I’ve never attended an all-boys Catholic school, but Fajr must come close to it. Women are on the 3rd floor, while men are on the 2nd floor. Men teach male students and women teach female students. The only time males and females mix is if they wander into the office with a question for SameH, one of the bearded office workers.
During one of these random office encounters, I meet Hallah, an Egyptian gal born in New York, who is studying Arabic here for the year. However, she studies all day five days a week, including Arabic calligraphy. She, too, feels the effects of isolation and inability to interact with other students. She jokes that she feels like “running away.” Hallah is 18, but going on 25. She has long, straight, black hair and keeps it that way; otherwise, Egyptian women will give her a hard time if she wears a perm or any style that would draw too much attention. She has big, round eyes and a New York attitude about life; that is to say, a resilient attitude. Many aspects of Islam make her apprehensive, especially the strictness that Islam places on female modesty. For example, when she goes into the office to arrange her schedule of classes, the man at the table does not look directly at her. He looks down on the floor or past her or slightly askance so that she is not able to mesmerize him too much. And he definitely can not shake her hand.
We agree to meet about 2pm outside the center for a study session. I arrive about 2:05 pm, but don’t see her. I wait another 10 minutes and then go upstairs to the 3rd floor to find her. The door is unlocked and open an inch or so. However, I find myself reluctant to enter. It feels forbidden, like I’m stepping into the women’s bathroom. After a few minutes, I crack it open…Creeek!!! There’s a large mirror behind the door covering the wall and a hallway, almost like in a bathroom to obscure one’s view of the tenants inside. I don’t actually step into the room. As soon as I crack it open a few inches, I let it close again. I remain outside, nervously waiting…
Finally, I hear footsteps downstairs, peer down and see a young girl walk down. I yell her name, “Hallah!” Outside, she explains, “it’s a good thing you didn’t go inside, because one of the women teachers wears the niqab (the garment that covers the body from head to toe, except the eyes) and she’s exposed inside.” In other words, had I been discovered on the women’s floor, the niqab teacher (ninja lady) would complain to the program director, who would probably reprimand me. Images of Mr. FawteH beating me with a ruler returned to my mind.
As we walk to Midan Dokki and then Midan Galaa, she walks on the streets, whereas I stay on the sidewalks. And it occurs to me that most Egyptians use the streets because the sidewalks here are so dilapidated and full of holes and debris and trash, that it’s much easier and more direct to walk on the street.
Hallah is hungry, even though she ate lunch. Well, a small, meatless sandwich, so I offer her an apple from my bag. After a few bites, a small girl of 5 or 6 with a dusty face and unkempt hair approaches her to ask for a bite. Hallah gives her the remainder of the apple. “Here you go, habibtie (darling).” It is a common sight that I suppose I am getting used to, but still uncomfortable with. The Cairo Practical Guide for expats offers an interesting perspective on begging: “It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam to give alms to the poor, and since a strong streak of fatalism runs through Egyptian society, there is little shame, if any, associated with begging.” A far cry from Dostoyevsky, who once wrote in Crime and Punishment that Beggary is the worst vice. Perhaps, there is a comfortable middle ground between the Russian and the Islamic view? I will have the next seven months to find out.