Arriving in Egypt is like entering a bazaar. Your senses are invaded with its color, its noise, its smells, its animation. Movement is eager, heaving seemingly chaotic. Everything is thrust at you.
Well, Egypt is something of a bazaar, and it is up to you how much you want to respond to what is on offer. At first, you may feel overwhelmed and uncertain, but you are free to browse. Nobody will mind if you take your time in getting the measure of the place.
The language of Egypt is Arabic. It is written from right to left, using an alphabet of 29 letters. There is no completely satisfactory system for conveying the sound of Arabic letters in Western languages. Nor is there agreement on the transliteration of Egyptian place-names. Therefore Faiyum might appear as Fayyum or Fayoum, Saqqara as Sakkara, Dendera as Dendarah and so on. This can present an even bigger problem when it is the initial letters that vary, for example, Edfu instead of Idfu, or Qena instead of Kena. So do not rely entirely on spelling; instead, try to think phonetically when looking for places on maps, signs, and guides.
The word baksheesh literally means ‘share the wealth’. It is payable for all services, however small, and, as often as not, is expected for nothing at all. Alms-giving is a central tenet of Islam, and few Egyptians will balk at accepting their share. You have it, they don’t, and so they feel you should pass it around.
Baksheesh is the tip you might give to the man who has carried your luggage. It is also the reward placed deftly in the outstretched hand of the guardian who lets you into a tomb after closing time or given to the railway carriage attendant who discovers there is a sleeping compartment free after all.
There may be times when you wish to give something out of charity – that, too, is baksheesh. But baksheesh can be a plague. Children may pester you for it in the streets, or you may have paid but are pressed for more. The basic rule is to offer baksheesh only in return for a service, not to pay until the service has been performed, and to resist firmly any intimidation.
Inshallah, Bukra and Maalesh
Part of Egyptian tradition, though increasingly out of date in today’s faster moving Egypt, are three commonly heard words, inshallah, bukra and maalesh, whose meaning, and more importantly whose nuance, you should know. Together they provide some insight into how things work or frequently do not work, in Egypt.
Inshallah means ‘God willing’, and, reasonably enough, it conveys the caution that even with the best of human intentions nothing can be certain. However, it can also be a polite way of avoiding a commitment, indeed of suggesting that the thing promised will not happen.
Bukra means ‘tomorrow’, but it would be a mistake to take this literally. Bukra, in fact, more usually refers to some indefinite point in time between tomorrow and never.
Maalesh means it does not matter anyway.
You do not actually need to have a mustache to be called one.
‘Moustache’, or more formally ‘Mister Moustache’, is what Egyptians, usually touts, sometimes call male foreigners. More generally the foreigner, male or female, is called a khawaga, which also conveys the sense that you have lots of money which you are about to share.
The living standards of a great number of Egyptians are very low, and visitors may be distressed at the poverty they will sometimes encounter. Egyptians, however, are a proud people. Family and neighborhood networks serve as a form of social security system. There is no homelessness here. Numerous people may pack into a room or families may live among the tombs in Cairo’s City of the Dead, but no one sleeps out on the street. Outright begging is extremely rare; the request for baksheesh usually supposes that some service has been performed. Your greatest contribution to the situation is simply visiting Egypt – directly and indirectly, tourism creates jobs.
Manners and Customs
Egyptian values are rooted in the strong family attachments of a still overwhelmingly rural heritage and in Islam’s closely woven social code. Though allowances are made for foreign idiosyncrasies, the same conservative behavior and dress are expected of you.
Physicality should be muted, so that mean and women should refrain from kissing and hugging in public, while generally, it is a good idea not to show too much flesh. Except at resorts intended for Westerners, no one, especially women, should wear shorts. Skirts and dresses should fall below the knees, and both women and men should cover their shoulders.
Do not photography an Egyptian without asking for permission. For some people, it is extremely offensive, while others, who might not have minded, will feel that you have taken a liberty. If you do ask first, people are often happy to be photographed, and indeed the occasion can be a way of getting to know people.
Egyptians can be sensitive about many scenes you might find picturesque but which to them portray poverty or backwardness. If someone asks you to desist, it is best to do so and look for another chance elsewhere. Militarily sensitive subjects – including airports, railway stations, dams, bridges and government offices – should not be photographed.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims may not eat, drink or smoke while the sun is up. It would be polite if you, too, refrained, in public at least. If you are invited to someone’s home, it is customary to bring a gift, such as sweet pastries.
