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Baring all

The bride seems ecstatic and receives her fair share of shakes and shimmies, as I stare with foreign eyes and struggle to find a bridge between these seeming contradictions.

Overly developed muscles rippled in the glaring summer sun as the boys in green proudly stood bare-chested in front of the president, the military brass and religious leaders. Classic body-building poses showed off biceps and the like, while a plethora of baklava-clad soldiers showed off their prowess in a carefully orchestrated demonstration behind their backs. A group of soldiers performed a human peacock-pose from a motor cycle, as others abseiled back and forth in the background. The military graduation ceremony was a sight to behold.

When I first moved to Egypt, many people helpfully instructed me on the mores of society and how to make sure I would not inadvertently offend the people that so warmly and graciously welcomed me. Living on the Red Sea made for an easy dress code but Cairo came with a more conservative set of rules and in recent times rampant rumours abound that women will be forced to cover all that still sticks out. It makes for good whining and fear mongering but thus far that seems to be the extent of it.

As a foreigner it can be tricky to navigate along the fine line of stomping on toes and being accepted, but erring on the side of caution normally does the trick. In the end, who am I to judge? As a guest you adjust to your host’s rules, so on with the shirts that cover upper arms and off with skimpy stuff.

And then you go to a wedding and see a half-naked, voluptuous women shake her curved physique in the grooms face, while the well-clad, veiled women of both families smile, clap and ululate in vigorous approval. The bride seems ecstatic and receives her fair share of shakes and shimmies, as I stare with foreign eyes and struggle to find a bridge between these seeming contradictions. And I recall all those condemning comments of a girl that supposedly did not wear enough layers to avoid showing her bra after being brutally beaten by the powers that be.

A casual stroll through a simple mall reveals a shop covered in black painted wood. There is no door to be found but a kind lady in her mid-fifties produces a key that leads to a treasure trove of red velvet, whips and racy outfits that lack pieces of material in crucial places. Kindly smiling and nodding her covered head she urges me to tell my friends about her collection. They can always find her in the adjacent shop where she sells abeyas. At a loss for words I smile my thanks and as I walk away I muse that the shop would not have been out of place in Amsterdam. And I remember the time a woman wearing a full veil spat at me because being a foreigner was enough reason to judge my morals to be questionable.

And so my morning started a few days ago watching these poster boys for male prowess proudly displaying their disproportionate bodies on national TV. And wondered.

I believe there is room for understanding and change in the little space between discrepancies. Seems there are a few golden opportunities for that in Egypt lately.

Topics: column Egypt

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