Hijabi in Islamic Cairo by Nick Leonard (Jungle Boy, Flickr)
So today is all about cultural misunderstandings! Ahhhh, who doesn’t love those blushing, awkward, unforgettable moments by which we learn about a place the hard way? Indeed.
It was in Egypt, when I thought I was in fact “culturally safe.” You know, several months later, after you think you have learned all the tricks and chuckle or shake your head when newbies aka tourists commit “the [cultural] atrocities.” Yeah, that! It was toward the end of my second semester studying in Egypt, around the 8-month mark. I was taking the school bus to the American University in Cairo’s new campus in Katameya as usual. This morning however, I forgot to do a little plucking to the eyebrows as I was running late. So, when the bus arrived, I sat on the most discreet, dark corner of the mini bus. I then kind of hid behind the front seat, and started the beauty ritual.
I was almost done at this point, around 5 minutes later, when I just felt a pair of eyes piercing me. You know what I’m talking about: When you just feel a glare, when someone is downright staring at you.As I finished brushing my eyebrows a bit with my fingers, my eyes met an evidently-angry hijabi. This, my friends, is a woman that is veiled. Well, she looked like she could be my grandmother, but meaner and a bit younger, which made her even scarier. Literally, I feared for my life. I was so embarrassed, as if I would have been stopped dead in the middle of the red carpet by a famous ET commentator saying “omg honey, no offense, but that’s like a hideous dress!” yeah, right there in front of the spotlight, when you thought you were the last Coca Cola of the desert, when you think you are “It”
After the hijabi thought she had punished me enough with her eternal, one-to-two-minute stare, she said to me, in a very firm, offended tone: “You should not be doing that here. That’s private and intimate and it’s offending.” Then, after punishing me with another good 30-second mean glare, she slowly, painstakingly turned over to the front again.
And so I learned my lesson: Plucking your eyebrows or doing anything you normally do in your house is considered offensive and too intimate to do outside of it to a hijabi (or at least that Egyptian lady). Basically, it is almost like the American equivalent of changing your shirt in public: No woman, it is not ok to show your bra and change your top in public, even though it does look like a bikini top. Still, it isn’t the beach (although I recognize some guys might defer). Remember buddies: We never know it all!
What’s been your most embarrassing cultural mishap?
My first Morocco tales, dated on my travel journal Aug.28th.09
Destination: Al Akhawayn University. But not so fast!
I did a crazy trip en-route to Il Maghreb: San Juan (Puerto Rico)-NYC (2-night stay); NYC-London (3 nights); London-Madrid (6 days); aaand in just one day: Madrid-Casablanca, Casablanca-Fes, Fes-Ifrane. See, the means of transportation I had to use in the last “legs” of my trip were…interesting…
First off: I met a Moroccan lady on the plane (Madrid-Casablanca) that lives in Spain and visits family in Morocco often. We spoke about cultural differences, as I tried to use most of the Arabic I knew. She tried to respond in Egyptian Arabic so I could understand, which was AWESOME. My Arabic should be better than it is given to the program I completed in Egypt, but because of circumstances, well…still, it was better than I thought it was after I felt I failed an oral test miserably last month! And we will get into that…
So this sweet Moroccan lady actually went all the way from the airport to the train station with me and bought my tickets all the way to Fes, which I greatly appreciated. Then I got off at Voyageurs (?), one stop BEFORE my Moroccan lady. So we said goodbye and there I was, off on my own. First REAL (by that I mean for need to survive) attempt at using my Arabic was “I want water and food. Where can I get them?” I of course used the only spoken Arabic I can survive on (Egyptian), in addition to a funny kind of wording (Ana ayza ashtarii mia wa ta3m. Mahal feen?). Workers just laughed and looked at me both funny and cute. Or maybe just funny. I don’t know. All I remember was repeating myself until they finally understood. There I found Fayrouz pineapple (the best drink in the world) and my water. Then I remembered it’s Ramadan, so I was discretely hiding my stuff and taking on weird positions to be able to drink my ice-cold Fayrouz (again, best drink in the world). After my refreshment, I began to ask “where is my train?” There was a clear board that said my train should have been in the platform I was in…it was 3 o’clock and my train was leaving in 15 mins…I was like where where, trying to explain to people how I only speak Spanish, English, and very limited Egyptian Arabic. They just giggled and tried to explain to me (which you know it means sending me to different places EXCEPT the right one). AT ANY RATE, I finally made it to the train, which happened to be AWAY from the ACTUAL station, a bit of a walk in a random rail that seems to be out of order (?).
