Up Front by Emma Hart


Egypt: It's Complicated

So it turns out the longer I'm home from Egypt, the harder it is to write about. Everything I was going to say becomes hedged around with caveats. I kept telling people how lucky we were, seeing it the way we did, but was it luck? We made a conscious, and on my part pretty much agonised-over, decision, and that was the payoff. No, we didn't get shot, but I'm not sure that was any more of a risk than it would be anywhere else at any other time. 

I'm going to write about the politics elsewhere, so I don't want to get into that too much. I will say, though, that I had to rethink a lot of things once I was actually there, and get a bit embarrassed re: Western paternalism. I will say that if your view is basically "Democracy = Good, Army = Bad", you need to understand that, very broadly, the grassroots democracy movement supports the army and sees it as an ally. There's an Egyptian pop song thanking the army for coming to the aid of the people against Morsi. 

It's complicated. 

To focus on our personal experience, we never felt we were in any danger while we were in Egypt. Yes, there were times when security was heavy and obvious, and our bags were x-rayed and searched at every major tourist site, but it was less intrusive, and far less pointless, than security in transit at Sydney airport, for instance. In Egypt, they do it Because of Reasons. 

Tourism in Egypt is down 80% since the political unrest began. We wandered through tourist infrastructure designed to cope with thousands of visitors a day, practically deserted. Our Nile cruise ship was one of sixteen operating out of a normal four hundred. To see Philae, and the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings, in this kind of tranquillity is normally impossible. It was fucking amazing. 

The down side was the touts. So many people in Egypt are dependent on selling tat to tourists in order to survive. Middle-Eastern sales tactics can be intimidating to Westerners at the best of times. At the tourist sites in Egypt, and the souk in Luxor, it was off the wall. 

It was interesting to note who coped with this better. For men who've never been able to understand why women get upset about street harassment, I heartily recommend a visit to an Egyptian tourist market. See how long you can handle, "Hello! Good morning! Where you from? Welcome to Egypt! What's your name? Smile!" from men who will not leave you alone. The women coped better because we already knew not to engage, to keep our heads down and not make eye contact, to stick together and walk briskly. Yes, they're being "nice". Because they want something. For a while we were worried that Egypt would make us permanently rude, automatically dismissive of any friendly gesture. It actually took longer to get used to wearing seatbelts again. 

It was a little better in the Khan-al-Khalili in Cairo, though that might have been the tourist police escort we had with us. One man made considerable headway with our group by throwing open his arms and shouting, "Good morning! How can I take your money?" 

In Egypt I saw things I had dreamed of seeing since I was a child. I visited sites I had studied in the abstract at university. No other country has this appeal for me. We also, because of the way we travelled, got to drink NZ$12 gin and tonics and watch Russian women hobble about archaeological sites in tiny skirts and high heels. Cruising the Nile from Luxor to Aswan is the perfect way to see Egypt, to watch it slowly drift into Africa. 

On our last night in Aswan, after the Sound and Light show at Philae and before a 4:30am start back to Cairo, my travelling companion and my shiny new friend Jackie sat up with me in the lobby of the most beautiful hotel. We had an expensive gin and toasted my mother on the anniversary of her death. 

The tour was made for me by our guide, Hoda Sayeed. When we went to the Egyptian Museum, she took us to see almost everything I had on my list. Everywhere we went, she showed us the things relevant to Hatshepsut, and spun that story out across multiple sites. While I was almost overwhelmed at the Temple of Isis at Philae, she confided that this was her favourite temple. When we tentatively suggested that we found Aswan rather more to our taste than Cairo, she dropped her forehead into her hands and, a native Cairene, said, "Cairo is the worst!" 

She talked to us about politics, about the Nubian land confiscations, about sleeping in Tahrir Square with her mother and using her guiding contacts to get the protesters food. Repeatedly, in answer to our increasingly bold questions, she told us what an arsehole Morsi was and why. By the time we left the tour, I don't think there was one of us who wasn't a little bit in love with Hoda. 

