Wearing a hijab forces one to accept one’s face for what it is. I quickly learned that even with my light brown hair neutralized, my face still says, “Not Egyptian.”
I knelt quietly on the carpet at the Muhammad Ali Mosque in the Citadel of Islamic Cairo. My shoes were left behind at the door and my hair was completely covered by the long, pure black headscarf. But rather than praying to Mecca, I was actually examining the architecture of the mosque. I’m not Muslim.
So how did I end up here, an imposter in this foreign land? It was on the advice of my friend-turned-boyfriend. He’s not Muslim either.
My family was mortified when I told them I was going to Egypt alone. I understood their concerns. I’m a tiny, blue-eyed, semi-blonde, diplomatically challenged, female American scientist with a solid background in heavy metal, extensive goat-roping experience and a strong affinity for nice wine and single-malt Scotch. Doesn’t seem like quite the fit, does it?
But I was writing a novel. I was just beginning the first draft when it became clear that the protagonist would end up in Egypt. She is also a female American scientist on her own, but without the goat-roping experience. I felt compelled to experience the country first-hand, to inform her experiences in the story.
I had never previously been particularly interested in traveling to the Middle East, but books have a way of telling their authors what they will or won’t become interested in. So, Egypt it was.
It was pure coincidence that the man I was dating at the time was Palestinian. Having grown up in Bethlehem (the original one,) he was a native Arabic speaker, first-person expert on Middle Eastern custom and had been to Egypt with his family on vacation.
But he couldn’t go with me. So instead, he coached me in advance.
The most valuable piece of advice was to cover my hair. Completely. At first, I felt a bit awkward about this. But I found the courage to ask a nice young teller at the bank where she got her hijab. Then I integrated my brain with YouTube videos to learn how to wear it. And off I went.
On my first day in Egypt, I walked around commando (with hair flying freely) just to compare and contrast. And on the second day, the benefits of the hijab were revealed. Here are the top ten:
9) Everyone calls you “sister.”
8) You can beat the Egyptian heat by dousing your hair hourly in a bathroom sink, and nobody else is the wiser.
7) When you approach a ticket counter, men part like the Red Sea.
6) Touts at the major tourist attractions ignore you and instead flock like vultures around the herds of sweaty tourists pouring from buses.
5) No bad hair days.
4) Not having to don the pointy plastic robes that make the wearer look like Ku Klux Klan.
2) You come home from Egypt without a raging sunburn.
And the number one benefit of the hijab:1) Every time you speak English, people look as if they have just been spoken to by a passing bird.
I’m certain I had nobody fooled into thinking that I was Egyptian. And I had even fewer people fooled into thinking that I was Muslim. But nonetheless, the imposter ensemble (which also included a bogus wedding ring) was a clear success. My solo trip through Egypt was the adventure of a lifetime and 100% devoid of the sexual harassment and other negative experiences I had heard so much about. I got to see the pyramids, ride a camel, be serenaded several times daily by the call to prayer, climb under a moving train, sail across the Nile on a boat the size of a bathtub, and dance across a balance beam to traverse a flooded crypt. And the research for the novel was completed to boot.
As for the boyfriend turned Middle Eastern Etiquette Coach, I married him.
For a real-time account of these travels, visit http://www.whatwouldkatrinado.blogspot.com
Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and long-time resident of San Diego, California. She lives with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at http://www.kristenelisephd.com and www.murderlab.com. The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print and e-book formats at Kris’ websites and at https://www.amazon.com/author/kristenelisephd
The Vesuvius Isotope:
When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.