This was a difficult post for me to write because I don’t want to paint an entire country/culture in a bad way. But I also don’t want to pretend these things didn’t happen. I don’t want to give the impression that this is a shameful secret, and I don’t want other women to be unaware of potential risks. Sexual harassment, even sexual assault, are real dangers to stay vigilant against.
I dreamed of going to Egypt my whole life. I wanted to be an Egyptologist (after I gave up on Paleontology). I watched The Mummy on repeat and idolized Brendan Fraser and Oded Fehr. I memorized the mythology. I didn’t believe when people told me there was nothing left to discover because I knew I was going to discover the most famous tombs of all!
When I finally had the chance to go to Egypt myself, I was ecstatic. It was the first stop on my 5 month around the world trip and I was meeting the boy I liked there (side note: we started dating in Egypt, yesss). The first time I saw the pyramids at Giza, my breath was stolen. We were even able to go inside of one and explore; the weight of ancient emotions inside of a 4,000 year old tomb silenced my excited chatter.
In Egypt, we rode camels and raced horses across the desert. We made papyrus and saw pure indigo. We studied Arabic and played soccer with local boys and stood in the center of Tahrir Square. But I will write about our experiences in Egypt in more detail in another post. This post is about a more sensitive subject.
We decided to ride a felucca down the Nile. We happily haggled the price for an hour ride, pleased with ourselves for not accepting the initial price. The captain of the felucca was young, maybe late 20s or early 30s, and we were eager to make friends with someone who lived in Cairo.
The Nile was deep and calm. The breeze ran fingers across its surface and kissed our faces with dewy lips. We shuddered as we passed crocodile, watching us intensely, quietly. The boat we rode was freshly white, and a black eye had been painted on each side of the prow.
I was taking the ride with my boyfriend and our friend, also a young man, and the 3 of us laughed and took turns sitting at the front of the ship, letting the ancient water splash our toes.
The captain asked us if we wanted to try steering the boat. We enthusiastically argued about who would go first; we each wanted the bragging rights of saying we had captained a ship on the Nile, no matter the details. The captain pointed at me. “Ladies first,” he said. I smirked at the guys and walked up the steps to the wheel.
The captain stepped aside and pointed to where I should hold the wheel. I gripped it with one hand and waved to my friends with the other. They laughed and went back to the prow of the ship to wait their turns. The captain stepped behind me.
“Hold it firmly,” he said, and then he had his hands on my hips. Still caught up in the exultation of a new experience on the famous Nile river, for a moment I thought it was because he wanted to steady me against the rocking on the water. He gripped my hips hard. Surprised, I looked up behind me at his face. He smiled.
Then he ground his crotch into my backside. Then again. Hard. I was so shocked I froze. I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was my first experience with sexual assault and I was a deer in the headlights.
“Do you like that?” he asked me and I turned away. I stared at my boyfriend and he stared back. He couldn’t see what was happening but he could feel my intensity. I was still frozen — in shock, in shame, in horror, I don’t know. I was disgusted and felt like my voice was gone. I stared and stared at my boyfriend, willing him to run over. The captain ground himself against me one more time — finally, I gasped through my horror, “Stop!”
The captain let me go and laughed. “Next person?” he said. I ran to the front of the ship. Our friend said, “My turn!” and ran to the wheel. The captain didn’t step behind him, instead instructing him from where he was sitting against the ship’s side. I sat at the prow and said nothing. Part of me felt like we were at the captain’s mercy in the middle of the Nile, which now seemed infested with crocodiles.
The felucca ride ended. I ran off the ship and didn’t speak through lunch. When our friend went to the bathroom, I told my boyfriend, haltingly, what had happened. I could barely describe it because I felt so confused and violated. He felt ashamed that he had been so close and unable to help me.
This can be a reality of being a woman traveler. This was my first experience with sexual assault, but it was not my last, and it was not the worst. I do not tell this story so that women will feel afraid of Egypt, or of traveling. or of felucca rides. This was one bad man who did a bad thing to me. I want women who travel to be aware that these things can happen. Be aware. Shout. Shove. Get attention, get help, call the police. Just stay prepared and stay alert.
Egypt was a confusing place for me as I had many unique and difficult experiences being a woman there. I will write those another time. For now, I will focus on the memory that I sailed the same waters that the Pharaohs once did.
(PHOTO CREDIT in this post, except for the last one, goes to my boyfriend.)