By the time we left, to be honest, I was even starting to love Cairo, with its noise and its filth and its incomprehensible traffic. It was becoming more exciting than terrifying. I would go back in a heartbeat. Hoda says we can stay at her house.


Neither Deep nor Wide

The day we were stuck inside the main tent at Wadi Rum all day because of the rain, our Jordanian tour leader asked me what I did. To keep things simple, I've learned to reply, "I'm a writer," and then try to change the subject almost immediately. 

Too slow. "You will write about Jordan?" he asked me. 

"Oh yes. Yes I will," I said, in the tone of voice that reminds even my closest friends that sometimes I can be kind of a screaming bitch. 

We were having a lovely time in the Bedouin camp. The guys were charming and flirty and plied us with hot sweet tea and dancing. By this stage of the tour, though, some of our group were getting a little uncomfortable. We'd collect at the edges of the fire in twos and threes and murmur, "Where are the women?" For days, the only women we'd seen were other tourists. 

Jordan suffered from a terrible disadvantage for my travelling companion and I. It came after Egypt, where we'd had the most remarkable tour guide. When we'd parted in Cairo, at five in the morning, I'd said to her, "Our Jordanian guide is going to have to work his arse off, after you." 

He didn't. What he did do was give long talks in the bus on Jordanian marriage customs and the Islamic points system. I left Jordan a more committed feminist and atheist. I do try to travel as a guest in a house I have freely chosen to come to; to be gracious and patient and respectful of custom. By the time we left Jordan, if one more guy took my bag, pushed my chair in, or reached around me to give my bill to my male companion, I was going to lose my shit. 

I will do one of the things Basel asked me to do, though. I will assure you that Jordan is safe. We were surprised to find that their tourist industry has suffered almost as badly as Egypt's has, even though Jordan is one of the most peaceful and progressive countries in the Middle East. Tourism is a major source of income, and right now, when a nation of six million is struggling to support a million Syrian refugees, they need the money. Our group was mostly fairly liberal Australians, and Jordan's historic and current attitude to refugees made a mortifying comparison for them. 

Since I've come home, I've tried really hard to not be jaundiced about Jordan. I wasn't angry at Jordan, just disappointed. We went there in the off-season, and we were expecting it to be cold. We weren't really expecting to get rained on in the desert so we had to be moved out of our tents in the middle of the night in case of flash-flooding. We weren't expecting it to be so much harder to get a drink than it had been in Egypt. Our attempts to get a gin and tonic reached near-farcical levels. ("Andrew, the bar is gone! It's just gone. I know it was here because someone's hidden an empty wine fridge by the elevator...") 

Petra was worth it. The site is massive: like Jerash in the north, we're talking about the ruins of an entire city, not just a couple of buildings. Like Jerash, I didn't have the time and energy to see everything I wanted to, hot heavily-mascaraed Bedouin guys aside. The tombs are so weathered they look like they've grown naturally out of the rock. The brilliant colours of the striated stone should be seen, because they're a total bitch to photograph. 

Also, Petra was awesome because there was free internet. Here's something you really need to know about Jordan: there's no 3G. None. Anywhere. Which at least means it doesn't matter that data in Jordan is mind-buggeringly expensive. At our hotel in Wadi Musa, however, they'd give you a day's free internet if you booked in a Turkish Bath. 

The Turkish Bath was heaven. Man. Do that. Unless, I guess, you have issues with being touched in a firm and uncompromising manner by, in my case, a woman who barely came up to my chest. She managed to remove all traces of the six hours of walking I'd done that day, and most of the henna tattoo I got in Aswan. 

