On a trip to Egypt, a mother and daughter explore the roles of women in a different culture.
Hundreds of towering camels milled around us, churning up the Egyptian dust. Their tenders tried to keep them in line with bamboo sticks, but some of the camels were bolting anyway.
“If one runs at you, wave your arms to catch their eyes,” cautioned Ann Light, a longtime friend who is married to a U.S. naval attaché in Cairo. She’d brought me to this giant livestock market, the Birqash Camel Market, about 22 miles northwest of Cairo. “And then they swerve around you.”
This was her sixth visit to Birqash. It’s the largest camel market in Egypt and hundreds of camels are traded or sold there every Friday. Most—animals and tenders—have walked the Forty Days Road from western Sudan to Abu Simbel on the Egyptian banks of Lake Nassar. There they are hobbled and trucked to Upper Egypt and then onto this market, the end of the line. The animals were stressed. No wonder they wanted to bolt.
I could relate. From my perch of Western feminist privilege, where I can pick and choose which news events to read about and which social norms I work to understand, traveling to Egypt with my youngest child was daunting, like setting foot on the Yellow Brick Road. My family and friends had expressed their own fears about our trip. Now here I was, surrounded by animals as tall or taller than an average moose back home in Maine. My teenage daughter was back in Cairo sleeping in after a late-night party I still can’t believe I let her attend. To further stir the pot of potential travel anxiety, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, better known as ISIS back home, had claimed ownership of a deadly attack on the Egyptian Army on the Sinai Peninsula the day we arrived in Egypt. At least 15 people had been killed.
But an embassy-approved driver had brought us along a bumpy road from Cairo to the camel market in a borrowed armored car. We had dressed conservatively and carried scarves to shield our faces should a sandstorm kick up. It was mid-February and we were in an open air market in a foreign land, but about as safe as we could be, largely thanks to Light. She and I met when we were neighbors in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and our daughters were in third grade. She’s generally fearless and that fearlessness is contagious when I’m with her.
Some of these animals would be traded for other livestock and some of them would end up as meat. I told Ann I needed to taste camel meat to help me absorb the experience. That request prompted a shift in our exploration of Egypt from a typical tourist perspective. We decided we wanted to learn more about the women of this country, to challenge our own likely misconceptions. We needed to look beyond the burkas.
Light called a friend, Alaa el Masry, who she’s heard bragging many times about his wife Fatima’s cooking. By the next day, Fatima el Masry was leading us through an open-air market in the back streets of Cairo’s Maadi neighborhood to a stall that sells one product: the very best camel kofta mix. That’s essentially meatball mix, but with camel meat. Fatima calls the shots even if it is her husband who asks the stall owner for a half kilo of meat. He carves the beef-red meat from one of the hanging camel quarters and wields his curved knife to hack off enough fat from a second one to flavor and moisten the meat. Both cuts squeeze through a large-grain grinder first and then through a small-grain one with uncooked rice, parsley, dill, cilantro, salt and pepper.
Back in her kitchen, her husband and sons entertained the other guests with family photo albums that featured pictures of American presidents and Fatima, circa 1980, in shorts on an Alexandria beach before the hijab was a social norm. An Indiana Jones movie dubbed in Arabic provided white noise while she taught me how to roll the kofta, fry it and simmer it in a spicy tomato sauce, a dish her family clamors for whenever she chooses to serve it. Camel turned out to have a mild taste, somewhat like rose veal, less interesting than the chance to observe Fatima el Masry at home in her kitchen. When it comes to feeding the family, she wields the power. “Historically, as we’ve grown to view a woman’s freedom synonymously with her ability to work outside of the home, we’ve discounted the control any woman can wield over her life from the kitchen,” says Maine-based writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins. She’s a Mediterranean food expert who spent a significant amount of time in Egypt researching a book she wrote about ancient Egyptian maritime technology. It is the women who determine when the family gathers to eat; what they consume; how a significant portion of the family’s income is spent; and how the food is divided among its members. Finding the open window into a local woman’s kitchen while traveling in a foreign place helps a tourist understand some of the power dynamics of a place, says Harmon Jenkins.
We also got a peek into another domestic area: the nursery. Light, a nurse by training, took us to assist her at Baby Wash, a long-standing program set up by a group of French nuns in Giza, that takes place in a clinic in the shadow of the Great Pyramid. Since many young families don’t have running water, Baby Wash brings new mothers into the health clinic four times in the first six months of their babies’ lives for a warm bath. Coming in for a bath is also a way to open the lines of communication for health checks and parenting classes. The mothers can also pick up clothes, blankets and much-needed supplies like Desitin and diapers. My daughter donated rubber ducks, that universal tubby time treat, for this visit. Together we washed 18 babies that morning. The women watched, attentively, proudly, as we communicated our concern for their children’s well-being by cradling their child’s head and gently introducing their tiny bodies to the new sensation of a warm bath.
The first baby my daughter washes on her own is a boy who’s severely underweight, ribs exposed, a high-pitched cry like the one I remember coming from her lungs when my breast milk was less than what she needed but I still persisted in nursing anyway. “I’m afraid I’ll hurt him,” she says. Light assures her that you support a small baby just as you would a hefty one. My heart aches as I watch my own child contemplate childhood hunger at such close range and as I imagine how or if this baby’s mother could supplement breast milk with formula in a house without running water.
