Chapter 40 – My Mom Said I’m a Male Chauvinist
My time spent in Yemen had been a pleasant surprise. I mean, sure, I had the good fortune of not being kidnapped by tribal warriors or AQAP extremists as some other unlucky tourists had in the past who undoubtedly had a way shittier experience than me, but I found the people that call the poorest nation in the Arab world “home” to be quite warm and welcoming. Even after finding out I was from America, once they’d openly expressed their disapproval of “our” killing a bunch of civilians with “our” drone attacks, people were quick to offer me a seat in their homes or businesses for a spot of tea or a cheek full of qaat.
One day I was walking down the street in Old City Sanaa when some guy on a motorcycle that’d been coming towards me from the opposite direction began to shout. Due to a story I’d read in the Chicago Tribune prior to visiting about motorbike gunmen shooting at diplomats near the US embassy in the Yemeni capital, for a split second I was certain the man was going to pull out an Uzi and open fire on me. But then I tuned in to the actual message that was being shouted at me and was quite embarrassed by my paranoia when I realized that the man had yelled, “Hello! Welcome to Yemen!”
Another guy I encountered in the bazaar near Bab al-Yemen who’d operated a candy stand had, upon me telling him where I was from, given me a massive bag full of every kind of sweet he sold and refused to take any money from me in return.
“It’s a gift for you,” he said. “Welcome to my country.”
And I watched him when he bagged it up. He didn’t even rub any of the candy on his balls or do anything else that’s subtly insulting. It really was a legitimate gift. He and so many other people that I encountered in Yemen had actually been that gracious of ambassadors to visitors of their homeland.
That said, one of the stranger things that I noticed in the conservative Arab nation had been how, even though homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Islam, it hadn’t been uncommon to see two grown men walking down the street holding hands – an act considered to be the warmest sign of solidarity and kinship between two bros. And in no place did it seem stranger than at a roadside military checkpoint outside a town called Jibbla.
As some of the servicemen went through my documents, making sure I had all the proper governmental permission to be passing through the area, two men – one of whom happened to be a uniformed officer carrying a firearm and the other, a guy in typical Yemeni civilian gear with a knife on his belt – casually strolled in front of our car hand-in-hand, looking to me like they were about to go skipping through a field of daisies together. Now, I don’t claim to have any sort of tactical knowledge of combat whatsoever, but seeing such a soft display at a checkpoint that’s been set up to crack down on terrorism, I couldn’t help but feel is detrimental to the goal that’s trying to be accomplished there.
One issue in the country that bothered me of which I feel the not-gay male-on-male touchiness is a direct derivative had been the culturally enforced division of the sexes. I was bothered that men and women can’t eat or hang out in the same room together. I was bothered how they’re not even allowed to shake one another’s hands. And I was actually more than bothered – kind of disgusted, actually – how the generally accepted idea of respecting a woman there meant never making eye contact with or speaking to one and pretty much pretending she doesn’t exist while in your presence. The women were always in the background, abiding merely as shadows of the men. Women there are, for all intents and purposes, second-class citizens.
When eating at the home of a local I’d met in al Hajarah, I and the rest of the men had sat around on big comfortable pillows, chatting it up while all the host’s female relatives kept to the kitchen – “where they belong” – cooking us food. And once they’d been done preparing the meal, they didn’t even get to enjoy it. I mean, perhaps they’d set aside some scraps for themselves, but everything else was served on platters for us people with the penises to gorge on. It was a delicious meal too. And I would’ve loved to have at the very least complimented the chef but I didn’t get the chance to do so because the women of the house didn’t have any business coming into the men’s hangout area, so I never even got to see the person who’d taken the time to put it all together.
A few days after that when I went out to dinner with my driver Khalid in a city called Taiz, we’d been sitting at a plastic table in front of a restaurant when a herd of cars had been drawn to a halt by the glare of a red light. As is usually the case when the flow of traffic on a street one is trying to cross has momentarily ceased, a woman had taken the opportunity to begin traversing the thoroughfare. Said woman had been in full observance of the Yemeni hijab tradition. She’d been wearing a black burkha that covered her from head to toe as well as the niqab that covered her face, leaving only her eyes exposed.
Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of arguments made by both sexes from different areas of the world for reasons why they think that hijab is either oppressive of or empowering to women. On the empowering side of the argument, some women say they feel liberated by the hijab. They feel they don’t have to look their best before leaving the house. They feel they have more opportunities in school and work when wearing the hijab because they’re doing what society – more specifically, the men in power – expects of them. They feel they are free from the burden of the male gaze and are no longer being objectified. And, in one of the rapiest stances on anything I’ve ever heard that is meant to free them from the culpability of their own actions, many men also agree that it’s good for women to cover up their faces and bodies as to not tempt them into doing things they know they shouldn’t but might be provoked to do if the woman were to in any way publicly show off the one vehicle her soul’s relegated to for the entirety of her earthly existence.
I personally feel that full-on hijab like that worn by most women in Yemen is totally oppressive. In places such as Iran, Turkey and Malaysia, Muslim women can get away with wearing only a headscarf over their hair while leaving their faces uncovered and wearing jeans or other conservatively form-showing but skin-covering attire out in public, thus retaining some sense of individuality. But when women are deemed unworthy of being who they are because they happened to have been born with breasts and a vagina in a place where those things are considered taboo, I believe that if you’re donning a cloak that reduces who you are in the eyes of others to just another faceless, nameless nobody, you’re playing along with the game. I believe you’re saying, “You’re right, I’m wrong for having been born with two ‘X’ chromosomes. Never mind anything about my personality, I’m just another one of ‘them.’ I don’t have feelings or rights so please, go ahead and continue to treat me like shit.”
In Taiz, in accordance with my theory, when the woman in hijab had been about halfway across the street, a man in a work van punched the gas and rammed her from the side. The grill of the vehicle struck her hip and sent her body flying out into the intersection. The bag of groceries she’d been carrying spilled all over the street. The driver’d hit the brakes as soon as he’d hit the woman and, from my point of view, sat at the wheel visibly and audibly laughing. And as much as I hate to say it because he was otherwise such a nice guy and a gracious host to me, my driver Khalid began laughing as well.
Three or four bystanders – men and women – rushed over to help the injured bird off the ground and over to the side of the road. These same people then cussed the driver out for his despicable act but he didn’t seem to care and drove away undaunted as soon as the light turned green. On one hand I’d gotten a slight sense of comfort knowing that misogyny hadn’t been the consensus among Yemenis and that those other people had been so quick to help out and condemn what’d happened, but on the other I got a sick feeling knowing that these attitudes are so deeply ingrained in conservative Arab culture that they won’t be going anywhere in the near future.
Back when my brother and I were little kids – each less than ten years old – my mom would accuse us of being male chauvinists. And I’ll tell you straight up, even though it’d made us feel bad about ourselves the way she’d intended it to, we had no idea what in the hell she was talking about. It seemed that whatever we did that she didn’t like – be it leaving the toilet seat up, breaking one of her knickknacks while playing catch in the living room or not putting our Legos away when we were done building with ‘em – was attributed to our being male chauvinists.
“You men with your penises,” she’d always say in disgust, “you think that just because you got little things hangin’ between your legs and you can stand up when you take a piss that you can do whatever you want! Not in my house you can’t!”
And we’d always be like, “What are you talking about? What does my having a penis have to do with being too lazy to put my laundry away? You’re nuts. Leave us alone. We’re trying to play Mortal Kombat.”
“You two make me sick!” she’d shout and then bite her fist in anger. “You’re just like your father – bunch of male chauvinist pigs!”
Admittedly, my brother and I can be quite disgusting individuals that talk about things that might be construed by some as chauvinistic. In fact, during a family dinner not too long ago, our conversation had gotten so out of hand that it brought my mom to tears. Just before the exchange had taken a turn for the worse, my brother had been regaling us with a tale about the time he and a few of his classmates had been invited to the house of one of his engineering professors for dinner down at U of I.
“Yo, wait,” I interrupted him, “while you were at his house, did you drop an upper-decker in his toilet?”
“No, I probably should’ve though,” he laughed. “That’s so funny, because he’d definitely know it was one of us. And then he’d wanna try and figure out which one of us it was but probably would be too embarrassed to ever broach the subject.”
“Hey mom,” I asked, “do you know what an upper-decker is?”
