Student, Writer, WAnderer, Cairo, Egypt

“It’s a shame I won’t be able to bike to you today”, wrote Farah. Sun was setting over Cairo, and we were scheduled to meet on the outskirts of the city. Upon reading her message, and after spending a week in the this megalopolis, where driving is not for the fainthearted, I was a bit relieved. Another WOW WOMAN introduced us, and as soon as I saw Farah, confidently walk towards me, I knew it was going to be an interesting conversation. Having grown up in Saudi, Egyptian by birth, with a university degree from Istanbul, Farah carries richness of experiences as well as invaluable insights into the region and all the politics that come with it.

Upon graduating Farah decided to learn more about her birth country, and in her gap year, instead of setting off to explore far off lands, she decided to traverse the length and width of Egypt and get out of her comfort zone. She set out to get to know the people from the low mountains and desert of the south, fertile Nile delta of the north as well as the villages in the eastern and western desert. While in Cairo though, and despite the protests of her friends and relatives, she decided to buy a bicycle and join a tiny club of women bikers who commute alongside two million cars through Cairo’s gridlocked streets. She rebelled when told that it’s dangerous and she will be harassed, kidnapped and assaulted. She bikes every day, every where, and through this defiant act Farah collects and writes about encounters with the men and women of Cairo, coming closer to her goal of learning about her motherland from the inside. Please enjoy the interview with the WOW Woman, Farah Hallaba.

1. Name.

Farah Hallaba.

2. Where is your hometown?

My hometown is Cairo, Egypt.

3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?

I am a fresh graduate, currently freelancing as a translator, applying to post-grad schools - and exploring my country during a gap year.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career-wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of, and what was the turning point to set you on a current path in life?

The journey was rich from the moment I left Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where I used to live with my parents and graduated high school. My real journey started when I travelled on my own to Istanbul to pursue an undergraduate degree. Everything was new, and I had no option but to be strong. One year abroad is like 5 in your home, with your family. You encounter the world and get exposed to so many new experiences and get on the road of self-discovery.

I identify as an Egyptian and nothing else, I relate to almost all middle eastern cultures even sounds of the languages, folklore arts, music and dress. But I don’t particularly belong to any, even if they appeal to me. Egypt for me is different, it’s my home. However, I wrongfully expected it to be a place where my belonging was unarguable. But after I graduated and decided to do my gap year here, I was faced with many comments from the locals such as “you don’t know much about here, this is why you like it” or “you are a tourist?” etc. I didn’t like these comments. It bothered me that most of those who commented were Egyptians who live in their gated communities far from the city center. Those who never tried public transportation or visited a local market, let alone biked in the street. Not that I’m saying that there has to be criteria of making one Egyptian. But there shouldn’t be a quota of years in Egypt that earns you a label “Egyptian enough”. As a result, my perception of home is different. It’s not the nationalistic unconditional love towards the 7,000 year old civilization - like my parents see it. And it’s also not the very apocalyptic dark place my friends in their high class bubble see. 

I am bothered by classism in Egypt. I decided to live downtown to be among the people, feel a sense of belonging. But I genuinely don’t want to be an orientalist who wants to live a “local experience”. This is my experience, what I should be and where I should be. It’s my street, around my people. I don’t want “socio-economic classes” to be a part of this. I genuinely relate more to everyone walking in Manial district than to family and friends who live in fenced residences.

I love Egypt. I love the idea of belonging and authenticity is why I decided to spend my gap year in Egypt. I am really sick of being a “foreigner” elsewhere. 

And so far I am enjoying it all. I enjoy being around people who share the very same dialect as me, I enjoy exploring the diversity of Egypt and discovering that every city and every region is different. South, north, west and east of the country, they are all beautiful in very different ways. I am not exploring it as an English tourist. I am attempting to explore it as one of the locals who would move around the country for regular purposes. 

I grew up in Saudi, but with Egyptian culture, all my classmates, friends and neighbors were Egyptian. Films, music and jokes were Egyptian. It was only the land that was distant. Coming to Egypt physically, I found out more about myself than the country itself. I am not trying to preach here. I explored those parts of me, even the miserable parts of Egypt, everything was on the tabe. I am realiznig that I am never full, no matter where I go. Parts of me, for example, are only found when I visit Istanbul. While in Cairo, I began to see myself as the bridge over the Nile and the Bosporus connecting two faces of the city, from its east and its west. Two faces that are well synchronized, yet they never meet. 

