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.

My mother never felt pressure to cover her head when she was in Egypt — or growing up in Iraq. As a teenager, her mother had half-jokingly suggested that she start wearing an abaya outdoors. "No way," my mother replied. At JFK airport, on our way to Egypt, we eyed with disdain women who not only covered their heads, but their faces, ankles and fingertips, full partners in their own subservience. "Look how she walks behind her husband," my mother hissed. "Do you think she dresses that way to hide the bruises?" I asked. As a Christian in a Muslim country, my mother was profoundly influenced by the dominant culture, and she gives Islam the benefit of the doubt on misogyny. She believes that "true Muslims" — not the Osama bin Laden extremist sort — respect women; that in Iraq, anyway, they have decision-making power inside the home.

The biggest argument that erupted between us on the trip was about this very issue. Our hotel room was 24 stories above the Nile. Directly beneath us were hundreds of acres of yellow tombs that make up the City of the Dead, a medieval cemetery inhabited also by the living, whose presence is indicated by proliferating satellite dishes on the roofs of the tombs. We were sitting on our beds, eating pizza and watching the same flickering wall decor we’d had in every hotel room: Chanting throngs of men hoisting banners with Arabic script scrawled in green, the color of the Prophet Mohammed. I couldn’t tell where the protesters were, but I didn’t need translation to know the focus of their rage.

I could sense my mother warming to their side, and I felt an irresistible urge to refute her. What I saw were masses of fanatics, men without women who would just as soon wrap me in a suffocating black blanket and stone me.

"What’s their problem?" I asked.

"What do you think?" my mother replied, glaring at me. "You don’t feel any compassion for these people, do you? Don’t you understand that colonialism did this to them? Don’t you understand that it has caused my problems and yours?" Ha! It never took her long to resort to an ad hominem attack. It wasn’t colonialism, I replied, but sexism and misogyny behind the region’s troubles. Uttering an expletive, she rolled over and buried her head in a book. It was another move I’d seen a thousand times before: discussion closed.

Even a year later, as the Iraqis prepared to write a constitution that would restrict the rights of women, my mother still wouldn’t blame the boys, and I was still trying to coax her into it. I know that she has no real affinity for the Muslim theocrats and their suicidal agents, but they do represent a satisfying response to the abuses and disappointments she feels she has endured at the hands of one man in particular: the blond, blue-eyed man from whom she has been divorced for two decades and whom she never forgave for enjoying life while she toiled.

Fear of Flying

We cruised up the Nile to Aswan, docking at Luxor, Thebes, Edfu, and Kom Ombo, where the heat rose and rose. In Edfu, we took a horse-drawn carriage to the temple of Horus, its 2,300-year-old walls etched with giant hawk- and cow-headed deities of wisdom and love. My mother’s arthritic knees were bothering her after a week of trekking around Cairo, but she was still enthusiastic. I didn’t realize just how happy she was until I got home and developed the film. In one picture, she is sitting on the ship’s deck with a smile on her face that I’ve seen only once before, in a photo taken long before I was born, at a family picnic in Iraq.

When the time came to return to Cairo, the plane was running behind schedule. I had ample opportunity to inspect my fellow passengers and notice the black smudges on the foreheads of the observant men who pray with their faces flat to the earth. Could any of them be angry enough at Western civilization to blow up a tourist-filled puddle jumper? As we lined up on the tarmac, I was fighting off a fear infection.

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