“Yeah mom,” my brother echoed, “do you know what an upper-decker is?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she said. “You guys are always talking about upper-deckers. It’s when you shit in the top tank of the toilet and the shit sits in there and disintegrates and comes out into the bowl like diarrhea each time the toilet gets flushed. Yeah, I get it. It would’ve been funny to do that at your professor’s house. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
She’s usually a good sport about these sorts of things but wasn’t in the mood on that particular evening. It’s weird, you never really know what to expect from her. I mean, we’re talkin’ about a woman that I’d been getting shitfaced with on our front porch when I was eighteen who encouraged me to scrape a dead flattened squirrel off the street to put under the windshield wiper of a neighbor she didn’t much care for. And I did it. And we high-fived and laughed about it over another cup of iced down pinot grigio. Sometimes she’s tough as nails and other times her patience is made of glass. Sometimes she’s cool with her offspring suggesting that the guys at Dunkin’ Donuts shape their signature treats by jamming their dicks through the middle of ‘em and other times she’ll break down over some small shit like the time a way younger version of my brother had underhandedly expressed his disapproval for our dinner by saying instead of “Sloppy Joe’s,” they should call ‘em “Stupid Joe’s.”
“Maybe you should’ve masturbated while you were upper-decking his toilet and jizzed on your shit,” I suggested.
“Or maybe if I was a girl,” my partner-in-crime retorted, “I would’ve upper-decked my period.”
“Hey mom,” I asked, “how come chicks never upper-deck their periods?”
“Know what’s weird?” my bro put the nail in the coffin. “Vampires are probably the only ones who actually enjoy eating chicks out while on their periods.”
“You guys are so fuckin’ disgusting,” my mother went to tears. “I worked hard making this dinner for everybody and this is what we hafta talk about when we’re eating it?” she sobbed. “You guys are pigs – total fucking pigs.”
I felt kinda bad but not really because it was one of the funniest conversations I’d ever had. Besides, even though the discussion involved jokes about periods which is traditionally regarded as something chauvinistic, it had nothing to do with feelings of male supremacy. Everything said was said in the name of being as disgusting as possible to elicit laughs and nothing else.
Likewise, none of the stuff that we did when we were kids that pissed my mom off had anything to do with us being male and her being female. Contrary to what she’d said, none of the times we disobeyed her had been because of “the little penises that we had dangling between our legs.” It’d been because we were kids who just wanted to play and didn’t give a shit about rules and cleaning up or any of that whack-ass bull-jive.
And, ya know, it took me a long time to figure that out – to realize that all the weird-ass, neurosis-inducing shit my mom used to say to us when she’d get mad or wanted us to do one thing instead of the other was nothing more than good old-fashioned manipulation. Some of her best work from back in the day is as follows.
“And you, with your big fat bowling ball head,” she’d shout at my brother if he refused to carry out one of her orders, “I squeezed you outta my crotch. I used to be a mail carrier, y’know. I used to have the nicest legs and the best ass in town from walking all day, every day. But then you came along. Do you know what it’s like to push a watermelon out a hole the size of a quarter? Of course you don’t – because you’re a man. You ruined my ass with your bowling ball head! And you can’t even do one simple thing that I’ve asked of you!”
“No you can’t go sleep over at so-and-so’s house,” she’d always say to me when I’d pop the question. “You know why? Because kids your age that wanna go to sleepovers are either gay or up to no good. You’re not gay, are ya Tim?”
“No,” being gay in my neighborhood when I was growing up was almost as stigmatizing as being a serial rapist, “of course not.”
“Okay, then you’re up to no good. You’re not goin’ to the sleepover.”
So, that said, I’d like to close my case by arguing that even though I think it’s hilarious to talk about chicks upper-decking their periods and things of the like, I am not a male chauvinist and never have been. And although she’d said otherwise many a time to make us do something or feel bad for acting in a way she didn’t like, I know that my mom understands neither of her two sons are so chauvinistic that we’d ever act like that guy in Yemen and think it’s a good idea to run a woman down in an automobile…that is, of course, unless some dumb fuckin’ cunt is on the rag and tries tellin’ me she’s feeling too cramped up to get on her knees and suck my dick when she knows damn well she owes me sex. But still, even in that case, it’s definitely justifiable and not at all chauvinistic.