Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Unintended Consequences, Harmones

“Cute,” I say, observing a fair sampling of Egypt’s youth. Harmones, it seems, level the human behavior field.

We’re driving by lines of buses—block after block of them disgorging hordes of kids on the main street of Giza, a city of millions that has grown up between the great pyramids and Cairo. It’s Saturday, the equivalent of our Saturday, and it looks like every person in Egypt of school age has come to visit their cultural heritage.

My “cute” response is to the dress and behavior and is said with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek. This is a Muslim country, one growing more radical by the year, and, just as one would expect, many of the girls are in the hedjab, the Muslim head covering.

Somehow, though, this tribute to modesty in the hands of an inventive teen becomes a theatrical prop, one we can see in many permutations as the girls glide around as provocatively as Nerfertiti to gather in giggling groups under the eyes of any nearby boys and wait for their school chaperones.

Inventiveness is everywhere. The basic hedjab is just a scarf worn to cover the hair. A popular form comes pre-sewn with an opening for the face and a long end that can be brought around the shoulders, draped across the chest, and drawn up and pinned above the ear on the opposite side of the body. As worn by our guide, it is a modest piece of clothing, hiding the neck and disguising breasts. The teenaged girls, though?

Ah, they are a different matter. Take the very same basic white hedjab, adjust the drape to accentuate the breasts, raise the forehead line above huge black eyes, add a jeweled pin … then put the whole lot over a tight pair of jeans, boots or cute little shoes, and a lace-edged top. The combination is guaranteed to stop any male in his tracks. But this is just the beginning. We pass dozens of variations with hedjabs of several pieces and colors and combinations of skirts, jackets, and pants.

“Cute.” And, they are.

Unintended consequences. Tell a woman she must wear a scarf, and there’s no telling what she’ll produce. No wonder the mullahs and imans keep women out of the mosques. No male over the age of puberty could focus on Allah while such temptation is within eyesight. “Someone must stay home and tend the children so the men can pray,” our guide says. “That is a woman’s duty. That is why she is excused from the mosque.”

“Absolutely,” I say. “No doubt about it.”

Something in my tone must make her wonder about my sincerity, because she gives me an appraising look. I smile.

The boys, themselves, make their own entrances, using bus hand holds as gymnastic bars, swinging athletically to the ground and swaggering around in tight jeans, boots, and tee-shirts. Jackets are also in evidence, the temperature being (for Egypt) a cool 75+ degrees fahrenheit.

To my real surprise, some of the boys pair off with girls, draping arms over shoulders, lowering their heads for more intimacy. But, mostly, the girls bunch together, laughing and talking in ways designed to attract attention. The boys do the same … without the giggles. Then, there are those few in truly modest attire, who walk with lowered heads and serious demeanors. I know those kids, too. They are the class nerds, the youth headed for religious careers, the moral-guardians-in-training for their communities.

After a mile or so of buses, we get our first good sight of the pyramids, of the creations of people who lived four thousand years ago. And, I’ll bet their teens weren’t much different than those of today’s Egypt or today’s America. Harmones will out.


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