Porn Stars on Holiday

Or, What Happens in Egypt Stays in Egypt--Until Now, Part 2

“Yet not for a single moment did I have any doubts about my own integrity and honor as a woman. I knew that my profession had been invented by men, that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth, and the one in heaven. That men force women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body is that of a wife. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another.” ~ Nawal El Saadawi

This is Part 2 in a 3 Part series.

Religion, even when not taken to an extreme, is a powerful tool used to control those perceived as weaker and/or a threat: women, those of other faiths, other colors. Really, no matter where you live on this planet, people are obsessed with climbing over the dead bodies of their fellow humans, on the way to…where? Heaven? Janna?

Streets lined with gold for the Christians and forty virgins for the Muslims. Hell for unbelievers. In Islam, the hope of paradise is only for women who obey their fathers and husbands. No forty virgins for them. If they are lucky, they will get the same guy they were married to, whether he was kind or cruel. In the meantime, their husbands get to behave just as badly in heaven as they did on earth. Even more so.

Each of the three religions of “The Book,” Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, claim their followers are God’s chosen people. This wouldn’t be so bad, if each religion acknowledged that they “walk by faith, not by sight.” I talked about this in my essay The Problem of Faith. Admitting they don’t actually know would put them all on equal footing. But each religion insists that they have the Truth. And so, bloodbaths down through history have been justified on all sides, each one claiming to be carrying out God’s justice on unbelievers.

In a society where religion is separate from government, extremism can be kept at bay. Countries such as the United States and Israel certainly have serious problems. Every country does. But at least they are democracies. At least citizens are free to protest those problems, even make fun of its leaders and scream in the faces of the police. And yet, democracy is now being derided.

Living in an Arab State, where religion rules every aspect of a person’s life, down to the call of prayer five times a day, helped me understand the huge gap between the level of oppression that exists in Muslim countries and my homeland of the United States. There is simply no comparison. I am thankful to be an American and I will delve deeper into the reasons why in Part 3.

I grew up in a conservative Christian family. The Apostle Paul set the tone for how women were treated: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet women shall be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty.”

Even as a small child, I had a hard time accepting this. A battle raged in me, wanting to conform and do “right” and wanting to break free. My childhood travels certainly opened my mind to some extent. Once I got older, I was able to reach my own conclusions, reject the extremism of my upbringing, and live how I wished. I was called a whore by my parents for having sex with my college boyfriend. There was nothing worse in the world that I could have done than this. My dad took to his bed and went on hunger strike, vowing to stay there and pray for my lost soul until either I repented or he died. At this time, my dad was struggling in his writing career as a Christian author and my behavior could have brought shame upon him and derailed his career.

Well, I didn’t repent. By the end of the weekend, I had a job as a waitress and I had moved out.

My dad didn’t die. Eventually, he got out of bed and went on with his life. I’m happy to say that years later we came to a better understanding of one another. The thing is, my dad loved me and I loved him. It was religious extremism that tore us apart.

Leaving my family wasn’t easy. It meant giving up the safe haven that I knew and the contacts I could have developed through my father once he became successful. Life would have been so much easier if I had conformed. But I was able to forge ahead on my own because I had options. I could get a job, drive my own car, go to college, and cultivate supportive friends and contacts.

There are no such options for the millions of women living in Muslim countries. And unless you have experienced living there, it is impossible to understand how bad it really is or what is at stake if we do not stand up and speak out. Unless we do, this extremism will continue to spread until democracy will be a thing of the past. Westerners are so afraid to appear racist or Islamophobic that they stay silent, allowing the real racists and terrorists to thrive.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian feminist writer has said “When Westerners remain silent out of ‘respect’ for foreign cultures, they show support only for the most conservative elements of those cultures. Cultural relativism is as much my enemy as the oppression I fight within my culture and faith.”

Just two months ago in Cairo, a female Egyptian doctor, 34, was beaten and thrown from her apartment balcony to her death by her landlord and two other males. Why? Because she invited a male colleague into her apartment.

