I was sitting at a table, sipping a hot, mint tea between sweet puffs of a shisha in Khan-el Khalili in Cairo, Egypt. My table was composed of a herd of new friends: two Canadians, three Mexican Americans, one Peruvian, a local Egyptian, and me--a Greek American.
I turned to my Egyptian friend Sayed and said, “Although it’s only my second day in Egypt, I’m already in love with this place. I have a feeling I will continue to return in future years.”
He smiled in his jovial manner. “I hope you do. You should move here. You already know so much about Arabic culture, this place should feel like home for you.” I considered it for a moment while taking in the bustling, late-night café. The cafe was surrounded by local markets and vendors selling everything from jewellery to toys. Even musicians strolled along, willing to personally serenade you in exchange for some pounds. Families and friends gathered to celebrate the Ramadan season while breaking the fast together. All of which made for a pleasantly hectic scene.
I turned back to Sayed and said, “Inch’allah,” meaning, “If God wants it to be.”
My response made Sayed smile, partly because he was impressed to hear it from a foreign tongue, and secondly because of how important this phrase is to the Egyptians. We both drew our attention back to the shisha and the group.
I spent most of my time in Cairo with Sayed. He was a philosopher and poet of sorts, a devout Muslim and open and embracing towards all cultures, religions, and schools of thought. He was fluent in Spanish, Italian, English, Arabic, and French. He worked at the hostel I was staying at called Egyptian Nights.
On one quiet night at the hostel, we were discussing cultural practices. He explained to me that, as a Muslim, it would be disrespectful for him to approach a woman in any physical way, even by shaking her hand. Women are to be honored and protected. He told me stories of Latin American travelers greeting him with kisses on both cheeks as is common in their culture. If a foreign woman kissed him on the cheeks, he would receive it to respect their culture, but he would never initiate it himself because that would be disrespecting his culture.
Another night, I was out with Sayed when the streets were busy—busy in a way that surprisingly reminded me of New York City. The traffic of Ramadan bustled and moved about to its own staccato rhythm. Crossing the streets of Cairo was like Moses parting the Red Sea. It required a miracle from God. After we had crossed the street, I said to Sayed, “I had the urge to hold onto you to feel a bit more secure, but I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful or not.”
He said, “Anna if you want to hold onto my arm or shoulder while in the streets, it’s okay, you can. But I cannot be the one to touch you. As an Islamic man, it is my duty to protect the women I am with, so if you feel safe by holding onto me, it’s perfectly okay.”
Sayed’s response was reassuring because I had always known that Islam was designed to protect and respect women to the utmost extent.
This explanation revealed what I always believed to be true about Islam, that so many people around the globe are sadly ignorant to.
After five days in Cairo, Cristhian, my new Peruvian friend, and I took the ten-hour train ride down to Luxor. We stumbled out of the train station in a dizzy state and were warmly greeted when we arrived at our hostel. The guys who worked at the hostel immediately warned us to take care in the street. They explained that a lot of people would try to hassle, scam, and pickpocket us. We took their warning with a grain of salt and proceeded to explore the ancient world of Luxor the following morning.
After only a few minutes of walking down the street, we quickly understood the gravity of our warning. As a tourist, you cannot walk ten feet without getting hassled by multiple people trying to get your money for something. We smiled and politely said no countless times, but the people on the street would not take no for an answer. It was overwhelming and annoying, and the severe heat didn’t help the situation either. At the end of the day, we put our feet in the cool bank of the River Nile as the sun was setting behind the desert mountains in the distance. The next morning was Sunday, meaning church day for me.
Cristhian did more sightseeing the following day while I went to church. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is very similar to mine, the Eastern Orthodox Church. When I walked in and heard my familiar chants, gazed up at the awesome icons, and felt thick droplets of holy water being splattered about by the Priest, I felt at home. I felt safe and thankful.
I went back to the hostel after the service and napped for a few hours to avoid the highest point of heat during the day. After I woke up, I decided to stroll along the Nile with a book in hand. I just wanted to dip my feet in the cool Nile again and read. I was wearing long pants and had my shoulders and most of my arms covered by a light sweater. I felt that was prudent enough, but I thought wrong. This was the first and only time I spent alone in Egypt.
The men and boys in Luxor acted as if they had never seen a woman out of the kitchen before. The comments, gawking, hassling, reaching, grabbing, creepy smiles attached to deep-set stares and raised eyebrows revealed their sickly thoughts. It all made me want to crawl into a cave. These Egyptian males were not like Sayed and the other men I had met in Cairo. They did not have the same idea about “protecting women,” as Sayed had so eloquently explained. They made me vow never to return to Luxor.
I went back to the hostel, and the others could see a heaviness in my face. I told them what happened, and they said, “Anna, we told you to be careful in the street, and that Luxor has many bad people, what were you thinking?”
This response angered me even more. It angered me because it excused the awful behavior thrown at me, and put the woman at fault. “Listen,” I said. “It’s not like I was prancing around naked in the street, I was mostly covered, sitting silently, reading a book, not disturbing anyone. But I guess a woman reading in Egypt is crime enough.” By their silenced mouths, and solemn looks on their faces, I gathered that they received my point.
