Khawaaga: Eyes Always Watching
I rarely felt comfortable in the streets of Cairo, and I quickly came to associate this feeling with an Egyptian word: khawaaga. It described how I felt when I walked down my street, Tahrir Street, an important thoroughfare leading to Tahrir Square. Lined with tourist traps from restaurants to souvenir shops, walking down those sidewalks was a gauntlet of leers and come-ons from shopkeepers, street vendors, beggars and young men in search of a good time.
I always went armored with big sunglasses and one earbud in—still alert to to my surroundings, but enough of a distraction to keep my angry inner monologue from spiraling out of control. I put on my Angry Bitch Face and moved as fast as possible, fists clenched, shoulders tight, braced against the city.
Back in Jordan, where I had recently lived for four years, I could walk into a shop or slide into a taxi, strike up a conversation in my hick Bedouin-accented Arabic, and as I left, the shopkeeper or driver would say, “When I first saw you, I thought you were ajnabiyya—a foreigner.” Even in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, I had been welcomed as a cousin, embraced as a guest by the legendary hospitality of the Bedouin.
It was never like that in Cairo. There, I wasn’t even ajnabiyya—adj. foreign, literally: from the adjacent place. In Cairo, I was khawaaga—n. rich white European, colonizer, interloper, from the Persian for ‘master.’
I didn’t know the origin of the word then. I was afraid to truly understand what they meant when they said khawaaga, beyond its association with French and English colonialism, and the Ottoman Empire that ruled Egypt before that. I understood just enough to know it was a label I didn’t want.
In Jordan, I had become a sister. In Cairo, I was always a mark.
Once, an Egyptian man with startling dark ginger hair followed me for two blocks and up three flights of my own stairs, waiting for the right moment to brush three fingertips across my ass and run. Returning home from class, I would try to catch a glimpse of my reflection in storefront windows, or find any excuse to glance back over my shoulder to assure myself I wasn’t being followed. Unlike most apartment buildings in Cairo, mine didn’t have a doorman, and I worried often about the next time the heavy door would close too slowly on the street behind me.
Only when I was up those three flights of stairs with my apartment door closed behind me could I breathe freely, relax my jaw, quiet the angry, defensive voice in my head.
My apartment on Tahrir Street was a refuge, with an ever-changing cast of expat roommates. There was Pip from Australia, doing a gap year internship before law school, and her friend Sylvia, an Italian journalist who crashed briefly on our couch. Then Pip took off for some extended vacations to Ethiopia and across Europe, and while she was gone, Mokhtar stayed in her room.
Tall, slender, soft-spoken, Mokhtar had come to the United States with his mother and several siblings as refugees from the Somali famine in the early 1990s. Now he was a Fulbright Scholar, studying food and agricultural politics in Egypt and the Horn of Africa. In the months before he moved in, he and Pip and I spent quite a few nights at a little street café on tiny pedestrian Al Mahrani Street a couple blocks from the apartment, sipping little cups of coffee or glasses of sweet black tea with mint, balanced on rickety little metal tables, he and she puffing away at sweet-smelling sheesha smoke.
We were often joined by friends of his: other Fulbright Scholars, Egyptian university students and young journalists. They would point at other unsteady little tables and point out this well-known leftist and that provocative artist who were also sipping tea and sheesha with friends.
On one night I remember with particular clarity, it was just Mokhtar and I. He was explaining, I think, about the new regulations that were driving up the price of vegetables, particularly of that Egyptian staple, the tomato. Tomatoes cost eight times what they had just months ago, far more than many families could afford, sparking riots in some of the poorest neighborhoods. Six months later, when revolution erupted just down the street, I wished I had paid more attention to Mokhtar’s research.
Instead, I was distracted by a skinny middle-aged man in an especially wide galabeyya, the tent-like ankle-length dress of an Egyptian peasant. The ground-in dirt and grime, paired with unruly, oily hair and the thick, cracked soles of his feet, betrayed his poverty, a man who likely slept on rooftops and rarely had enough to eat. He started juggling metal rods, and then he lit them on fire, still juggling and occasionally lighting his breath on fire, too. I was so enthralled that I didn’t notice the beggar behind me, a girl perhaps seven years old with equally oily, unruly black hair and grimy clothes. I didn’t even know she was there until she kissed my right ear.
