I recently read a pretty disheartening blog post from someone who had been travelling through Egypt, describing how terrible the experience had been for him and his female friend. He complained of the sexual harassment she encountered and the persistent nagging from tourist vendors he had to deal with, and wrote Egypt off as an experience to avoid. Sadly, this seems to be the sort of press Egypt is getting these days. Between irked travel bloggers and sensationalist media reporters, it’s been awhile since something positive was said about this place. Now the thing is, I know that for every bad review Egypt gets, there would be two good reviews if people actually wrote them. But a page full of positivity gets a lot less hits in the blogsphere and it’s the negative things that stand out to us the most anyway.
But I’ve decided it was high time someone made a case for Egypt, so here I go. (This blog never really got too many hits anyway).
A case for the safety of Egypt:
The question I get the most in regards to Egypt (and the question I asked many people myself prior to my semester here) is, “Is it safe?” And it’s a fair question. The only time Egypt is mentioned in American media is when a protester lights a car on fire, or a tourist gets kidnapped, or a girl gets raped in Tahrir. As a young woman looking to study abroad here last semester, my family and I definitely thought we had cause for concern for my safety as we followed the headlines from Minnesota. But the fact of the matter is Cairo is really no more unsafe than Los Angeles or Chicago in my opinion.
The thing to remember about Cairo is that it is massive. And I mean massive. Words can’t describe the endless sea of buildings that spreads out in front of you in every direction as you descend on Cairo from an airplane. With over 20 million inhabitants, it’s hard to fathom the scope of this metropolis. And the thing about a city so big is that it’s easy to stay out of trouble. Everyone in Cairo is very well connected through phones and social media, so I can always know what’s going on in every part of the city– and if they’re firing teargas in one corner of it, I just won’t go there (err… usually, that is). It’s very comparable to living in LA or Chicago where there are sections of the city that are know for a lot of gang violence. You find out where the trouble is and you avoid it. And the few times I have placed myself in harm’s way either for my job (see “When the fight becomes the cause”) or out of my own foolishness (see “How I went sightseeing and ended up in the ER”), there have been Egyptians at my side looking out for me and seeing that I was well cared for.
So if you’ve wanted to come to Egypt but are concerned about safety, this I say to you: get someone to help you learn how to cross the street here, because by my estimation, the crazy microbus drivers pose the biggest threat to your security and well-being (seriously though… the fact that I still have all my toes attached is a minor miracle). As for crazy rioters? Just avoid them; unless you’re a member of the presidential cabinet, their beef isn’t with you.
A case for the wonder of Egypt:
I should hope that not much would need to be said in this regard. The awesome ancient wonders that give Egypt its claim to fame are every bit as incredible as they’re described. The pyramids and sphinx here in Cairo, the awe-inspiring tombs and temples of Upper Egypt, the jagged mountains of Sinai, the Red Sea with its thousands of fish of every color and shape… With each new wonder, my admiration for this country and its incredible history has grown. I was blown away by the art and architecture that came out of the renaissance in Europe– so I leave you to imagine what it’s been like for me to visit the birthplace of civilization itself.
As a person of faith, Egypt also has had a lot to offer me. I’ve gotten to visit the world’s first monastery and a number of fascinating first and second century churches, as well as some beautiful mosques. As a lover of nature, the Nile river in Upper Egypt and the Red Sea in Sinai have captured my heart. Three of the five best diving spots in the world are in Sinai and snorkeling there was like sticking my head in a Monet painting and watching the swirls of color come to life: magical. Likewise, there is something strangely majestic about the vast deserts, and though I wasn’t able to make it out there myself, I’m told the Black and White desert is natural wonder. I also won’t soon forget the stars the night I climbed Mt. Sinai. There were more than I have ever seen in my life, with massive shooting stars streaking across the sky every few minutes it seemed. For much of Egypt, there has been only one word I could use to describe it: Awesome.
A case for the chivalry of Egypt:
I can’t deny the problem of sexual harassment here in Egypt. It’s bad. As a young woman, there is pretty much a 100% chance you’ll encounter it and it probably won’t be pleasant. It certainly hasn’t been for me. Men here can be real jerks. But I have also found that chivalry is more alive here than almost anywhere else in the world. Yes, you read that right. Though I’ve had idiots grope me, whistle at me and otherwise harass me, I’ve also had true gentlemen rise up to defend me, go miles out of their way to see me safely home, lend me their jackets and insist on paying for my meal– some, men I don’t know at all or know only through a mutual acquaintance. And all of the young Egyptian men I’ve come to know personally have treated me and my friends with a level of respect, dignity and gallantry I have rarely experienced from my male friends anywhere else. Femininity is a valued and cherished entity that Egyptian culture is fighting to protect, and any well-bred man I’ve encountered is willing to put himself in harm’s way to uphold the honor of the women in his life.
The problem of sexual harassment is real in Egypt– just like it’s real in so many other parts of the world I’ve visited and lived in. But unlike almost anywhere else, Egypt’s civil society is taking incredible initiative to counteract the problem (see “Egypt’s New Revolution“). It’s not something that we can realistically expect to see change anytime soon– but boy, the Egyptians sure are putting in the good fight!
A case for the tourist vendors of Egypt:
“Welcome to Egypt!” “For you, I give you Egyptian price!” “Special day today, everything half off!”
It’s impossible to frequent any site that is remotely touristy without having to put up with the obnoxious tourist vendors. There will pretty much always be someone cajoling you to check out their wares or coming up with some sort of reason why you must tip them a few pounds (taking a picture of someone’s camel for instance, is a common and costly mistake). It can be downright aggravating to have your monumental visit to history be accompanied by a soundtrack of cheesy sales pitches (my personal favorite: “I don’t know what you want, but I have what you need!”). And when you do decide to purchase something, trying to sort out a fair price can be pretty frustrating for most visitors as well.
But the thing about these obnoxious tourist vendors is that their lives and those of their families depend on tourism, an industry that has plummeted since the revolution. I had many interesting conversations with tourist vendors on my visit to Upper Egypt over spring break. They didn’t go to Tahrir in January 2011; political games mean nothing to them. They just kept asking me, exasperated, “Why does no one come to Egypt anymore?” The hard fact is that these men must sell someone a ride in their horse carriage or a fake papyrus or their families will not eat that night. And with little understanding of some of the major cultural differences between Egypt and the West, they come off far more obnoxious than they intend.
It can be so easy to forget the humanity of these vendors when they and their camel are right up in your face, but the fact of the matter is, they’re people too. I don’t imagine they enjoy being ignored and blown off by every white person who comes traipsing across their monuments anymore than we enjoy being followed and heckled. Contrary to what your guidebook will tell you, throughout my time here, I’ve seen the value in stopping to say a “salam aleikum” to a vendor or two, and asking how they’re doing before firmly telling him I’m not interested in buying anything today. The simple gesture brings so much gratitude to their faces– and occasionally even results in a nice cup of tea.
Egypt isn’t glamorous. It’s a densely populated, gritty, chaotic place. The cars don’t stay in their lanes and the appointments don’t start on time. The prices on most items aren’t listed and toilet paper in a bathroom is a rare find. It’s nothing like the West. But that is precisely what I love most about it.