Five years after the launch of the best-selling Fe-mail: the trials and tribulations of being a Good Egyptian Girl, Amy Mowafi releases the follow-up. And we were "allowed" to publish an exclusive excerpt...
Amy Mowafi has released a second book, the imaginatively titled Fe-mail 2: The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl Woman. On account of the fact that she's one of the founders of MO4 (CairoScene mothership) we have been asked (forced) to publish an "exclusive" excerpt from the book. Here it is:
Five years ago I wrote a book called Fe-mail: The Trials and Tribulations of being a Good Egyptian Girl.
Well ‘book’ is a terribly big word with all sorts of literary allusions.
Five years ago, what I actually did – at the behest of a legion of adoring family and friends and one fan – was re-publish a monthly column I write for eniGma magazine in the form and shape of a book. The column (which I continue to write) is called Fe-mail; hence the name of the book (the old one and this one). In the interests of full disclosure, it is also important to note that I was – for the longest time - the Managing Editor of said magazine.
In light of the above, I was rather ambivalent about the so-called-book’s potential as a credible literary product. But I was allowed to place my picture on the inside-back cover, and for me, that was return on investment enough.
But then the strangest thing happened.
The book sold out. Once, twice, three times. Over and over again, till the publishers were forced to print a second, third and then fourth edition. It hit the top spot on the local bestseller lists. I was delighted… till I learned that to become an English language bestseller within the confines of Cairo, one only need sell about three copies. Few people however know this, and I was happy to let everyone assume I was now a real-life author.
So there I was, editor of a leading Middle Eastern magazine and a real-life author. Suddenly there was an assumption that I was a person who knows what I’m talking about. This is when the fun and absurdity really started…
The LA Times called me a feminist, the Washington Times a self-hating Arab.
I’d like to think I’m somewhere in between.
The International Herald Tribune thought me hilarious; Al Arabiya said I was provocative; Al Hurra called me controversial and Rotana lost the footage of my interview with them. My mother insisted the real reason they never ran the half-hour TV special was because I refused to wear the outfit she’d picked out for me. The girls on Dubai One’s Her’Say(the Middle East’s wholesome though now defunct version of The View) ran with the ‘Arab World’s Carrie Bradshaw’ angle, while online magazine Salon.com praised my “vulgarity”.
Meanwhile all my Egyptian editor friends gave me shiny sparkly reviews that were in no way testament to the incestuous back-scratching nature of this industry, or indeed Cairo. I loved them all. Subsequent appearances of said editors’ various products and services in eniGma were purely coincidental.
I landed a daily TV segment on a popular live morning show. The producers pitted me against one of those wig-wearing icons of Egyptian cinema. Despite her interesting history, she played the role of the conservative elder to perfection. I was assigned the part of the young wild liberal who is also very pretty. (The pretty part was not exactly specified by the producers, it was something I came up with on my own. I felt it important to character). Each morning we’d debate the hard-hitting issues of the day: Being single. Being in a relationship. Wanting to get married. Not wanting to get married. Or just hating men.On account of its absurd nature the show was a smashing success. I got facebook messages and e-mails and was once even recognized in the H&M changing rooms at CityStars. “You’re the girl who talks rubbish (ay kalam) on TV,” she said. Indeed I was.
And then it all fell apart. They pulled the plug. Not on the TV show of course. On the entire TV station.The whole bloody station. This big corporate media institution just went ahead and imploded at the very moment I was coming into my 15 minutes. Only in Egypt. Only to me. After 150 episodes – each featuring a different outfit – I can safely say my fashion choices were in no way to blame. Instead, as my mother was quick to point out, the collapse was likely catalysed by the colour of my hair. “If only you’d listened to me and gone ash blonde,” she sighed, when first she learned of channel’s demise.
At the very height of my powers, someone had also thought it wise to give me a radio show. Thankfully the radio station survived. I however didn’t. Turns out sarcasm and irreverence don’t translate well on radio. Or maybe my humour’s all in the editing.
At one point I became the Middle East’s leading expert on hymens. I had been quoted in an NPR story about a Chinese artificial virginity device known as the Gigimo that had been banned in Egypt. The piece went viral on account of a quote I’d cribbed from one of my own articles: “As an independent Arab woman, you can break as many glass ceilings as you like, but you can never break your hymen,” I said, thinking myself very clever and insightful.