My right fist flew up and over my shoulder, knuckles perfectly aimed for her nose. At the very last moment, I saw from the corner of my eye that she was only a child and stopped. I made contact with her extraordinary wide, copper-colored gaze for an agonizingly long moment, my heart thundering in my throat, my whole body tight and breathless with fear and anger—at her for sneaking up on me, and at myself for such a quick, violent response.
In the next moment, she was gone. I reminded myself to breathe, forced my arms and hands to relax, pressed my shoulders down and back.
Ten minutes later, my heartrate had settled. My anger had dulled, but had also transferred fully onto the little girl who had violated my bodily integrity. I saw her leave with the fire breather, and my fury suddenly rose back up, this time at the Dickensian father who had sent his little girl into the café to beg for change.
Yet again, I was a mark, a source of income by any means necessary.
Whenever traversing the city offered me the opportunity to cut through the downtown neighborhood of Garden City, I took it. Flanked by five star hotels, it was closed to all but local traffic. Concrete barriers and metal bars closed the streets and swung up at the discretion of police in their ill-fitting summer whites and automatic rifles. The curvilinear streets were shaded by hundred-year-old European and Indian trees, their verdant branches woven into each other’s canopies. I was insatiably curious for a glimpse into the big houses and their walled gardens, the lives of the rich and foreign, but there were no first or second story windows.
The streets of Cairo were never quiet, but at night under the trees of Garden City, there was only the urgent rustle of bat wings overhead. Except for my favorite Lebanese restaurant and the best fuul iskanderi sandwiches in Cairo, there were no commercial businesses in Garden City, no young men stepping into my path, aggressively hawking their wares, commercial or personal. I could let my guard down and stroll comfortably in the cool shade on an impossibly hot desert day.
Garden City was a neighborhood out of time and place, known by a khawaaga name because it was a living remnant of Italian mercantilism and British colonialism. In 1905, on a piece of land where two caravanserai and a palace of the Khedive Ismail had stood, the Italian engineer Beyerly was commissioned by the British colonial authority to plan Cairo’s newest neighborhood. He designed its curving streets according to his Art Nouveau sensibilities, carving the neighborhood into spacious lots for villas with private gardens in the grand Continental style. The Vatican became the primary landlord, drawing up plans for a convent that was never built. Only Cairo’s richest elite could afford to call Garden City home.
Today, this neighborhood is where the most security-conscious Western powers have their embassies. The big three—America, Great Britain and Canada—are fortresses, guarded by their own military personnel as well as Egyptians. The American blockade extended for two blocks in every direction, long before there was even a whiff of revolution anywhere in the Arab world. These walls and guns were evidence of a much older mistrust, the fear of another Tehran hostage crisis or Beirut bombing. The revolutions of 2011 only confirmed the fear that Hosni Mubarak had been stoking all those years: Support his presidency and his cabal of generals, ignoring any graft, corruption or human rights abuses, or else! Do you want the Muslim Brotherhood to win and Egypt to become Iran on the Nile?
It was while walking through Garden City with Mokhtar and our friends that I began to understand more deeply the lingering implications of the neighborhood’s history, and its present militarization.
We were walking back from another part of the city, down the broad sidewalk of the Nile Corniche. Mokhtar wanted to keep to the riverbank until we came to the Tahrir Street bridge. Pip and Sylvia wanted to cut the corner by walking through Garden City, and so did I. Mokhtar reluctantly followed our lead, but as we walked through the neighborhood, he said, “If you weren’t all with me, and especially if I were walking with Egyptians, I wouldn’t be able to go this way.”
After a long, silent moment, as if he were deciding whether he should say more, he continued, “Once, when I first came to Cairo, I was walking through here by myself. The Egyptian police came at me, like they were going to hurt me. ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘You can’t be here.’ Then they demanded to see my ID. I always carry my passport on me for this kind of thing.”
That startled me. I never carry my passport with me. I had my American University ID, my Jordanian ID, my Maine driver’s license, but I left my passport at home, afraid to lose it or have it stolen.
“So, I showed them my passport,” continued Mokhtar, “but they didn’t believe that I was American. ‘You don’t look like an American,’ they kept saying. Eventually, they let me go, and I got out of here as fast as I could. I’ve talked to a lot of Egyptians who say the same thing about Garden City.”
I continued to cut through the quiet relief of Garden City, but now always with the niggling disquiet of Mokhtar’s reality on my mind. I would be walking down that same gentle bend in the street and remember him quietly telling his story, the memory pressing on the persistent bruise of my khawaaga.
