(Aqabat (obstacles) in the White Desert)
“Welcome to Egypt”
You hear that often here.
Such a simple phrase- but it’s often delivered in two sharply different contexts.
In the majority of cases it is genuine. Verbally flung your direction, in a good natured way, by random Egyptians on the street or locals you get to know.
Other times it’s much less authentic, particularly in popular tourist spots and in Downtown Cairo. Here there is often an ulterior motive. (This is different than the verbal harassment that western and Egyptian women often experience in Cairo)If this is said to you by someone walking by in Downtown Cairo, and if you react at all, it will be quickly followed by “Where are you from?”
If you say “Ireland” for instance- the “friendly guy” (it’s always a man), will say something like “Oh do you know Galway?” “Or do you know Cork?”.
They will rarely say our capital Dublin.
This goes for all European countries- it seems that the capital city is ignored and it is always the second or third city that is mentioned. It increases the authenticity of the hustle.
Then he will say “I have a brother in Cork” or “I have an uncle in Liverpool” or "my long lost pet goldfish lives in a lake in Lyon” or whatever.
Yep you guessed it- he doesn’t have a brother, uncle or goldfish in any of these locations.
All of this verbal play is about getting you off the street and into his shop, or for you to buy something of him, or maybe simply just to give him money.
These hustlers are harmless really. They can be annoying of course, but once you get used to it, it’s OK. Part of me admires the amount of research they put into their “craft”.
The other day walking down Talat Harb (the main street in Cairo), with my Danish friend- a guy suddenly shouted at us.
“Where are you both from?”
Despite everything I know, I answered for myself.
“I’m from Ireland.”
“Ireland. Wonderful,” he quickly replied- obviously delighted to receive to answer.
And then in a sort of half Egyptian half Dublin accent, he roars
“How’s the craic?”
For the uninitiated this is an Irish slang phrase (Irish Aameya if you will), basically asking how are you?
I was impressed that he had researched this phrase. But having lived here six months now, I would not be broken from my stride- so I stared ahead and kept on walking.
(I must note that Katrine who was walking with me- insisted that he had said “Do you want to buy some crack?”- but I really believe that something was lost in the Arabic-Irish-Danish translation...)
But such constant hassle can ruin an Egyptian experience for an average holiday maker- and there is a lot of hassle here in the tourist spots. It is conceivable that someone could leave Egypt after a two week holiday, and think that the place is intense and noisy and that all Egyptians are trying to hustle something (by something I mean money) out of you.
An extreme case of this was when I arrived in Cairo first and got talking to an English businessman I met in a hotel bar.
Generally moaning about the difficulty of doing business in Egypt (the veracity of which I do not doubt), he asked me had I visited the tourist sites. I said I would be going soon.
“They are great. The Pyramids are just wonderful,” he smiled for the first time in our conversation.
Then he looked at me and sort of with a mild snarl said “Even the Egyptians cannot ruin the Pyramids- but they try with all the hassle you get down there”.
But this is tragic, cause this is a country with so much to offer- and where “welcome to Egypt” is most often as authentic as it comes.
For instance - I have lived here almost six months- and apart from a couple of protests- I‘ve not been made uncomfortable about my “westerner” status. (Although it must be said that if anybody had dared say anything to me about Western Imperialism, I would have played my old “But I’m from Ireland- one of the oldest colonies in the world" card...). Maybe an Egyptian could spend nearly six months in Dublin, or in other western European cities and never encounter hostility to their nationality or race. I would certainly hope so- but I would not be certain.
Also this country has simply outstanding places to visit.
I took a trip to the White and Black Desert last weekend with friends. It was spectacular, sleeping under the stars and looking at the breathtaking rock formations that litter the lunar type landscape. The Aqabat (meaning obstacles) area was incredible and I must admit unknown to me before I walked over a hill and looked down upon a valley full of large, otherworldly narrow rocks, one after another.
Our guides, one Christian one Bedouin Muslim, were friendly- they cooked for us as well.
The evening ended with Bedouin songs around a camp fire.
It was nice to escape the crowded streets of Cairo for a weekend. I got lost in a sort of pleasant contemplation of the natural sublime, something I had not felt since I walked the Camino de Santiago last year.
I also sipped whiskey under a blanket of stars- never a bad thing.
The trip was relatively cheap and there was none of the usual feeling of hassle that surrounds some tourist occasions here. Tourism has taken a massive hit here since the revolution, but that does mean prices are cheaper for potential visitors.
The “welcome to Egypt” felt entirely genuine- and this is why despite everything, people should still come, look at the country through sympathetic eyes and enjoy a genuine welcome.
(Here are some Bedouin songs by a campfire in the desert)