I got emails and Facebook messages from around the world praising me for my bravery and forthrightness. I was indeed fearless in the face of hymens. A radio station in Columbia called me up and asked if I’d do a live phone-in on the subject of Egyptian hymens. With Egyptian hymens being of high up on the international news agenda and me being the expert and all, I obliged. High on my own hymen-fuelled bravery I proceeded to orate against the Egyptian government’s criminalizing of the Gigimo. Of course one ought never to take a public stance against the Egyptian government, particularly not on matters pertaining to sex. And most definitely not in a manner that would suggest sex ought to be pertained to in the first place. By the time I’d finished the show, I feared for my own life. As luck would have it however, the Egyptian government were not at that moment in Columbia listening to the radio. The subsequent realisation that I wasn’t important enough to be scrutinised and maybe even ostracised by the Egyptian government upset me for a while. But I soon had more important things to worry about.
For a start, there was The Boy who had made his debut appearance at the end of my first book.He stood by silently and watched as I continued to career recklessly though my life. Occasionally he applauded but mostly he was just vaguely irritated. There I was being bandied about, PRd and promoted as the sassy single ‘Good Egyptian Girl’ when in reality I’d become the Good Egyptian Girlfriend. From the trials and tribulations of dating and dealing with life as a single Egyptian girl latching on to her independence… to the trials and tribulations of being an Egyptian girl in a relationship still latching on to her independence. The latter – as it would turn out – is a far worst (and harder) thing than simply being single.
Well, we all know the answer to that! Arab girls are afforded a grace period in which to be very young, free and single. The parental and societal powers-that-be will put up with it in the hopes that it is but a temporary arrangement. Being older, wiser and wilfully unwed however – well that my friends reeks of a lifestyle. And that is not to be tolerated.
Or maybe that’s just the simple answer. The harsher though possibly truer answer is that, we’re the ones to blame…
Deep in the crevices of the Arab Girl’s screwed up psyche; the word ‘Boyfriend’ remains terribly illicit. ‘Fiancé’, however, is fine – somehow legitimate even if you are behaving terribly illegitimately. Which is how many an Arab girl will find herself engaged (and sooner or later enraged) long before she even knows out how many sugars (or suga-babes) he likes in or with his coffee. We rarely allow ourselves the chance to simply be in a relationship. So we hurtle towards any form commitment – just for the sake of a psychological seal of approval – that we don’t necessarily even approve of.
It matters not if you actually want to get married – on this side of the East/West divide, the word girlfriend is loaded with all with sorts of whorish connotations and must be avoided at all costs. You can only be a good girl if he has good intentions – so you corner him into commitment, only to discover that yourhastily put together happily ever after doesn’t make you all that happy.
We’re the ones who buy into the holier-than-thou hype, yet blame everyone but ourselves – our mothers, our neighbours, and the bawab– for our sorry state of affairs. We insist on making beds where sex and celibacy fight constantly for supremacy, and then we get all riled up when we’re forced to lie in them.
And that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid. I wanted the time to just be a girlfriend. And I didn’t want to be judged for it. More importantly I didn’t want to judge myself for it – which was the bigger battle. There were plenty of times when I resented The Boy for his contentment in our lack of commitment. Plenty of times when I felt that he ought to respect me enough to set a date, even if all I wanted was just to date. I had to constantly pep-talk myself into believing Good Egyptian Girlfriend isn’t a contradiction in terms. So I struggled, and squirmed and, for the longest time, I refused to succumb. Or was it The Boy who was refusing to succumb?
But despite my own self-indulgence life ploughed on. And five years is an awful long time. There was a revolution for a start. That turned everything on its head. For a fleeting moment, it forced everyone to reconsider their options, their outlook and their objectives. Suddenly everyone was inspired to do better, be better and get ‘real’. On a professional level it was just the most awful inconvenience. Suddenly the excesses of the world I had taken such pleasure in satirizing were taboo. How could I gently chide high-society and my own unwitting role in its sparkly shenanigans when fabulous had become a dirty word? I needn’t have worried. The revolution soon bore a whole new set of personalities and pretensions that gave me plenty to play with.
And then things really got interesting, personally and professionally.And somewhere along the way, and with no particular effort or intention on my part, I grew up. The momentous life-changes made the changes in perspective a sort-of fait accompli, no matter how reluctant I was to let go of the Egyptian girl. But I shan’t give the game away just yet. For now it’s enough to say that as always, I wrote all about it all on the back page of eniGma magazine – the good times and the bad times, the confusing, confounding and contentious times. And, once again, this is it:
Fe-mail 2: The trials & tribulations of being a Good Egyptian Woman.