Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Egypt: A public service announcement for Americans

Some of my more conservative friends and family at home were concerned about me traveling by myself in an Arab country. And more than one Egyptian that I met asked me if I thought all Egyptians were terrorists. After the experience I had in Egypt, I thought it was my duty to spread the word.

So what was my experience? I am not exaggerating at all when I say that Egypt has some of the warmest, friendliest, most generous, selfless, and nicest people I've ever met. At every turn, people went above and beyond the call of duty for me and I'm not just talking about people who were friends of friends; I'm also talking about complete strangers (and, let's face it, even the friends of friends were strangers to me who didn't have to help me).Salama picked me up at the airport. Tatio let me stay a night at his house and Amiri's sister, Dina, let me stay three nights. Gaafar took me to the bazaar and introduced me to a lot of traditional foods. A random stranger saw my confusion as I got off the microbus and walked me (out of his way, mind you) to Lebanon Square where I needed to go to catch a cab. Lots of people invited me to tea. Remember when I mentioned my trick for crossing busy Cairo streets? Half the time I didn't even have to pull that trick because people would see that I was a foreigner and they would guide me across the street with them. Peet told me that if the cab didn't come the morning I was scheduled to leave for Sharm, to call him and he'd take me to the airport. Moussa left a bar where his favorite local band was getting ready to play to drive me home, even though I said I could just take a cab.One thing I found interesting is that Egyptians have a really high sense of fairness and justice. More than one person told me that if someone tries to grab your bag and run off, just yell the Arabic word for thief (haramy) and an entire crowd will go after that person, detain them, and get your bag back for you. They just feel that people work hard and it's not fair or right for someone else to profit from that work. Make sense? I'm probably not doing a good job of explaining it. Just know that this is part of the Egyptian psyche.

I also mentioned before that there were two things that happened on my last day that I needed to expound upon. First thing: On the plane to Cairo from Sharm I was talking to my seatmate, Tarek, about work and travels and such, and I said that I hadn't yet arranged for my transportation from Cairo to Alex even though I needed to be there that same day. Tarek said that once we landed, he'd have his driver drop us off at Starbucks for coffee and then send him to the train station to check the schedule and buy my ticket for me. There was a lot of traffic, more than usual, in Cairo that day because of the soccer match that was being played. (Have you seen my video of the aftermath?) Tarek couldn't wait with me for the driver to get back, so he said goodbye and was off. The driver eventually arrived and took me to the station. I asked him how much the cab ride was and, in very broken English, he told me that Tarek had taken care of it. Are you sure? Yes, he was sure. Then I tried to pay him for my train ticket (50 Egyptian pounds) and he indicated that had been paid for, too. I thought maybe he didn't understand so I showed the ticket to him. But no, Tarek had paid for that, as well. The driver wouldn't even allow me to give him a tip because all of it was to be taken care of, I suppose.

Second thing: Islam was the friend of a friend who was to pick me up from the train station in Alexandria. He didn't find out until 9am on Saturday that I was arriving at 8:30pm that night, yet he was there waiting for me (for an extra half-hour, even, as the train was late). We only had a few hours til I had to be at the airport for my flight, so we drove around Alex for a whirlwind tour. Islam showed me all kinds of things and made it better with his narration and stories. We went out for dinner (I was told I HAD to eat seafood while in Alex) and whole fish, calamari, and various salads were ordered. The bill came and Islam refused to let me pay, even though he didn't even eat since he's on a diet. ("Don't you know that women don't pay in Egypt?" "Well, I was starting to get that impression, yes, but you didn't even eat anything!" "It doesn't matter. I'm paying.") We got to the airport and by this time it was about 1am. Islam waited with me and we chatted some more because he didn't want me to be alone for too long waiting for the plane.

These are just two examples of scenarios where people went above and beyond for me, expecting absolutely nothing in return. So the public service announcement that is the point of this whole post: if you are a person who has stereotypes in mind of what Egyptians specifically, or Arabs in general, are all about - rethink them. The hospitality and kindness I experienced was at a level I'd never experienced before. To all of my new Egyptian friends: thank you from the bottom of my heart for an amazing time. I hope to meet each of you again in the future.


  1. Wow! That's amazing! So are you going to tell us who each of the people in the pictures are? You named a lot of names but don't have faces to go with them....

  2. Awesome. It's so nice to prove a stereotype or two wrong, isn't it?

  3. Amy - In the first picture is me, Marie, and Essam; the second is Peet and me; the third is Salama, Amiri, and Tatio. And there's a lot of ppl that I wasn't able to get pics of.

    ToadMama - Yes, it sure is. I wanna keep doing it!

  4. Shan that is great that there are so many people going out of there way for you!!. I'm really glad to here also, that they are also
    watching and taking care of you.

  5. p.s. I'm glad the people are great, but Ken
    said, watch out for those camel if you come
    across anymore because they are not as nice as the people. The camel like to spit on people,and if they do you will get soaked!!