Walk like an Egyptian: Why Blending in Matters
I woke up groggy, still trying to snooze off a sleepless night of New Year's parties, looked out my window and could see that we had just flown over a small bay of some sort that showed the Mediterranean sea part of my journey was done. Our flight had just entered Egypt, and it was officially the first time in my life in the African continent.
A little later, Egypt Air‘s muffled speaker had an announcement in Arabic of our descent. It was confusing at first, considering I had just gone through several European languages in the last weeks, but it blurred back into spurts of comprehensible words, despite the poor quality audio, before the switch to English.
Since then, almost every single electric speaker I've heard has been muffled and half broken. At times I look to native speakers around me and they offer an equally confused shrug to what is being said.
After touchdown, I thought that at least I could get some quick Arabic practice with the immigration officers checking my visa, but the two of them processing the passport didn't even look at me, which is a first. I could have been a large black female rather than the photo they saw, for all they knew. After picking up my bags, I had another first and saw my own name printed on a piece of paper among the crowds at the arrival hall. Welcome to Egypt!
Special price just for you!
Since I was arriving late, I decided to stay at a good hotel near the airport for one night. This included an airport transfer, and a personal chauffeur that went to the trouble of printing out my name to pick me up, which, as well as the breakfast and room, was a nice touch for $60 total for the night!
It was confusing that my driver had a crucifix over his rear view mirror (as he was a Coptic Christian, one of the worlds oldest branches of Christianity) and this initially made me wonder if I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque and ended up in the wrong country. I tried to make small talk in Arabic, but he just replied in English that my Arabic was good. I was too tired to have the language battle.
When we got to the hotel, after taking my passport, the first question they asked me at reception was not about my room, my trip, or anything of the sort. Would you like to see the pyramids tomorrow sir? We'll give you a special price on the tour!
I'd also get this question the next day checking in elsewhere, when I went into a tourist office to get a map, and a couple of other times. Special price, just for you! I don't like this nonsensical statement, so since they are lying to me, I decided to do the same and save them from wasting their time trying to pitch to me. I've already been there and they're beautiful. The camel ride was fun, but one visit was enough.
What's the rush?
I always leave these things until the very end. I lived in Paris for 9 entire months before ever going up the Eiffel Tower, the very last thing I did after travelling thousands of miles through China was walk the great wall, and I only visited Rome's Colosseum on my 4th stay there. The way I figure it, Giza's pyramids have waited over five thousand years for me, so they can certainly wait a few more weeks.
I'm actually here in Egypt to explore modern Egypt, and talk with Egyptians themselves. It's why I put so much effort into learning the language in advance. Ancient Egypt will only get minor attention on this trip. I can always come back if I need to.
When leaving the first hotel to check into my cheaper central accommodation for the week, the hotel arranged for a “special price” taxi for me. I met up with a blog reader for lunch, and he joined me in the taxi and was ashamed at the price hike they gave me. An entire 5 Egyptian pounds (€0.59 or US$0.78) more expensive than the metered one we took down the road. I didn't feel particularly outraged myself.
Walk like an Egyptian
Still a little tired, my second day, after settling in and unpacking I took a walk around the area. I'm in a very central part of town for my first days, and despite warnings, I'm quite close to Tahrir square.
My first issue of simply crossing the road from where I was staying reminded me of being in India again where safety comes second and most people merrily walk into fast uncoming traffic. I looked at the chaos of people disregarding fast approaching vehicles a little puzzled, and a random passer-by said to me in English “All you have to do is pray to your god, close your eyes and then walk!”
I actually found this to be a pretty insightful; not that I'd actually do that, but that you simply rely on god to keep you safe (whichever one that may be). Who needs common sense when it will all work out fine anyway, insha'allah…
So if you think “walking like an Egyptian” involves horizontal palms like the Ancients, I'd say it is more accurately portrayed by placing one hand close to your ear (talking on your phone, ignoring the outside world), holding a cigarette in the other, and not hesitating for a moment as you step confidently off the curb to allow fast approaching vehicles to swerve around you.
I definitely wasn't walking, or looking, like an Egyptian though. That guy, and anyone else I met in cafés and the like would start speaking English to me immediately, before I even opened my mouth. I replied back in Arabic of course, but it was frustrating to not get into the flow as quick as I'd like. While most people would just give up and accept that they look too white or whatever, I took a very different strategy.
