Monday, August 20, 2012

Here's where I stand on the Eid harassment photos

Women were harassed during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Cairo. It's abhorrent and should be stopped. I fully support that. I also fully support spreading harassers' pictures across the globe and calling their mothers AND aunties.

However, it DISGUSTS me that whoever caught these images on camera - of women being harassed, boys grabbing women's behinds, etc - did not bother to blur the victims' faces before spreading the images across the internet. Did it not occur to you that these poor girls' privacy has already been invaded enough? Would you post a picture of your little sister - who looks barely 14 - having BOTH of her breasts grabbed by two different boys behind her? Would you want that picture to go viral? No? Well I've seen that picture floating around tonight.

The argument that it takes too long to blur the faces and it's better to just get the pictures out there is COMPLETELY inexcusable, in my opinion. As a photographer, especially if you're trying to call yourself a photojournalist or a journalist, it is your RESPONSIBILITY to act ethically, and that includes protecting your sources and protecting victims, ESPECIALLY if they're underage. Take the 10 seconds (or 5 minutes) to either blur or black out the victims' faces and/or eyes. Is your five minutes really worth potentially prolonging a young girl's horrifying experience?

I've heard the argument that these images and information should be shared at all costs. I understand the argument, I understand the argument that seeing the shock, horror, violation on the victim's face makes the image more powerful.

But ethically, it's still wrong. Imagine being that 14-year-old girl. Now imagine if one of your classmates (or cousins) stumbles upon that picture. You already know how prevalent sexual harassment is in Egyptian society AND how often women are blamed for it. Do you think her classmates will support her? Or will they snigger behind her back? Now: do you really think spreading that girl's face was worth it?

I understand that there is a fine line there, especially when people are whole-heartedly, and with good intentions, trying to support something so essential as ending sexual harassment. But unless the victim has given permission, it is just further violation of their privacy.

Some people will disagree with me, either for the reasons above or for other reasons. I get that. It's your right.

But please, have some respect.

Edit: If these girls want to tell their stories, more power to them - but the choice should be theirs. It shouldn't be made without their knowledge or consent.

Video: 'Fix You' - HanyMust & Hana Malhas live at Sakia

Cover of Coldplay's 'Fix You' by Cairo's own Hany Mustafa, joined on stage by Jordanian singer Hana Malhas at El-Sawy Culture Wheel. August 10, 2012.

Video by Sallie Pisch Photography. All rights reserved.

Hana Malhas:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's the use of one more blog post?

Over the years this blog has become less personal and more of an outlet for current events in Egypt or socio-political commentary, sometimes based on personal experience.

This post will be very personal.

The tweet read, “All I could see was leering faces . . sneering & jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions”.

Another woman attacked in Tahrir Square. I knew without opening the attached link. I opened it anyway. I didn’t want to read the story; I had to.

The most detailed first-person account of a sexual attack in Tahrir I’ve ever read. That’s what was in the link. I was sitting in a noisy café listening to – of all things – a song called “Past the Point of No Return.” I turned it off, and I read.

I was stripped naked… Hundreds of men… forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way… A small minority of men… tried to protect me… I felt surprisingly calm… Please God. Please make it stop… Women surrounded me and tried to cover my naked body… The men outside… wanted my blood… I was barefoot, dodging broken glass… We eventually… reached a government hospital… we were turned away… “Are you married? A virgin?”… I was refused examination and treatment.

An hour later I can’t get her words out of my head.

What if it had been me?

I was physically harassed once during the 30 months I’ve spent in Cairo. In comparison it was nothing. Yet a year and a half later I refuse to go anywhere in Maadi by myself because the memory makes me ill and nervous (Maadi has the highest concentration of Western foreigners of any neighborhood in Cairo).

It unnerved me enough that this is only the third time I’ve ever mentioned the incident.

I may not be blonde, but I’m young and pretty with fair skin and light eyes. I speak enough Arabic to talk to a cab driver but no more. Sure, I’m good at reading crowds. I’ve been going to Egyptian demonstrations longer than most Egyptians. Yes, I’ve actually taken a class on risk management.

But the crowd can change in a moment.

I’m not infallible. Gut instinct is not infallible. What if, wanting that one last photo, I stayed just a minute too long? What if the situation changed too quickly for me to get away? What if I got caught up in a conversation and didn’t notice the crowd shift?

What if, what if, what if.

They’re useless but I can’t get them out of my head. I keep picturing myself – graphically – in this woman’s position. I picture my reflection in the mirror. It’s terrifying.

 I love Egypt. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. There are things I hate but I’m still here and I don’t want to leave. At the same time, I came to Egypt as a journalist and I haven’t gone to Tahrir Square in weeks.