Now I was off to Fes. Yay. I met the sweetest Moroccan lady with her cute, SUPER hyper kid. After about half hour of a very broken, yet kind of cute, conversation in Arabic, she told me she actually spoke a bit of English. Ok. She must have been entertained. Her English was good enough to hold another conversation. But I insisted in using Arabic. So we just tried to speak in Arabic with her using English if I absolutely did not get it (meaning, MANY times. Haha). The most hilarious part must have been when her little kid yelled “You’re crazy!” to her mother in Moroccan Arabic (because she was speaking English and the kid thought it was gibberish). Or maybe when I left my purse in the bathroom and the lady reminded me of it. *coughs* My mind is way out there. Then I passed out and woke up RIGHT before my stop in Fes. Whoa, that was close. And there is where the REAL fun began. I got off with all my luggage, struggling to make it into the main “meeting place” (Latina + a semester abroad. You do the math).
Theeeeen…guess what happens? Yup, my “arranged transport” from Al Akhawayn University was not there. Beautiful. I thought maybe I didn’t look well enough, so I ignored the ragul (man) by a shared taxi yelling “Atlas!” (Where Ifrane is located). So, the ragul left and I end up completely stranded, I figured after 15 mins. Thankfully there was a hotel nearby. I checked the Internet. An email sent last minute by the university telling me to confirm my arrival. Dude, if I send you my flight info shortly before my arrival, it means in fact I WILL arrive. But, NO. MOREOVER, there was NO emergency phone number listed in the email. It was 7 o’clock by then. University offices were closed. GREAT. Mind you, here I am starting to freak out. A little. But then the ragul at the maktab al-istakbal (reception, and if I typed it right. Ha) told me there is a grand taxi coming out right in front of the hotel that takes people to Ifrane (Atlas. I KNEW THIS!! Grrr…). I was like, yay, solved! But not quite…
Fez train station by Davide Cesare Veniani
I went outside and what happened? It was time for iftar, or breaking of the fast. During Ramadan, the holiest month of Islam, Muslims do not eat or drink ANYTHING from sunrise to sunset every day. Then, as soon as the sun is down and the call of prayer hits, poom, BUFFET TIME!! Meaning: NO ONE is on the street…NO ONE. So, I was stranded for another hour. Then 8 o’clock hits. Nothing, except for a man trying to charge me 300 dirhams or $30 to take me to Ifrane “direct.” Ermm NO THANKS. Half an hour later, a family walked by, the people looked “reliable.” Again, in my broken EGYPTIAN Arabic I asked when and where could I catch a grand taxi (shared cab) to Ifrane. No answer. Just a bunch of Moroccan Arabic I didn’t quite get. But by their faces of indifference, I figured they didn’t know anything (Thank Lord for body language). However, someone “eavesdropped” my discrete conversation…so when I least expected it, a horde of ten men or so approached me like hungry tigers. Oh no, oh no…
They all tried to tell me that I was pretty much screwed and wouldn’t find any shared taxis at that hour, that they were all “done for the day.” So, basically, “I had no choice” but to pay anything between 300-500 dirhams for the ride (depending on the driver, of course). At this point I was just so tired, so frustrated because they were trying to explain to me other methods of transport (which were too complicated for me to understand and too expensive ANYWAY). I understood nobody, as everybody is spoke to me at 483564837 mph. Then I just broke out. I started to cry and sob. I heard several “aww!”s and such, then I say, or yelled, very frustrated: Mafish feluus! Wa laken ana laazim aruj ilgamia3! (I have no money! But I must go to the university!) over and over again. I honestly had NO money at that point. I forgot to mention to you I had (well, STILL HAVE) Egyptian pounds worth up to $200 USD…just to find out they are not exchanged in Morocco, khaaalas! (like AT ALL, done, finsihed!). Sooo, I only had like 135 dirhams left because I could not even see the balance of my Puerto Rican card and didn’t want to overdraft at the airport. Anywayyyyyyyy…
