During my time in Egypt, I had mixed experiences with Egyptian people. My first experience was when I got out of the taxi at my hotel, and a porter practically ripped my luggage from my hands even though I insisted I could wheel it to the elevator myself. Ignoring my objections, he wheeled it himself and we stood awkwardly in the elevator together to my room’s floor. Once I took my luggage back and wheeled it in my room, I turned around and the man was still there, staring at me intensely. I knew he was waiting for a tip, and I did give him one.
Soon after, a very, very old woman knocked on my door. She was small and frail and had a thin scarf framing her face. She looked like the beggar turned sorceress in Beauty and the Beast, (the one who cursed the Beast into a beast). She held out her palm full of small change and pointed to it. She didn’t speak a word of English. I made many gestures trying to figure out what she wanted or needed: some bills for all her change, does she need more change, a tip – maybe she cleans my room? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to figure out what she wanted, so she eventually left, hobbling down the hallway and up a winding staircase.
While exploring the streets of Cairo, I couldn’t help but notice the men stare. Sometimes the men would try to talk to me, and although I couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying, the subject matter was pretty clear based on the way they were looking at me. At one point, I had my butt squeezed, and another, I had a group of women hiss at me. And then by stark contrast, there were times while strolling the streets I was welcomed genuinely by the local men, exclaiming “Welcome to Cairo!” and smiling warmly at me as I walked by.
Ultimately, the best thing women can do is simply cover up out of respect for Egyptian culture. With it being over 45 degrees Celsius at the time, I didn’t cover up as much as I should have. It seems like a simple concept, but in such heat, it is easy to fall back on the comfortable habits from back home. On my second day in Cairo, I made much more of an effort to cover my skin. I purchased a long dress/tunic that covered my legs, shoulders, and arms and wore one of my scarves around my face.
Being a woman traveling in Egypt provides many interesting, confusing, and sometimes offensive situations from both men’s and women’s reactions. But all of that needs to be taken with a grain of salt when traveling to another country. I’m the tourist. I’m the outsider. I stood out on my first day with my ribbon fedora and colourful strapless top against the crowds of women covered head to toe in long black clothing.
I know I would have had a much different experience on my first day in Cairo if I made more of an effort to blend in. From then on, I did my best to honour the culture by covering up, and I very much enjoyed blending in and feeling part of the culture.