I tell myself I’m being lazy, that I should go down and take some pictures and judge the feel of the crowd for myself. After all, I was in Tahrir Square on the 25th and the 28th of January. I was by Maspiro the night dozens were killed in clashes between Coptic Christian demonstrators and the military. I was in Mohamed Mahmoud Street choking on tear gas alongside Egyptian men and women last November.

But as more and more women report graphic sexual assaults in Tahrir I’m terrified I’ll be next. I loathe that fear almost more than I loathe the fact that the fear is warranted.

I remember going to Tahrir and not being touched by a single man, except honest-to-goodness accidents. The last few weeks, I don’t know a single female who has gone to Tahrir without being groped at least once.

So what do I do? Stay safely in Zamalek and talk politics with my friends? Offer opinions on the “current situation” without actually going out in the streets, something I love? Pack up and move somewhere I can wear skirts and sleeveless shirts without a leering man with a disgusting comment on every single street corner?

Scratch that option. Recent statistics show at least 1 in 6 college-age men in America will admit to raping a woman in anonymous surveys, so long as the word ‘rape’ is left out of the definition (“rape” is defined by the insertion of any object into any orifice of the body without consent).

Anyone who knows me knows if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s helpless. Yet against this I am utterly and completely helpless. It’s frustrating and infuriating and I feel I’m losing a battle I have no idea how to fight.

I almost didn’t post this. I thought, what’s the use of one more blog post? But we cannot doubt the power of our own voices. Eventually it will be that one pissed off woman outing her harasser in the street, that one man jumping between a woman and her attacker, maybe even that one angry blog post that tips the balance.

If we – men and women – stay silent, we will lose. So be loud. Be insistent. Make a scene and refuse to be silenced and we will win.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Challenging sexual harassment in Egypt's public spaces

'#EndSH' - that was the hashtag dominating Egyptians' twitter feeds yesterday. End sexual harassment. Harassment is a rampant problem on the streets of Cairo: 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have admitted harassed (2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights).
Image courtesy of
The survey also revealed that approximately half of those women face harassment on a daily basis.

In most cases, harassment is limited to cat-calling across the street - "ya aasl!" (honey) - or whispered comments as a woman walks by - "We fuck now?" But while a minority, groping, attempted fingering, and public masturbation are uncomfortably common. Harassers come from every class of society, from youth on the street cat-calling to well-dressed businessmen in Mercedes propositioning women as they drive by.

"When harrasers include youth, married men, fathers, policemen, taxi drivers, etc. It means we all know or live with a harraser & can ," wrote Merna on Twitter.

"I won't forget the time a gross fat man on a bike was masturbating to me as I walked down then street, shouting out obscenities. #EndSH," posted Jazz Khalifa on Twitter.

"#Maadi Rd9, walked a girl I worked w to her Moms car @ the end of the road. Guy groped & taunted her, I decked him. #EndSH #Egypt,"wrote Patricia Stein

Organizations such as attempt to pinpoint and combat harassment, as well as providing women with a place to vent about what's happened to them. All day on June 13, HarassMap posted women's stories of harassment on Twitter. Some of the posts were horrifying. "Teenagers grab your ass and film on their mobiles," read one tweet. "Ramsis station, wait the train get your breasts grabbed," said another.

One goal of the 'EndSH' blogging day is to open up discussion. Talking about sexual harassment is very much a taboo, with Egyptian mothers shushing their daughters about the issue, teaching them from a young age that they should remain quiet about whatever harassment they've been subjected to on the streets of Cairo (this statement summarizes many personal accounts from female Egyptian friends).

Deena Adel posted on Twitter, "Do you realize how much time a woman in Egypt has to spend in a state of defense on any given day? ... Things I have to do when on the street: 1-Avoid eye contact. 2-Cross the street every 2 mins. 3-Hold my keys in case I need to defend myself".

In a very powerful blog post, Merna Thomas writes about her lifelong experience with harassment in Egypt, letting strangers inside her head: "See, the thing is, harassment, especially the non-stop daily/hourly kind makes you feel ugly. Every body part that they look at, comment on, and touch is ugly. It's ugly and it's wrong. And that becomes your body image."

This graffiti, painted in downtown Cairo, threatens harassers with castration.
In a blog post here, Mina Naguib talks about feeling helpless to protect his female friends from harassment. Referring to plans to hold a stand against harassment in Tahrir Square, Naguib writes: "I hope it turns out to be a great success not by men defending women but men and women standing up side by side against the regime and the society."

Naguib's post also touches on the fact that it doesn't matter what a woman is wearing - she'll get harassed anyway. Underscoring the point, Sandy wrote on Twitter, "#EndSH do you know that girls in Nikkab actually get harassed? Because men believe she must be hiding something!"

Along a similar line, Cairo-based journalist Ghazala Irshad wrote on Twitter, "I think of #endSH as less a campaign against sexual harassment & more of a campaign FOR respecting women..."

