The Mother Country: Visiting the Middle East

On a trip together to the Middle East, an American journalist and her Iraqi-born mother view the same turmoil through very different eyes.

An Expat in Egypt

The Egyptian tourism industry has been so damaged by terrorism that the government subsidizes tours for Europeans and Americans. Less than $2,000 buys airfare to Cairo, two-and-a-half weeks in the best hotels, and a four-day cruise up the Nile. We had been in Cairo for less than an hour when he showed up: a tall, blond man in his 30s who introduced himself as a member of our tour group and fetched us sodas while we sat through an interminable lecture on the itinerary. Blake, a labor lawyer from Seattle taking a round-the-world trip after the recent death of his wife, became our escort, appearing whenever we were about to eat and behaving with the utmost solicitousness toward my mother. Being in the mother-daughter-young widower triangle made me feel as if I were a character in an E.M. Forster novel.

In the era of the Patriot Act, the sudden appearance of a courtly American made me suspicious, but my mother (who believes her phone has been tapped by the FBI ever since she marched against the Vietnam War) didn’t find anything odd about our friend. This time, I was the paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Our first few nights in Egypt, we stayed at the palatial Mena House Oberoi Hotel, in Giza. I wanted to loll poolside under the shadow of the pyramids with white-coated waiters bringing me drinks, but the luxury made my mother, a retired teacher, uncomfortable. I could tell the scene reminded her of British colonialists whose presence in Iraq she still blames for the country’s demise.

I also soon realized that my mother was going to be less than the ideal guide in at least one crucial area: bartering. Negotiation is the basis of commerce in Arab countries, but rather than haggle, my mother opened her wallet, bulging with Egyptian pounds, and let spill. She paid the equivalent of $50 to have one piece of clothing laundered by a valet who told her that he had a sick wife at home.

After a week of incessant clashes over money, I decided that she was behaving this way not just out of helplessness — a habit I’d always attributed to being raised female in a Muslim country — but also out of emigration guilt. When middle-class Iraqis lost their jobs and savings in the 1990s, she was buying a house and living off a not princely but certainly adequate retirement income in suburban Chicago.

The Arab Street

Pundits often use "the Arab street" as a synonym for public opinion in the Middle East, with its inference — intended or not — of unwashed, illiterate, looting masses. It is but one of the casually insulting tropes I recognize thanks to my mother, who has taken notice of every offense over the years, so that now, in her mid-70s, she is a walking encyclopedia of racial grievances. My own earliest encounter with the Arab street dates to 1968: It is a hot summer day, and I am walking with my mother in downtown Baghdad. All I can see are begging children around us. Their dirty hands are everywhere, their voices pleading for money, candy, anything. I want to run away.

The next experience came on my first trip to Baghdad as a journalist. I was covering the end of the first war, and among the journalists I met was a French photographer named Fifi, who, I swear, wore a leotard and a tutu to take pictures of Saddam’s revenge on the Shiite rebellion. I knew better than to dress that way, but I still felt a secret thrill walking with my arms swinging and my head bare. I even thought I detected a certain admiration from "the street."

But that was before. Our trip to Egypt was my first to the region since September 11, and what I saw in the covert glances from women now was not veiled admiration for my freedom but loathing of me and my American female confidence. The prickly feeling I had on the back of my neck abated only when I walked around with my mother. If anyone muttered in our direction, she’d smile brightly and say something pleasant in Arabic. Instantly, she was surrounded. High school girls in Alexandria, shopkeepers in the souk, maids and cab drivers all circled around to gaze upon an Iraqi woman from the land of Bush. She blushed at the attention, and I could see that hearing Arabic transported her to a happier time.

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