Touts are most common and relentless at the obvious tourist places, like the Pyramids at Giza, or along the corniche at Luxor. A polite but firm la shukran, (‘no thank you’), should be enough to turn away unwanted attention. If forced to rudeness, then imshee, (‘get lost’), has the almost physical effect of a slap in the face.
Do not assume that everyone is out to take advantage of you. People are often simply curious or wish to be helpful.
Egypt is a safe country for visitors. You are far safer walking through the streets of Cairo, where muggings are unheard of than through those of many European or American cities – and that is true for both day and night.
There is a strong sense of communal responsibility, especially towards foreigners. Anyone in distress can expect the immediate assistance of both public and police.
In addition to the regular Metropolitan Police, who wear black uniforms in winter, white uniforms in summer, and who mostly speak only Arabic, there are special police who wear the same uniform but with a read armband saying ‘Tourist Police’. They all speak a foreign language, usually English (not necessarily fluently, however), and are posted at tourist sights, museums, airports, railway stations, and ports. They are there to help if you are experiencing difficulties.
There are also the more soldierly looking Central Security Police, always dressed in black and armed with automatic weapons, who guard embassies, banks, and other public buildings.
A few fundamentalist fanatics who would like to turn Egypt into a theocratic Islam state have been attempting to attack the government, and indeed the economy of the country, through tourism. By threatening and frightening away foreign visitors, their hope has been to destroy a major source of Egypt’s income. Egyptians are overwhelmingly opposed to such outrages and the government has responded with determination, but as in London or New York, it is never entirely possible to guarantee the elimination of terrorist activity. What can be said is that Egyptians remain a warm, good-humored and hospitable people who care about the welfare of visitors to their country.
Visiting Mosques and Monasteries
In visiting Islamic mosques and Christian monasteries, you are entering into the most conservative areas of Egyptian life and therefore should take special care to dress and act with decorum. Neither shorts nor short skirts should be worn, nor should shoulders be bare. Inside mosques, you must remove your shoes, or shoe coverings will be provided. For this, or if you accept the services of a guide, or ask to be shown the way up a minaret, baksheesh will be expected in addition to any entry fee.
You may sometimes find yourself in a mosque at prayer time. Then, though visitors are otherwise welcome, you may be asked to retreat into an alcove or out on to the street.
Except for St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, which is Greek Orthodox, all Egyptian monasteries are Coptic. The Copts go in for a good deal of fasting, and during such period their monasteries are closed to visitors.
When you think of Egypt you think of sun and heat, and so you will, of course, think of taking light clothes, sunglasses, and a hat or scarf to protect yourself against sunstroke. But that is not the whole of the story.
You need to be aware of the extremes of temperature in Egypt, and that can mean extremes of cold as well as heat. The desert can be punishingly hot by day but it can rapidly become chilly, and outside the summer months cold, as soon as the sun goes down. Even attending the sound and light show at the Giza Pyramids on the edge of the desert can prove uncomfortably cool.
The same is true of the mountainous landscapes of Sinai and along the Red Sea coast – you could easily turn blue on top of Mount Sinai while waiting for the sun to rise. In the desert and the mountains, you should carry a sweater with you at night, even in summer.
Westerners going to Egypt are, to some extent, putting themselves in a position of contrast to the conventions of social life there. This is especially true in the case of Western women.
An Egyptian woman’s life is very much bound up, indeed bounded, by her family relationships, whether as daughter, wife or mother. The entwined moral, religious and legal systems of the country enforce this. Even an educated woman would be most circumspect in her relationship with a man; both families would be involved and meetings limited to public situations.
Your Western view may be that that is their business and your business is your own. Some Egyptians will make the effort to see it that way, especially as you are only passing through. A great many more will not agree.
Things are changing in Egypt, however. In Cairo and other cosmopolitan places, many Egyptian women dress in the same styles as their Western counterparts. If in doubt, especially in less tourist-exposed areas, dress conservatively.
A woman walking about or traveling on her own may be pestered but, as in other countries, it depends on how she chooses to dress and how she reacts. You can reduce the chances of being hassled by dressing and behaving conservatively. If it helps, wear a wedding ring. Or keep in the company of other women, including Egyptian women, for example when traveling on a train. Egyptian women will happily adopt you into their circle.
There is no reason for you to put up with unwelcome attention. If at worst, you are touched up, you can first say imshee, which means ‘get lost’. If something stronger is called for, shout sibnee le wahadee, which means ‘leave me alone’. People will come to your aid and the man will be thoroughly ashamed, probably on the run.