On a particularly warm night in Cairo, too lazy to go home and cook, a Canadian woman and her American friend decided to stop by a popular Spanish restaurant in Zamalek attached to the Spanish Embassy named after the most famous of wanderers, Don Quixote. In Arabicised English called Don Quichotte.
It was a last minute plan and only one of them was particularly eager about possibly being turned away because the other was in jeans and the other really would have liked just to have a simple meal.
Meanwhile, not far from the restaurant Riham and Mohamed were parking their car, not an easy feat in Zamalek with so many embassies around. But they were committed. Mohamed had found reviews for an excellent tapas spot attached to the Spanish Embassy that promised great meat entrees and crab gratin.
He had made a reservation for this night, their anniversary, and Riham was dressed for the occasion. She was wearing a carefully curated outfit made up of a cream coloured jacket, and pants, a blush coloured scarf that wrapped tightly around her head which fell like a pony tail down her back. She wore heels and immaculately applied makeup. She looked beautiful.
The Canadian and the American arrived to an empty restaurant but were told not to be fooled by the dozen vacant tables, they were all booked. They could have a seat however at the bar on a pair of towering leather stools.
The American had a dour reaction to the dark room and the mahogany panels. He was half disappointed his jeans hadn’t kept him out. But his companion was already seated and well into the menu so he dutifully complied. A waiter soon took their order and they were on their way to a decent dinner.
Mohamed had done a good thing to book, every table was spoken for and a night away from the kids, needed to go smoothly for it being so rare. They arrived to an empty room with a couple seated at the bar. The girl was in leggings and an old t-shirt, the guy in torn jeans but they looked pleased with the crab gratin.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that there were a dozen empty tables, an almost cavernous silence in the room, the fact that she was early, had a reservation, and improved the look of the room by 1000 percent, they would not be able to seat her, the host told her quietly from just over my shoulder.
Her husband made the reservation days ago she said, it was their anniversary.
It didn’t matter that she had a reservation, he explained. She had a headscarf.
Riham stood up straight and silent. My crab gratin stuck in my throat.
The host explained that he was very sorry, but women with scarves were banned from entering the establishment. Mohamed asked him why he hadn’t told him that on the phone.
He said, it’s your job to ask what is permitted. Besides, this place serves alcohol so it would be offensive.
Riham told him that it was for her to be offended over the alcohol if she wanted to be, not him.
Today I called Riham and asked her to tell me more about what had happened. She told me, “I’m a veiled Egyptian woman in this country. I have every right to be here. I know it isn’t the waiter’s fault, he was just following the rules. Still the rules are offensive.”
And it isn’t the first time. “Sometimes we will go to the hotels with the kids, so they can swim in the
pool,” she said, unfortunately, if Riham gets into the pool with a bathing suit that covers her arms and legs the staff will come over and ask her to get out, ending their play.
“I try to ignore the rules, and tell them when I’m done I will get out.”
She has enough heart to commiserate with the victims made of the staff by the rules. “They are Egyptian, the poor staff themselves will tell me they don’t think it’s fair but they have to do it.”
She added, “Everybody is now speaking about tolerance and accepting that people can be different, people should not be judged by their appearance. It is their core, good or bad, that should count.”
That romantic dinner that should have been, ended with Mohamed asking, disappointedly of the waiter, “How could I have known to ask? A veiled woman is not a dog that I should call ahead and ask if I am allowed to bring her.”
After they left, the host came over and apologised. To me.