Monday, 11 May 2009

Ode to the Women Who Got Away

By Mona Eltahawy

May 25, 2009 Jerusalem Report

I am terrified of thunder. My mother thinks its rumbles trigger in me memories of the sound of bombs falling. She was pregnant with me during the 1967 war and remembers that whenever a bomb fell she would feel me kick inside her.

During most of her pregnancy my parents were in Port Said, on the Mediterranean coast. They had met and fallen in love in medical school in Cairo, married after their graduation and headed to the coast for their year as interns. My parents joke they just wanted to spend the year by the sea, but their departure from Cairo to Port Said was typical of the wanderlust that grips my family.

My mum – the eldest of 11 – became a doctor and left Egypt for the U.K. to get a PhD in medicine. She was of the generation that made the huge leap from “East” to “West.” She has three children. She was 43 when she gave birth to my sister, who is 19 years younger than I. I am of the generation that straddles that “East” and “West.” I have lived in Egypt, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Israel and now the United States. I am a journalist and public speaker. I was briefly married and at almost 42 have no children and do not want any.

I can’t escape restlessness. So at the end of 1997 when it was a choice of applying for emigration to Canada or moving to Israel as a Reuters correspondent, I moved to Jerusalem and stepped into the arms of trouble that continues to this day with Egyptian State Security, which regards with great suspicion any Egyptian who lives in Israel.

Was I a silly romantic for thinking Cairo winked at me whenever I came home to her from Israel? Were those street lights celebrating my return or letting me know they were in on my illicit trips?

Illicit because I wasn’t supposed to be in Israel. Illicit because returning to Cairo meant coming home to see an increasingly impatient boyfriend. Every time I said yes I would marry him I quickly balked, terrified of standing still. Illicit because I would often also visit my parents and sister, who at the time lived in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know anyone else whose itinerary was Tel Aviv – Cairo – Jeddah in the space of a week.

Just four years later, another leap, another country. I was taking photographs of adobe buildings in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when I heard the words of the Koran. I thought I was either losing my mind or that I missed the Middle East so much I was hallucinating.

But it was for real and it was coming from a silver shop behind me. I entered, in search of an explanation. The store clerk explained the owner was a Muslim and brought him out to talk to me. He told me he’d put on a tape of a Koran recitation to mark the first day of Ramadan, the fasting month.

It turned out that Palestinians in New Mexico and Arizona basically ran the silver market. They would go to the reservations and buy silver from the Native Americans, which they would then in turn sell in the cities. He insisted I return later to break the fast with him and his cousin. How could I turn down the opportunity to learn more about how the dispossessed of today were running the silver business along with the dispossessed of yesterday? And how could I turn down an iftar (the evening meal for breaking the fast) at Applebee’s with the Palestinian cousins Mohammed and Abdel-Karim, who in Santa Fe were now Al and Mike?

I was in the middle of an epic 18-day road trip across America. Just a few weeks earlier I had put pen to divorce papers to end the marriage that had brought me to the U.S. in 2000. So when my marriage ended, I knew there was only one city in the U.S. that could possibly contain my restlessness. And I knew I had to drive to get there – no getting on a plane and starting a new life five hours later. America and I needed time. I was both Thelma and Louise but I wasn’t going to drive off a cliff. I wasn’t done moving and besides, I had people to see, like American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who was the reason I came to Santa Fe.

Before my iftar at Applebee’s with Al and Mike, I went to the museum dedicated to O’Keeffe. Rebelliousness. Freedom. Independence. I found them all on the walls of the museum but it was a poster I bought at the gift shop that gave my life so far sense. It was a photograph of O’Keeffe on the back of a motorbike, grinning as she contemplated the journey ahead. It was part of an exhibition called “Women Who Got Away.”

That night after iftar at Applebee’s, Mohammed a.k.a. Al put his hand on mine and said he felt like he’d known me his whole life. I pulled my hand away and told him that was nice.

The next morning I left Santa Fe, destination New York City. •

Copyright 2009 Mona Eltahawy

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