Behind the Veil

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I happened to be in Cairo for the most recent bombing. In fact, I’d spent the entire day the day before at the Kahn al-Kahlili bazaar with my son, mostly not buying soapstone pyramids and gaudy sheets of papyrus and plaster-of-Paris scarabs.

I was racked out in my hotel room, watching Egyptian tele- vision, when somebody at the Kahn al-Kahlili decided to send a 17-year-old girl to Paradise, instead of back home to France, and 24 other people, a lot of them kids on the same class trip as the girl, to the hospital. To make sure nobody overlooked the consecrated nature of the event, the bomb was left in the only place in the whole bazaar that bordered a mosque. And it went off during evening prayers.

Pictures afterwards, even grainy internet pictures, showed ghastly spatters, dark pools, and shreds of something that looked a lot more solid than clotting blood desecrating the square in front of the Al-Husseini mosque.

As far as I could tell, nothing on Cairo television that evening mentioned anything about the bombing. But, then, I couldn’t tell very far because the set in my hotel room just carried whatever programming it could pluck out of the Cairo air, which was all in Arabic except for a single, bad American movie about a black prizefighter and his beautiful young blonde manager. I imagine that the movie, along with its Arabic subtitles, provided a good way for young Cairenes to bone up on inner-city American scatology. The ads were familiar, too, even to someone who doesn’t speak Arabic.

You’ve seen them. One that comes to mind is about the lady who shows up at a friend’s house, only to learn that the friend knows more about toilet-bowl cleaners than she does. This discovery is followed by a sisterly trip to the bathroom. A close-up of a dirty toilet. The dumping of two liquid cleaners into the bowl. The magical way each liquid coats exactly 500/0 of the ceramic. The flush that leaves half the bowl dirty, the other half prepped and ready to conduct underwater surgery in.

There were other ads, too. Most of them involved babies and small children and wet mops. And mothers wearing hijabs around the house.

That’s the part that sticks in my memory: how thoroughly these ladies were swathed in cloth: cloth over their hair and around their necks, and down the fronts of their modest sweaters. These were not cute scarves such as you might see on Sophia Loren, sporting along some Neapolitan highway in a Fiat Spider. These were serious, mummy-tight wrappings that left only the pinched oval of the face showing. The toilet- bowl ladies were even more shrouded up. They were decked out in burqas, head to toe in matching blue cloth, as if they shared a husband who did the family shopping.

This wouldn’t have seemed creepy if the ladies had been out in public, but they weren’t. They were mothers in their own kitchens, forced to hide themselves in front of their children – friends meeting in private who couldn’t so much as show their hair to one another. And there was something else you would never see in an American ad. The cameraman-lady was there with them. On camera.

In fact, the camera panned around to give a glimpse of the entire television crew, to prove that, even in an advertisement filmed on a set in front of an entire production staff, nobody in the fantasy house was anything but purest female. And none was wearing anything other than regulation burqas. It was like a private synod of the Blue Sisters of Suppression. Clearly, the husband bought in bulk.

This wasn’t just some adman’s dream of the perfect world. It was the same on the street. I spent a lot of time walking around Cairo, and not one Egyptian woman showed more flesh than Darth Vader with his mask pulled off. The ones who sported hijabs and full-length overcoats in the beautiful spring weather were the wild-and-crazies. Their modest sisters were decked out in full nun regalia.

This is not what I remember from the last time I was in Cairo. What I remember from six years ago is that some ladies were covered with enough cloth to become major product spokeswomen. But others had on hijabs with sweaters and skirts. Or Sophia-Loren headscarves. And plenty were just wearing sweaters and skirts. But not now. Now, something seemed to be pushing these international, worldly, almost- Mediterranean people back to the Middle Ages.

Another ad suggested what that something might be. This ad had no actresses, no voiceovers. Just light piano music and images. But what images! Piles of rubble tumbling up through the air to form into undamaged buildings. Blasts sucking back into intact windows. Smoke billowing to the ground and disappearing.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention.

Then I paid a lot of attention. The ad reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s lines about watching war movies backwards so he could see explosions form into bombs, then tumble up to air- planes and be carried back to England or America to be taken apart and scattered underground in mines so they would never hurt anybody again.

At the end of the ad, in English for some reason, the first words of any sort scrolled across the images: “You can change everything. Bring Gaza Back.”

I have been informed by the editor of this worthy journal that some observers might find reasons for Middle Eastern countries to circle their cultural wagons that don’t have any- thing to do with what recently happened in Gaza. Those observers may be right, for all I know. Getting through the Enlightenment is always a bitch. It cost 600,000 American lives in our Civil War and a century of religious murder and strife in Europe. The Enlightenment isn’t going to go away. The Islamic world will have its struggles reaching the other side regardless of anything we do.

Furthermore, said editor is under the impression that gender customs in society don’t require outside help to evolve. And, as far as I know, the toilet-bowl ladies weren’t even in Gaza when the bombs and tanks and soldiers fell on the people there. Nor were their sisters whom I saw in the street. Past that, people in the Middle East have always had a penchant for covering their women in cloth, so a lot of those ladies would have been pretty-well bagged up regardless of_anything that happened across the border.

But my God, 60 years of watching helplessly as neighbors are expelled from their homes in an endless, rolling land grab, of looking on while people you care about are embargoed, starved, deprived of medical supplies, attacked with tanks, and blown up from the air, that’s going to make any culture harden its values.

It took a single morning of terror in Washington and New York for our government to ditch traditions going back to Magna Carta and begin imprisoning without trial, and torturing without conscience, people who, in some cases, seem to have been no more than bystanders. It’s a good thing we didn’t catch a 17-year-old French girl in Afghanistan, or she might have wound up in Guantanamo, too. Or maybe we did, and nobody told us about it.

Now I know people do bad stuff to one another all the time. And what’s going on in Palestine and Gaza may not even be the worst. But here’s the thing. The evil in Rwanda was done with the blessing of the Hutu. Our government didn’t drag us into it. The evil in Cambodia was done with the blessing of the Khmer Rouge, not in our name. But it’s very hard to think that what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank could have lasted anywhere near as long without the acquiescence of the United States.

I don’t know what the State Department has said in private to try to make it stop, but actions speak louder than diplomats, sometimes. And in the Middle East, America’s actions are screaming to high heaven. For two generations our ambassadors have wrung their hands while weapons made right here in the United States have been unleashed on hospitals and orphanages; our politicians have clucked and mumbled excuses while waves of soldiers crossed national borders and destroyed property, killed peaceful citizens, and invaded private homes; our delegation to the United Nations has vetoed resolutions attempting to question any of it and, then, our leaders have congratulated themselves on being “honest brokers” and the authors of “peace processes” none of them ever takes the first step to enforce.

For more than 40 years those who represent us to the world have grinned like imbeciles while the decency of our people, the financial resources, the material wealth, and the political cover of our great and powerful nation have been perverted by a foreign country into killing and maiming, into ghettoizing and beggaring entire populations for reasons that hold no relevance to us.

America is the only country in the world with the power to put an end to this evil. The fact that we don’t not only betrays our beliefs, it squanders our good name and endangers our nation. It drags us into a dispute not of our making and not in our interest. And leaves it to impoverished Cairenes to make up for the moral blindness of our leaders.

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