Some things are easily answered. The Pyramids live up to your expectations and inside they are very hot. The Sphynx is less than it appears, and the treasures of the Cairo Museum are enough to knock your eyes out. But the real mystery remains the faces on the street -- what's behind them?
What, for instance, does a person think when a car pushes him out of the way? What does a poor messenger think when he goes to some swanky hotel on an errand and then returns that night to sleep in a hovel? What is in the mind of a woman who never gets to meet the guest she cooks for and just what is being thought by the fat lady in traditional dress who sprawls on the sidewalk and seems to do nothing else but watch the traffic go by?
I don't know. I look for the resentment that usually accompanies poverty and I find none of it.Neighborhoods that I wouldn't fly over in the United States, I walk through in Cairo, my pockets bulging with cash and traveler's checks. All I get is waves and some entreaties to buy something or another -- usually for what is called "free." I think they mean "cheap."
Some people here say that we -- we foreigners -- can never learn the answers to these questions. They talk of mindsets and of tradition, of accepting one's lot and not trying to change it. An Egyptian woman says simply, "It is another culture." It sure appears that way on the surface, but it cannot be that simple.
Is it possible that the woman who cooked for me and her husband and yet could not come into the room to meet me did not resent this? Was she so accepting that she did not bitterly talk things over the next day with her friends -- mock her husband, laugh about how he took home someone who could not speak the language and then turned on the television set? Did the women cackle over this story, or did they not?
Religion, of course, plays an enormous role. Arabs are fond of saying, "God willing," and for many of them it is no mere expression. It means that their entire lives are in the hands of God. What happens is fate. When they have too many children, they say God will provide, and when an employe is told by his firm that the company might move to Beirut, he says the decision was in the hands of God. It is not. It is in the hands of an accountant back in the U.S.A.
The cardinal rule of the journalist, especially of the columnist, is that people are more or less the same. If something moves me, it will move the readers, and if it makes me mad, it will anger them also. This is why I wonder about the poor of Egypt.If it were me, I would be resentful. If the cars of the rich pushed me out of the way, I would get angry. If I had to sleep in some shack after seeing the glories of the Sheraton, I would not sleep well that night.
Others say that this is not the case. They say that Third World peoples are different. They think differently. They tend to accept more.They put more faith in religion and less in themselves. This is the only way it can be for them. The poor are not resentful and not jealous and not full of hate. They are, instead, empty.
Who knows? The fat lady sprawled on the curb is unapproachable. I cannot speak her language and if I could, my skin complexion and the accent of my Arabic would still signify that I am a stranger. I would ask her all the wrong questions and she would give me all the wrong answers and I would learn nothing. This is what others who have tried say. I cannot even try.
But I do know that before the civil rights movement in America, blacks were sometimes thought to be accepting of their lot in life. The country was full of myths about blacks -- happy, indolent souls that they were supposed to be.
And I do know that men once thought some strange things about women. We thought that women loved to be housewives and didn't mind being treated as second-class citizens. We lived with them and slept with them, had them for sisters and mothers and wives, made love to them (our version of events), but in some ways hardly knew them at all. The women's liberation movement took most men by surprise. Now and again, it still does.
I'm not sure if these are universal experiences -- if they translate at all to a Third World country. I'm not sure if the wife of a poor Egyptian resents it when she is excluded from dinner in her own home -- whether somewhere down deep she thinks herself the equal of her husband or whether she and he share the same image of herself.
In Egypt, it's hard to be sure of anything.