For all the sorrowful moments I went through in Egypt, the bridge over the Nile was my haven. It was on that bridge, that I was assured that my decision of coming back to Egypt was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  

I love Egypt, every part of it. But my own perception of Egypt. I don’t share this perception with anyone. I like the diversity, the chaos, the alternative underground platforms, art, absurdness etc. I love the people as well. And I hate classism, injustice, oppression and all that kills the souls of Egyptians, suffocates them and shatters their desire to live brightly.

I am proud of the way my mentality changed to be more critical, to chose my battles in arguments and also to ask for help when I was struggling. Visiting a psychologist definitely helped my journey take a healthier path.

5. What did you study in school?

My major was Political Science & International Relations, minor in Cinema & Film.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

I am not very far from 20, however at 20 I expected to be enrolled in an ivy school upon graduating. Currently I am technically unemployed and not accepted yet. However, I learned to take this with peace and take a breath. It is fine to take a break, even if it was unintentional.

7. Was there a time when life knocked you down or out and how did you get back up on your feet?

I would say, yes, life has knocked me down before. It happened when I experienced an inner struggle with all the change going with my convictions and thoughts, and I was able to stand back up after I went to a psychologist and with the help of beloved ones.

After I graduated I felt like a complete failure, especially after finishing second in my department, being used to always topping the honour roll. I was always the young woman with something in hand to achieve. Once I graduated, I was unemployed, with nothing to really do or work on. It felt disorienting, as I even lost motivation to apply to schools.

What helped me was going back to my hometown in Egypt. Egypt revived a lot in me, it felt good to not be a foreigner for sometime. I started to explore Cairo and Egypt more. And as I did, I was actually exploring parts of me as well. It was on this journey that I was able to finally figure out what research I was interested in for my post graduate experience. I applied to several good schools.

8. Advice for other women?

I honestly do not think I am anywhere near giving advice to others. We all have different circumstances, and I consider myself privileged, having an understanding family, friends and community. I can’t really advise others who have more ceilings to break and doors to knock down.

I do sincerely hope to see more women being genuine to themselves, and wish for more women to afford morally and materialistically to do what they want. I wish I can see more loud women.

9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it, for "feminist values"?

There is change happening of course, more vocal women out there, more awareness being raised. But unfortunately in so many places in the world women still suffer a lot. The worst kind of oppression to witness is women themselves believing that it’s justified for religious, cultural or traditional reasons to be oppressed. Women in my country are objectified insanely. However, I am so proud of how they are growing to be loud and desiring to be heard. It feels as if men started to back off from what they were "supposed" to be, and women pulled up their sleeves and in all their glory entered variety of fields (mostly dominated by men). 

10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

Downtown Cairo, riding my bike.

11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

Trying to integrate international students in my university. Trying to build a community for Egyptians, so no one would struggle alone in homesickness. Also anything I did with Syrian or Afghan refugees. Especially when I went and volunteered with Syrian children on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Also as I mentioned, I enjoy biking in Cairo. This may seem like a small deal, but there just aren’t many of us women doing it. My decision to commute by a bike in the midst of Cairo, was not because I was naive of its consequences but because I had the guts to challenge the status quo of girls not biking. My experience with biking in Cairo has been positive so far, although no one believes me. I want to make clear that am not invalidating girls who got traumatized through biking in the streets of Cairo. But still experiences vary and I’m learning so much through this little act of defiance.

12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

I want to be a researcher/lecturer in the field of anthropology of Middle Eastern studies.

13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

I hope I overcome my underestimation of all that I do.

13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?

I hope I overcome my underestimation of all that I do.

14. Anything you'd do differently, if you had another go at life?

I currently seem to have low confidence in all that I produce. And I wish I can overcome this. In fact doing so sooner would have put me in a different place I believe.

Looking back, I also would not befriend toxic people, and keep them in my life for quite so long.

15. What inspires you?

Young people.

17. What are some ingredients to a good life?

Realizing its negative side, to appreciate its goodness.

18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Have more confidence in yourself, but do not dream very big.

19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I am trying to read in Arabic, book by Ahmed Khalid Tawfiq.

20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three (or more) women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description? What would you tell them if you had an opportunity, of why you admire them?

My mother. Not just because she is my mother but because she is an Iron Lady! She is a giver, she is a teacher, a leader, a lover, a role model to so many, very social and very popular in the city she resides in. She inspired generations and generations of students. Many remember her as the person who changed their lives. She would work with students to help them become better versions of themselves and support them even if that came at a cost of her health. She is a real educator, who has been through a lot. 

21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?