It is hard to tell the exact point where one switches from a life of decency to a life of transgression. One day you are asked to carry a letter for a nice man in a tux. Then it is a brown paper bag that you are asked not to open, and one day you open your eyes and find yourself staring at the bloody crumpled face of a man you never met with a tire iron in your hand and sweat beading in your eyebrows. Or maybe you start out storing and lending like anyone else. A few deals go bad, the economy dips a little, and you can’t face the investors. You keep recording real estate which is tanking at its original price till one day nothing is left in the vaults and your clients are shit-out-of-luck. Do you escape to the Caymans or wait for the government to bail you out? Where did it all begin? Can you find a point and say, this is when we knew things had changed?
For us the point probably came when a strange Egyptian man asked Reem the time of day… and then tried to kiss her. She was sitting on the landing smoking a cigarette, a normal enough activity, and when the man paused in front of her she assumed he was trying to find the flat of a friend. The strange man asked for the time, and asked for a cigarette, and then asked for her name. Reem didn’t want to be rude, and then his lips descended.
We might have considered the attempted landing kiss a localized incident had it not happened once before. On Monday a man followed Gillian up to our apartment. She assumed he lived upstairs until he stopped in front of our door. Again, he asked for the time of day. This seems to be the code. When she said she didn’t have a watch the man asked for a glass of water and started walking into our apartment. Gillian screamed at the man and slammed the door.
But how did we gain this reputation? What has given these strange Egyptian men the impression that sin and sensuality lay beyond our wooden door?
Two of the members of our flat-family are girls, Gillian and Kaya. Neither of them is particularly promiscuous, but they do have friends that are male, and they definitely do not try to be Egypt. Gillian’s boyfriend is a marine, and he has spent the night occasionally. Kaya, despite covering up with scarves and shawls, for some reason, has been mistaken for a prostitute a few times. Once when she and I were coming home from a party some officers stopped our taxi just as we were coming to the bridge that crosses the train tracks into our part of Maadi. They harassed us for a few minutes and made rude insinuations about a young white man with a darker skinned woman going home together late at night. They demanded to see our identification but as soon as they discovered that Kaya is an American they sent us on our way. We also have a part time roommate who lives in Paris but stays with us for four or five days a month. Lauren is the sister-in-law of one of my professors, and as an artist who is recording a CD in Egypt we do not question why she comes and goes at 4:00am. Occasionally when I take a break from homework to go to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning I will hear a male Egyptian voice coming from her room, but I assume she is practicing Arabic. And Reem, who stays with us when she can, does spend some time on the landing smoking, but after all, we host a yoga studio so she certainly cannot smoke in the house.
And that is probably the key point, the yoga studio. It never struck me as odd until strange men started showing up and harassing my friends. However, I suppose standing on the street in Egypt and seeing groups of mainly western woman coming and going from a certain dwelling, often with a couple guys accompanying them might look a little suspicious. Doing homework on the inside, as a youth from a liberal community in Wisconsin, the reason for these mysterious goings-on seemed very clear; yoga classes attract a largely female crowd and haven’t yet caught on with most Egyptians who generally have more important things to be worrying about then the form of their downward dog. But now I can see the other side.
It is hard to tell where to go from here. While it is nice that the community is finally getting to know us, being known as the town brothel is not quite what I had hoped for. The worst part is that now I am starting to see our apartment as a brothel. The attempted landing kiss just took place this morning and already the image has crept into the back of my mind and nestled in amongst the half-forgotten errands and movies I mean to watch sometime. I look at the beer bottles on the dining room table and think brothel. Dim light seeps out from under a bedroom door and I imagine I hear the whining of over-burdened bedsprings. I pass the living room on the way to the kitchen and my mind paints half-naked woman draped over the furniture their eyelids drooping languidly with the boredom of a long day. One smokes a cigarette, another picks bits of food from her teeth, while a third strokes her leg pondering if it is time to shave, and all of them wait. They wait for a strange man to barge into the apartment and ask for the time of day.