Travel writers must be careful about the ways in which they approach and write about other communities, cultures, and peoples. In this article, EmmaLucy Cole shares with Travel Writing World a snapshot about crossing cultural boundaries as she visited a Bedouin village in Egypt in 2019.
There is a 2-inch scratch on my motorcycle helmet visor which, every so often, sneaks into my peripheral vision, reminding me of my visit to a Bedouin village in Egypt. Early in 2011, I moved to Tarrabin, Sinai, initially carrying out 6 weeks of cultural research, but accidentally staying for 2 years. In 2019 I flew back, rented an ancient dirt bike, and wobbled across the mountains to stay with a friend. It was on arrival in her yard that the scratch occurred.
During the 2-year stay, I initially lived in the breezeblock village which is scattered down a red-grit slope of coast, trailing off into the turquoise Red Sea. When the heat became too intense for my wonky ceiling fan – and its lethal wiring – I moved into a wooden hut at a tourist camp on the beach. Following the 2011 Egyptian revolution, these camps were virtually deserted, and the pace of life was slow, so I spent my days learning Arabic, listening to the elders’ ancestral anecdotes, teaching English, and swimming alone in the abandoned shallows with mantle rays and moray eels.
“The longer I lived there, the harder it became to write about the people I knew.”
My being a teacher also brought respect, which was a useful way to be ‘placed’ in the community and avoid accusations of spying. Tarrabin still bears the scars of bombs that devastated the area not so long ago, so although the area felt safe, suspicion towards outsiders was understandable and so I never risked recording conversations digitally. Instead, I quietly took notes in tiny, almost illegible writing, in even tinier notebooks. The longer I lived there, however, the harder it became to write about the people I knew. Local custom dictates that women, if married, are referred to by the name of their oldest male child (i.e. ‘Mother of Suleiman’), or, if unmarried, by their father’s name (i.e. ‘Daughter of Sayed’). What would the impact be if I – wilfully or accidentally – made mistakes within such rules? My friend knew that I was writing about her culture and was supportive, but inevitably I was observing personal events which, whilst great for storytelling, were not mine to tell.
In 2019, riding that battered motorcycle into the yard, I was high on achievement and independence (and possibly exhaust fumes). Two girls were playing outside and were thrilled to see a motorcycle sputter through the gate, and ecstatic to see a woman emerge from the helmet. Women in the village are not allowed to drive and these girls will likely never know the freedom of the road; a privilege that I take for granted (even if it is still gendered territory in travel writing terms). The girls helped me unpack, and I handed my helmet to the youngest girl who clung to it enthusiastically. And scratched it on the wall as she ran into the house. Permanently etched onto that visor is my reminder that travel not only brings connection, but also highlights difference; and as a travel writer, it is my responsibility to navigate that ethically and sensitively.
How do you approach cultural differences in research, travel, and writing? Let us know in the comment section below.