That was one of the most sobering experiences we had. With Light we went on to all the requisite historical sites and to some places where only Western women dare to tread. Then she took us to a factory started by women and staffed almost entirely by women. Founded in 2004 by Ecuadorian ex-patriates Margarita Andrade and Goya Gallagher, Malaika Linens produces luxury items from a well-known local resource—Egyptian cotton—while upholding a social mission to give local women a chance to learn a marketable skill, namely embroidery and ancient hand-drawn thread crafting techniques, to improve their economic standing.
“Everyone can learn to sew,” said Andrade, as she conducted a tour of the company’s airy, orderly production center in 6th of October City, a suburb of Cairo. A dozen women in various levels of veiling sit at sewing machines, edging bed linens. In another room, others work with screens to paint a palm tree motif on toiletry bags, tablecloths, sheets and pillowcases. The walls are lined with past designs, golden camels, fish in four shades of aqua, lucky scarab beetles in blue, coral and orange.
What we weren’t seeing, explained Andrade, were dozens more female employees who must work from home for child care reasons or because the men in their lives require them to do so. In central Cairo, Malaika set up the first of three planned training centers where women can learn the embroidery techniques. Once proficient, the women leave the school with the materials they need to make the products and complete them at home on their own schedule.
“When you empower a woman, you empower her whole family,” said Andrade. I promptly buy about $300 worth of Egyptian linens. Later, when I’m back home, another Mainer, Bowdoin College professor Batool Khattab, tells me she does the same kind of thing whenever she visits her native Cairo. Her suitcases tend to be stuffed with Bedouin rugs, pottery from Al Fayoum and beaded jewelry from Aswan that she’s picked up at one of the two Fair Trade Egypt outlets in the city. She sees a clear value in purchasing authentic souvenirs made by her country women; she knows she’s helping to support their families.
But Khattab encourages any traveler interested in supporting local women while in Egypt to look beyond commerce, particularly to the burgeoning modern art scene, where women are expressing themselves alongside and in collaboration with men. At Room Art Space in Cairo’s wealthy Garden City neighborhood, Khattab said male and female performers and artists collaborate, create and share ideas. The stage hosts live music, film screenings, stand-up comedy and open mic events. “We gain a lot by redefining gender roles culturally,” said Khattab.
And in this case, by looking back to the past, when Egypt in the age of the Pharaohs dignified women’s role in government and society. When Khattab recently visited Egypt with her new husband, she was struck by how often ancient Egyptian couples are presented in equal measure. “There is something striking in seeing a huge stone representation of a couple, and they are standing, hand-in-hand, on an equal footing for the world to see,” said Khattab.
We got a sense of that when we visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. Hatshepsut, a queen-turned-pharaoh, constructed the temple in her own honor 3,000 years ago. Other women had controlled the royal line as regents for their young sons. Hatshepsut had no children herself, so when her husband died, she worked the system to become regent for a lesser wife’s son—and went on to extend her rule for two decades. She has taken grief for it in many history books, according to Egyptologist Kara Cooney. In her book When Women Ruled the World, Cooney writes that Hatshepsut “remains, arguably, the only woman to have ever taken power as a king in ancient Egypt during a time of prosperity and expansion—and thus many historians have interpreted her kingship as an ambitious and immoral power grab.”
Despite Hatshepsut’s rule-breaking, Cooney writes, she did everything else to the era’s standards, securing and expanding her kingdom’s borders; making the elites richer to sustain her control; building houses of stone to appease the gods; and engaging in risky trade ventures that paid off in the end. Just like a man.
“She did what the gods would have expected of a male king,” writes Cooney. Modern historians have had to re-evaluate her reign, saving her, Cooney says, “from the void and judgment imposed on her by the men who came after her.”
My daughter didn’t need a historian to validate her feelings about the pharaoh. Her Instagram post of her standing in front of the temple said it all. “Hatshepsut was a badass” was the caption.
ARCHAEOLOGY FROM SPACE
You know how you come home from a vacation wanting to know even more about the place you’ve just been? And fascinated to find surprising new connections between the place you live and the place you’ve just been? That’s what happened when I learned about Maine native Sarah Parcak. Parcak has a book coming out this month, Archaeology from Space, about her work using satellite imagery to identify topographical patterns that could denote archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. Her techniques have helped locate sites believed to contain the remains of 17 pyramids, 3,100 forgotten settlements and 1,000 lost tombs in Egypt.
Parcak grew up near Bangor, heavily influenced by her grandfather Harold Young’s work as a forestry professor at the University of Maine. Young pioneered the use of aerial photography to track the health of different species of trees. Today his granddaughter, a National Geographic Explorer and University of Alabama professor, does something similar, but with satellite technology. To date, Parcak has a 90 percent success rate at finding archaeological sites from space.
These discoveries, as well as the work of female Egyptologists, have been helpful in illuminating the role women played in Egyptian culture, whether in household economies, trade or temple rituals. For example, Parcak said, the title “Chantress of Amun” was given to women who were part of temple rituals, and who had a great deal of power and influence especially in Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period (ca 1070–664 BC). Women archaeologists have found data that provides insight into the role women played in households, how they were organized, and in some cases, how they were managed when the men were away. And DNA evidence collected from skeletal remains is opening doors into ancient women’s lives. “We are learning about women’s health, diseases, life expectancy, and how work done every day affected their [bodies],” Parcak says.
As more focus is placed on interpreting female-forward archaeological data, Parcak and her colleagues are figuring out the questions that need to be asked about how women raised their children, helped run the family business, and even ruled the world in which they lived.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a traveling food writer who is based in Brunswick but will go anywhere for a good story. She’s also the author of a cookbook, Green Plate Special (Islandport Press).