This death came at a time when a new draft of personal status law was referred to Egypt's parliament, reaffirming concerns over women's rights in the country. If put into law, the proposal would see many women's decisions put into the hands of their fathers, husbands or closest male relatives.

The draft law would allow only a male guardian the right to sign a marriage certificate on the woman's behalf, and would also grant male relatives the right to annul a woman's marriage at any time.

It would also give male relatives the right to prevent a woman from traveling, and would restrict women's rights over their children by prioritizing the father in custody disputes and other matters, such as education.

The draft law is a "shocking and frustrating" set-back for women's rights that would see female Egyptians reduced to "machines for birthing children", the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECRW) said in a statement.

Activists condemned the bill, which they said takes the country back '200 years.'

UN figures compiled in 2013 found that 99 per cent of women in Egypt had suffered some form of sexual harassment, while nearly half experienced domestic violence.

Egyptian laws do not explicitly criminalize domestic violence or martial rape, meaning that women who report such crimes are often ignored, the report added.

Support services for victims are almost non-existent, UN investigators said, while 'discriminatory' divorce laws make it almost impossible for women to escape abusive relationships

It’s shocking that women in our own government who claim to care about the oppressed remain silent about these abuses by Arab States while condemning Israel as committing terrorism.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said that Israel is "promoting racism and dehumanization" under a discriminatory "apartheid system." 

One of the most inflammatory tweets came from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who accused Israel of "terrorism" amid the fatal clashes with Hamas while remaining silent about Hamas. 

Even stranger is how ignorant some in the LGBTQ community in the West seem to be about what goes on in Arab States. Don’t they realize they would not be safe walking around Gaza, and would never be accepted there? Rather they would be thrown to their deaths, just like the Egyptian doctor.

Hamas cofounder Mahmoud Zahar has said, “You in the West do not live like human beings. You do not even live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?”

In an April broadcast on Hamas’s Al-Aksa TV, which was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Syrian academic Muhammad Rateb al- Nabulsi said, “Homosexuality involves a filthy place, and does not generate offspring. Homosexuality leads to the destruction of the homosexual. That is why, brothers, homosexuality carries the death penalty.”

Gay, Lesbian and women’s right activists the world over fought long and hard—many died—for freedoms that are being so thoughtlessly tossed away.

Here is an Arab Israeli’s response to AOC saying Israel is an apartheid state:

“I’m an Arab-Israeli and a Muslim and I’m a proud Israeli. We are fighting Hamas terrorists who hijacked our religion while you tweet about something you know nothing about. Stfu!!!”

Because it is not only Jews who are being attacked by rockets. It is Christians, Muslims, Atheists, LGBTQ, all the diverse people who are fortunate enough to live in a democracy, surrounded by totalitarian Arab States.

At the November 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mona Eltahawy was beaten by and sexually assaulted by Egyptian police. Her left arm and right hand were broken.

This is what she later had to say about that day in her controversial essay Why Do They Hate Us?:

“And we’re in the middle of a revolution in Egypt! It’s a revolution in which women have died, been beaten, shot at, and sexually assaulted fighting alongside men to rid our country of that uppercase Patriarch — Mubarak — yet so many lowercase patriarchs still oppress us. The Muslim Brotherhood, with almost half the total seats in our new revolutionary parliament, does not believe women (or Christians for that matter) can be president. The woman who heads the ‘women’s committee’ of the Brotherhood’s political party said recently that women should not march or protest because it’s more ‘dignified’ to let their husbands and brothers demonstrate for them.”

I went to Luxor, Egypt in February of 2018 with an open heart, wanting to accept and understand the people and country and religion. I wanted to prove everything my father had said about the evils of Islam, during our conversation on the balcony of the Winter Palace when I was a child, was wrong.