In what possible way could this mess turn into something…productive? A random man just stood up in front of the pack of wolves, Obama-style, calmed the crowd and delivered a speech. It was lovely to hear him speak. His rate of speech was lovely. His basic (VERY, very basic) selection of words was almost musical. I was understanding word by word, meia meia (100%). It was absolutely wonderful. “You need to get from here to Ifrane, right? And you have no money for small taxi, right? Ok, just come with me.” Yes, I did go, along with random driver, or sajbak as he said (his friend). Am I out of my mind? Probably. But guess what happened? I was taken all the way to a random spot in town, about 10 mins away from where I was, then they found me a big lime-coloured Mercedes Benz which served as grand (or shared) taxi, paid that driver, the petit taxi driver (or sajbak), then gave me 100 dirhams back. So? The whole deal ended up being 35 dirhams or $3.50 I was mabsuuta awi awi (very very happy)!! However, I had to wait for the Mercedes to get full, meaning I had to be in this part of town, full of only men, for like an hour more. I took the opportunity to buy a yummy sandwich since I only had a Fayrouz and bottle of water in my system. I read the menu: French and Arabic only. Meats…meats I had never heard off. I looked at them. Hmmm. “Steek” looked pretty legit (yes, it was spelled that way, both in French and Arabic. Hilarious). Paid the whopping amount of 20 dirhams (about $2. HA!). Delicious DELIIIIICIOUS, hearty, thick whole-wheat pita with the best seasoned steak. Ahhhh. Maybe I was too hungry. But it’s been 2 days and haven’t had ANY tummy problems. God is GOOD.
Soooooooo then I was in the lime-green Mercedes. After an hour I finally got to the university. It was 10 o’clock. PM. I was exhausted. The guards just looked at me like “EH!?” I mean, imagine a 5’4, 103-pound girl that looks 16 tops, arriving at 10 PM to a college campus in a car with a bunch of men, looking like crap. Umm YAH. Afterwards, the guards looked me up in the system. I showed up. Thank you Lord. But theeeen I had to wait like 20 mins. for an “official university car” to take me from the entrance to my dorm. While I waited, I explained to the guards, a young lady and a man, my odyssey. Entirely in Egyptian Arabic. I’ve never seen an Arab laugh so hard in my entire life. They kept asking me what did I say. I would repeat it, act it all out as desperate/frustrated as I was while stranded in Fes. They almost fell from their chairs. I made their night. I’m a bawler like that.
*phew* that's the next day btw...lol...
And that was my first day in Morocco!! *hears weird noises in background* I know, I know. You all must be SO proud… lol…
Have you been to Morocco? Got any crazy stories for me!? Comment!
Egypt and the Middle East: My POV. I remember the initial fascination I felt seeing a picture of Nefertiti in a history book when I was in fourth grade. Across the years, that interest morphed into a fascination with Egyptian culture. In 2008, I finally got to visit Egypt, and my interest was thrown into modernity. Seeing no Nefertitis outside of the Egyptian museum, my interest in Egypt matured in the same way as Egyptian history did: From antiquity, it grew into something more complex and contemporary, with a deeper understanding of the political, economic, cultural and social issues that affect the country.
Of course, it was not all Nefertiti! In addition to living in Egypt, I wandered extensively throughout the Arab world and studied abroad in Morocco as well. Follow me on my new venture & read more about my experiences living and traveling throughout the Middle East. TravelTheMiddleEast.com is my new niche site, where I will post anecdotes, insights, tips & guides about all things Middle Eastern (or Arab for that matter). Hope you enjoy it!
What’s your Middle East POV? Do you plan to visit the region?