That label was the source and symbol of everything I hated about Cairo—the ogling, occasional groping, the “tourist price” I paid for everything, and especially the calculated looks that followed me in every public space. Yet, hearing Mokhtar’s story made it impossible to ignore that khawaaga enabled many of my small pleasures in Egypt, too. A quiet neighborhood, a nice restaurant, a seaside vacation on a clean beach, chatting in the courtyards of American University, a drink with friends on a rooftop bar. All of these escapes were khawaaga, too.
After Cairo, I became a New York City Teaching Fellow. I rented a little apartment, the only one I could afford, in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Four years later, when I left, it would be the hipster haven realtors now call East Williamsburg—the restaurants and grocery stores catering increasingly to my taste, but the rents doubling.
When I first arrived, though, it was still an overwhelmingly working class neighborhood, with Puerto Rican social clubs on every third block, and almost weekly mariachi bands marching up the street to the Catholic church behind me for a wedding or a quinceañera. At night, especially a Friday or Saturday night, it was not unusual for a car parked below my window to have all its windows open, salsa music blasting on its suped-up sound system, the neighbors dancing on the sidewalk. On the warm June night before the Puerto Rican Day parade, the street below me would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder, end-to-end with people, the Latin music blaring for hours past midnight.
I really liked the neighborhood, and its people. There was a little family-owned bodega across the street, open until nearly midnight with a great selection of Häagen-Dazs pints. Living above the shop as they did, they even stayed open throughout Superstorm Sandy. At the family-run Chinese restaurant down the block, they took orders in Spanish more fluently than in English.
On the next block, there were big, beautiful old trees the length of the street. In pleasant weather, older neighbors set out square plastic tables on the shaded sidewalks to play dominoes. Crowds would gather, picking sides and cheering each other on.
Closer to the subway was Maria Hernandez Park, one small city block of big trees, playgrounds, racquetball and basketball courts, a winding mile track and a labyrinth leading to a mosaic scarlet macaw in the exact center of the park. On warm weekends, the park would fill with families, volleyball nets would appear, and dozens of people would rotate in and out of a pair of side-by-side games all afternoon.
I looked up Maria Hernandez online, curious why the park bore her name. It had been a notorious gang hangout, regularly erupting into sudden violence. Maria Hernandez was a local woman, Brooklyn born and educated, working as a bookkeeper and raising children in the neighborhood with her husband Carlos. She’d had enough. She reported local troublemakers to police and Children’s Protective Services, organized block parties and community gatherings, and started a neighborhood improvement society. Meanwhile, Carlos confronted local dealers, often with his fists.
Police were reluctant to intervene at first, but when Maria Hernandez was shot and killed, in a crime probably aimed at Carlos, her death became a rallying cry, and made her neighborhood into somewhere the City was willing to invest time and money. The community she built persisted, even thrived, with the park now hosting those volleyball games, community exercise programs, Evangelical revival meetings, dog runs and running paths, a farmers’ market, and monthly visits of the SPCA bus offering veterinary services for neighborhood pets.
Much as I loved my little neighborhood, though, walking through Bushwick was triggering. A lascivious look, the way old men playing dominoes would sometimes call out, “Smile!” or “Look up! It’s a beautiful day.” I would feel my jaw clench, my shoulders tighten and rise, my fingernails cut into my palms. The feeling wasn’t khawaaga, but it had the same effect on my body.
I would turn the corner and make myself spread and stretch my fingers, force my shoulders down, loosen my jaw, focus on the breath. I had been taught as an exchange student that having a bad day reflected poorly on the nation I represented, so just smile until the release of dopamine lightened my mood. It worked often enough to become habit. I hoped that reversing my body language response to unwanted sidewalk attention would have a similar effect, but usually the angry inner monologue would continue to spiral in my head and I’d have to turn up the volume in my earbud to drown it out.
One afternoon at the end of Teaching Fellows summer training, we learned to “unpack the invisible knapsack” of white privilege. In a crowded mid-Manhattan middle school classroom, I looked around a room where I didn’t seem to fit anyone else’s pattern of experience. We played an awkward “Yes, but…” game. We weren’t asked to explain ourselves, but everyone had to speak.