I don't think blaming my skin colour has much to do with it at all.
If you get ripped off, it's your own fault
One warning I got before coming was that pretty much all taximen and everyone else would try to rip me off all the time. This was told to me almost entirely by people who had visited the country very briefly, going exclusively to the most touristed parts of it.
If I were to walk right out of the Sphinx to the nearest taxi, I expect to have a bit of an uphill battle in convincing him to give me a good price, as the next tourist may pay what he asks.
But apart from that first instance for the taxi waiting by a hotel, I've taken about a dozen taxis over the last days and all of them have charged me what it said on the taximeter without suggesting anything else, or without me needing to say anything more than hello and suggesting my destination.
Except for one. I was going to meet up with someone who told me to wear comfortable shoes for a long walk and to bring sunglasses in case it got windy. My most comfortable shoes are new ones I've just got which look like a unicorn puked on them (even brighter than the ones I have in my TEDx talk), and when I had my sunglasses on too, I really stood out. My shoes literally glow in the dark.
A taxi saw me in the distance and pulled over and he complained that his meter was broken and I had to argue with him to get the price back to the same I had paid for a similar distance the previous day. I know all about this “my meter is broke” trick, and he probably saw a very obvious looking foreigner in the distance and turned it off as he was pulling up to me. I told him in Arabic that I know what he did and threatened to get out right there and then he suddenly agreed to the fairer price I said.
The reason I didn't get the same trick pulled on me all the other times is that I didn't have the bright shoes and touristy sunglasses to make me stand out from such a distance. When you don't try to blend in, you are really asking for it. I haven't gone to any touristy places yet, but the few foreigners I see are really obvious in their body language, dress sense and occasionally even their ridiculous need to wear SLR cameras around their neck.
In fact, standing out so obviously, not because of the shoes, but the rest of how I look, is the same reason I was getting greeted so often in English. I decided to take several hours to sit down with a notepad and really look at Egyptians, especially Egyptian men.
Emulating is part of cultural integration
I always find it strange when expats in countries make no effort whatsoever to try to blend in. In a place like Brazil, having shorts and flip-flops and wearing bright colours is actually recommended, but everywhere else you look like an idiot. To locals you certainly may look like a tourist with no common sense and perhaps too much money burdening his pockets.
I sat on a stool in a café at a busy pedestrian intersection, endured the fact that most people there were smoking, and tried to see what makes an Egyptian Egyptian, especially in comparison to how I looked and for men around my age.
Most of them have really short hair, some have a moustache (not a goatee like me), and many look like they haven't shaved in days. Jeans with a sweater is the norm, or a light jacket over that, and shoes are more likely to be black or brown generic looking shoes, rather than sneakers (runners as we call them in Ireland), and certainly nothing as colourful as what I had. Sandals would also work.
Apart from those who look like they are dressed for a religious ceremony, they almost never have a hat on, so my hat has to go.
A ridiculous number of them walk across busy intersections while sending a text message or talking to someone, keeping their eyes straight ahead rather than looking left and right. And of course they nearly always have a cigarette in one hand.
What this tells me is that I can't wear my hat, have to cut my hair much shorter, and have to get rid of the goatee, either going for a moustache (which I find to be ugly if it isn't movember) or looking like I haven't shaved in a week. Even though it's warm enough for me to walk around just with a t-shirt on, I'll wear a jumper (sweater) over that. Hell, I could even walk around with a fake cigarette if I really wanted to push my luck.
Note that the point isn't to make people think that I'm Egyptian, but to stand out less. I did this while in Taiwan a year ago, and when in places like Peru, Italy, France, the Philippines etc. and always notice a major difference in how people treat me, and how easy it is to keep the conversation in the right language, if I try to emulate the locals as best as I can. At best they'll not really notice I'm foreign until they look at me properly or hear my accent, and at worst they think I'm an English teacher or an embassy worker who has lived in the country for a few years.
This is a major change from you being just another tourist. When combined with accent reduction and trying to speak the language well, I've even managed to have some locals mistake me for one of them in Spanish, French and Portuguese, when my skin colour is not a rarity in that country. Getting mistaken for a native speaker is much easier than you think.
