Friday, November 05, 2010

Ladies Only, Cleopatra-Style

Women in Egypt really know how to take care of themselves. They keep their eyebrows tidy and perfectly arched. They regularly get their toenails re-painted. And they're usually sporting a sleek, smooth hairdo done recently at their local hair salon as well.

Sure wish some of that would rub off on me!

I mean, we can't all be Cleopatra but at least we can make some effort, right?

If you read my Ladies Only post, you know that I recently discovered a ladies-only coiffure very close to our house in Cairo.

Last week, I was long overdue for another visit to get my eyebrows and toenails done. But we had a wedding to attend later on so there was no delaying the inevitable. So my son and I headed off down the street to brave the ladies-only coiffure once more.

Last time we arrived there was just one other lady in the place getting her hair done. This time we weren't quite so lucky. We walked in the door, and the place was so packed that I literally couldn't get the stroller in the door. I had to fold it up just for us to be able to open the door and squeeze in.

Ever gotten that feeling that you've walked into a place that maybe you shouldn't have? I still seem to be a novelty at times in Egypt. You get used to the staring from the men on the street (or at least you get used to ignoring it to the point where you're blissfully unaware at how much they're staring at you). But I still get a little disconcerted when Egyptian women stare.

I can only imagine the thoughts going through their heads.

Somehow in seconds I manage to run down through every possible reason as to why they're staring. Is my shirt pulled down far enough? Is everything buttoned up properly? I know that they're only staring out of curiosity but I always get this feeling that I have somehow broken some imaginary cultural rule and that this is why they're staring so hard at me.

I'm thinking that I have somehow done something wrong.

And they're probably just looking at my green eyes and thinking "oh wow she has pretty eyes." Or they're curious as to why someone with *blond* hair like mine would wear it curly (they hate that I like my hair curly rather than sleek and smooth and straight).

But this never occurs to me. I still think somehow I've done something wrong.

So you can say that I was really tempted to just turn on my heels and walk right back out the door with all those eyes on me. Luckily I had enough sense to stay put (although not quite enough sense to greet them - as is more culturally appropriate). I think I must have looked a bit like a deer caught in the headlights, because finally a girl I recognized squeezed through the crowd and greeted me.

I must have looked greatly relieved to see a familiar face.

My son was unusually quiet. He's usually pretty responsive to people. He's just under a year old, and this was his first time coming with me to the salon. You'd think I'd be worried about what to do with him while I got all gussied up. I guess I'd imagined that some sweet girl would sweep him away to keep him occupied while I was being worked on.

Dream again!

Fortunately, he did sit rather still in my lap for most of the hour or so that we were there. I think that he, like me, was a little overwhelmed by all those eyes on him. He's usually pretty good in a crowd, but not when they're not doing anything but staring.

I ended up somehow in a regular chair against the wall behind the door, laid back so the lady could work on my eyebrows. Let's just say it wasn't the most comfortable of positions. After a few minutes, I begged her for a break because my poor neck was really starting to ache.

One interesting thing about this being a ladies only salon, though, is that all of the women had their hair uncovered. Women are only required to veil when an unrelated man is present. So in such a case - like in a ladies only coiffure - they will take off their veils.

It is amazing to me to see how much care the women here who cover their hair take regarding, in particular, the color of their hair. I mean, who gets to see their hair anyways? Many of these ladies have dyed their hair blond or put crazy highlights in their hair. It seems a little strange to me, but I guess they still know what it looks like under their veils. So maybe they just get tired of looking at the same black hair all the time.

Another thing that I hadn't noticed last time about the girls working in the salon is how young they all seemed to be. The girl who was soaking my feet couldn't have been older than 14. She looked awfully young to be working. And most of the ladies didn't seem to be much older than mid-20s.

But I guess that working is mostly the luxury of single ladies in Egypt. Once women get married here, they usually begin to have children almost immediately. So unless they have enough money to pay for daycare (or family nearby to watch kids), most women stay at home for, well, the rest of their lives. Married women with children who work usually come from more wealthy families in Egypt, and even then many of them will leave their jobs when they have children.

That would at least explain why so many of these ladies were young and single (no wedding ring on their left hand to signify marriage nor on their right hand to signify engagement).

Something else interesting about coiffures (ladies-only or not) in Egypt is the sort of hierarchy that exists regarding the jobs people do within the coiffure. For example, there is someone who cuts hair. He or she doesn't wash the hair. He or she doesn't dry the hair. He or she doesn't clean up the mess after cutting the hair. All he or she does is the actual cutting of the hair. Everything else is someone else's job.

The same thing goes when you get a pedicure done. The person who paints your nails doesn't soak your feet or sand down your feet or trim your nails, all they do is put the nail polish on your toes.

I don't really mind the whole hierarchy thing. It costs me a little more money because I have to tip every single person who touches me. But then again, who wants their eyebrows plucked by someone who has had their hands all over someone else's feet? Not me, that's for sure.

I am planning to go more regularly to the coiffure here. Every time I go, I get such a kick out of the experience (even the bad ones) that I think it would be fun to start to get to know the ladies there. And there are very few places where you can just sit in the midst of a crowd of only Egyptian ladies. I like to just sit there and let their conversations kind of sweep over me. I think it's a world that Egyptian men never catch a glimpse of, not that they'd ever want to.

Hopefully, though, next time it won't be so crowded.

And hopefully even if it is I will be able to remember to open my mouth to speak and say hello when I walk in the door.

And hopefully someone I know will be there in case I don't.

'Cause I'll probably forget. Nothing like a bunch of eyes on you to make you forget even your own name.

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