out of cars while they are still moving, leave chairs suddenly vacant in restaurants and – the old favourite – guillotine telephone conversations. These tendencies are only made more acute by the fact that she is vaguely romantically involved with the world’s most forgiving – or stupidest – man. Watching them in action is like being outside on an intensely close, warm day when a storm is brewing and the airless climate makes you feel like someone has your head in a vice of steadily increasing pressure. He will unknowingly make some offhand remark and Shams’ whole being immediately changes. Her eyelids flutter, her mouth hardens, and she will begin jigging her foot up and down, slowly at first, but gradually faster and with each movement the vice’s grip intensifies. Suddenly and without warning the storm breaks and Shams is up and gone in mid-traffic or mid-sentence. The interesting thing is that her good upbringing does not allow her to raise her voice or swear or even use an overtly disrespectful tone (she speaks in a semi-whisper usually anyway), and I have often wondered whether if she were a little less polite and able to release tension verbally her man would spend less time chasing after her through Cairo’s streets.
Shams’ two closest siblings are her older sister Rania and younger brother Hassan. Rania is as timid and as withdrawn as Shams is outgoing, nervous even of leaving the house alone, and moves like a woman apologising in advance for her existence. Maybe this is because, as Shams suggests, she has been affected by her brother and father’s influence – the influence which Shams and Hassan were just young enough to avoid. Shams talks about Hassan constantly, particularly these days: he is currently in an army prison having been foolishly (if not recklessly) remiss in checking that his term of military service had actually ended after recovering from the car accident-induced injury which initially interrupted it and accepting work in a hotel on the Red Sea.
Shams has been to visit him, and was reassured by the fact that on the day she went a birthday party was being held for another inmate, complete with DJ, family members and cooing fiancée. She was also suitably impressed with the fact that at the sound of all five daily azans the officer in charge apparently rounds up Muslim inmates for obligatory prayer. As we sat in a chi-chi bookshop Shams assured me that it was necessary to temporarily divest these wayward youths of their right to refuse in order to instil in them some kind of discipline and put them on the right path. I argued that ultimately the effect might be quite the opposite, and that the experience risks sullying their relationship with their faith forever. She accepted this risk, but said that of the twenty who abandoned religious rites upon their release, five will have been edified by it, therefore justifying the exercise. This despite the fact that she is a human rights lawyer. It is yet another example of the complexity of her system of – sometimes overlapping, often not – morals and ethics which must accommodate social, religious and human rights values. She interprets and applies these values as she sees fit, and is indifferent to whether this interpretation satisfies others or not.
Her relationship with authority is more ambiguous. For the reasons discussed above, most of her friends are male. She enjoys a particularly close – but strictly platonic – relationship with a former work colleague who happens to be Christian. Their friendship came to the attention of the powers that be and Shams started receiving anonymous phone calls warning her of the inadvisability of seeing so much of her friend. This culminated in a phone call from an individual who identified himself and warned her that if she insisted on not heeding these warnings he might have to call her in for a little chat. She immediately volunteered to go to the police station and did in fact go, accompanied by a male friend – just in case. When she told me I asked her, “but weren’t you frightened?” having heard about the risks for women of entering a police station. She responded with a classic Shams look: the barest hint of a smile, eyelids slightly lowered disparagingly and said, “of course not. Why should I be scared of them? I’ve done nothing wrong.”
And I believed her, because for five years she went to police stations all over Cairo, alone, and at all hours of the night, in order to represent clients. Her bravery and dedication were legendary. So legendary in fact, that in a meeting once a boss, when he was for some reason discussing male and female lawyers according to gender, put Shams in the male group because she is “braver than any man.”
And yet…and yet. Shams on other occasions obeys authority blindly, dismissing as fantastical the idea that she could challenge, or even ignore, the advice of certain individuals who she has adopted as mentors and elevated to the position of virtual gods. One such individual once saw fit to publicly humiliate Shams through a severe ticking off which had her in tears. This is exactly the type of behaviour which her pride would ordinarily not allow to tolerate, but which instinct is overrode by an almost cult-like devotion to these few individuals. The relationship is rendered even more complicated by the fact that the individual in question is old enough to be her father and yet Shams barely conceals her feelings – a mixture of filial adoration, respect and sexual attraction – from him. The man’s narcissism fuels this symbiosis, and it infuriates me (and her other friends) that she cannot appreciate that her role is merely to act as a mirror in which he can gaze upon his glory. But then Shams’ approach to her sexuality and how she uses it like everything else in her life: an ongoing negotiation between duty, desire and disappointment.