Several things gave us culture shock when we arrived in Jordan because they were so different from Egypt. (There was a dog at the airport. It was on a leash. And wearing a coat.) One was the art: the ceramics and the jewellery particularly. So much more ornate and complex and such beautiful colours. Our fellow travellers got used to the sound of me wandering around shops muttering, "No! No more jewellery. No." I did manage to nurse a ceramic bowl all the way back to New Zealand from the mosaic workshop in Madaba. Mosaics are gorgeous, and also very very heavy. 

The Dead Sea was great. I'm not much of a swimmer, but this was basically lounging around in a big wet living room. If floating about there is something you'd like to try, you might want to get on it. At the moment, it's dropping a metre a year. One solution being explored is to pump water in from the Red Sea, but that could also mean an end to the bobbing about. Also, the visible evaporation from the Dead Sea makes for awesome sunset photos. If only there were some sort of blog where I could show you those...


To the Letter

I still enjoy reading your mum's letters. Today's generation are going to miss out on having such personal reminders of their elders as the electronic age takes over. 

I have engaged in some wonderful email correspondence, full of passion and wit and replete with bullshit, but nobody is ever going to find those missives hidden in the bottom of a long-forgotten box. Which in the meantime is just as well, but one day I will be dead, and people will have to forgo the chance of admiring my soul spread out across the page the way I have my mother's this last week. 

Since Mum died, my cousin has occasionally been sending me old letters of my mother's, and our mutual grandmother's. They are just the kind of historical documents I love. They offer glimpses of lost stories, a few brush-strokes of a forgotten painting, They show us change so unself-consciously. Both my mother and grandmother refer to people by the titles my cousin would have used for them – so Nanna calls her daughter and son-in-law "Mum and Dad". It was obviously standard at the time, and now, creepy as fuck. 

One of the things I took from Mum's house was the box full of my letters from uni. I was only sorry that my box full of her letters had rotted in our garage while I wasn't looking. I lost the sad joy of piecing that correspondence back together in its entirety. As it is, I'm left with 'censored for parent' glimpses of my old life, and the memory of my mother complaining about one of my boyfriends on the grounds that, "The last thing this family needs is more genes for big noses." 

My cousin is right about how things have changed. It shows my age that, when my best friend moved to Auckland, we wrote each other letters. I haven't a clue what I said to her, but I retain her tales of mad flatmates and the seeming impossibility of Auckland public transport. That was back when, if we were feeling particularly extravagant, we'd phone each other, after ten when the rates were cheap. 

"Anyway, it seems that is all water under the bridge now, and that you are bringing enlightenment to the sons and daughters of the nobs of St Johns Hill. Hope you are living up to the tone of the suburb."

 There comes a point in our lives when we start to see our parents and grandparents as actual people, who have an existence independent from us. Their letters to their friends are as close as we can get to their unguarded conversations. I have a strong suspicion my mother's late-night chats with her best friends in the forties were an awful lot like mine in the nineties. 

My mother's letters are full of her voice, and scraps of the stories of her life I never knew. They cover her time at Teachers College in Dunedin – she lived at 375 Leith St in 1946, and it looks exactly the same today – and her extended working holiday in Australia to attend the Melbourne Olympics. One details the time she and I travelled from Wellington to Lyttleton on the last sailing of the Rangitira. Oddly, one of my earliest memories is looking down on Wellington Harbour at night and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I had a very well-developed aesthetic sense for a four year old. 

And one letter floored me. Ever since I first read it I've wondered what to do with it. It's so personal, but its significance is so much wider than that. I've thought hard about it, and the privacy implications of having the voices of the dead. I want to share it. We're coming up on the time of year which for me is infused with memories of her death, and I want to share her life. The electronic age gives me the ability to pass these words on, and they'll persist in your memories and Google's search results, at least for a while. (The other great thing about paper letters, of course, was that Google was unable to use my mother's private correspondence to sell her cigarettes, gardening tools and parental anxiety.) It was written in 1977, on the occasion of my mother's running away from home. 

I'll leave you with it, and a slight feeling of guilt: I owe my cousin a letter, and I've written this instead. 

