Anyone coming to the Middle East thinking that they are entering into a more Muslim-friendly place is in for a rude awakening. Especially when one looks at the expat societies of westerners who have come, whether for economic or philanthropic reasons, to the ‘heathen lands.’ International companies often have no hijab/beard policies and Egyptian companies mostly have no beard policies. To wear either, to them, means that you are less intelligent, less worthy, less competent at your job and therefor unemployable.
Expat societies are even worse. You can see them all the time walking around in Maadi, pasty white, usually carrying umbrellas, grouped together into nervous herds of touristic tendency, standing bewildered on street corners. They attempt to immerse themselves in local culture while at the same time keeping it at arms length, congratulating themselves when they thank the waiter in his native language and figuring that it makes them more endearing to have lowered themselves enough to speak the heathen tongue. No matter how many years have passed since the revolution the British still come here with the same attitude as they did when it was a colony, and Egypt has since never been able to fully shake the colonized mentality. Young Egyptian business women throw off the chains of oppression and submit themselves instead to the chains of western fashion, speaking English, driving foreign cars, looking down on anything too Egyptian.
Thats why companies here carry the no Islam policies, to better endear themselves to their western financiers. As if in order to make it in this world you must needs be like them and abandon all vestiges of your ethnicity. It is better on all accounts to be, look, and act like you’re white.
But I’m white, you see, and its not enough. I’m white but I’m not a foreigner here. I may not speak Arabic, but I’m not really an expat. I wear the hijab, I’ve gone “mooslim”… I’ve gone ‘native.’
I was interviewed at a posh British private primary school in Maadi a few days ago. On paper I looked perfect: American, Anglo name, Western B.A. and in living in Egypt; but unfortunately when I showed up for the appointment I broke the illusion. Walking around the school and observing a party for the employees first day back I saw nothing so much as a large group of British people standing around and congratulating each other on still being British.
“Did you have a good holiday?” “Yes, it was wonderful to be back home.” “Oh, I stayed here for the summer.” A faint look of horror crosses the face the other woman. “Did you really? And you survived?” “Well yes, it was dreadful but I spent most of it in Dahab and Sharm.”
As far as I could tell very few of the teachers and TA’s were Egyptian, that was reserved for the janitorial staff and those who were serving the food. The few Egyptians I did see employed as something other than chattel were Egyptian Christians and as such less distasteful for employment. I was eyed mostly as if I were an oddity. White, un-accented English, but quite obviously gone over to the other side. This of course while I was dressed in a pinstripe suit jacket, a tailored skirt, and my headscarf wrapped unobtrusively into a knot at the back of my head.
When I got the call later that the position was given to someone else, I wasn’t too terribly surprised, even though I knew that there were at least two other open positions in the school.
I don’t belong to their white society.