Seeing differently

“In my life, I’ve lived, I’ve loved, I’ve lost, I’ve missed, I’ve hurt, I’ve trusted, I’ve made mistakes, but most of all, I’ve learned”
author unknown

I have been living in Egypt nearly 1 and a half years. I am still learning new things every day about the culture, sometimes delightful discoveries, but sometimes learning through making mistakes which can have harsh outcomes, especially in close personal relationships. I am still struggling to learn Arabic, so much happening in my life that I can’t find time or mental space to really give it the daily concentration that learning needs, so I just learn odd words as I go.

I don’t often pause to record the small changes I experience, so here are some recent shifts in perception:

I wrote three articles for the Weddings issue of a popular Egyptian magazine. One article was about wedding photographers, and I included a friend from Australia who is now based in Hawaii where he and his wife are wedding photographers. My editor asked for more of his photos for possible use as the cover, and he sent a selection of shots which I thought were all beautiful and would only make it difficult for her to choose one. Then her response: can I have some more examples, but without the couples kissing? Of course he had chosen the kissing couples as ideal cover shots, but these would not do for conservative Egypt. This is even though this magazine features lots of less than modest fashion and celebrities and socialites flashing flesh; for a cover they have to be more discreet and the photo finally chosen is a perfect solution. I think of the covers of some of the magazines in Australia, and now know we won’t be seeing shots like those on street newstands here. Kissing or holding hands in Siwa was impossible, but it is a common site in Cairo and Alexandria where couples enjoy an evening on the Corniche or in a park, so it was something I had never imagined would be a serious consideration for magazines.
You can view or download the entire issue at

I had the strange sensation of really noticing blue eyes for the first time. It gave me a shock when I realized they were starting to stand out. I found myself drawn to someone on a page of a magazine and could not initially see the attraction, then realized they were the only blue eyed person in the picture. I am also noticing the eyes of foreigners and the minority of Egyptians who have lighter eyes. I suspect this change is because I have been surrounded by dark brown eyes for so long. Now I begin to understand why people here are so drawn to and comment on my blue eyes. It fascinates me how your perception of the world can change so subtly when you live somewhere else, and are immersed in a world that has many similarities but also many visual differences from your old world. I am reminded that so much of our view of the world and other people is coloured by where we are born and the environment we grow up in.

I sometimes spend a day in Sharm el-Sheikh, which is not like the rest of Egypt but a beach resort town where European / Western culture and dress rule. Many times I have felt embarrassed by the dress (or rather, undress) of women there. I still do not cover completely as many Muslims do, and am comfortable showing skin at the beach, but I find myself increasingly feeling very strange about seeing women so uncovered in the street. I realize how the Egyptian men view these women, usually a mix of lust, followed by disrespect (though I know many also look at covered women that way too, and still show little respect and harass them as well). I feel for the men who work in Sharm, as T has for many years. They are used to seeing women like this, and get a taste for European style themselves, and it forms a sharp contrast with what they expect from the women in their families. How can they reconcile their attraction to bikini wearing Sharm “girlfriends” and how their future wives will be expected to dress? While I dress for myself, I do like to also please my partner, so I experience the confusion of: do I dress modestly, or do I dress as he also enjoys seeing these women dress? In Australian summers I have dressed like some of those women in Sharm, but now I feel too uncovered if I dress this way outside of my home.

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