Disclaimer: I am, in no means, through this post discrediting the Pyramids of Giza, a masterpiece of the ancient world, as its architecture & history are beyond amazing. This article is simply portraying my opinion & POV of my (3) visits, taking into consideration the high expectations that I had before hand. You should still go, even if for the bucket list’s sake, but please be aware of what you will likely encounter…
I went once. Nothing. Went twice, worse. Went one last time…and had more fun taking silly shots by the Sphinx. Unfortunately, each visit tot the Pyramids of Giza was more of a sandstorm of disappointments than the tear-jerking Kodak moment I dreamed about since I was 8. Perhaps that’s why I went 3 times. Those extra visits were my desperate pleads; hopes to change my mind.
What the heck? Indeed, this thought crossed my mind several times prior, during, and after each visit. What happened? You may ask. Well, keep reading & get ready for some spoilers.
[You may click on any picture to enlarge]
The First Visit
At the time, I was Couchsurfing at the Mena House Oberoi (talk about class! Haha), having my own bed overlooking the pyramids–probably the most (&/or only) magical moment with the site. I remember I couldn’t wait to visit. So after settling in, off were my host & I to the infamous Pyramids…
Mena House Oberoi - pyramid view room
As I approached the entrance gate of the Pyramids of Giza site, I was confused. The city is right there. No magical, eerie feeling of the pyramids in the middle of the desert. As I kept walking toward the Pyramid of Cheops and looked at the city skyline…wait, I couldn’t because I was immediately hassled to buy postcards by a dozen kids, to ride a camel and/or horse for about 10 minutes for way too much money (by Egyptian standards). I couldn’t even have my alone time to reflect on how disappointed I was with the fact that the pyramids are in the middle of the city. Sure, when you look at the other pyramids you can see the vast desert in the background, but while on the site you simply feel as if the pyramids of Giza were obstructing the city life instead of the other way around. It was weird…
Then I looked up – the vast Great Pyramid covering the scorching sun above me. “Cool” I thought to myself. And that was it. I kept looking around, walking, studying my surroundings…I was baffled. I even felt wrong for being so…disappointed (that still hurts to say).
the expensive photo op
After having no choice but to take pictures, my host and I began snapping away. Then, things went from bad to worse: I “accidentally snapped” a man that happened to be riding his camel right in front of my camera. The man stopped and demanded money. “You took my picture,” he said. I was like, umm, sir, you rode your camel in front of my camera, I didn’t mean to disturb you. He insisted, “you took my picture. 50 pounds” (or something along those lines). I couldn’t believe it. My host, trying to avoid any kind of confrontation, at least tried to haggle with the guy and ended up paying something around 30 pounds. Unbelievable. Why were these Egyptians acting that way? I had met others in Cairo before I ventured out to the Pyramids of Giza and they were the kindest, most generous people. Why were these Egyptians at the site trying so hard to change my perception of their people? Fortunately, I’m not that judgmental. Still, the experience was sad, annoying, and even a little infuriating. I disliked the fact that that’s the image of Egyptians that most tourists take away with them. I was as angry as any other Egyptian would have been.
The Second Visit
I was kind lured into this one. I was hanging out with potential roommates & they were going to visit the pyramids of Giza for the first time–guided tour and all. I decided to go again, this time with more people and a knowledgeable Egyptian guide by our side, hoping that my perception would change *buzzer* wrong again. If anything, the second visit exacerbated my POV (is that even correct grammar?). Indeed, I sighed in lament…
Tour was “great” overall, by a tourist’s standard. Driving around the pyramids in an A/C van surely made the experience more comfortable than the first time, when I felt I would drop dead at any second (desert heat is way more miserable than you can imagine). However, the guide will take you to several shops so you can buy something (aka: Commission!). Worse yet, I felt pushed to do so. Honestly, I would have rather skipped all those shops, spend more time on the sites and leave more tip instead. But nope. And it gets worse!!
don't be fooled
The camel or horse ride. Please please pleeease: DO NOT DO IT!! I repeat: DON’T DO IT AT THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA AT LEAST!! Not only is it overpriced, but they ask for baksheesh (tip) on top of that and threaten to leave you in the middle of the desert (ok, quite a hike from the site) if you don’t shell out! Besides, the actual ride is so short for the 100 pounds which btw, by Egyptian standards, is financial rape. Seriously, at this point I wanted to cry and scream “where are the kind, honest, REAL Egyptians!? I know they are out here somewhere!”