"Media, film, and others need to empower women to take action and spread fear among the harassers if they do harass. It works," wrote Egyptian Mohamed Abdelfattah on Twitter. "Utilizing the powers of media and cinema to #EndSH is possible. It can have a transformative impact in a few years, believe me."

Find more posts about this below:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Men Say to Men Who Harass Women on the Streets

Video in Arabic with English subtitles. Produced by Sallie Pisch and Anum Khan.

Harassment affects every woman in Egypt, no matter who she is or where she's from. Muslim or Christian, conservative or liberal, married or single, Egyptian or foreign - we all have to put up with it. 

In support of '#EndSH' day, here's a message from Egyptian men to Egyptian men: harassment isn't cool.

UPDATE: So far, the video has been picked up by:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Uncertainty shadows the eve of Egypt’s elections

On the eve of historic elections, Egyptians are wary.  No one has any idea who will win the country’s first post-Mubarak presidential race. And many of the Egyptians who aren’t boycotting the election also aren’t voting for any candidate.
They’re voting against all the others.
New post at UCLA's The Generation. View the full article here: Uncertainty shadows the eve of Egypt’s elections

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Latest project: 'Voices' by Hany Mustafa

My latest project, released in mid-April, was the official music video for 'Voices,' a new song by Egyptian artist Hany Mustafa. If you haven't seen it yet you should check it out.


All footage was shot in Cairo and Fayoum, Egypt.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ayman Nour pardoned; will contest 2012 presidential race

Egypt’s military ruler has officially pardoned a prominent liberal politician, paving the way for him to contest upcoming presidential elections. The move negates a 2006 forgery conviction that would otherwise prevent Ayman Nour from his second presidential bid.

"The decision restores rights to where they belong and this is one of the results of the revolution," Nour told Reuters.

In 2005, Nour placed second in Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, receiving around 10 percent of the votes. Many saw Nour’s subsequent imprisonment as punishment for daring to challenge then-president Hosni Mubarak.

"The military council issued a presidential decree giving Ayman Nour the right to elect and nominate himself (in presidential elections), practice all his political rights and drop all penalties against him," Nour posted on his Twitter account on Wednesday.

The announcement of Nour’s pardon came just 10 days before the application period for presidential nominations will close.

Nour, 48, began speaking out against Mubarak’s regime two decades ago. He has already announced his intention to contest the upcoming presidential race.

Elections are expected May 23-24, 2012.

Nour can confirm his nomination in one of three ways: with 30,000 recommendations from citizens in at least 15 different governorates, with recommendations from at least 30 members of parliament, or by registering as the candidate of a recognized political party by April 8.

Nour’s new party, al-Ghad al-Thawra, won two seats in recent parliamentary elections as part of an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party.

Last year the Cairo Court of Cassation rejected Nour’s appeal to reconsider the 2006 forgery conviction that sent him to prison for five years. In 2005, Nour was accused of forging roughly 1,000 of the signatures submitted to form al-Ghad Party in 2004. Nour has consistently maintained his innocence and insisted the charges and conviction were politically motivated.

Under the Egyptian penal code, a person convicted of forgery, considered a crime of dishonor, is forbidden from participating in political life for five years from the end of his sentence. Thus, without the pardon Nour would be forbidden from running for public office or chairing a syndicate or political party until 2016, five years after his original sentence should have ended.

When Nour’s request for an appeal was denied, his supporters and other members of the political community called on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to pardon Nour.

“It is illogical that Ayman Nour is prevented from practicing his [election] nomination right while remnants of the former regime can,” fellow presidential contender and al-Karama Party head Hamdeen Sabbahi said at the time, calling on SCAF to pardon Nour.

Some have already come out in support of Nour after this most recent development, but others worry that his candidacy could further splinter what is likely to be a divided liberal vote.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Weekend recipe: Spaghetti with zucchini in red sauce

Since I have more time on my hands than I've had in a while (I'm taking a break from daily news to teach high school English) and people seem to enjoy my cooking, I think I'll start a weekly series of recipes and general tips for cooking (and eating) healthy here in Cairo. If you try one of my recipes, send me a picture and let me know how it goes!

Unless it's a special occasion, I generally cook with whatever happens to be in the kitchen, and consequently most of my recipes are made up on the spot and can handle a significant amount of modification. Most of my dishes are very Italian-inspired, as I learned much of my cooking during the four years I spent in Rome.

I also like to listen to good music while I'm cooking, so you'll find a playlist suggestion with each recipe :)


Spaghetti with zucchini in red sauce

Approx. time: 50min (20min prep, 30min cook)
Makes two servings

Suggested playlist: Oldies! Go for Tom Jones or The Beach Boys

- Olive oil (approx. 2-3 tablespoons)
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 small zucchini, split lengthwise and sliced
- 3 medium tomatoes, diced
- Dash salt
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste (optional)
- Dash vodka or red wine (optional)
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese (optional)

The keys to great pasta are simplicity and timing. This dish is simple and delicious, highlighting the flavors of the zucchini and tomato. True Italian dishes aim to highlight one or two flavors rather than throwing every posible spice into the dish (i.e. "Italian seasoning").