Saleh, the hostel owner’s brother, had been living in Melbourne, Australia for ten years. He came back to Egypt for holiday and to avoid the winter. We started talking. “I don’t understand why they treat tourists the way they do,” I said. “I mean, since the revolutions have taken place, tourism has gone down significantly, thanks to Western media coverage. Their livelihood depends on tourists, so why treat the few tourists they do have so badly?”
Saleh lit his cigarette, took a pensive inhale followed by a slow exhale before responding. “You’re right, and this is my complaint about Egyptians as well. They hassle you so much in the street to the point that they scare you off and make people never want to return. Then they wonder why tourism is down.”
After taking another long drag from his cigarette, he continued. “Egyptian men are known for abusing women. It’s common for Egyptian men to beat their wives—this is widely known throughout Egypt. If a woman then goes to her father to complain about how her husband is beating her, her father will say, ‘Well he’s your husband, he can do what he wishes with you.’ Women here sadly have no protection.”
I was shocked to hear this after my experience in Cairo. The men in Cairo did not hassle me one bit. Maybe they stared at me longer than I would have liked, but that was it. I thought of Sayed, and how he said, ‘In Islam, it’s a man's duty to protect the women around him.’ I was confused, and the question I originally had about how women are treated in Egypt only raised dozens of more questions.
I asked a number of Egyptians, mostly men, how women are treated in Egypt. I got a variety of answers from a number of sources. But what I was able to conclude from all the questioning and conversing I did, boiled down to the level of education people had. The more educated people were, usually meant they had more reverence for women. I’ve done an enormous amount of solo travelling across the globe. But after my one and only experience of being alone in Egypt, I realized how much more comfortable and safer I felt with men by my side than without.
I cut my trip in Luxor short, seeing as how Cristhian was planning on traveling to Jordan the next morning. I didn’t want to be in Luxor at all, especially not alone. I took the train back to Cairo the next day where I returned to the hostel, Egyptian Nights, which made me feel comfortable, safe and at home.
I met some new friends at the hostel, one American travelling with his Alexandrian pal. They were only in Cairo for one night and were going back to Alexandria the next day. They allowed me to tag along and show me as much of the city as they could for my last thirty-something hours in Egypt.
Alexandria was beautiful. It was famously a Greek city in Egypt, but not in recent years. It was not my first time seeing the Mediterranean Sea, but it was the first time seeing it from Egypt and the North African coast. I spent the next morning at a café near my hotel while I waited for the guys to show up and take me around.
While drinking my cold glass of mango juice and staring out at the vast Mediterranean Sea, I remembered a good friend of mine named Sarah. Sarah is about twenty years my senior and was raised by free-spirited, hippie parents in the 1960s and 1970s in San Francisco, California. She is a huge women’s rights advocate, awesomely independent, and a travel junkie. She came to Egypt about twenty years ago. How she described Egypt then was even stricter for women than now. Women were not seen in cafes at all or ever seen walking without a man by their sides. I saw plenty of women in cafes and even smoking shisha on my recent trip. I did not see Egyptian women alone, but I did see women with their children or other women.
Sarah once told me, “Anna, Egypt is one of my favorite countries I’ve been to. There are all these aromatic smells on the streets from burning incense and shishas, the men are beautiful, the people are kind, the food is flavorful, and the history is amazing. But on the other hand, as a strong, free, and independent woman, I hate how women are treated there. And it’s contradicting for me because I love Egypt in so many ways, but I hate how some women are treated. I think they are treated worse in Egypt than in most other countries.”
From her description, times have progressed somewhat for women, but not entirely. After visiting Egypt myself, I understood exactly where she was coming from and wholeheartedly agreed with her affections towards Egypt.
When I told Egyptians that I have Greek origins, they gave me so much respect and admiration. They said, “The Greeks are same like us. We have a same spirit and share a history. Alexandria was a Greek city once, and we loved having the Greeks here.”
I felt the people were mostly warm and hospitable. And it saddens me a great deal that tourism has dropped tremendously since 2011. When I went to the pyramids, my guide said, “Before 2011, I gave tours four times a day to the pyramids. Now it’s only once a day or once every two days.”
The locals are suffering because tourism has always been a big part of their economy. Many rely on tourism to feed their kids. Western media coverage has portrayed Egypt as an extreme danger zone that tourists should be advised against visiting. Of course, precautions should be made when travelling to Egypt, but the same holds true for travelling to many parts of the world. I feel that women shouldn’t travel alone in Egypt and photographers should be aware of where not to have their cameras visible. But other than that, overall I felt quite safe in Egypt. Most people I met were genuinely kind and happy to see foreigners still visiting their land. My heart goes out to the Egyptians. They have suffered a great deal over recent years. And now they are suffering more because one of their major industries is in decline.
After talking to a number of Egyptian people about how they feel towards the present and future of their country, they are mostly kept in optimistic spirits. They simply comfort themselves by saying, “Inch’allah.”
Photos by author
Anna Maria is a Greek-American, who has been living, traveling, and teaching across five continents for the past four years. In addition to teaching full-time, she is a travel writer and photographer. Her favorite subjects of travel to explore are food, nature, back-alley city streets, and breaking down cultural stereotypes. New York City is where she calls home. Check out her website to see more of her work.