Speaking Arabic and plans while in Egypt
So yes, for my first days, rather than go look at the pyramids or museums, I've been “checking out” the locals so that I can try to emulate them better. For me this is all an investment to help me integrate in better while here, and something I couldn't really do from abroad as easily.
I've also taken a few hours to catch up on my Arabic studies to get me back to where I was before the last weeks where I had no practice or study whatsoever.
That long break, combined with being tired my first two days, has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works to make me sluggish to use Arabic all the time. But last night I went out and met a bunch of people and managed to keep my end of conversations just in Arabic, genuinely socializing in the language for the first time, without slowing down the conversation.
I've also been speaking it with taxi drivers. The last taxi I took today gave me an earful of rants about Morsi. He pointed at several shops that had closed that must be his fault, and seemed oblivious to the fact that today is a public holiday for a lot of people (it's Coptic Christmas today you know!) I have no interest in getting into political discussions, so I tried to change the subject and somehow it got back to Morsi again.
Despite the bumpy start, now I am indeed doing pretty much everything I need to do in Arabic, even making friends. There have been some I've met who look like they really prefer to practise English, so I haven't really made much of a fuss about it since I'm taking it easy my first days, and was expecting more English while in Cairo anyway.
At the end of this week I'll move to the Giza side of the Nile for a few more days, to escape the noise of where I am staying now (constant car horns, some so overused they sound like wheezy ducks), probably studying a bit more to catch up on lost time from weeks of overseeing the Skype Me Maybe video, checking out more of modern Cairo and getting ready for my big trip around the country.
Of course, I hope to find interesting things to capture on camera and look forward to sharing chats with Egyptians. I plan to cover as much of the country as I can, and travel as independently as possible.
Frequently asked questions for my first days in Egypt
- What do the Egyptians think of their new visitor trying to learn their native language?
The reaction, as expected, is utter confusion. Not that I'm learning Arabic, or even Egyptian Arabic, but the fact that I've only been in the country a few days, and have never been here before, and am talking to them fine. I especially like seeing people's double-take when I say that I learned all my Egyptian Arabic in the middle of Brazil 🙂
A couple who strike me as a little academic in their way of thinking, have told me that I should focus on Modern Standard Arabic rather than Egyptian, but then other native speakers have confirmed for me that they couldn't have a conversation in MSA if their life depended on it.
- Do you hear a lot of Modern Standard Arabic?
Most taxidrivers have tuned into a radio station that is playing what sounds like sung recitations from the Koran, and this would be in Classical Arabic. Newspapers and books also tend to be in MSA, as well as formal news broadcasts. Most people will understand it OK, although they admit that there are parts of the Koran they genuinely don't understand, which surprised me.
You will pretty much never hear it spoken on the street.
It's definitely not an “international” language that you'd use if you were travelling between Arabic speaking countries. Those I've talked to say that they simply all speak in dialect when in another nation and try their best to understand one another, with Egyptians having it easier as their dialect gets a lot more coverage on TV.
- I'd like to know how you are received in general, as a Westerner
I feel very welcome here. People are very pleased that I'm learning their language, and apart from one taxi driver who saw me stand out too much, nobody has tried to take advantage of me. Any issues in the country right now are political. Being angry towards foreigners is very unlikely, as a lot of people directly or indirectly may earn through tourism and have no interest in scaring them away.
Egyptians are also incredibly welcoming in general. I have found it really hard to pay my fair share when sharing a taxi or eating with someone. I always have a long discussion that I really do prefer to pay and invite them, since I earn in foreign currency so it's not expensive at all to me. But they absolutely insist each time to be the ones paying for me, as I'm the guest.
It's a lovely sentiment, and shows how friendly they are, although I hope I improve my arguing skills in such discussions to pay my fair share as I hate to take advantage when I really don't need to.
- Are you able to communicate with people in the street? Do you understand Egyptian accents?
The final thing I'll say on the Arabic issue for now is that it's really hard to find good learning material for Egyptian Arabic, because a proper sense of Egyptian Arabic doesn't seem to exist.
It's not a standard language like we have in other countries, which may have dialects within themselves, and I absolutely don't think it's accurate at all to call Egyptian Arabic a dialect, especially as I imagine how it varies further when you get out of Cairo.
For instance, the words yes, how, what are completely different in MSA and Egyptian Arabic. The actual list of different words is immense, but when yes isn't the same, (it's something like na'am in MSA, and iowa in EA) it really shows how far apart they are.