First, get your ingredients ready. Heat some of the olive oil in a pan over medium-low heat (for this type of sauce, I prefer to use a shallow pan rather than a sauce pan). Add onion and garlic and sauté 2-3 minutes, or until soft. Add zucchini and sauté another 2-3 minutes, then add tomatoes. At this point you can add a dash of vodka or red wine to the pan if you like (while the majority of the alcohol will cook off, some of it remains, so if you don't drink alcohol for religious reasons you probably want to leave this out; the sauce will still be great without it!).

Add just a dash of salt. You may be tempted to add more, but trust me on this one: first, most of us eat too much salt as it is. Second, once your taste buds get used to not being overwhelmed with salt, your food tastes SO much better.

Turn the heat to low and let the sauce simmer for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the pan.

While your sauce is simmering, put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta, adding a dash of salt to the water. If you're REALLY good, you can even use this time to clean up your prep dishes!

If you want a lighter sauce, you can end the recipe here. Tonight, however, I was in the mood for something a bit heavier, so I added about a tablespoon of tomato paste (I try to use kinds without added salt when possible) and another dash of olive oil and let my sauce continue to simmer.

Once the water boils, add your pasta. I used about 1/3 of a 500g box of spaghetti, which makes about two regular servings. Be careful not to overcook the pasta. I'll say it again: DO NOT overcook the pasta. Good pasta should not be a sloppy, soggy mass that sticks together or falls to pieces. Good pasta should be cooked al dente, an Italian phrase that literally means 'to the teeth.' (If you like your pasta soggy that's your choice, but try it my way once!)

By the time your pasta is ready, your sauce should be ready as well.

Add a bit of freshly grated parmesan on top (if you have it), and enjoy! :)

Notes: The onion can be a bit overpowering in this dish, especially as Egyptian onions seem to be particularly strong. I made a very similar sauce last night but omitted the onion and added another clove of garlic and a dash of cooking cream instead.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding cross-cultural reality in a sweet pea

When I was young, my grandfather kept a large garden at the end of our yard. He grew many things, but my favorite was the sweet peas. They ripened in early spring, usually just before Easter, around the same time daffodils were sprouting bright and yellow among the spring greenery.

By the time I was eight or so I learned how to tell when the pods were just ripe. I wandered through the long, carefully-tended rows picking perfect specimens as the soft dirt, heavy with Virginia red clay, stained my bare feet a deep, earthy red-brown.

Dewy spring grass would wipe away the worst of the dirt as I headed back to the house, leaving a trail of pea-pods in my wake. Growing up, there was hardly anything better about spring than those juicy, crisp, fresh sweet peas straight out of my grandfather’s garden.

It’s been years since I was home in the spring to raid pea-pods from those carefully tended rows. I’ve lived many places during those years and I’ve spent the past two in Cairo, a sweltering city of cars, pollution, and some 20 million people.

Living in a different culture, sometimes the simplest things remind you of ‘home,’ alternately highlighting the similarities or the differences between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ I seldom find similarities between Cairo and small-town southern America, although they’re there: a genuine and humble hospitality, for one, and tea with mint, for another.

Yet this morning I sat in village an hour from Cairo with a pile of fresh sweet pea pods heaped on the table in front of me, popping the peas from their pods in preparation for tonight’s dinner. Each time one of those succulent fresh peas found its way into my mouth instead of the bowl in front of me, I was reminded of that old memory.

Sometimes those quiet, mundane tasks remind you that, wherever you are, there are intrinsic similarities among humans. Sure, this morning I was sitting in a rural Egyptian village with palm trees and fields of chamomile out the window, neither of which I ever saw growing up in Virginia, and the majority of the peas ended up in a bowl rather than in my mouth, but even so the similarities seemed more stark than the differences.

I once spent a week living with a family in a tiny community in Brazil’s southern Amazon basin. It was starkly different from anything I had grown up with: they had no running water, most of the family slept in hammocks, they washed clothes in a spring, and there were mango trees everywhere.

But even there I found familiarity: an elderly man in a t-shirt and baseball cap bouncing his grandson on his knee, everyone gathered around a (generator-powered) TV to watch a soccer match, each child expected to help with chores and the youngest crying when her mother left the house without her.

As scholars debate theories of globalization, giant multi-national corporations search for cheaper labor and politicians’ rhetoric expounds the virtue of “us” versus “them,” sometimes all we need is to take a step back.

Consider, for example, the simple joy of one fresh pea: surreptitiously pilfered from the pot before it is cooked, it is just as sweet in rural Egypt as in small-town America.