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Abeja Dispatch

An Egyptian Love Story?...Insha'allah
November 17, 1999

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Nivine and friends chillin' on the American University in Cairo campus
"You see, it goes like this," Rana explains to her friends. "One of the older women in the family will spot you somewhere--I don't know, in a wedding perhaps, and she'll suggest you to the groom or the groom's mother. They might agree to organize what you call a ka'idat salon after they ask, 'Who is she? Who is her father?' and 'What does she look like?' What they really mean from the question is whether she's pretty or not."

"The process is a lot like shopping for an Arabian horse. The buyer wants something strong, fast, good-looking, well-bred and affordable."

Her friend Suzy gives her a funny look. "Affordable?"

"Yeah," Rana continues, "Getting the best for less is their motto, bargaining is their game."

Sarah, another friend, explains a little more. "What she means, Suzy, is that the suitor would try his best to give the least he can to his prospective bride, like giving a small dowry, inexpensive jewelry and a cheap apartment. You can't make that kind of generalization, though. I mean, not all men are like that."

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The playwright stops and poses for her public
From the privacy of Sarah's pink bedroom Suzy, Sarah, and Rana have raised a lot of questions about gender relations here at the American University in Cairo. Nivine Sultan, a 19-year old mass communications major, created the girls for a writing assignment in her Theater class. According to her, these characters are talking about "what all young Egyptian women are talking about."

"When we did a cold reading of her play out loud in class, it sparked an intense conversation that lasted long past the end of the period!" her teacher Timaree McCormick told me. "The guys in the class protested the way Egyptian men were portrayed. Nivine told me later that three of them came up to her after class, in private, and told her that she was right. This is the kind of stuff that isn't usually talked about openly here in Egypt."

Damsels in Distress, Nivine's play, deals with relations between men and women in the rapidly changing world of Cairo. But I can easily relate to the girls--their desire to fall in love, their distrust of boys, and their fears about being ugly or unloved. The play even touches on the topic of bulimia, which, I've found out, is starting to be a problem here in Egypt.

The first time Nivine met me on campus, we hit it off right away. She is a beautiful young woman, dressed modestly but fashionably, and looks like a "typical" college student. She was happy to tell me about her life and her image of relationships here in Egypt. Nivine was born in Los Angeles to traditional Egyptian Muslim parents. They returned to Egypt in 1990, when she was 11 years old.

"What is a ka'idat salon?" I asked her, since I'd already read her play.

"Oh, a ka'idat salon," she said, pronouncing it correctly, "is an arranged meeting between the bride and the groom to see if they like each other. It's under the supervision of parents and other relatives."

"Do you think that you will meet your husband that way?" I asked.

Vocabulary Box:

bulimia - an eating disorder
Insha'allah - "God willing," said whenever you refer to something in the future.
gloomy - depressing, dark

The American University in Cairo has a lot more to offer than love stories!

"Oh, yes. When I find a husband, Insha'allah, it will be in the traditional way. I mean, it will be someone I agree on, but our families will definitely be involved." She continued, "I've never had a boyfriend. I just grew up in a culture where you don't have boyfriends until you are going to marry them. I've had crushes on boys, but I never let them know. I think that when a man looks for a wife, he wants someone who has never had a boyfriend before."

It was really strange for me to hear that coming from an educated, upper class young woman. I had thought that arranged marriages were a thing of the past or at least limited to rural areas!

"Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I hadn't moved back to Egypt in 1990." She got a faraway look in her eye. "Would I have a boyfriend now? Do Americans think I'm a freak when I tell them that I'm 19 and I've never had a boyfriend? I've never even held a boy's hand or been kissed."

We talked for a while about her parents, who have been together for over 20 years, in a marriage which was arranged by their families. I asked her if they loved each other.

"I don't know," she shrugged, "If they love each other, it's from knowing each other so well."

"For us, the men are expected to take care of the women. We go through the pain of childbirth. We do the breastfeeding and raise the family. That's our end of the deal. The men better uphold their end of the deal, too. They bring home the money and make sure we have enough to eat. I feel sorry for American women who feel like they have to go out and get jobs. They are already doing so much work! With a job they do twice as much work as the men!"

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Me and Nivine
Nivine and I have hung out four times now, and she's told me more and more about her life. I think she's gotten more comfortable talking to me, even though she knows I'm going to write all about it and put it on the internet, because she changed her tune a little when we met today.

"Part of me wants to do everything that's not traditional!" she said, frustrated. "But, I can't, because I fear for my future. I want to have a boyfriend, and go out with guys, and do a lot of things, but I'm too afraid of what people might think of me! I never socialize with guys, so there's no chance for me." She seemed to be in one of those depressed, self-criticizing moods.

"Don't you have any male friends?" I asked.

"For me, I just have acquaintances. They're very superficial. I've never been asked out...There aren't any channels. The links are missing!"

A friend of hers, May, was with us at the table and laughed. "She has a crush on a guy right now, but she's too shy even to talk to him! He can be standing right there, and she's right here, and they know each other pretty well, but she won't go up and say 'hi!' Even when she does talk to him, she criticizes him!"

"Well, I don't want him to think I'm after him!" She said, mad that her friend had brought it up.

I remembered a line from her play, when Rana was telling the other girls how important it is to play hard-to-get. "Men are like stamps," I quoted her character. "Just spit on them and they'll stick!"

We all had a good laugh, and she told me all about this boy who is the object of her crush. "But, I don't have much hope for myself in the relationship domain. It's looking pretty gloomy. I don't believe that I'll ever fall in love, or that anyone will ever fall in love with me!"

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Miss Nivine and hopefully one day Mrs. Nivine
But, Nivine's gloomy vision doesn't represent all of the women at AUC. I would have guessed that May, sitting across the table, was more traditional than Nivine, since she wears a hijab, or scarf, over her hair. But, assumptions based on looks are often wrong. I found out that May just got married to a guy she met herself, here at the University.

"Well, sort of married," Nivine told me.

"We're officially married," May explained. "But I can't move in with him until I finish school, so I still call him my fiancÚ until we move in together."

"What year are you in?!" I exclaimed.

"I'm a senior. I've only got one more semester to go," she told me with a smile.

Nivine talked for a while more about how frustrating and confusing it is to be caught between two cultures, the traditional Egyptian and the Western influence that is so prevalent. She wanted to blame all of her confusion and relationship woes on this cultural confusion, but I wouldn't let her.

"Relationships and love are confusing, no matter which culture you're in," I told her. It's never easy!"


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Who's behind that Veil?
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Kavitha - What Goes Around Comes Around: Those Whirling,
Praying Dervishes!

Monica - Dr. Zeinab Safar and Egypt's Working Women

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