You Go, Girls

I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.

I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.

We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.

The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.

Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.

On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.

On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…

When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!

I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.

On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.

I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.

So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.

You go, girls.

Al-Hamdulillah

Last night consisted of a reunion of sorts – I met up with some of the friends I’ve made during my numerous visits to Dahab. Most or all of them have worked in the restaurants along the main seafront but now one of them has a new job in a new place – Sea House – so we thought we’d meet there.

Dahab's restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.

Dahab’s restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.

As I walked alone from the hotel in Mashraba (south of the bridge) to Masbat (north of the bridge), through the brightly lit shops hung with clothes, lamps, and bits of Egyptian ephemera, I laughed to myself about the first time I came here, in the daytime. I’d got the shuttle bus from a hotel outside town and was scared to death of the place with all its hustle and bustle. Mainly hustle.

Cats playing outside Why Not - a great little shop in Dahab.

Cats playing outside Why Not – a great little shop in Dahab.

Now, I feel no fear whatsoever. In fact, it’s almost gone in reverse. This time, I’d been worried about getting into town via an alley behind the hotel. It snakes behind some housing and a café and brings you out on El Mashraba Street. I was terrified of walking it in the day, never mind in the nighttime but when I asked around everyone seemed astonished that I would be scared of it. “It’s completely safe!” they cried. So I tried it. And it was.

This happened on my last visit when I pulled back from a moonlit walk towards the lagoon because it was dark, and ‘you never know who’s out there’. Again, my friend couldn’t believe I was scared. Here, walking around in the dark is just what you do. It’s when it’s coolest, of course.

So last night I strode out in the full knowledge that I would be completely safe. And no matter what hassle I got, it would always be about trying to tempt me to buy something, not an assault on my physical being. I mused on the fact that at home, I get unwanted catcalling on a regular basis – on average every half an hour on a walk along the canal from my house – and recently, I was flashed at. I suppose I’d thought the hassle I got here would be the same, but I’ve realised it’s retail-related hassle – the best line I’ve had so far is, “Come and look! It’s cheaper than Asda!”

We were joined in the restaurant by one of the guys and his one-year-old son – his wife has just had a baby and he seemed stunned with happiness, repeating “al-hamdulillah” (‘thanks to god’) whenever he was congratulated. Toddler Abdullah was taking it all in his (wobbly) stride and I was incredibly touched to see a group of men compete for Abdullah’s attention, wanting to pick him up, kiss and cuddle him and take him for a walk round the restaurant. It transpired that a few of the guys had stepped in to look after Abdullah while his parents were otherwise occupied – it’s a real ‘framily’ support network down here, especially as nearly everyone is away from home and family.

Today I went back to the glorious lagoon beach, a long strand of golden sand that I fell in love with at first sight. I bagged a day pass to use the Swiss Inn Resort (£10) which gives you use of a sunbed, towel, and all the facilities in this lovely hotel. If you want a good all-inclusive, I recommend it, and the Jaz Dahabeya next door. Both good quality, family friendly hotels with the best spots on the lagoon and good food.

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I met Bob – one of the ‘framily’ who works on the beach – he calls me ‘sister’ now. He looked at my whiter than white skin and told me I should use his failsafe way of getting a tan. Going into the sea, not showering the salt water off, dry out for 15 minutes, then repeat. I fear my Welsh skin would object so I stuck with Factor 50.

I spent the day reading the first book in Elena Ferrante’s quartet, My Brilliant Friend. I was initially put off by the cover but I am riveted by the Neapolitan saga.

I must be the only person in Dahab who can’t swim so I gingerly walked into the azure water for a quick dip a few times. I generally just sit on the sand (it’s in a shallow bit) and watch the fish swim by me. I get so much pleasure out of this simple act. I’m scared of the water but I’ve managed to find a way to enjoy it that suits me.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

A slow peeling away of ingrained fears has characterised my visits here, from being too scared to walk in the dark to too scared to go in the water, but I am hopeful that the latter, like the former, will slowly fade away.

If ever there was a place to learn to swim, I believe that this is it. In my own piece of paradise.

Meet the Parents

Another celebratory day dedicated to parenthood, and another chance for me to wallow, if I wanted to, in the double-whammy of not having any living parents and not being a parent. Mercifully for me, the latter was a choice.

I like to think about my dad on Father’s Day, but I’ve decided to change the way I think about these days. I’ve decided to think about what is in my life, rather than what isn’t. What is in my life is a group of friends, some, maybe most of whom are parents.

Some of them doing it on their own because their marriages broke down, some of them doing it on their own not knowing who donated the sperm to make their beautiful baby, some of them are in a family unit, some of them are far away, bringing up children in a different culture, some of them came into parenthood by mistake, some of them were trying for years to make it happen.

Even though I made the choice to be childfree, I am in a state of constant admiration for those who have gone there. I know that I could not go through the assault on my independence and selfhood but many of my friends do and they’ve emerged on the other side. Every time one of these days comes up I think about all of my friends and their transition into parenthood and how they have all done it differently.

Their children are now at the age where they are making their own transitions into secondary school, or preparing for GCSEs, or starting at university and I wonder how it must feel for the parents when their child first goes to school, or leaves the family home for the first time.

I’ll never know how that feels but if they are living their single lives vicariously through me, I’m living my family life vicariously through them. I like having an insight on what parenthood entails, I’ve just chosen not to go there. It does leave me with questions about the idea of being surrounded by a safety net of ‘loved ones’ and what that means for me, but I have made the choice to be a single unit so there it is. Every now and again I get invited into a family fold and I really enjoy it.