Nearly choking on my heart in my throat, palms sweaty and fingers shaking, I said, “I’ve been treated differently for the color of my skin, but not in the way you might think.” I worried what my colleagues heard in my voice. Understanding? Arrogance? I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to articulate this thing I was learning to label “white privilege.” I also knew that I had felt it differently than most in the room.
I knew that khawaaga wasn’t the same as being Black or Latina or Muslim or queer or trans or disabled in America. I thought of khawaaga first and foremost as a prison, but I knew it could also be a shield, and I always knew that my khawaaga was temporary. My white privilege was by definition a shield, and permanent, just as the oppression of minorities was constant and permanent, an inescapable weight.
My experience of khawaaga did, however, open something of a side door for me into understanding privilege and oppression. In my travels abroad, my white privilege had magnified into American privilege, the advantages it gave me so pronounced that I couldn’t fail to see them. At the same time, I also knew what it felt like to live under calculating scrutiny, knowing there are always eyes on you, waiting for their chance. In Cairo, I had felt like a mark for the inalterable color of my lighter skin, lighter hair and blue eyes, but I always knew I could leave the country at any time. To be a Person of Color in America is to be a mark for bigots, law enforcement, and legislators, but to also know that there is nowhere else to go.
At the end of the summer, under mounting pressure from the Teaching Fellows program, I took the only job I was offered, as a special education teacher at what used to be Canarsie High School—“the worst in the city by almost any statistical measure,” someone warned me. Three years earlier, under the Bloomberg Administration’s education policy, the “failed” school had been shut down, divided into three high schools—one for each floor—and re-opened with mostly the same students and lots of first year Teaching Fellows.
In the school where I taught, the students were almost entirely Afro-Caribbean and from some of the poorest, most disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York City—Brownsville, East New York, Crown Heights, Canarsie itself—that were as under-resourced and dangerous as my own had been before Maria Hernandez, before her courage and before her death. I had never experienced a neighborhood like that, didn’t understand what it was like to live there. I didn’t know how to earn the respect of these kids, or if it was even possible.
Some of my students with special needs—especially the ones with identified learning disabilities—increasingly sought my approval, stayed after school almost every day to do homework with me. By the end of fall semester, they actually had the courage to raise their hands in our NY Regents chemistry class, and they could usually give correct answers, too.
The rest of my students, though, seemed unreachable. “Why do I have to learn this, Miss? I’ll be dead in five years, and what good will financial literacy or a college degree do me then?”
As I walked through Maria Hernandez Park before and after school, usually listening to NPR, I was particularly moved by a series of investigative reports with Propublica about Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injuries in the veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The stories tugged at me. I knew what it was like to be thousands of miles from home, in a place you didn’t understand, but there was something else there, something deeper in those stories that called to me.
I taught in Canarsie for a semester, until the principal fired me in a manner that assured I could never teach again—he said so in as many words. Because he and his pit bull of an Assistant Principal were always careful to say such things alone behind closed doors, there was little that the union could do for me. Then he fired my successor, as well as a beloved football coach who had been at Canarsie High School for over twenty years. Not long after, the principal was recorded threatening my co-teacher. Within a year, I heard that he had been removed from two high schools and forced into early retirement for misogynistic verbal and emotional abuse.
One night, almost a year after losing my job, I was crossing Maria Hernandez Park alone in the dark when I heard myself arguing out loud with the Assistant Principal in my head. Once, when I had left my “counseling” session in her office to answer an urgent, stress-induced call of nature, she followed me right into the bathroom stall to continue berating me. That night, crossing the park, I found myself re-litigating that moment, but this time defending myself with the words that had escaped me then.
It wasn’t a hallucination or flashback in the sense I had always thought of them—I was aware that she was a character out of memory, my foil in an imagined conversation. Nevertheless, while I could stop myself from speaking my righteous justification aloud, I couldn’t make myself stop the arguments. As I continued fighting with the Assistant Principal in my head, my anger, frustration and sharp sense of injustice, and the tightness in my shoulders and jaw, the fingernails digging into my palms, the churning of my stomach were all very real, and not that different from how I had often felt in Cairo.
That night, I realized I had also been dreaming of fighting with her—nightmares that woke me in the middle of the night, furious at the education system, at myself, at the city, at the world. I remembered the sudden disproportionate anger I had felt recently in a casual brunch conversation with friends when it turned to reforming the education system. Those Propublica stories came to mind again, and I realized I was experiencing classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.
