Sunday, April 28, 2013

An incident

I wanted to go to the fair. It was Sinai Day on Thursday and Friday, and so around the Citadel there was a celebration: just like everywhere; rides, useless merchandise, special food, dancing and music. 

We stopped on the way for coffee with some young men we know who live nearby. With hindsight we shouldn't have done that, because they were instantly concerned and over-protective about an English woman at the fair. They insisted on accompanying us. They're very nice young men and they wanted me to have a good time, but they were worried about my safety in the crowds of celebrating locals. It's funny because there was exactly the same air of jollity and latent danger that you get at the fair on Wanstead Flats in Forest Gate. Fair people have the same air everywhere of cautious friendliness, with a kind of toughness and tension that I guess comes from life on the road. You can feel that they're welcomed but mistrusted. There were the same minor spats between groups of youths that you see in London fairs, the same over-excited youngsters, the same atmosphere of the locals letting their hair down.

Our friends thought I might get my bag stolen, or that someone might address me disrespectfully or maybe try to cop a feel. They formed a ring around me, and if I wandered off they got my boyfriend to come find me. There I was, in the centre of five men who all wanted me to enjoy the fair. They bought me sweets, made us go on a horrifically rusted boat swing, and everyone had a good laugh when they stopped to use the firing range and I insisted on having a go. They're really nice young men, but you can understand I couldn't help feeling slightly embarrassed, like an unwilling princess on a state tour of a 'quartier populaire'. 

Woman were singing in little booths, there were groups of men dancing around traditional bands. Our guides bought us silly hats and posed for silly photos. Nuts were roasting on metal trolleys, chains of coloured lightbulbs hung from every building. Even the police, now in their short-sleeved white uniforms, seemed relaxed. 

After an hour or so, I felt we had probably trespassed enough on our guides' boundless hospitality and goodwill, and we came around the great mosques of Sadeya Aisha to go back to the car. Here there were no more coloured lights or music. 

Suddenly I saw a man and a woman in front of us, about 100 metres away. He was next to a moped, she was leaning against a parked car. He was hitting her, over and over again, across her face with the flat of his hand. She had her arms up over her head and was bending forwards to try to escape the blows. He wasn't hitting her very hard, but it seemed to go on forever. 

I shouted something and quickened my pace towards them. I don't think I ran: I was still deciding how to intervene. My guides looked up and saw the couple. Immediately they moved in front of me towards the couple. My boyfriend asked what was wrong. 'There's a man hitting a woman.' I guess I was relieved that now he and the other men were doing something about it, because I slowed my pace again. I was now about 50 metres from the couple: I could see they were both young, early twenties at most. 

My boyfriend was running towards them. I was scared he would spark the young man out: but something had to be done. But then as we got closer, the other young men with us shouted 'Stop'. By now, the man had stopped hitting her. She made no effort to move, just stood huddled against the car, trying to cover her face and crying. Our companions were holding my boyfriend back. He was very angry, and trying to get loose.

'Stop. Stop. It's finished. It's OK.' We came right up the the couple. He gave us a furious look. He looked even younger than I had thought, a little gangster of 18 or so dressed fashionably. The woman was wearing a long black dress with sequined sleeves, and a matching black headscarf. She had the garish, almost neon makeup of the sex worker, streaks of violet across her cheeks. She was crying, avoiding looking at us. As we passed, shepherded away from the couple by our guides, they both got on the moped and sped away. She was riding side-saddle, as most women do here.

What had just happened? My boyfriend was shouting at our guides. One of them stepped forward to explain. 'It's OK. She is a bad woman.' His tone is calming. He wants to explain clearly why this was not something we should have intervened in. 'A woman's a woman!' shouted my boyfriend again. 
'No, you don't understand. She is not woman. She is bitch. Bitch, you understand?' The others nodded. They wanted us to understand the situation.

I was so angry, and the feeling I had all night of being a protected visitor overflowed in me. I was shouting in Arabic, with little success- something like 'Women everything women! Human everything human!' The boys were kind to me. They were sorry I'd had to see that.

Protecting women only really works if you protect the 'good' ones against the 'bad' ones. Otherwise you'd have to acknowledge the essential humanity of both kinds. 

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