One of the unexpected perks of living in north Africa for a person from Croydon is the love I have developed for autumn and winter, the significance of which can only really be understood by other persons subjected for multiple years to the hell of England’s incessant drizzle and slate skies. The problem with English weather is that like the English, it dislikes exhibitionism and showy displays of emotion, with the result that its winters are bitter and miserable but lack the beautiful and lusciously deep snow of say, Scandinavian countries. The British summer is a shy woman who will occasional make an appearance until beaten back inside the house by her domineering husband, Mr Pissing Down McCloud.
There is nothing quite like winter in Egypt when everything shines in an ethereal light and colours seem more distinct as if someone has adjusted a giant world aerial. Even the pollution seems to dissipate, to a limited extent, and that delicious combination of crisp, cold air and warm sun is like eating ice-cream with hot syrup.
I also always associate winter with the magical year I spent in Alexandria, much of which was spent steeling myself against the salt-infused wind while on the back of a motorbike. One particularly memorable trip on said vehicle was to Agamy, beloved of summer teenage sun-seekers who in winter leave its empty beaches to the roaring waves and high winds. We made an exciting if bumpy journey there, and I arrived windswept and invigorated by the speed and sense of adventure, a glow which lasted for approximately five minutes until my companion pointed out that the Vaseline I had applied to my lips before we set out had now turned my mouth into a resting ground for insects who had involuntarily networked with my face whilst we were en route.
Having stagnated in the stupefying summer heat, my brain has started working again with renewed energy and I am back to useless rumination. Today having bought the usual basic rations from Seoudi Market, I was walking home when I noted a wealthy-looking woman alighting from an expensive car (or can one only alight from a train?) with her two sons, aged approximately 8 and 12. The younger of the two lads was particularly lively, taking pictures of stuff with his camera and hopping and skipping but without making any noise whatsoever, which I thought was odd. While walking in front of his mother he was looking everywhere but in front and nearly stepped in a puddle. Suddenly she stopped him. In the weirdest, scariest voice ever, (somewhere between ET and the exorcist) she hissed in English ‘if you don’t look in front of you I’m going to kill you. I’m serious,’ while shoving her pointed finger in the poor bleeder’s face. Her tone really was terrifying and put me in mind of the scene in Goodfellas when Robert De Niro threatens to kill Maurice and, while Bob is in the process of garrotting him, Maurice’s wig falls off.
I felt so sorry for the kid, issued a death-threat for being a tad lively – which after all is surely part of a kid’s job description. He seemed used to this treatment however, and was soon back to skipping – albeit looking resolutely in front of him – while his mother, looking harried and exhausted and unhappy, skulked off leaving me with a cloud of her exceedingly fragrant, rather lovely, perfume.
She seemed on the cusp of a nervous breakdown somehow did this woman, the wisps of hair poking out of her messy hegab seeming to reflect a barely-contained frenzy, an unravelling. I wondered what life had thrown at her to make her go gangster on her son, and this reminded me of a theme I have been reflecting on at length in my acres of free time, that of Egyptian woman in Egypt, and marriage and rumpy pumpy.
What inspired this was a recent conversation I had with a friend who told me about a friend of hers who had required some sort of medical treatment downstairs in the women’s department involving a laser (yikes). According to my friend, this treatment had apparently rendered the woman ‘mesh bint’ – not a virgin. I spluttered my objection to this, protesting that Madame Hymen can take her leave in several ways none of which involve a man or the removal of clothes. My friend insisted that the absence of sexual activity was irrelevant, which leaves the ludicrous situation that a woman who has never had sexual intimacy of any kind is not a virgin.
