The Market Husband: Faking It In Egypt
As the boat prepares to pass under a bridge, the women tanning on the upper deck grab for their towels, draping them over their bikini-clad bodies. Some are too slow. The guards’ machine guns dangle over the brightly painted, chipped railing as they scream what are clearly obscenities at the women, leering like cartoon characters with bulging eyes. Here, those women who are still uncovered might as well be acting out porn; the reactions are the same as if they suddenly stripped down and started making out in the middle of an American street.
The boat, my primary residence on a cruise along the Nile, is home base during this trip to Egypt. When my female travel companions and I leave this sanctuary, we are careful to clothe ourselves thoughtfully and mind where we walk. Usually it’s not a problem; the boat cruises up to a town with a notable temple, and we pair off with male guests for the short horse and buggy ride to a historical site littered with other foreigners.
As we head back to our rooms, we stroll together through crowds of souvenir vendors who grab the ladies’ arms brazenly to drag them to their stalls, showering them with compliments and marriage proposals. In this context, it’s almost charming. The vendors assure the women that their families will offer a fair exchange of camels for their hand. One vendor offers to build me a boat so that we can cruise around the world. He’s handsome, and I can’t help but smile, which means he follows us all the way back to the dock, trotting alongside the buggy with a young man who has similarly focused his attention on a redhead in the group. Our guide threatens them, and I’m glad at this moment that I’m not traveling entirely alone.
I knew as soon as I landed in Cairo that I had made the right choice in booking a group tour of Egypt. I’ve visited South Korea, Canada, Chile, and much of Europe alone, but this culture is different than any I’ve experienced so far. A nine day package with Contiki for less than $950 (plus flight) was impossible to pass up. Sure, it was discounted because of the revolution in the country, but I’ve never stayed home just because the world can be scary.
The vendors assure the women that their families will offer a fair exchange of camels for their hand. One vendor offers to build me a boat so that we can cruise around the world. He’s handsome, and I can’t help but smile, which means he follows us all the way back to the dock.
Having lived in both Baltimore and London, I’m not easily startled by human antics, but even I was surprised by men in Cairo. They fought with one another, grabbed the few foreign women walking through the city with companions, and made grotesquely lewd gestures when busses of tourists passed. I watched a group of four follow a young girl, surely no more than 14, all the way down the street before the hunters and prey disappeared from my view.
My thought that a group tour was a good idea was reaffirmed when the guide sat us down to tell us we would be visiting a market. We were far from Cairo now, but still not quite near the Red Sea, where tourists littered the high-rise luxury hotels to go scuba diving and sailing. We might, he told us, be the only foreigners in the market. He paired us off, men and women. There were slightly more women, so some men got the temporary honor of having two ‘wives’. The guys blushed, and the women laughed.
“These are your market husbands,” said the guide seriously. “Do NOT leave their sides for anything. If you want to look at something, go all of you together. You cannot wander off in the market, ladies.”
The other woman assigned to my market husband chimed in nervously: “Won’t the men in the market know we’re pretending since our husband has two women with him?”
“No. They’ll just think he’s very wealthy.” Our market husband puffed his chest. “Men in Egypt can have as many wives and children as they can afford.”
Some of the women gasped in horror. The men made jokes. And then we were on our way.
A fake husband is vital protection in an Egyptian market. No matter how strong the feminist, it is not worth going alone and having to fight through the grabbing, leering crowd, sprinting past the entrances to dark alleys lest someone be waiting there. Though I almost always enjoy a foreign market with its myriad sights and smells, I found myself impatient to end the experience of walking through tables littered with merchandise you’d find at an American yard sale while my faux spouse got nudges and shoulder punches to celebrate his good fortune.
Is Egypt worth the discomfort? Absolutely. You will not find a richer historical experience, and you’ll never find yourself more inclined to support women’s rights worldwide. But if you’re going alone, be prepared to temporarily hang up your feminist fedora, jump in with a group, and select your market husband.