Photo: The many towers of the Mohammad Ali Mosque in Cairo
Egypt was a quick stop for me – 2 weeks, but I covered a lot of ground. I went from South to North, from Dessert to Sea, and even fit in some mountainous climbing. I was able to see various hilltribes, Nubians and Bedouins. Even though it was only 2 weeks, I was able to get a feel for the culture there, test my limits a bit and extract many cultural learnings. There were a few things that really made Egypt distinct and different to me. Sure, there are the Pyramids – that certainly sets Egypt apart; however, I tend to notice and fixate on other things, small things, personal interactions, observations, but they are impactful to me.
It’s A Man’s World:
As I traveled throughout Egypt I abided by the Muslim custom of females covering their shoulders and knees. I didn’t go as far as covering my head, but I felt like I was at a middle ground with the custom and went out walking in the streets confidently. One of the first things that struck me is that there aren’t many women out at all. Sure, there were tons of men sitting at a coffee shop/café, in fact, there were only men – not a single woman sitting and relaxing having a coffee with girlfriends. This seemed to make me stand out even more (as if my Lilly white skin wasn’t enough). I can’t say that I ever got comfortable with this man-only world. Sure, I had fantasized about being the only women amongst good-looking men at times…but in Egypt this was a fantasy gone wrong! Even though you try very hard to not call attention to yourself, you can’t walk down the street of any Egyptian town (Cairo is the exception) without being hassled by the men. I talked to our guide, Mohammad, about it and it really comes down to their view of Western women in Muslim countries. Most, not all, Muslim men see Western women as sexually lose and uninhibited. It was as if I was wearing a Bud Light string bikini, stilettos, sucking a lollipop walking by a construction site in NYC…now do you get the picture? If you happened to be walking alone, then you had a target on you – you could expect to get rude sexual comments, people coming up to you trying to ‘help you’, and sometimes men blatantly came up and grabbed you by the arm or tried to grope you. Sometimes they’d make you feel like you had to pay them off to leave you alone. Because of this, I learned two things – don’t walk alone, but if you do – wear your hard-ass bitch attitude on every part of your body. You had to become Teflon. Strangely enough, you do get used to this environment, you don’t accept it, but you get used to it. After a while, I hardly noticed that I was the only woman at the café, or that I had 3 teenage boys following me trying to get my attention by saying rude things, or a guy came up to me and offered his services to personally show me around the city – I just kept walking, knowing in my head that I was strong, a very strong Western woman.
This country was loaded…with ammunition. Egypt’s security presence was like nothing I had experienced before, and for good reason. It was probably the most dangerous country I had been to at this point in my travels. The Egyptian government put a lot of time, effort, money, and manpower into protecting tourists. Convoys were flanked by a few jeeps carrying about 6 men carrying automatic weapons, ready to jump out and deal with whatever threat there was. There were little ‘check-point’ huts everywhere – at the temples, in the middle of the desert, in cities – men sitting (sometimes sleeping) in the huts with their AK47 slung loosely around them, smoking a cigarette. There were plain clothes security too…or maybe they were just some guy with a gun for all I know. When you visited a temple or any historic/touristic site it was mandatory that you went through a metal detector and they would search your bags. There was a metal detector before you walked inside the Pyramid, one before you hiked up Mt. Sinai, one at the hotel we stayed at in Cairo and Sinai, one to get on the ferry, one to go to the nightclub on the beach, one to go in the public toilet…and the list goes on. This sounds very comforting…however practically every time our group went through the metal detector it would go off, but we were never stopped – they just told us to keep walking. Many times they would only search our tour leader’s bag, and let the rest of us walk through. I guess being a tourist meant that you weren’t a threat…not very comforting. My favorite gun experience came in Mt. Sinai. We were leaving by minibus from Sinai to Cairo, an 8 hour drive. There were no secure convoys that ‘policed’ this route, so we were on our own…at least I thought so. As we were all eating breakfast at our hotel I noticed this bulky guy in a nice brown suit and aviator sunglasses on…trying to looking like secret service. As he got up to go get coffee, I noticed that he was carrying some sort of automatic weapon on a waist belt in his pants! This was not a pistol…it was large. This may have been disturbing and confusing to see, but after 2 weeks in Egypt – it didn’t really phase me too much. As we boarded our mini bus I noticed that they guy in the suit was sitting in our bus…now I was intrigued. I asked our leader, Mohammad, who the CIA guy was and why he was in our private bus carrying an automatic weapon. Mohammad explained that he was my personal security. Since we didn’t have a convoy to travel with AND there were Americans traveling in the bus (me and one other woman) it was required that we have a security escort. My own personal bodyguard…it made me want to break into some Whitney Houston song! Apparently there were special security rules for Americans, Japanese, and Israelis…go figure controversy pays off sometimes. As we traveled the 8 hours to Cairo – my personal security guard tried to hit on me…(see above…It’s a Man’s World)…which of course didn’t surprise me, but at least I did end up in Cairo safely. I decided to play up the flirting and see if I could get a picture of him when I arrived at Cairo as I would probably never have another bodyguard again…only in Egypt!