I was under the impression that Egypt had changed since my childhood experiences and was the most open of all the Arab States. This impression is given, even now, as Egypt has been an important negotiator between Hamas and Israel. But this public image has nothing to do with the realities of day-to-day life.

I didn’t know women were being thrown out of windows. I didn’t know that in Upper Egypt, 99% of women and girls are still subjected to FGM. I started a boxing club for girls while I was in Luxor. Once I realized that the ten to twelve year-old girls I was training were right at the age when they would be cut, it became very difficult for me to continue.

I can tell you, just as Mona Eltahawy has, that Muslim men in this part of the world overwhelmingly believe a woman’s sexuality is so evil, so dirty that it must literally be cut out of her. If not, her sexual appetite will be uncontrollable. An uncircumcised woman is likened to a “raging bull.” Once this unclean and dangerous part of her body is cut out, her ability to have pleasure is taken away so she will be docile and remain faithful.

Western women are not cut and we are sex crazy, we must want it all the time. We are vile creatures who deserve being abused and taken advantage of until we die. The bodies of countless foreign women are buried beneath the sands of the St. Tawdros Monastery, to lie forgotten for eternity in the shadow of the Valley of the Queens. Women who came to Luxor as tourists with stars in their eyes, seduced by the local men and imprisoned by their own longing. The local men slowly but surely strip them of every penny along with their dignity, and then wait for their deaths like rabid dogs, sometimes helping them along.

“You are my queen,” so the women are told when first they come to this magical place. Old, young, beautiful, ugly, all that matters is that they have money. Even a small pension will go a long way in Luxor. And those who believe the lies pay the price.

I left Egypt in June of 2020, after having helped Gitte, a Swedish woman, escape a mob of angry men who were refusing to let her go to the airport. Gitte is an artist who had lived in Luxor for seven years. A brave, strong woman if ever there was one. We became friends during the pandemic and I lived in her fabulous villa during my last couple of months there.

Gitte’s problems started when she decided to sell her villa. Because no foreign woman should even own a villa, let alone be able to sell it and get money. And there were any number of characters who believed it should belong to them.

A couple of hours before we were to leave, Gitte called me in a panic. “Karen, you must come now. They are going to take me to the police station!” I could hear men yelling in the background. It sounded frightening. Immediately, I ran out of my apartment, because the last few days we were there we had both moved out her villa for our safety. I turned onto the side street where her hotel was located, to find a mob of men in front of the hotel.

Gitte was in the back seat of the taxi I’d ordered for her, with a driver I trusted more than others—which wasn’t necessarily saying much. The taxi was completely surrounded by the mob that filled the narrow street. A portly police officer stood amongst the men, doing nothing to help. Meanwhile, a man was pulling on Gitte’s arm from one window, while another man had climbed into the back seat on the other side, his bottom sticking out the door, trying to drag her from the car. It seemed they wanted to tear her in two, each one getting a piece. Other men pressed in on every side, banging on the car. Everyone was yelling “prostitute!” in English.

I’d heard this term enough in my life, but never had I heard it as much as I did in Luxor.

I squared my shoulders, putting on my best “Moudira” demeanor, and barreled down the street toward the men. I’m six feet tall and had developed a reputation for causing trouble. Besides much worse offenses, I’d set up a boxing bag at my villa and had started that boxing club for girls.

If my time in Luxor had taught me anything, it was how not to be a “nice” girl. Silence was what I’d been taught as a child and it took years of martial arts and boxing training for me to unlearn it. Now I yelled louder than any of them, as if they were a bunch of unruly children, “What is going on here! Stop immediately!”

The chaos died down and all heads turned to stare at me angrily. The police officer’s eyes went wide with consternation. I was that difficult American woman with that crazy president, Donald Trump. Frantically, he began pulling the guy out of the car, telling everyone to calm down. I stormed up to the taxi and they all drew back. I told them. “We’re going to the airport and don’t dare try to stop us!”

My heart was beating hard in my chest as I got in the taxi but no one stopped me. Immediately we started to drive, they began yelling again. I looked back to see raised fists and hate-filled faces.