It's a language that doesn't get any formal recognition, and without standardization and proper teaching, it simply isn't consistent enough.
This has caused a few surprises, such as hearing what should be simple standard words being pronounced a bit differently to what I expected from hearing my teachers speak and read it in material about Egyptian Arabic. I tried to talk to an old man and his speech was slurred and I couldn't understand a single word he said. Young Egyptians speak clearly and I understand them fine. They may be more influenced by TV, which may have some kind of consistency to it.
Apart from going out last night, most of my conversations so far have been with taxi drivers. Some of the chats are pretty hilarious!
The dialect vs standard issue is one I'll come back to later in a dedicated post, as it's a lot more complicated than we think when we see just books about “Arabic” on a language learning shelf.
- The weather. Is it hotter than Brazil?
While we imagine Egypt always basking in desert sunshine, it's actually been cool enough since I arrived. Between 10 and 18 degrees Celsius (50-64F), with some drizzle last night. I can wear a t-shirt in this temperature, but most people are wearing jumpers or a jacket. It's also been cloudy most of the time.
- Does the ordinary person in the street visit the pyramids, sphinx etc.
I find this to be universal in most places – you only really tend to visit such things on school outings or if a foreign friend is in town.
In Ireland, I've never gone to the Cliffs of Moher or the Blarney castle, even though the majority of American tourists I've met who managed to get outside of Dublin have. The only reason I would go would be if I was nearby or with a foreign friend who wanted to go. A couple of locals I met last night told me that they go to the pyramids regularly, but it's because they were working as a tour guide, or showing foreign visitors around.
You will see the pyramids from many parts of Cairo, and they may pass your view every day, so it kind of takes away from the need to go right up to them. Although, I haven't seen them yet, since I haven't really tried to, or I've been in places with lots of buildings that would block the view.
- What stereotypes do Egyptians you've met have associated with the Irish
They know the name of the country, and that there is a “north” and a “south”, but that's about it! Most of the time I have to confirm for them that we speak English in Ireland.
- Do you feel safe?
As discussed in a recent post, I think it's a terrible thing when the media round up as much fear as they can. The vision that most people have of what Egypt is like is so incredibly skewed and far from the truth.
I decided to (cautiously) walk towards Tahrir square, since I was so close, and what I found was that it was busy with normal people going about their day, that businesses there are open and operating as normal, and that you wouldn't really know anything happens here apart from the fact that they have closed it off from traffic and that there are tents set up in the centre.
In general though, I'll simply not go there as it's the one place that is likely to have demonstrations, especially on Fridays.
Everywhere else, the same rules as always apply. It wouldn't be wise for me to walk around with my laptop or show off my smartphone, and I make sure to walk in places with lots of people. As I wrote above, I'm trying to find ways to stand out less. Being streetsmart has kept me well for a decade of travelling to many different countries and I intend to keep aware of what's happening here as I have anywhere else.
I can confidently say that I feel more safe walking the streets of Cairo than I do in many American cities. Feel free to ask me if I “feel safe” when I go visit the states next summer. I'll make sure to be cautious there too 🙂
- Are you coming to other nearby countries, or exploring Africa?
This trip is all about Egypt for me. It's why I was only interested in learning Egyptian Arabic first. I travel slowly and plan to visit many countries in future. It took me 10 years of travelling the world to finally get to Africa, so I'm obviously not in a crazy hurry, and prefer to take my time. There's plenty of decades left to do and see many things 🙂
- Is there lots of talk of the revolution?
Not so much of the revolution, but general discontent with the political and economic situation. I also find that many I've talked to seem to be unfortunately quite cynical about other groups of people, which is such a pity.
Demonstrations will likely continue and I definitely don't plan to be anywhere near Cairo or Alexandria on the anniversary of the revolution, as it's expected that there'll be more big demonstrations then.
- What local foods have you tried?
Today I met up with a local who walked me around and gave me some suggestions for local vegetarian food. I had some great falafel, “fool” beans, and aubergine, in a wrap. She highly recommended the next thing I try is Koshari. It looks really heavy, so I'll make sure I'm hungry before I try it! It's looking like it won't be so hard to eat well as a veggie here, and I'm doing well so far!