Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Violence, second hand

Egypt is a conservative country, though much more moderate than many of its neighbors. Culturally it is predominantly Islamic. Its economy is propped up by tourism, media, and a lot of foreign investment (helloooooo tax dollars!). Technically it is a secular state. We counted less than 10 women in two weeks that did not cover their head, and many more women in full burkas, gloves and veils than we did in Tunisia. Women travel and study, though the streets primarily remain a world of men. Men drinking tea and taking sheesha, men holding hands and laughing, men serving food, men staring. Though we felt seriously harassed everywhere we went, we never felt a threat of violence (unlike, say, in Colombia).

So, it stunned us when Jalal, a Lebanese-American backpacker we met at a hostel, described seeing a woman getting beaten by a man in the streets of downtown Cairo. The guy had her by the hair and was hitting her in the face. I asked Jalal if he did anything, and he said no, he walked away. He said, I don’t know what the situation is. Maybe she got caught stealing something. Maybe he was her husband. It was horrible and shocking, but what could he do?

Gabe said something similar. We don’t know what the situation is, and we’re not exactly in friendly terrain. I mean, for all we know, we’re as likely that we’d get in as much trouble – violent or legal or otherwise – for stopping a such an incident as for participating in one. Sure, if we saw that happen in the States, we could do something to stop it. But what can one person do, especially here, where we don’t know the language, don’t know the culture, where even being American makes us suspicious to locals?

My response: We fucking stop the beating! We do what we can! Who cares if it’s built into the culture? Then the culture has to change! If a man is beating a woman, you stop it somehow. You find a way. It is wrong, wrong, wrong.

And then: My God. I am that disgusting American with my disgusting assumption of moral authority and thinking that our right is the only right and maybe we don’t know the whole story and who are we to think we can, or should, change whole societies? Who are we to say anything? How dare I think our moral compass is what is right for the world?

But then: Who CARES? A woman was being hit on the street! Who cares if that woman was stealing? Who cares if that man is her husband, or father, or uncle, or brother? The reasoning that “not knowing the whole story” excuses not stopping a violent act implies that there is “some story” that somehow makes beating another human being on the street okay. And why does that make it more or less okay? How can that possibly be okay? What makes it right for anybody, anywhere, to beat someone else in public? Or in private? WHAT IS WRONG WITH US?

But then: It’s up to people themselves to right the wrongs they see in their society – if they view them as wrongs. Not us. I mean, changing hearts and minds – what the fuck, right? It doesn’t work. You can’t parachute in and make a difference. The only sea changes that have ever worked are those that have been engineered at the grassroots level. People who decide to make a change themselves.

But THEN: How can we expect someone who has grown and lived in a culture to stick their neck out if we can’t? If someone from the outside doesn’t have the courage to say something, to take a risk, to stop the beating of a woman on the street – how can we expect an insider to do so?

The whole thing is uncomfortable and impossible and exhausting and just generally fucking tragic. And all inspired by an incident that we didn’t even see ourselves. As far as soul-searching experiences goes, this lands on the massive end of the scale – and it was only a casual anecdote shared by a fellow backpacker. Life changing moments, at every turn.

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