"Where From? Welcome!" - Our Experiences Meeting Egyptians
Egyptians are perhaps the most hospitable and friendly people we have ever encountered.
We have always found people to be hospitable and friendly wherever we are in the world; but in Egypt they were the most so. Everywhere we traveled, we encountered people who would ask us, "Where from?" . "America", we would answer, and they would then give us a big smile and respond, "Welcome!" Often they wanted to know where in the US we were from, and we would tell them "New Mexico." So far, no one we have met has been to New Mexico but sometimes they have been to New York or Los Angeles or have a family member living in America.
Occasionally, we met a group of folks who spoke excellent English and with whom we could have longer conversations.
- One was the group in the upper observation deck of Cairo Tower with whom we chatted for a long time and then took pictures together (picture at right). Each of us shared information about where we lived and our work. They were fascinated to learn about our Nomad lifestyle and we were pleased to learn about their work - one as a translator, another as a teacher, another as an engineer. It was nice to see Cairenes touring their own city!
- Another time, we met Maimunah, an amazingly intrepid traveler who had visited the Theban tombs across the Nile from Luxor by motorcycle, riding behind her guide! We linked up to visit the Valley of the Kings and Karnak Temple and she introduced us to the King Tut Cafe, which became our favorite in Luxor!. She lives in an outer suburb of Cairo and has family in Florida so she visits there often. She described her experiences, some quite unpleasant, in America as a woman who chooses to wear a headscarf. We discovered many areas of common agreement, especially about US politics. During our time together, when we encountered something that didn't work properly, she would reply, "Well, this is Egypt.".
- On arrival back at Cairo airport, we were picked up by a driver who shared his hopes that the transition to democracy would happen more quickly so the economy could begin to recover. He explained that he had studied law but the pay was so low, he made more as a driver! We were amazed.
- Also in Cairo, we met Ehab at the Mayfair Hotel in Zamalek. He shared his stories and thoughts about the revolution, his participation in the protests and Egypt's future with a degree of forthrightness and tentative hope that touched us deeply.
- Thumbs up for President Obama - most of the time! On some occasions, when folks learned we were from America, they gave a thumbs up sign and said, "Obama!" But when we were able to have longer conversations, we learned that there are some raw feelings about American foreign policy that President Obama has not assuaged.
We learned that there are four major gripes: First is Israel. America's unfailing support for Israel no matter what and their reluctance to energetically facilitate the peace process and take a hard line against Israeli occupation of Palestine can never be forgiven. Second is US control over Mubarak. For all these years, Mubarak has kowtowed to American demands often to Egypt's detriment. Third is Syria. Why did the US help the Libyans overthrow Gaddaffi but they are holding back from supporting the Syrian revolution. Why? Oil, perhaps? The fourth is meddling in Egyptian affairs. This is most recently due to the charges against American NGOs relating to funding, operation without proper government approvals and perhaps other unspecified wrongs. But Americans are not their government in Egyptian eyes, and we were still welcomed, thankfully.
How to explain this hospitality
We began to wonder, as the number of these meetings grew more numerous; how we could explain this friendlines and hospitality?
We offer these thoughts.
In this time of exceedingly low tourist visits, perhaps we are more welcomed than normal, but we prefer to believe that the Egyptians are actually more hospitable and friendly than most other folks! Many wanted to tell us their story; they often invited us to join their family group picture or they wanted a picture of themselves with us.
Truth be told, in Aswan and Luxor where so many people are dependent on tourist income, we were pleadingly and persistently offered felucca rides and caleche (horse carriage) tours to the point of exasperation. Still we empathized with these folks, realizing that these men were desperately in need of a few pounds to feed their families and their horses.
Similarly, at all of the ancient Egyptian sites, we were persistently hounded to buy picture books and post cards. The grounds of the Pyramids at Giza were overrun by horses, carriages, and camels, their owners offering rides, to a lamentable extent. While we certainly would have preferred a more serene and peaceful visitor experience, we empathized with the difficult situation that many Egyptians are experiencing in this time of economic downturn.
Before we made the journey to Egypt, we had been warned about Baksheesh. Everyone will expect to be paid for any small service they render to you, we were told. But, for us, this was not really true most of the time. People in hotels were happy to help without payment, even going with us to shop so we'd pay the "Egyptian price". In cafes, service was usually included and when we left a bit more, they were pleased. If we returned again, they greeted us with big smiles like old friends. One man who was our waiter in a cafe in Aswan that we frequented shed tears when we left. "We'll come back", we said, "Inshallah (god willing)", he responded.
Often the guards at archaeological sites would open gates or show us into places where visitors were not allowed to wander or point out special inscriptions. In these cases we were pleased to pay a few pounds to augment their low pay. A few Cairo taxi drivers were perhaps the most insistent on something extra. They said they didn't have change, or if they were on the meter, they took the long way.
Arabic is an impossibly difficult language!
There can be no doubt that we would enjoy a greater dialogue with the Egyptians if only we spoke some Arabic or their English was better. We often met people who we knew were dying to ask us more questions or tell us more stories if only they had the words! We felt just the same way!
But, for us, Arabic is an impossibly difficult language, mostly because their alphabet is so different than ours that we can't begin to decipher the words. So far, we have learned four words - Shokran (Thank you), Na'am (Yes), La (No) and Inshallah (God willing). While this does help a bit, it's just not enough!
Two tier pricing for monuments and museums
Everywhere we have visited monuments, archaeological sites and museums, there are two prices - the Egyptian price (low) and the Foreigner price (higher). Some travelers grumble about this two tier price system, but we have defended it. We believe that Egypt holds a special place in the long history of mankind and the ancient sites are not just Egyptian, they belong to all humanity. Therefore, we feel that we should support the conservation of these special places for future generations, just as we all should support India in protecting the last tigers and rhinos, and Africa in protecting its fragile and endangered ecosystems.
Further Thoughts on Egyptian Hospitality
Considering the encounters we had with the Egyptians, we find ourselves wondering if being Muslim offered a part of the explanation for their friendliness and hospitality. Does Islam teach believers to reach out to others, perhaps especially visitors, to make them feel comfortable and at ease?
Yes, we have been constantly reminded, since September 11, 2001, of the hatred of some Muslims toward the west, toward other sects, or toward non-Muslims. But the evidence shows that those who perpetrate this hatred are a tiny fraction of the world's Muslim population. We must not let their actions overshadow the experences that we gathered during our brief journey through Egypt.
No doubt, there are other explanations and we'd enjoy hearing thoughts from our readers. What do you think?
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