The street where my parents live is lined with trees and front porches. When I come back for the holidays, fresh from whichever corner of the Arab world I’m calling home, news travels fast. The Gauls’ daughter is back in town: everyone just saw so from their porch.
Small talk ensues (so, what’s Egypt like?) and before long, the inevitable question resurfaces: so remind me…what are you (still) doing over there?
Most people assume the answer has something to do with cross-cultural dialogue, or gender empowerment, or (heaven help us) national security. Over the years I’ve cycled through every high-minded reason there is to explain why I’ve spent the better part of a decade studying Arabic. Not one of them has managed to withstand the tests of time, cynicism, and postcolonial theory — that is, until yesterday at 2 am, when I found the truth literally staring me in the face:
I’m in it for the swag.
This epiphany struck me as I stood on a moving sidewalk lined with windows in the almost-empty Cairo airport. Bathed in silence and mirrored surfaces, I regarded my reflection.
It stared back at me, clad in the trappings of seven years of travels across the Middle East & North Africa. Perched on each shoulder: a carry-on bag shot through with stripes in pinks and reds. The first, a handmade Moroccan number, stood out on account of its hot-pink leather detailing. Its decidedly less flashy foil, a sturdy canvas tote, had been left behind by the friend whose Cairo apartment I took over earlier this year — the kind of jetsam demanded by the ever-tightening snare of checked baggage requirements in a post-recession world.
The rosy hues of the bags were set off by the pride of my winter wardrobe, a green corduroy peacoat I bought for five dinars at Souq Abdali in Amman — the best thrifting market in the Arab world and possibly the universe (tables of belts in every color; golden slippers for a dollar; racks of tracksuits and prom dresses I am sure I could pull off ironically, but am never brave enough to try on).
The nice thing about a green coat is that it really pops in the desert.
Pulling it all together is a Palestinian hatta, because white girls who study Arabic abroad typically come back keffiyeh’d and I am no different. Everyone knows that a hatta isn’t really chic unless it’s got good politics, which usually means it was made by the women’s cooperative in Khalil. Keffiyeh politics are complex and pretty interesting. They are also guaranteed to make some people feel uncomfortable. Whether this is good or bad at holiday time is difficult to say. The important thing is that my hatta has enough green in it to qualify as festive.
Tucked away in my luggage is an enormous stash of Egyptian textiles. For all the hype about Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market, the truth is that the shopping is better in Morocco (this observation is something I usually keep to myself. Egyptians are very proud of their homeland, which they refer to often and earnestly as the Mother of the World). Despite this, the Khan has its own secrets and advantages, and I’ve come away from it with a handful of purchases that will make handsome Christmas gifts — including an array of brightly patterned Cairene clutch purses. Not everyone will remember exactly what it is I’m doing Over There. But at least they will remember the gifts I brought back.
A layover in Dulles calls to mind the treasures I’ve hoarded in my Washington, DC storage unit: boots of embroidered textiles and bags of Marrakeshi leather; a half dozen carpets of every size, shape and provenance; tapestries, bracelets, caftans; cheap art I picked up in my favorite Moroccan seaside town; the beautifully draped ankle-length black linen skirt I bought in a cool East Beirut boutique in preparation for a move to more-conservative West Amman two summers ago. This summer I wore that skirt all over Paris, hiked up to my neckline as a strapless sundress — belted, of course, with a scarf from Bethlehem.
They do so much work, these items — and I don’t just mean supporting local economies and starting conversations at parties and securing my place as that wedding invitee who can be counted upon to send you an off-registry gift (consider yourselves warned). They are also the armor that defends my lifestyle choices. No, I don’t have a dissertation proposal yet, and yes, I’m still single. But at least I have a sense of personal style.
That probably sounds flippant. Or shallow. Or both.
But I believe that if all the white people studying the Middle East would stop spouting expert opinions about politics and spend some quality time in the nearest souq instead, the region would probably be a lot better off. My favorite shopping moment of 2013 happened in the medina of Rabat, Morocco. After an extended round of bargaining in Tashelheet (an Amazigh dialect from the south, which I happen to speak) the elderly vendor asked how much time I’d spent in Morocco. “About two and a half years,” I replied. He scoffed. “What? That’s nothing. You don’t really know anything at all!” Humbling, charming, and true.
This Christmas, the neighbors will ask what I’m going to do with all that Arabic, and so will the customs & borders guy at the airport. But I no longer have to hum and hem and haw and hedge an answer, because this year I’m carrying — and gifting — a clutch purse from Egypt that’s simply to die for. And for now, that will have to be explanation enough.