Israel: the culture clash carousel
A few years ago on my first trip to the Mid-East (Israel), I experienced an intense cultural clash of the nature author Rosemary Mahoney records in her recent travel memoir, Down the Nile, Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff—involving, in her case, being a foreign Western woman in Egypt’s predominantly Muslim, male-oriented society.
On the particular day of discussion, my Dad and I had driven north from Jerusalem to Lake Kinesset, where we had the good fortune of beating the inevitable tour buses to all of our intended destinations within the region until we came to our last stop - a small hotel on the shore of the Galilee which had 'beach' access, and where we knew – hoping we could pass as guests – we would be able to take a dip. Pulling into the parking lot, the premises appeared to be empty save for a middle-aged couple lounging on lawn chairs down by the waterside.
As Dad parked our Renault rental, I listened glumly as the sound of large bus gears grinding to a halt hissed loudly beside us. Assuming a litter of elderly pilgrims from the Lancaster, Indiana Bible study group would soon be piling out to check into their rooms and then most likely overtake the already diminutive stretch of shoreline available, I raced to the bathrooms to change. While in a stall hurriedly tying the straps of my flowery pink bikini, I heard the door swing open and the small room abruptly filled with a melodic rattling of Arabic spoken by a chorus of female voices. Upon opening my stall door, many of the women – all dressed in full hijab except for a young girl by the sink - grew quiet as their eyes met my exposed stomach and its purple belly button ring with penetrating stares of silent judgment. Quickly realizing that they were the occupants of the unmarked bus outside, pausing at the hotel for a pit stop on their way through the Golan Heights to any number of the Arab communities in the surrounding area, I smiled weakly and made my way to the sink to wash my hands, suddenly incredibly self-conscious and embarrassingly aware of the feeling of the fabric of one woman’s robe brushing against my bare skin. As I washed my hands, the little girl sat on the counter and stared unflinchingly at me in the mirror with what seemed to be a mixture of curiosity and amusement. Grabbing a towel out of my bag, I wrapped it tightly around my torso and walked out the door.
This kind of thing happens all the time, on both sides of the equation. New York City, thankfully, is an oasis of cosmopolitan open-mindedness when compared to my Middle-America hometown. There, over the past few years, a burgeoning population of Indian immigrants have been moving in, and I cringe when I notice my fellow statesmen (and women) reacting to many women’s beautiful saris with whispers, points, and stares. Sorry they ain’t wearin’ cutoffs, Billy Bob. Ugh.
Even if you aren’t a chick or familiar with the book, you know that gender issues are inescapably prevalent when journeying from one part of the world to the next. In Rosemary’s case, her feminine status proves to be the greatest obstacle she’s forced to endure. Alternatively, her position as a Western woman and the differences in how she is treated, and the amount of ‘freedom’ she has as a result, versus the everyday Egyptian woman is cause for much reflection. A self-proclaimed ‘singular pilgrim,’ Mahoney shocks and amuses the people of Aswan in her determination to row 125 miles, alone, down the Nile to Qena. Like the river, she is in essence flowing “the wrong way,” against the tides of cultural traditions and social expectations concerning women.
Quite the poetic concept -- but therein lies the conundrum. Which way is the “wrong” way? Moreover, why do we even feel the need for there to be a "right" or "wrong" established?
For the most part, Mahoney tactfully balances her own desires of resistance with a conscious respect for Egypt’s cultural status quo; however, there’s definitely an sense of tension and frustration present when the two forces come into direct contact (read the book to find out). While traveling, I’m always conscious about the way I dress so as to be socially respectful. But at the same time, I want to wear my tank top when it’s 95 degrees, dammit.
So, how can we reconcile the struggle to make our ‘own’ way in the world with the inevitable culture clashes that such contact produces? Where are the lines of cultural courtesy drawn, and how can we balance our individual beliefs and emotions with the desire to sometimes cross them? We should all make a habit of ceasing to assume that our way of thinking and doing is the “right” one…instead of always striving to resist and change that which we find is different, and just simply allowing that difference to exist. Otherwise, how will this sick cycle of cultural misunderstanding ever end?