I’ve been reading Best American Travel Writing 2013 and recently finished Colleen Kinder‘s “Blot Out,” originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction. It’s another one of those essays I had to finish once I started. She is a journalist who spends a month in Cairo. One day, she decides to wear a full niqab and black tunic on a Friday afternoon trip to a souq. That allows her to explore life in Egypt as both a woman who can pass as a local citizen and as a foreign tourist clearly marked as an outsider. The results (and the way Kinder writes about those results) are fascinating.
She provides a lot of rich, evocative details. The biggest surprise to me is how she is clearly treated as a woman whether in the niqab or not, but the specifics of her treatment depend on what she wears–or does not wear. While covered and appearing on the surface to be a local, a man grabs her ass. While uncovered and appearing on the surface to be a tourist, men yell “Big Dick” and “Sex” at Kinder and her friend, Tori. No matter what, she is accosted and harassed.
I’ll be teaching this book next semester in the second-half of our first-year writing sequence, the research course. I’m sure this is going to be one of the essays that inspires students to do research and dig deeper. It’s having that effect on me. Some of my favorite lines:
“These are the ways foreign women get down the street in Cairo. These are the tricks they share, the ways they teach me to ‘beige out,’ as one woman put it, to fog up the glasses, whenever outside. Outside is the sphere of Egyptian men” (51).
“The niqab begins to tempt me like a secret passageway–a way to be outside without actually being seen. At the end of a month in Cairo, nothing sounds more liberating than erasing myself from this place” (52).
“Instead, the first gasp comes from inside my veil when Tori and I pass a full-length mirror in the furniture mart and neither one of us appears” (56).
“I ask this souq the same question I ask all public places in Cairo: where have you hidden the women?” (57).
“There are places that feel like the answer to the question of why we travel in the first place, why we bother to trespass, crossing the lines that looks like fences. This place is one of my few” (58).