Egypt is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I don’t say that because I’m Egyptian. I say that with the eye of a person who has traveled the world far and wide and has seen what the world – and Egypt – has to offer.
Put Cairo aside for a bit. The minute you step outside of Cairo, our country’s beautiful landscape will put you into a trance. If you travel up north, you’ll ride through our lusciously green Delta region, with the countless Nile tributaries feeding farmland as far as the eye can see. Travel further north, and you’ll reach the Mediterranean Sea and its quaint towns scattered along it. Alexandria is a jewel. It comes with centuries-worth of history and shines with its typical Mediterranean culture.
Travel south from Cairo along the Nile Valley and you’ll pass through rural southern towns known for their hospitality, strong accents, and great food. The further south you go, the bluer and the clearer the Nile waters get. Travel even further south and you will be stunned by 4000 years-worth of history and some of the most important antiquities mankind has to provide.
Travel west and you will venture into the Western Desert, with its never-ending sand dunes and scattered oases. And travel east and you will travel through the Eastern Desert to reach the Red Sea, with some of the best dive sites in the whole world.
And then there’s Cairo. Egyptians call it Masr – or simply Egypt – because it is everything that Egypt represents from history, to culture, to a gathering place of people and cultures, to chaos, to beauty and grandeur, to ugliness and pettiness.
Egyptians say that Egypt is the Mother of the World – umm addunya – and we truly believe it is. Egyptians also say that if you drink from the Nile River once, you will return to it. And definitely for most Egyptians, that’s true. Our attachment to our country is very strong no matter how strongly we criticize it. And most Egyptians who leave the country do eventually return, if even to be buried in its belly.
As a country, we have so much to offer to tourists. As a people, we’ve failed tourists miserably.
Almost half of my family and friends are not Egyptian, so I have considerable experience showing them around the country. And with this experience has come a close knowledge of our many faults.
I haven’t met a single person who has visited Egypt that hasn’t complained about the hagglers. If I were to mention one single thing that absolutely must be solved in order for tourism to improve in this country it would be that.
Allow me to give you the simple example of a visit to the Pyramids.
As your car approaches the Pyramids, you will be met by young men who are standing in the middle of traffic checking out cars for suspected tourists. Once they catch sight of you, they will bang on your car door and tell you that you cannot access the Pyramids any longer through the main entrance and that they will ride with you to show you how to get there. Assuming you are smart enough not to believe them – DON’T – you will continue driving towards the main entrance of the Pyramids all the while dodging these determined young men. What these men want is to take your money. Short story. They want you to ride their horses or camels for exorbitant prices. They want to guide you through the Pyramids grounds for what they will say is a bargain price but for what in reality is ridiculously expensive. And they will STICK to you like glue. You will not be able to get rid of them for the life of you. As a tourist, this will be scary. You will not know how to shake them off. You will feel intimidated.
When I take my non-Egyptian friends to the Pyramids, I drive through these men on Pyramids road. If they so much as try to TOUCH my car, I make a threatening move to run them over. When we’re inside the Pyramids grounds, I’m constantly shooing these people away with a loud Egyptian woman voice and a dangerous stare I have perfected over the years. Once at the Pyramids I saw an Egyptian teenager incessantly tapping the shoulder of a Western woman trying to sell her the goods he had with him. She looked terrified. She had her gaze down and was ignoring him hoping he wouldn’t get violent and that he’d leave her alone. I grabbed his arm, gave him the dangerous Nadia stare, and told him to leave the woman alone. He did.
Thing is, I can’t go live in the Pyramids to protect our visitors.
The other thing is, ALL OF THIS happens under the protective eyes of Egypt’s tourism police. On the road up to the entrance of the Pyramids are a police station, police cars, and policemen. Lots of them. Not one of them stops the hagglers. Not one of them comes to the protection of the tourists.
This reminds me of a story. I was in Morocco sometime around 2007 for a conference. A group of my American friends had gone into the old city to see the sights. They
went alone without having one of us Arabs with them. One of the women in the group was sexually harassed by a male Moroccan haggler. He cornered her in the women’s bathroom and tried to kiss her. When I heard this story, my natural reaction was to put together a posse of Egyptians to go get the guy and beat him up. After searching for the dude for a few hours, a Moroccan friend of ours heard about what we were doing and couldn’t believe it. “Why haven’t you gone to the tourism police?” he asked us incredulously? The concept of tourism police doing ANYTHING had we gone to them didn’t even occur to me because of my experiences in Egypt. But sure enough, we went to the Moroccan tourism police and by the next morning they caught the idiot, brought us in to identify him, and had him thrown in jail.
Back to Egypt. Try walking down Cairo’s Grand Bazaar, Khan El-Khaleeli, without having at least 20 different men touching you, standing in your way, and trying to get you into their shops. And that’s if you’re Egyptian. Again, as Egyptians, we give them the ugly Egyptian stare and hold out our hand in the well-known gesture that means “you’d better stay away from me, pal, or you’ll be in trouble”. We’re not afraid of them because we know how to react if they go too far. We’ll get into a fist fight with them, we’ll yell and gather people around us, and we’ll make a horrible commotion. But tourists will not and cannot react this way. They have no means to protect themselves and all they can really do is endure it until they are safely out of range, which usually happens only when they are on the flight back home.
And the prices that non-Egyptians are asked to pay for things. My husband, who is not Egyptian, was once asked to pay 20 Egyptian Pounds for a bottle of water that normally costs three pounds. I had to go to the idiot shop keeper and give him a piece of my mind so that we could buy the water for the normal “Egyptian price”. I’ve never traveled ANYWHERE in the world, except maybe some sub-Saharan African countries, where there was such a thing as a local price and a tourists’ price. It’s ridiculous.
I’ll end this with a note about the anti-foreigner rhetoric that has been going on in our local Egyptian media and from within our government since the start of the revolution.
This rhetoric has resulted in a real mistrust of foreigners among normal Egyptians who do not know better than to believe the crap that they are fed. And it’s affecting the way that they treat tourists. It’s getting worse. And it’s not only affecting tourists. It’s also affecting foreign residents. Just the other day a Dutch person working in a Dutch organization here in Cairo was told that his visa would not be extended for the simple reason that the idiot Egyptian employee at the visa section in Tahrir felt that we should be employing Egyptians in his stead.
Now, you tell me. If foreigners coming to Egypt are experiencing all this – and more – and are going back to their countries and telling people about their miserable experiences, do you think people will want to come and visit?
Tourism feeds a major portion of Egypt’s economy. We depend on it. And we’re frightening the tourists away.
I direct this plea to the Ministry of Tourism and to the Ministry of Interior (I will be polite this time and not ask them both to fuck themselves or each other). Change is REQUIRED. NOW. GET OFF YOUR BUTTS AND DO THE JOBS YOU ARE PAID TO DO!