I can’t say we weren’t forewarned by other travelers who’d gone before us, but Egypt is, in a word, intense. It is the single place on our journey I have no desire to return to, and with my thirst for adventure, that’s saying a lot.
They say first impressions are often the truest. Nowhere did this ring more true than in Egypt. On our first day in Cairo I arrived curious, excited and intrigued. I went to bed angry, bitter and distressed. All we needed was one day in the sprawling metropolis of Cairo to realize Egypt was not for us.
Landing in one of the world’s oldest cities we found ourselves standing for the first time on African soil yet entrenched in the Arabic culture of the Middle East. I could hardly believe we were here, that our journey had brought us all this way from Argentina to Egypt.
From our first steps on the streets of Cairo, I could tell we’d left Asia behind. Sandstone minarets, domed-mosques and satellite dishes dominated the hazy skyline. We passed restaurants touting shawarma and koshari while the smell of mint tea, apple sheesha and exhaust fumes enveloped the air. We passed bakeries selling salty pretzels and cookies and eyed pastry-filled windows with puddings and cakes dripping in honey syrup.
Traffic-choked street corners were lined with tea vendors dressed in what looked like knee-high, rubber rain boots. They clung to massive silver urns slung around their shoulders while doling out cups of sweetness for pennies. And then there was the army of young boys winding through the labyrinth of tight alleyways balancing enormous, wooden break baskets on their heads while carpet sellers sunk their teeth into the morning stream of tourists passing by their storefronts. Yes, this was Cairo.
What was most noteworthy was our first introduction to the Muslim world. We’d visited Muslim Quarters in a handful of cities in Asia, however, here we experienced Islam in full-throttle. The entire city of 20 million seems to beat to an Islamic drum, and the myriad of cultural differences stemming from this were innumerable.
First there was the dress. For Egyptian women revealing skin is taboo. Here women still dress in the traditional, black burqua covering, in many cases, every square inch of their bodies, often with only slits of their eyes revealed. Even at meal time women don’t remove the black cloth covering their faces, and witnessing them spoon food behind the black drape was fascinating.
While Western clothing has become a part of the Egyptian male identity, many still dress in traditional garb. They wear long, flowy robes that reach down to their ankles. In most cases they are white but always a mute tone. Some men even wear a kind of headdress with their robe, usually red and white checkered and stretching from their forehead to the back of their neck.
What I found most fascinating was seeing the two worlds collide. While the culture remains predominantly conservative, you can see some people are pushing the limits. Many women simply wear head scarves with Western clothes on bottom. What really caught my attention was seeing a woman wearing a full, black burqua yet rocking a pair of fire engine red, four-inch heels, peeping out the bottom. So fierce, in fact, even Tim Gun would be proud.
Islam takes center stage in Cairo and all over Egypt. Five times a day, Muslims are required to bow down in prayer. Whether walking the streets or tending their shop, they stop everything they’re doing to lay down their mat and face Mecca. From the guy working the reception desk at our hotel to the tea vendor working the corner, they bowed their heads, prostrated their bodies to Allah.
The distinctive adhan, or call to prayer, was the soundtrack of our time in Cairo. Each day, yes five times a day, the melodic sound boomed across the sprawling city calling the faithful to prayer. The wildly chaotic cacophony of voices resounded through the city over loud speakers attached to the sides of minarets and mosques. Witnessing a tradition perhaps as old as Islam itself in one of the world’s ancient cities, was pretty surreal (except maybe when it woke us up each morning at sunrise!).
Reflecting on the extreme cultural difference and sensory overload we were experiencing in our first steps in Cairo, we set out to explore the Old City, known as Islamic Cairo. Our first stop was the main bazaar known Khan al-Khalili, or simply known as The Khan. Amidst the hustle and bustle of one of the Middle East’s most famous bazaars, we wound down the tight alleyways lined with vendors hawking all sorts of metallic treasures. There were brass lamps, copper pots and silver antiques sold along side spice stands and perfumes sold out of delicate, glass bottles. This was Egypt at its most intoxicating.
Late afternoon brought us to al-Azhar Park, an expansive green space perched high above the city. The park offered a peaceful, green respite from the chaos and congestion of Cairo and turned out to be a spectacular place to watch sunset. With a 360 degree view over the city we watched the sun drop behind towering minarets and as the sky turned orange we could hear the call to prayer reverberating in the distance.
What could have been a captivating experience soaking up the sights and sounds of one of the world’s ancient cities turned sour quickly. More than anywhere else on our travels, we were treated as walking dollar signs, and Egyptians go to extremes to get into your pockets. Wherever we went, we couldn’t walk more than five steps without being hounded, hassled and downright harassed. What started out as a mild annoyance soon turned aggressive. Hellos and where are you from became handshakes and violent tugs physically pulling you into a storefronts. Making eye contact with a stranger turned into being followed and hunted down for five blocks.
Most alarming was experiencing first-hand being a woman in the Arabic world. You are property and truly a second-class citizen. Every conversation was directed to Ryan, even if I was the one asking the question. It was almost as if I didn’t exist. But when it came to stares, they were all over me. Unlike India where the staring seemed to stem from a genuine curiosity, here it felt more like an attack. Bare skin, and I’m talking even just from the elbow down to the wrist, was eye candy for every man in town. Trying to cover my body in the 110 degree heat was exhausting and didn’t seem to curb any attention coming my way anyway.
On a visit to a local teahouse known as an awa, I realized I was losing the battle. Briefly stepping behind a tall bar and out of Ryan’s sight, I found myself being physically attacked. Our waiter held me tightly behind the bar out of Ryan’s view as he fondled me and ran his hands all over my body.
Needless to say I was quite shaken up and equally enraged. It certainly wasn’t the best introduction to Egypt or the Arab world.
I know what you are thinking. How can you generalize an entire country after a few isolated experiences? It’s just that we continued to experience the aggression and hostility of the people throughout our week-long stay in Egypt. This was just the beginning…
A week in Egypt would change me. It would take away that innocent, possibly naïve, outlook I suppose I bring to the table. I’d start questioning my innate trust in others and my desire to befriend total strangers. I learned that here, especially in the Arab world friendliness can be read the wrong way, and that it was time I toughened up. One thing was sure, Egypt was going to leave me hardened.