Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spiced tea, social norms, and me

As a foreigner and as a young woman I am doubly suscept to being dubbed inept when it comes to physical actions (how these classifications equate to social superiority is another subject entirely). Whether it comes to cleaning my apartment, carrying my groceries, or making a glass of spiced tea, Egyptians regard me with the same look of incredulity mixed with amusement when they realize I intend to carry out said tasks myself.

Take the glass of spiced tea I am currently sipping.

Since April I have worked part-time at a small cafe in the upscale Cairene neighborhood of Zamalek (actually located on an island in the middle of the Nile). My current tasks are usually coming up with unique and tasty soups during the week and making waffles on Saturday mornings, but for a while I opened up shop at 7am three to four days a week.

I knew how to make an espresso, a cappuccino, and everything in between from my days as a barista in Rome, and making sandwiches and salads is kind of a no-brainer. I just had to remember how much everything cost and I was pretty much set.

The shop has seen a couple makeovers in the nine months I've worked here, and at this point I'm actually the second-oldest employee. However, I'm also the only foreigner (read: light-skinned American) and I still work part-time. This means that the other employees constantly want to do things for me and I still get thanked for washing the dishes - even if it's entirely my own soup-making mess.

I also enjoy the cafe as a place to chill and write. A few minutes ago I took a break from writing (my other job) and headed down to the kitchen to make myself a glass of spiced tea. Aya, one of the girls who works in the cafe, watched me for a few moments before saying, "I make it."

The scene isn't particularly uncommon and I resigned myself to the bar stool with an amused smile. When Aya finished her current task, she looked at my glass, shook her head, and dumped it out. "No way!" she told me. A few minutes later she handed me my glass of spiced tea with the perfect amount of foam and a dash of cinnamon on top. I thanked her profusely and retreated back to my laptop with my steaming cup.

I adore Aya. She's a cute young Egyptian girl with a bit of spunk and a good sense of humor. She's a diligent worker even if she does work at the slow, steady speed typical of Egyptians. She speaks enough English that we understand each other decently and my attempts at Arabic incessantly send her into fits of giggles (she still can't believe I know what leben rayeb is; it's buttermilk). But she still asks me if I need help every time I go to buy vegetables, even though the vegetable man knows me, and thanks me when I wash the dishes. She's a dear, but I doubt she'll ever take me seriously as an employee at the cafe: I'll always be the nice foreign girl who comes in sometimes and is friends with the owner (who I met only because she was looking for part-time employees and I needed a hobby).

Similarly, my landlord was bemused when I told him I clean the apartment myself (I've since resorted to assuring him my old cleaning lady comes), and I'll never forget the look of shock on one upper-class Egyptian friend's face when he saw me scrubbing my kitchen the first day I moved into my flat. He simply couldn't understand why I would resort to doing such things myself, never mind that there were old grease stains everywhere.

(I do recognize that there are deeper underlying social norms and concepts tracing back hundreds of years contributing to many of these experiences, but again, that particular academic debate is another issue entirely.)

Occasionally having to insist that I am quite competent gets a bit old. Yes, I can clean. Yes, I can unclog the drain. Yes, I can carry my groceries. Yes, I can iron my shirt. Yes, I can flag down a cab and tell him where I need to go. Really. I promise. I'll be fine.

But frustrating or not, being underestimated has its benefits. Police seldom take me seriously at demonstrations, and consequently aren't bothered by me. I never stop or take my keys out of my pockets when I go through metal detectors, I've talked my way into sporting clubs without an ID, and I've gotten into various government buildings simply because no one can imagine that I - a young, confidant white foreign girl - would be near any of these places if I didn't belong there.

Even so, yes, Aya, I can make my own spiced tea.

1 comment:

  1. When we lived in Europe and the Middle East, the natives always felt that there was something wrong with my mom because she could cook, clean, and care for her children all by herself. She could shop, carry groceries, and even do the banking -- imagine that?
    It's a cultural thing, I think. It often makes me wonder how the rest of the world perceives Americans and America itself. American streets aren't paved with gold, we put our pants on one leg at a time, and we all work hard for what we have. AND we don't need cleaning ladies and nannies, thankyouverymuch.