So, today I am focusing on who is in my life, not who isn’t.

No dad, but plenty of dads. And they’re really cool.

The ones sharing custody of children, the ones in the close-knit family, the ones who are single parents, the ones who are struggling a little bit with the adjustment to parental life. And of course, the ones who are in partnerships and still trying to be a dad.

One of the hopes I had for my ex-husband was that he would go off and get the chance to be a dad because I always thought he’d make a great one.

I hope he did it because if there’s one thing the world needs, it’s great dads.

Ping Pong

On Friday night, I attended a Ping Pong night organised by my work colleagues at London’s Bounce. It’s a really fun night and something that happens a couple of times a year. Everyone is organised into doubles teams and the evening consists of beer, good cheer and banter, as we all live through the highs and lows of winning and losing.

Except I choose not to play.

I like to go along and be part of the social event but I can’t bear team sports or competitive situations. I’m much happier witnessing the progress of others with a glass of wine in my hand, capturing the action on social media.

An interesting thing happens each time I go along to one of these things. I’m routinely asked why I’m not playing, if I wished I was, if I regret my decision, if I feel I’m missing out. Usually the questions come from just one or two people who can’t believe I’ve opted out and are desperate to make me part of the game. Nope, I say, I’m happy with my choice.

I’m childfree-by-choice, as it happens, and my life is often like that Ping Pong night, complete with a continous rolling sidebar of questions from friends and strangers, although they get less frequent as I get older and out of the baby-making zone.

I’ve always known I didn’t want kids, even as a teenager, and although I have always been very clear on the decision, I have regularly ‘checked in’ with myself to make sure my head was still in agreement with my heart. There have been pressure points along the way – I had to have The Conversation with my husband-to-be about it in case he thought I’d change my mind. ‘I never say never,” I said, “but as far as things stand now, I don’t want them, and you need to be sure you want to be with me.” Then came the weddings-and-babies years of my thirties – the peer pressure was huge. “It’s just what you do,” friends said. The more they said that the more I questioned it. I’d never want to ‘just do’ anything that everyone else is doing just for the sake of it.

I loved my friends’ babies but sometimes my enthusiasm for them was taken as a ‘sign’ that I was broody. There was one particular weekend where I was doing that couply thing of staying in a country cottage with a group of friends. One couple brought their adorable baby boy and I bounced him on my knee for pretty much the whole weekend. Looks passed among the group as if to say, “See? Finally she’s joined us.” I hadn’t. I had just met a tiny person that I really liked being with. Looking back at the pictures still makes me smile. He was smily, fat-cheeked and gorgeous.

One by one, my friends had their children. Many of them struggled to conceive and being childfree, they felt able to tell me about their problems. I was so grateful not to have the all-encompassing urge to get pregnant, that I could hear their stories and comfort them as much as I could. It seemed as though they thought it was some sort of failure on their part, that they struggled to admit to each other, but could do so to me. Some friends admitted to me that they didn’t realise they’d had a choice about having children, and that they hadn’t expected the ‘drudgery’ of their post-natal lives. But then they threw themselves into it, happily, and had one or two more children. In for a penny, I suppose…

I did have a couple of wobbles during those years – mainly because having babies was what everyone was doing. My opting out of it was like choosing not to go to university, have a husband, buy a house – like not ticking a box in the tick-box life. But my gut instinct was right and I stuck to it (I ignored it about one of those things, but that’s for another blog post).

There are possible underlying reasons why I don’t want children, such as my parents dying early, that may be partly responsible for my decision. I do feel very strongly about not willingly inflicting that experience on another person, especially as an older parent. But perhaps there is also some truth in the other statement sometimes lobbed at me: “you just haven’t met the right man yet.”  The only time I’ve ever felt anything close to an urge to have a baby, it was because I had fallen deeply in love with a man. I think I must have a low-level ‘water-table’ of maternal hormones that were brought tantalisingly close to the surface during that time, but I’m grateful to my gut instinct, because that man turned out to be a colossal git.

Whenever I get the Sidebar of Questions, including the usual, “but you’d be a great mum!” I always say, “I’d make a great bus conductor, but I’m not here to do that either.” I just know I’m not here to be a mother. Other people are, and they’re great at it. I love seeing my friends raising their beautiful children and I salute them. I have loved accompanying my godson and his mother when he is at football, trampolining lessons or drumming on a kit in a music shop (he’s brilliant at it: I call him “rock-godson”). It does give me joy and thank goodness I do have my friends’  children in my life.

Someone once said to me that freedom was obviously the most important thing to me. At the time it didn’t quite register. “Is it?!” I thought. I was still married at that point, but looking back, I was constantly making bids for freedom. My running times at weekends had got longer and longer as I plunged deeper into the Buckinghamshire countryside, on ever more circuitous routes that would wear me out. I was staying out after work more and more and taking all-day shopping trips on Saturdays. On holidays, I longed to disappear off over the horizon on my own. In retrospect, it was all pretty clear.

Yes, freedom is incredibly important to me. I long to have a Jack Russell in my life, but it would curb my freedom and would be unfair on the animal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the same would apply to a baby. It would completely unfair on both of us if I had one. Am I being selfish? I’m sure someone will tell me I am. I will admit openly that I do not want to live my life through someone else’s – the things I’ve achieved have come relatively late in life and they’ve been hard won. If being selfish is making a decision that improves my life and avoids a disappointing one for another human being, then I’m happy to live with that.

And I do.

Because I can.

 

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http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/style/CamillaLong/article1453705.ece