I suppose you've heard that I've changed my status to that of solo mother, to the delight of most of my friends. We've been here for just a week and the place has been wonderful. 

Warwick [my brother, seventeen at the time] took a day off work and we made the move in the afternoon after I had finished work and were well clear of the place before his lordship arrived home. I think I covered my tracks pretty well and had lulled him into a false sense of security by planting things in the garden right up to the time we left. A few people know we are here now, but I don't think any of them are likely to tell him. Still I get a funny feeling when the door bell rings occasionally. 

The neighbourhood is good and the houses to either side of us have beautiful gardens – some consolation where there's nothing to look at in your own. 

Emma hasn't had to change her school but has quite a bit further to walk. Our furnishings are a bit spartan, but being without TV has made me much more familiar with radio. 

I have applied for a Housing Corporation loan, dragging in Nanna as one of my dependents, but don't know how it will go. I seem to spend my afternoons running from there to Social Welfare, to my lawyer, to the landlord's lawyer and back again. Consequently some of our boxes are still not unpacked. 

Warwick got a bit sick of stand-up lunches (always seemed to finish up with tomato sauce on his overalls) so on Friday night we went to town and bought a second-hand kitchen table, small enough to fit in the boot of the car, for $8. 

The sun is valiantly trying to get through and I must away to town and see about Nanna's phone bill and pay Emma's insurance. I'm told it may be a month before our phone is connected so that makes extra running about. 

Excuse brevity, 




Good Friends

Nobody wants to be an arsehole by accident. Arseholery should be deliberate: calculated, stylish, and above all deserved. The last thing you want to do, while trying to help, is say something crashingly stupid and hurt someone you care about. 

The higher the stakes, the more your friend needs support, the worse it is. What do you say? When it comes to grief, or the stress of dealing with serious illness, this post on Ring Theory is something I've found really helpful, as a way of codifying what's Wrong and why: 

When talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking, but if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort in, dump out. 

What I want to talk about here is how all of those things apply when you're dealing with a friend who's in an abusive relationship. After Mum died, we talked about this a lot, the things people had said and done. It's something I know I've fucked up in the past, and I regret that so much. I didn't know what to say, and what to do. Now I do, and I've learned it the way I've learned everything else: the hard way. I am living in a relationship which has been abusive. 

I'm not going to talk specifically about my own situation, partly because I am utterly sick of doing so. But let me offer my hard-won wisdom on how to not Fuck Up talking to someone in my position.

Please be aware that I'm speaking in general terms here, and not everything I'm talking about has actually happened to me. This is about what is typical, and some of my experience is not typical.

Let's say you've just found out a friend is in a relationship which is abusive. I'm going to assume you found out from your friend, but if you didn't, your first step should be to talk to them. Don't take anyone else's word, especially their abuser's. That's not to imply that the person who told you is lying, but you should show your friend that you value their perspective and their voice.

You're going to have a whole bunch of Feelings. Shock. Guilt that you didn't spot it sooner. Anger, at a whole bunch of stuff. Awkwardness. Fear and worry. You're allowed to feel all the feels. You're not allowed to feel them at your friend. They have enough to deal with. Dump out, but respect their privacy while you do it. 

The abuse is news to you. It's not new for your friend. You'll want something to be done right away. The abuse has most likely been going on for the entirety of the relationship. Let that sink in. It'll make your friend's current attitude much more understandable. For them, nothing has changed. 

Believe. And take them seriously. Don't think, "Well that doesn't sound abusive, really." Most abuse does not leave bruises. Have a look at Women's Refuge's relationship quiz. Note how many questions are about physical violence: one. Also, note how many are gender-specific: none. I want to highlight these three: we'll come back to them. 

When it comes to my partner, I feel like I can’t do anything right. 

My partner tells me that I couldn’t do any better because I’m too ugly/fat/stupid/lazy. 

I feel like my partner would be much happier if it was just the two of us all the time. 