What struck me is how mechanical it is, how superficial, that in certain social circles a woman’s character, goodness, purity and ultimately future is determined by an inch of her being. A woman may have clandestinely engaged in all manner of illicit behaviour not involving penetration, but as long as the precious hymen remains inviolate and she herself is not caught she remains in the clear. At the other end of the spectrum a woman who has never so much as been alone in a room with a man not related to her may, through no fault of her own, have been parted from this precious indicator of her marriageability. In the case of my friend’s friend, her brother and mother had been notified by the doctor of what had happened, so that they could explain the situation to her future groom and exonerate the woman of all potential censure.
While I support women’s (and men’s) right to do with their own bodies as they bloody well wish, I personally dislike the untrammelled voracity with which both men and women consume sex in the UK, and the way in which sex is now used to sell anything and everything, because it has been cheapened in the process. There is something attractive about restraint, about selecting and limiting as long as this remains a choice rather than an imposition. My issue with the hymen-obsession is thus not primarily about the fact that this reflects the denial of women’s right to sexual equality – although this certainly bothers me. Rather, it irks me because it is just so stupid that otherwise logical and right-thinking men (and women) believe that a female can be reduced to this. It is also an example of Egyptian society’s unpleasant habit of measuring people by these fixed standards, as in marriage when prospective partners are gauged by a long checklist at the very bottom of which comes personality, if at all. Yet again the cult of appearance, and, more pressingly, of appearances.
But then of course female sexual appetite is regarded differently to that of men’s everywhere. In the UK women who sleep with multiple partners continue to be regarded with disdain by many – no matter what the media say. Women who flaunt their sexuality are labelled sex kittens, while those who demonstrate an unabated enthusiasm in bed are referred to as ‘tigers’ – excessive female physical lust continues to be regarded as animalistic, if not atavistic, or perhaps this is just blokes confusing feline with female, I don’t know.
In Egypt, women having sex outside marriage remains the ultimate taboo in the majority of social circles, and this is in itself reflected in the popular word for virgin – bint - which speakers of Cockney will know also means girl. I have always found this term spectacularly vivid as a demarcation between the worlds of ‘innocence’ and sexual maturity. And think about its implications: an unmarried woman of 35 who has never had sex (nor been involved with a laser) remains a ‘girl’, while a girl married off at 14 is not. And the associations one makes with the word bint – of innocence, youth – to link these associations with a mature woman I find unsettling somehow.
It is interesting to note how within the confines of marriage a wifely appetite for sex is regarded as slightly perverse, but ultimately a joke – see numerous Egyptian films. I was reminded of this by a male friend who told me about a recently-married mate of his, let’s call him Gargeer. This Gargeer works in the Gulf but is originally from one of Egypt’s governorates. He was in Egypt for a two-week holiday, staying with his wife in her mum’s house but had come alone to Cairo (where my mate lives) on business of some sort.
At the end of the day he arrived at my mate’s house looking wan and exhausted and pleaded to be allowed to spend the night there. This would have involved the sharing of a bed, and my mate was obviously reluctant and perplexed about why Gargeer wanted to stay in Cairo, and the Arabic equivalent of bugger off was sounded. Gargeer entreated him, telling him that he hadn’t slept since he had got back to Egypt. My mate at first didn’t understand, thinking that perhaps some sort of maintenance work where he was staying was waking him up in the early hours until, with a desperate look in his eye, Gargeer wailed ‘IFHAM BA2A!!’ [for the love of God and all that is good understand me, you clot! ] and it transpired that the sleep-preventing nuisance was not mechanical, but rather madame-ical, for in her lust for her husband Gargeer’s wife had quite simply worn him out.
My mate and my mate’s mate recounted tales of Gargeer joining them at 8 p.m., having already fulfilled his matrimonial duties for the umpteenth time that day. His consumption of copious amounts of fish and other phosphorous-containing food products would be interrupted at 2 a.m. by a fully alert Mrs Gargeer on the phone: ‘ta3aala ya 7abeeby, ana sa7eyt’ [come back darling, I’ve woken up]. When they inquired about how she gets up for work at 8 a.m. and indeed, how she stays awake, Gargeer said that he had no clue whatsoever, while pulling his hair out.