On the way to the airport, I asked our driver, Mohammed, why the men of Luxor always called Western women prostitutes.

“Because you are this. All are porn stars on holiday.”

“What?” said Gitte.

We looked at each other and the image was so funny we started to laugh, feeling some of the tension of the last months falling away.

“Porn Stars on Holiday,” I repeated. “Hmm, it has a certain ring to it, like a Hollywood musical, like the movie, Roman Holiday.”

And we laughed some more.

Like every man who was able, Mohammed had a German “wife” who had signed an “Orfi”marriage contract so they could live together. She visited a few weeks a year and gave him money and gifts.

“But, the women are the ones with the money, so doesn’t that make you the prostitutes?” I asked.

This was something unthinkable and his brain could not process the concept. Nor sadly could so many of the women who willingly gave up their power to their husbands.

Looking back at al-Qurn, the mountain that hid the Valley of the Kings, I said good-bye to the place that had taught me much about myself and opened my eyes to the reality of the world around me.

At the airport, I was so hot and bothered, not having fully calmed down, that when they took my temperature, I had a fever. Great, I thought. I have escaped an angry mob only to be stopped because of a fever!

This was one of those times when I thanked the chaos of the Egyptian system. Other officials were called over and they all talked excitedly. It was a pandemic, after all. In the end, the talk led to no action since no one wanted to take on that responsibility and I was allowed to fly on to Cairo. Boarding the plane, Gitte was still so traumatized from the events of the last few months that she could not relax. She said she would not feel safe until the plane had actually taken off and she could look down on Luxor as it disappeared forever. Once on the plane, she singled out a tall, aggressive-looking man who she was sure had been sent by the police to follow her.

I tried to reassure her, but as fate would have it, the man’s seat was right next to Gitte. He was the only person on the plane not wearing a mask and a little drama ensued as the staff convinced him that he had to wear one.

Gitte refused to sit next to the man, asking for another seat. And again, I thought, great, we will get thrown off the plane, we will never make it out of here. But the flight attendant gave Gitte another seat and at last there was peace.

As the plane took off, I turned to look back at Gitte and we both smiled like we hadn’t done in a long time. We were free.

I wasn’t into politics before I went to Egypt. I’ve never been a member of any political party. I never intend to be. Although I kept up with the news, it wasn’t a big part of my life. I was cynical about government and knew I couldn’t believe everything I heard in the media. But until I went to Luxor, I had no idea how truly corrupt our government was and how the media lied and twisted the truth to fit an accepted narrative. Living among the people of the villages, the veil separating truth from lies was drawn back and I saw life how it really was. Not only in Egypt but in my homeland as well. I was able to look back at my country from a distance and watch in horror at what was happening. Perhaps if I’d been in the middle of it, I wouldn’t have had such a clear view. It all came to a head as the pandemic raged.

In that regard, life in Luxor was better than back home. Poor people in villages don't have the luxury of social distancing or wearing a mask. Nor do thing believe it is necessary. Families lived squashed next to one another with grandparents among them. Life went on as normal.

And then, back home, I saw how the virtuous ones lamented the hardships of lockdown but how they bravely endured it—not for themselves—but for the sake of others. They posted pictures of the amazing meals delivered to them and their designer masks on social media, never considering there was an entire army of folks serving them so they could feel safe.

When some people started waking up, wanting their freedom, I watched how misinformation created an atmosphere of fear and hatred, turning family and friends against one another, and causing an entire nation to gladly submit to restrictions on speech and movement that no free people should ever tolerate.

It was only by seeing hatred unveiled in Egypt that I realized how thankful I should be—we all should be—as citizens of the freest country in the world, the United States. And how worried I became that we, too, were about to lose our freedoms. How could people not see it? It made me want to say something.

Next weekend, I will publish the last part of this series, telling the rest of the story of what happened in Luxor.

Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share if you found this interesting.

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