I thought about all the times I waited for four or five crowded Six Trains pass me by in the subway, and realized that I always put my back to a wall in a crowd, my back against the door in a crowded train car. I would become suddenly furious when someone misjudged their own personal space and bumped into me. How do they not know I’m there? I would fume. A man would stand too close behind me and my angry inner monologue would spiral suddenly out of control. Occasionally, I would even begin muttering furiously under my breath.
I asked myself if knowing at all times—to the inch!—who was around me and what they were doing or about to do, always knowing exactly how much space I occupied and when it impinged on the space of others…. Was that preternatural awareness what they call “hypervigilance”? It infuriated me that I seemed to be the only subway rider with this precise awareness of others, but what if it were not common courtesy but a symptom of a greater malaise?
It took me the better part of a year to really accept that I probably had Post-Traumatic Stress, that my white-knuckled fists as I walked down the sidewalk or the tightness in my chest on an over-crowded L Train were more than the usual New Yorker annoyance. I started naming my probable PTS in conversation, dismissing it as a product of experiencing the Egyptian Revolution, even though I knew it was the experience of khawaaga, the gauntlet of male attention that had actually disappeared during the hopeful, halcyon seventeen days on Tahrir Square.
Although I have never been formally diagnosed, putting a name to my struggles made them real, put them in context, gave me coping strategies. When the tension started to build in my hands and shoulders, I could give myself permission to put my back up against a wall or get off a crowded train and wait for another. I could talk back to the angry voice spiraling in my head, remind it that I was in America now, that this was an over-reaction. I learned to breathe into the discomfort, name it, validate it, accept it. Eventually, I started to conquer it, to mute, defuse and sometimes even avoid the sudden defensive reaction to triggers. I learned to gauge each day’s emotional fragility by how much I worried about being caught in the revolving doors on my morning commute.
I also started remembering my Canarsie students with new eyes, especially the students I hadn’t been able to build relationships with, the ones with behavioral, mood and conduct disorders. I thought, too, about the ones who hadn’t been diagnosed but were just as quick to anger, violence and defiance. Were they feeling what I was feeling?
For years, I had been saying that a key but underappreciated barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians was five generations of population-wide Post-Traumatic Stress. I had never thought about it in my own country. Suddenly, I found myself wondering if this were also true of Canarsie, Brownsville, East New York….
Early in training as a Teaching Fellow, someone had warned us about respecting our students’ personal space. “Be careful not to come up from behind and startle them, not to touch or get too close. Some of these kids—all they have is their personal space.” That explanation had sufficed at the time, but now I saw these as symptoms we shared. I thought about the little beggar girl in Al Mahrani Street, the sudden, irrational, violent anger I had felt at her, at her father.
I still struggle with crowds, and with irrational anger at the education system. I continue to wrestle almost daily with my white privilege and the responsibilities it implies.
Walking across Maria Hernandez Park at two in the morning, if the cops sitting in their cruiser in the center of the labyrinth barely look up from their paperwork as I walk past, I know it is because of my white middle class privilege. Some nights, I seethe with the unfairness of it all, because every day my students at the old Canarsie High School risk terrible indignities at the hands of the cops, just for walking home from school while black.
When I look at Michael Brown of Ferguson and Eric Garner of Staten Island and all of the others, I see my students, and I see a little of myself. I remember the constant erosion, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt, of my internal sense of dignity and belonging. I feel the prison of khawaaga, the eyes always watching, judging, weighing my right to the space I occupy. In Egypt, I channeled my anger inward—I only remember lashing out that once—but I had only lived with khawaaga for years, not a lifetime.
Yet, I know the feeling all too well, the noose of khawaaga so tight I can barely breathe. No one deserves that.
We are all products of our lived environment, and of the people we gather around us or push away. As I have moved from continent to continent, made friends, lost some, maintained contact with others, it has continually shifted my state of mind. In this essay, 'Khawaaga: Eyes Always Watching,' I trace how some of those shifts happened, geographically and on the inner map of my identity.
Maryah Converse was a Peace Corps educator in Jordan, 2004–2006, and was studying in Cairo during the 2011 Arab Spring. She has written for From Sac, New Madrid Journal, BLYNKT, Silk Road Review, Newfound, and Stoneboat Literary Journal. She lives, writes and teaches Arabic in New York City, and blogs intermittently about the world at bymaryah.wordpress.com.