On average, it takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Don't think this is going to be a week where you help them leave, and then everything will be happily ever after. This is going to be a long process. It's going to be hard. At any point, it's allowed to be Too Hard. You're under no obligation to destroy yourself trying to be supportive. 

Here's the most important thing I need you to understand: advice is not support. That's a tough one. I love giving advice. Look at me doing it right now. But advice is not support. Your friend knows their situation better than you do. Yes, whatever it is, they've thought about it. They actually do know what's at stake, thanks. There are organisations with enormous experience in this area, which offer counselling and advice. They don't offer friendship, because that's not their job. It's yours. 

Never, ever say, "You should just leave." Look at those three statements from the quiz up there. Abuse is about control. Part of that involves undermining the victim's confidence. Their abuser makes them feel stupid, scared of doing or saying the wrong thing. They may practice gaslighting: telling someone their perceptions of events are wrong, or that abusive incidents simply didn't happen. An abuse victim may find themselves completely unable to make the smallest decision, lost to themselves as a person. 

When I talked to a woman from Refuge, she asked me questions, listened to me intelligently, and then said, "Keep on doing what you're doing." She made me feel stronger, like I was a capable adult whose decisions should be respected, including my decision to stay. How do you think, "You should just leave," makes me feel? 

(Actually, I can tell you. It feels like when someone tells a depressed person to "cheer up", or when a man lectures women on "common sense" precautions to avoid being raped. Like that.) 

Offer help in concrete ways. Don't say, "Whatever I can do to help," unless you actually mean it. (I, personally, like to call those bluffs, just to see the obvious blind panic.) Say things like, "If you need to leave in a hurry, phone me and I'll come and pick you up." Or, "We have a spare bed if you need a break." Or, "Can I take the kids out for the afternoon?" If you don't know what they want, ask them. Put your friend in control. 

You can be supportive just by sticking around. Abusers like to isolate their victims socially. Strong support networks make both staying and leaving so much easier. Offer to take your friend out. Make them laugh, if that's the role you play in the Friend Group. Stress relief is vital. Sometimes, not Talking About It is vital. Just be there. 

Eventually, your friend might leave, or they might not. There's nothing you can do about that. You can't make someone leave if they're not ready to. It's not your fault, because it's not about you. Just be there. Please.


The Missing Stair Part Two: The Creeper and the Excuser

Trigger Warning for Rape and Sexual Harassment


Let's talk some more about the Pervocracy's Missing Stair post: 

I gave almost no details about the guy except "he's a rapist," I immediately got several emails from other members of that community saying "oh, you must mean X."  Everyone knew who he was!  Tons of people, including several in the leadership, instantly knew who I meant.  The reaction wasn't "there's a rapist among us!?!" but "oh hey, I bet you're talking about our local rapist."  Several of them expressed regret that I hadn't been warned about him beforehand, because they tried to discreetly tell new people about this guy.  Others talked about how they tried to make sure there was someone keeping an eye on him at parties, because he was fine so long as someone remembered to assign him a Rape Babysitter. 

I think there were some people in the community who were intentionally protecting him, but there were more who were de facto protecting him by treating him like a missing stair.  Like something you're so used to working around, you never stop to ask "what if we actually fixed this?"  Eventually you take it for granted that working around this guy is just a fact of life, and if he hurts someone, that's the fault of whoever didn't apply the workarounds correctly.

 I know that's hard to get your head around. A rapist is completely different from Racist Christmas Uncle, right? If you were aware that somebody you knew had committed a rape, you'd deal with it, right? I read the above to a friend of mine, who was incredulous. "If everybody knows, why isn't he in prison?" I was speechless. Eventually I replied, "Because Everything about rape." 

What about somewhere short of that? What about the Creepers? The ones who have a habit of touching people who don't want to be touched? The hand on the leg, the accidental brushes, the sexual remarks that make people really uncomfortable? Would you do something about that? 

