It reads as if the pages were lifted right from the script of Mad Men. Dozens of eager women primping and pinning every loose strand of hair into place, applying the last touch of lipstick, giving each other catty glares and then waiting, like sitting ducks, to be called upon by the handsome leading male character.
Only this isn’t 1960s New York City, where the ability to lure males to bed means notoriety and these aren’t a couple of secretaries working in an ad agency. This is modern-day Egypt, and these are educated women—pharmacists working in a hospital or recent graduates—all desperate to meet Mr. Right and wed. This is the setting in which we find Ghada Abdel Aal writing her blog, which has been turned into a tv series, and now a book.
The book, whose English translation is now available, is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek account of an eager spinster’s attempts to find a decent suitor, as adapted from Ghada Abdel Aal’s famous blog.
I am not sure which parts are gross exaggerations and which are true to life, and I am even further unsure of where the satire ends and reality begins. However, I am sure that this widely translated book might find its non-Arabic reading/speaking audience lost in the fantastical accounts, all wondering the same thing as they flip through the pages of this witty and positively entertaining book: Is she for real?
On her blogspot profile, Abdel Aal describes herself as “representing fifteen million Egyptian women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five pressured by society into getting married and blamed when they fail to do so.” I doubt that all these Egyptian women can be painted with such a broad brush.
The book’s pages are filled with stereotypical representations of Egyptian women. Throughout the book there is this assumption that “there isn’t a single” Egyptian woman whose “first ambition” isn’t to get married. According to the stories of Abdel Aal, this desire manifests itself in the most neurotic and obsessive manner, with women throwing themselves, left and right, at the feet of every eligible and ineligible (read: already married) man.
A man can easily have these eager women smitten and swindled, as we learn from Abdel Aal’s account of how she practically handed the money over to a thief because she was too enchanted to realize a man was conning her.
Don’t be mistaken, though. These naïve, doe-eyed Egyptian women can get catty, but only among each other. Readers can reel in shock as Abdel Aal recounts details of her and her colleagues’ jealously clawing at each other to get to a man. The picture painted here is one of Egyptian women who have no sense of solidarity, loyalty or friendship. Bonds can easily be broken and friendships can quickly turn sour over a man. This is a very different picture than that painted by media, which claims that Egyptian women are coming together to fight the growing problem of sexual harassment.
As if Abdel Aal’s description of catty, belligerent and cheeky single Egyptian women would not make every man turn on his heels and run in the opposite direction, she uses an even more monstrous description to tell readers about the Egyptian wife, whom she aptly names “the Bully.” She tells readers that Egyptian women have become the stronghold of the family and Egyptian men are weaklings who suffer beatings at the shoes of their controlling, unkempt and frustrated wives.
But enough of the gross exaggeration and blanket statements about Egyptian women. Let’s get to the real socioeconomic issues about which Abdel Aal speaks so comically.
First, there is the overwhelming pressure on Egyptian women to get married, which I can’t imagine is overstated, considering that the unemployment rate and dwindling job market makes it hard to finance a marriage. Plus there is the problem of finding an eligible man. Abdel Aal warns us that all Egyptian men have God-complexes, ugly teeth, and are cheap!
Then there is this sort of priming and primping of young girls training to become future brides. Never mind a successful career; you don’t want to miss the train! You will just end up staying home and taking care of the kids anyway. If you don’t find a man, you can just stay with Baba after college, but be forewarned; your mother will remind you of what a burden you are.
While I am sure Abdel Aal’s accounts stem from true events and know that Egypt could stand to improve its gender relations, economic situation, and re-evaluate some of its cultural mores, I would have to say her witty account blurs the lines between the satirical and the actual in a way that would have non-Egyptian readers strapping on their combat boots ready to march in and “save” these poor Egyptian women.
I will give the book credit for its widely entertaining stories of living room meetings, riddled with eccentric suitors and bizarre matchmakers, which are free from the exoticism and mystery which usually surrounds Muslim women and the topic of arranged marriages.
Yet for most readers the comedy will be missed, buried by the nagging question of whether these situations are severely exaggerated and thus hilarious or mildly exaggerated and thus a series of tragicomic accounts that could stand to be presented in a more considerable manner.