Every year, 11 million people visit Egypt. Some stay for a few days as tourists, others stay longer, working for international companies or as students. Most enjoy their stay in Cairo, but there are certain challenges, often exacerbated by cultural misunderstandings, that foreigners often complain about.
Daily News Egypt spoke with several American and European veterans of Cairo and compiled a guideline for foreigners to make their stay in Egypt as pleasant as possible. 1. Accept that Egypt is differentVisitors often become frustrated with aspects of Egyptian society that they are unfamiliar with. Why are Egyptians so conservative? Why can’t I dress like I do at home? Why is the service here so slow? Why is Cairo so noisy?
Embrace the differences and turn these alleged negatives on their side. Sure, on one hand, crowds and noise can be annoying, but if viewed from an optimistic perspective, they can be seen as something exciting. Cairo is certainly livelier than cities like New York or Washington. Even if sometimes services in Cairo do not run as smoothly, there are other aspects that are indisputably superior. For example, Cairo is almost completely devoid of street crime. One can walk anywhere, at any time, without having to worry about personal safety. This is not the case in most Western capitals.
How enjoyable one’s stay in Egypt is depends on the extent to which a visitor accepts that they are in a different culture with different societal norms. Egypt will not change for you. You must change for Egypt. If you cannot or are not willing to, Cairo is probably not the place to visit.
2. When in Egypt, dress like the EgyptiansOne way to avoid hassles is to blend into the society. Dress like you belong. In America, it is normal to wear shorts and a t-shirt and dress like you just fell out of bed. It might even be considered as a sign of creativity. But in Egypt, appearances are more important. You will be treated and judged according to how you dress. By wearing shorts and a t-shirt, you will be treated as a tourist and probably charged higher prices.
For women, unfortunately, there is a problem of sexual harassment. Because of the stereotypes of foreign women in Arabic movies, as well as the raunchy content of Hollywood films, many Egyptian men have the idea that Western women are “loose. Therefore, it is best to dress modestly, perhaps more than what you are used to wearing in US or Europe.
3. Learn the little thingsEgypt can seem overwhelmingly disorganized to a first-time visitor, especially one who is not familiar with Arabic. With a little effort, you can quickly learn enough to get by in most situations. Try and learn practical phrases that are useful in getting around. It’s surprisingly easy to learn how to ask for a product in a store or direct a taxi driver across town.
4. Bargain, bargain, bargainBargaining is more common in Egypt than in the US or Europe. When foreigners come to Cairo, they are often cited abnormally high prices. Don’t take it personally. Treat it as a game. In fact, the salesman is probably expecting you to play along. He might even find it weird if you accept his first offer. Bargaining can be fun and with a little practice, you can learn the tricks of the trade.
5. Taxi drivers are not the enemyAlmost every foreigner, and even many Egyptians, have negative taxi stories. The infamous Cairene taxi driver is probably the greatest target of visitors’ wrath. But this does not have to be the case. Most taxi-related hassles are caused by the foreign passenger’s ignorance of the rules. Master the system and you will have no trouble. In fact, riding cabs can be a very pleasant and enlightening experience.
The biggest mistake visitors make is to try and bargain before they get in the cab, thinking it is best to agree on a price beforehand and avoid an argument at the end. This is the advice that guidebooks offer. But this is not how the system works. By discussing the price at all, the passenger is telling the driver they do not know the system, which may tempt him to ask for a higher price.
A lack of working meters does not mean there is no system. In fact, it is organized and efficient, although unwritten. There are clear rates for how much a ride between different neighborhoods will cost, with slight variations based on level of traffic, time of day, and number of passengers. Ask around and you can quickly learn them. Simply tell the driver where you want to go and pay him the fare when you get out. In most cases, there should be no conversation whatsoever about price.
The image of the taxi driver being “out to get passengers is incorrect. Perhaps a bit of empathy is in order. Drivers sit in traffic, in non-air conditioned cars, for up to 12 hours a day, often earning just enough to make ends meet. They are usually thrilled to meet foreigners, especially those who can communicate in Arabic. Talk about the things that interest them – usually football, Egyptian films, or American action films – and they will treat you like an old friend. After these friendly conversations, some drivers refuse to take money, however, you should insist on paying. This is a side of the Cairene taxi driver that rarely makes the guidebooks.
6. Americans are not the enemyMany Americans believe that the streets of the Middle East are filled with rage at all things American and that it is not safe to visit the region. Maybe in some places that holds true,. Iraq would be one of them. But in Egypt, nothing could be further from the truth.
Most Egyptians dislike US foreign policy. But, in general, most make a distinction between average citizens and the US government. If you have strong pro-George W. Bush feelings, its best to keep them to yourself, but there is almost no conceivable situation where an American visiting Egypt will be treated negatively simply because they are an American. Happy traveling!