The thing is, all up and down that scale, these things go unreported, and so those people are still around. If our rapists, our sexual harassers, are people we know, they're people you know, too. 

If this seems unconvincing, if it seems like it must be really uncommon, this Captain Awkward post is a salutary lesson: 

I’ve talked to Creeper about this last incident and tried to explain that his behaviour is making every woman in our social group very uncomfortable; that approaching a woman in the dark, putting his hands on her without permission, and implying that because her boyfriend wasn’t there that she was up for grabs was Not Fucking Cool


I’ve stopped inviting friends to parties because I don’t want to subject them to Ben’s creepiness, and I spend most of my time trying to avoid him when he’s around. I don’t want to be one of those girls who tries to tell their boyfriend who he can and can’t hang out with, but I feel unsafe and afraid around Ben. I also feel completely betrayed that my boyfriend isn’t taking a strong stance against a guy who, let’s face it, tried to sexually assault me.

 It's long, but it's worth reading. And if this kind of thing still seems unusual, and unreal, try reading the comment thread. It was eventually closed after seven hundred comments, and the stories just kept on coming.

Or there's this. I was sexually assaulted when I was at high school. The Monday morning after that Friday night party, I walked into my English class and sat down at my desk, right in front of two of the five guys who'd done it. Nobody, including me, ever did anything about it.

Yes, there are women who are Creepers. But they're not socially sanctioned the way male Creepers are. Men get 'boys will be boys', women get slut-shaming. 

These guys, with their funny jokes about how we owe them sex, their comments about our tits and our clothes, who only see women as Potential Sex, they're part of our lives, something we live with. Something we're expected to work around. 

One of the reasons women tend not to talk about this stuff is the tendency for people to minimise it. It was a joke. You misread the situation. You're over-reacting. It is a Big Fucking Deal to actually say to someone, "Your creepy friend is a Creeper who creeped on me." If someone crosses that perilous bridge with you, for the love basic human decency, take them seriously. 

I've had someone look at me kind of blankly and say, "But you coped, right?" Yes. That's how I want to feel after a night out with my friends. I want to get back afterwards and think, "Well, I coped with that. Huzzah!" 

Then maybe we're told, "Well, just be clear with him. I don't know why women don't just say 'no', clearly and politely. That would fix everything." 

There are two problems with this. Three if you count, "You're being a dick: stop it." Firstly, we are conditioned to not make a fuss. This is where everything from the last column comes in. If we confront the Missing Stair, no matter how politely, we're seen as causing the problem. The social conditioning to put your head down and say, "No, it's okay," when it really fucking isn't is very strong. 

Secondly, there's all our collective experience of what sometimes happens when you say No clearly and politely. The times that's the point at which the "compliments" become abuse. Because Jesus, chill, and get a sense of humour, and you're probably a lezzer and you're too ugly to fuck anyway. The times that's the point at which the abuse becomes assault. 

These guys' biggest friend is the Rape Myth. You know the one. Of course you don't know any rapists. Rapists are slavering animals, completely disconnected from society, who wait in dark lonely places for women who are stupid enough to not Take Sensible Precautions. They don't have friends, or families, or work-mates. 

Saddest-Panda-type Creepers are (generally) not rapists, but that doesn't mean their behaviour is okay. If someone is making a bunch of your female friends deeply uncomfortable, that's already a problem. 

They might not tell you about him. They might just casually ask if he's going to be at an event before they decide if they're coming. If he sits next to them at a bar, they might get up and go to the loo, and come back and sit somewhere else. They might lie about having a ride home when he offers them a lift. They might stare bleakly at the opposite wall while he put his hand up their skirt. 

When I talk about Creepers with women, they tell me their Creeper stories. Most men tell me they don't know anyone like that. Several times through my life I've said, "I don't know, there's a guy in that group who makes me really uncomfortable," and another woman has said, "Is it X?" And yes. It always is.