Back to the guide: She was very knowlegable, yes. She inf act answered many, many of our questions which was wonderful. But I just wouldn’t do it again. Personally? Go to Couchsurfing, grab find an independent Egyptologist (spelling?), pay a decent rate (go to Tripadvisor.com for guidance), and skip all that camel ride and shops BS. Trust me, your experience will be way more enjoyable.
Oh! And I almost forget to tell you! Make sure you ask beforehand the way to “the panorama” — from where you can see all 6 pyramids. THAT is a perk. In fact, I must admit, maybe I felt a few butterflies when I took in that particular view.
The Third Visit
Yes, one more time. I went independently again, this time with a friend of mine from Arabic class and some friends of hers that were visiting from Spain. This was by the end of my year there, so my Arabic was at the intermediate level at this point. Boy,was that a difference! I have been told many times I even look Egyptian or Lebanese–which I totally took advantage off. When people came to hassle, I kindly looked at them and was like “please, these are my friends. I live here. We are not interested in buying anything. I’ll take care of them. Thank you very much” with the sweetest-yet-firm, most convincing face possible. It worked–to the T. As of, no one bothered us. Whoa! There we go! You no tourist? You my friend with Egyptian then? Okie we won’t bother you no problem o_O nevertheless, the magic of the pyramids of Giza had worn out by then so my crew & I decided to harass the Sphinx instead
Must Go? What to do (aka travel tips)
Many of you must go & understandably so. Here are some quick tips:
1. I would personally recommend getting a really good guide of the Pyramids of Giza so you can go around on your own. Go to Amazon & read reviews to make sure you get a quality one. You could also simply read about the pyramids’ history beforehand, then take a map of the site so you are able to get around the site once there.
2. Hire a private guide if you really want a knowledgeable (yet trustworthy) local with you. Shop around, make sure you are not taken into shops you don’t want to visit, etc. Best way to find out rates & recommended guides is to checkout the Cairo forums of Tripadvisor.com I planned most of my other trips even as far as Aswan & Luxor there and independent travel is def. the way to go.
3. Do yourself a favor and learn a few key phrases in Arabic. Grab a phrasebook, visit a forum of Arabic speakers. Doesn’t have to be elaborate, but mastering a few words such as “no thank you, I’m ok on my own” will go a long way, especially if you speak in a firm, confident manner.
4. Blend in. Yes, that means no Hawaiian shirts & khaki shorts 9and women: Cover your shoulders and knees!). Neutral colors are favored, long trousers, no-brand shirts, etc. Google pictures of Egyptian people. Try to dress like them. I know, if you are blonde you might think “what’s the difference?” but the fact you are respecting the culture and trying to blend in will not go unnoticed (in a good way)
5. If visiting independently, there is a bus from Ramses Square (I believe–double check on that) that you can take to the Pyramids of Giza which drops you off right by the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, which is just a few meters off the main gate of the site. Ask “Ila Haram Giza? Feen?” (means “To Giza pyramids? Where?”) and people will point you in the right direction. Ride only costs 1.50 pounds (as of 2008–don’t think it has gone up by much). Trust me, 1.50 vs a 20-30 pound cab ride is a big difference in Egypt, sp if you are a budget traveler like me. You will love having the extra money in order to take extra side trips to other less-traveled sites of Egypt such as the White Desert, Siwa on the west and Ras Shytan, Dahab and other little gems in the Sinai (just to name a few!)
Ras Abu Gallum trail
6. Want to ride a camel? Visit the Sinai peninsula and book a tour to Ras Abu Gallum reserve from Dahab instead. About 1.5 hours EACH way on a camel should sure write that off your bucket list. Plus, you get a Bedouin lunch & few hours snorkeling as added bonuses. Sounds like a better deal than at the pyramids, huh? Because it is!
Stay tuned for more entries on how to see all the amazing historical (and natural) sights around Egypt like a local.
Did you visit the Pyramids of Giza? Post comment of your experience!