Oct 4, 2016
By Delia Harrington
Forging my Inquisitive Name in Egypt
Standing in a shop in Cairo, I spelled out my name for the clerk, both in English and in Arabic. Should it end with an eliph or a taa marbuta? We went back and forth, settling on aliph, the first letter of the alphabet, and I handed over a not insignificant amount of Egyptian pounds.
I was in Egypt for six weeks studying Arabic and Middle Eastern politics, as part of one of my many minors. But really, I was there because the summer before I had stayed home in Massachusetts, working retail. I had watched as friends flooded facebook with photos from all over Egypt. I wanted to learn about the region, but I also wanted to go on an adventure, having conversations and experiences that would never happen back home. My parents had agreed, on the grounds that university staff would accompany us. My boyfriend would be waiting when I got back, in spite of how nervous I had been to even ask that question.
Six weeks seemed like a long time, but once I was abroad, it it didn’t take long for us both to chafe under the situation. He felt like I was always too busy, and was suspicious of the new friends I was making, especially the male ones. I felt like every call was either a fight or a one-sided conversation, keeping me from flash cards, late-night dessert treks, and new friends. I had started spending time with young women who proudly called themselves feminists and stretched my previous definition of the word. I started wondering why I had ever found the necklace he gave me, emblazoned with the word “princess,” to be sweet.
A couple of days after spelling out my name in the shop, a small velvet envelope arrived. I took off the old necklace, something I hadn’t done since he gave it to me, and excitedly placed my new one around my neck. Instead of someone else’s ill-fitting pet name, I was wearing my own. More than that, my Arabic name necklace was an outward sign of my accomplishments: the hundreds of hours learning Arabic, the nerve-wracking solo cab ride, the ever-present street harassment, and the wonder of Naguib Mahfouz’s books. I was working harder academically than I ever had in my life, not to mention constantly learning from everyone I met. This country had indelibly changed me, and it all sat there at my collarbone, in elegant, silver, Arabic script.
Back home, I wore my new necklace proudly. That did not go unnoticed.
There were questions and tears. It seems the symbolism of the two pieces of jewelry wasn’t lost on anyone. It didn’t help that I hid his necklace from myself out of sadness and couldn’t find it again until years later, well after our relationship was dead and buried. But it wouldn’t have mattered; I had changed.
My time in Egypt brought so much to my life: feminism, a love of the Middle East, dear friends, and a knowledge that not only can I do things that seem big and scary, but I thrive on them. I’ll never be certain why we broke up, but I know I couldn’t have become the person I am now while remaining his girlfriend. I needed years to myself, without any guilt or judgment about my travels and personal politics, two of my strongest and most intertwined traits. I needed room to grow, to see where the world would take me if I didn’t need anyone else and no one else needed me. I needed to be a woman of my own making, not someone else’s vision of me, not an asterisked version of myself that was only acceptable with caveats and conditions. I needed to be able to pick up and go, over and over again, and not be seen as disloyal for doing so.
One day, the necklace slipped off at a friend’s backyard barbecue, never to be seen again. I miss it like I miss so much about Egypt, from koshery and nutty actions movies to hijabi fashion and Al Azhar Park. But I take comfort in the fact that I don’t need the necklace like I once did. By the time I lost the necklace, it had served its purpose. I was out of that relationship and had travelled to many countries, but most importantly, I had been brave enough to choose myself, and the life I wanted to lead. I knew my choices were not dalliances but a path. I had chosen a life driven by adventure and ideals, one where my brain and my bravado are my most prized possessions. Someday, there may be another man who wants to rename me and keep me close by his side. I’d like to see him try.
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About the Author
Delia Harrington is a writer, documentary photographer and feminist activist who has been traveling the world part-time since 2006. She works in international development and financial inclusion, and her background is in study abroad, human rights, and politics. Her writing focuses on social justice, gender-based violence, pop culture, and travel, and can be found on Wanderful, Go Overseas, Stop Street Harassment, and her blog, Away She Goes.