A Western Woman Traveling Alone in Arabia

Of course there are western women who traveled alone in Arabia.


There was Isabelle Eberhardt. But she dressed as a man and died mysteriously in a flood somewhere near or in Algeria. She didn’t transgress, exactly, by traveling alone as a woman in Arabia. She traveled alone as a man.


There was Freya Stark, but she was wealthy, ethnocentric and got by insulting her guides and eating roasted chicken. She was, in my opinion, your basic colonial overlady. She traveled alone as an Englishwoman in a distant exoticized Arabia that existed like a dead oil painting, only in her mind.

How should a woman travel alone in Arabia? Although I have to a limited extent done it, I don’t really know how to do it.

I know simple things. I know that barbershops and coffee-shops are for men.

Moreso than making a man feel impenetrable and folded up like a felt swan a la Neruda’s “I am tired of being a man…” in Arabia barbershops and coffee-shops are perched to…well, make a man feel like a man. And part of making a man feel like a man has always been the explicit or implicit sign that no women are allowed within.

It appears to be more difficult to tire of being a man in Arabia. At least in public, it is a man’s, man’s world.

There are places in Arabia: coffee-shops, barbershops and hotels – where a lone woman appears only to advertise that she is a prostitute. Perhaps she appears there because she has lost her family. Perhaps she appears alone out of emergency or necessity.

Perhaps this is why I got married in Arabia. I was tired of the shocked faces asking me, “But WHY are you alone?” It seemed like such an existential question. Are we not all alone until we die, really? Must I travel and shop and eat and drink with sisters, mothers, grandmothers and aunts just to appear in the appropriate package of people? There is power in numbers, comfort in homogeneity. But must I be powerless or fearful alone?

In Arabia I was a lone odd fruit, fallen off the vine, stared at by bunches of grapes who clearly belonged together.

Walking around

I wanted to go hiking.
“No-one really does that here” I was told.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there are scorpions,” I was told.

I wanted to go wandering alone through the labyrinthine old medina, looking for trinkets.
“No-one really does that here” I was told.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there are bad men who will cheat you and charge you the wrong price,” I was told. “There are pick-pockets and bandits and kidnappers and dishonorable men,” I was told.

I wanted to retreat away from people, sleep alone in a hotel and wake up to the sunlight and street-noise from below my window.
“No-one really does that here” I was told.
“Why?” I asked.
“Prostitutes are the only women who stay in hotels alone,” I was told.

I wanted to sit in a cafe and watch the world go by.
“No-one really does that here” I was told.
“Why?” I asked.
“Women take their coffee at home,” I was told.

And then I returned to America, married.

And then I realized that Americans are the same.

Married women in America are bona fide, included, financially secure. Single women read magazines with articles on how to catch men.

In Arabia what is extrinsic and externally apparent is just the insidious, intrinsic reality of America. In Arabia the legal testimony of four women equals that of one man. In America, I must speak four times before I am heard.

In Arabia, I am too visible wandering around alone outside.
In America, I am too invisible, as if I were always alone, inside.

~ by lhdwriter on August 18, 2013.

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