In its usual lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tone of coverage, CairoScene.com published an article by Scot Thayer, a musician, audio producer, and science fiction writer who had moved to Cairo. When he told his relatives back in Upstate New York that he was moving to Cairo, their reactions were laughably preposterous. Accompanied by great illustrations by Ghanna Hashem, the article immediately caught my attention.
According to Thayer, himself, the comments were just “ignorant, kind of racist, Islamophobic crap”; still, as much as these comments were bizarre, they were exasperating, too, due to the level of ignorance they exposed.
Bemused by the fact that Thayer’s New York associates had very little knowledge of Cairo’s existence, its whereabouts, its modes of transportation, and its cultural backdrop, I decided I would enlighten these folks with responses that may clarify what a person about to visit Egypt for a short or long duration may face.
Here are the “Ten things friends and family said when I told them I was moving to Egypt” followed by my responses.
“Don’t steal anything, they’ll cut your hands off!”
For stealing, imprisonment or hard labour is the harshest punishment in Egypt. No Egyptian law stipulates cutting off someone’s hand. While we are at it, stoning an adulteress or practicing Jihad, defined as to go to war against non-Muslims to establish the religion, do not exist in Egypt.
Then again, why steal?
“Just don’t come back a Muslim!”
This rarely happens. Life in urban Cairo is cosmopolitan; visitors can enjoy bars, nightlife, and drinking. Foreigners do as they wish and please as long as it is not intrusive or offensive to others.
Of course, many religious traditions exist and are deeply felt in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and they are worth recognizing and celebrating: the prayer calls juxtaposed against the church bells, Friday morning’s deserted streets then the hustle and bustle after Friday prayers, and Ramadan and Eid festivities. All these wonderful aspects, deep-rooted in Egyptian culture, a visitor to Cairo would find exhilarating and elating. Enjoy them for they are celebrated in Egypt like in no other country.
“Watch out for the Taliban. You’ll fit right in with that beard.”
First, Egypt doesn’t have any Taliban roaming on its streets. Besides, a goatee or a full beard and moustache don’t construe much of a religious affiliation in this day and age. If it is disheveled and left unkempt, that’s when others may worry. So wear your beard with pride but keep it trimmed.
“You should totally ride a camel to work."
As absurd as this statement is, it reminds me of the time my daughter got asked by some Canadians if, while in Egypt, she lived in a small pyramid. No, Egyptians neither live in pyramid-like homes nor ride camels to work. Seldom do you see a camel on the streets of Cairo. If you do, believe me, the Egyptians around you will stare at it in exactly the same fashion as you would.
If you visit Siwa Oasis or the Western Desert, you may encounter camels. And for the fun of it, you should try riding one when you visit the Giza Pyramids. The camels roaming the area are solely for your delight.
“It’s going to be so boring there."
I doubt that very much. Cairo, in particular, is one of most vibrant cities on earth. In fact, chances are you won’t be able to catch up with Egyptians or match their energy for life. They avoid sleeping till the wee hours of the morning, socialize like no others, and party to their hearts’ content.
Tag along to someone’s wedding and see how gregarious these folks are, let them include you in their jokes and laugh to your heart’s content, and enjoy a hearty but inexpensive Egyptian meal after meal after meal.
At the same time, enjoy visiting the most glorious monuments on earth: the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the Step Pyramid of Djoser, all within a step and a hop from one another.
And you may prefer to go to the best beaches in the world where you can enjoy the best diving and water sports, in addition to golfing, horseback riding, trekking, and jeep safaris only a few hours from good old Cairo.
“You know they’re not going to let you drink or eat bacon."
It has nothing to do with letting you drink or eat bacon. You can do what you please including drinking alcohol. Though hard liquor is extremely costly, wine and beer is served everywhere and, as everything else in Egypt, may be delivered to your doorstep if you so wish.
Bacon and similar pork cold cuts were available until very recently. However, with the mad cow disease, the target market for such products somehow disappeared, and people seem to have gone off them, so, yes, they may be hard to find since they aren’t something that Egyptians crave. Still, if you can’t live without bacon, some high-end stores carry pork products and certain districts, like Shobra, in Cairo, for example, sell pork products.
“Your girlfriend is going to have to wear a blanket with eye holes cut into it."
I doubt you would want to date a niqabbed girlfriend—one who wears a blanket with eye holes cut into it, and I doubt she would want to date you either. Neither of you would find the other appropriate.
As for the practical choice of a western girlfriend, no one is going to ask her to wear a niqab; she can wear whatever she deems presentable if it is modest and not too revealing. Thousands of western women live in Egypt; they teach in western schools and universities and work in corporate businesses, and chances are they wear what they usually wear when going to work in the western world.
Niqabbed women in Egypt shouldn’t construe more than 2 percent by the way.
“Wait, Cairo, NY?”
Funny you should ask. The Cairo we are talking about is the largest Cairo in the world with a population of approximately ten million. It sits smack in the middle of Egypt. It is bordered by the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, which are connected by a man-made waterway named the Suez Canal.
Cairo translates to “the victorious,” and Egyptians call it “Om el Donia,” aka, the “mother of the world,” and to them it seems just that.
Egypt is a breathtaking place. It has a 7000-year history, a unique culture, and loving inhabitants. Nothing awkward about moving to Cairo. In fact, if anything, those who are awkwardly silenced should be happy for you.
“Dude! That’s fucking amazing, congrats!!"
Indeed it is. It is an opportunity of a lifetime. While you are at it, learn some Arabic, become more informed about Islam, and try as you may to see it with a clear lens unblemished by the colonial vision that looked at Egypt as an ancillary state. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. Egypt owns its own destiny.
That doesn’t mean that Cairo isn’t without its challenges; living amongst 92 million can get a bit crammed leaving you flummoxed.
More importantly have a wonderful time and take back warm memories of a particularly special place. Maybe then your astounded, perplexed, and daunted friends will appreciate what you decided to venture on.