The Egyptian Experience
Last week marked two months since I returned from my first of hopefully many trips to Africa. I was fortunate enough to go with two friends to Cairo, Egypt for a few days. If I am being honest, 89% of my reasoning for going was because I just wanted to see me some pyramids dangit. Also: I have experienced an early onset of “cat lady” syndrome, and what better place to worship some cats? Ultimately, my decision to visit was made with my heart more than my brain, as most of my decisions usually are (that is both a blessing and curse. More to come on that in later blog posts). I visited during the period when the Canadian and British embassies shut down in Cairo due to potential threats of terroristic nature aimed at high ranking western officials. While this information made my parents a bit nervous, to say the least, this actually made it the perfect time to visit.
Before I even got off the plane, I began to discover there was so much more to this ancient culture than cats and pyramids. An Egyptian man sitting next to me during the flight struck up a conversation, thanked me for visiting his country, and carried not only my bags, but the bags of my friends off the plane as well. First impression: Egyptian generosity game is, as the kids say these days, hecka strong. My sense of this hospitality was furthered throughout my journey.
Being a woman with even the slightest bit of common sense, normally when strange men follow me and try to lead me places, I do not go along with them, as they tend to not have the best of intentions. Yet at one point during our trip, my friends and I were lost in the labyrinth that is the market in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili. At least, we thought we were in Khan el-Khalili. We ended up getting completely lost in a different market, a market where we received more stares in an hour than we have probably received in our entire lives combined. Being that we were some of the few tourists there at the time, and we were quite scandalous with our long hair exposed rather than hidden by a veil, this was understandable.
Thankfully, a total stranger approached us and showed us to the right side where we wanted to be, all the while welcoming us to his country and thanking us for visiting. I have to say, I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, and while it is nice and all, I have never once been thanked for visiting a country. In fact, sometimes it was the opposite. “Ha-ha, what a dumb American, with your fanny pack and no knowledge of the exchange rate.” (Seriously though, I did make my grandma proud and picked me up a rather lovely fanny pack at a hippie commune in Denmark. I even made out 8 times while wearing it with a pretty attractive fellow too, so save your snide remarks people).
Anyways, at one point a fight broke out in an alley of the market, and the man who was guiding us pushed through the throng of fighting men while saying “Excuse me, brothers. My sisters are coming through.” Our guide even made sure we found our cab driver in the chaos of Cairo highways and waved us goodbye. A perfect stranger did this all expecting nothing in return, not a single Egyptian pound. He was simply being nice, a concept I realized was not foreign at all in this foreign country.
Every shop and restaurant we went into gave us complimentary tea, and our cab driver stopped in the middle of the highway once just to buy us each an ice tea and water. He also gave us each three cigarettes and let us smoke them in the back of his cab. He drove us to our boat ride on the Nile, where the boater let us each drive, and when we got off, perfect strangers again welcomed us to their country and offered us traditional Egyptian food. When we toured inside the pyramids where photographs were forbidden, an Egyptian man made us lie down in the tomb of a pharaoh so he could take a picture of us. When were riding camels, we mentioned we wanted to gallop like the men on horses were doing, so our guide let us have the reins and gallop. This guide also continuously called me ” my queen”, which half weirded me out and half flattered me. Everyone was very accommodating overall, and it was quite a shock getting back to JFK and not being bowed down to as a queen.
However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the aspect of the trip that I was none too fond of. That is the fact that women and men and children of all ages were constantly staring at me like I was a pharaoh come back to life. Obviously as a white woman in America, I have never really experienced anything like that before, and in no way do I mean to disrespectfully compare my temporary trip to something that many people have experienced their entire lives. Yet this really gave me perspective on how other races must feel to a certain extent. I literally had to do a hand wave away and the whole ” no pictures please” line, which I will admit to enjoying a tad bit. At the same time though, it did make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I personally would never dream of photographing a Muslim person just because they are different from me, but I guess that is because I grew up in a much different environment.
However, I do recognize that most people taking pictures of me were doing it out of pure fascination, and I am enormously grateful to have experienced this because it really opened my eyes more to how different cultures interact with one another as opposed to how they could interact in a way that is more respecting to all sides. And while nothing can compare to my Sphinx statue souvenir, the perspective I gained will certainly stay with me forever.