“Boy on Dirt Road.” Taken in downtown Cairo, August 2017.
“Greatly misunderstood” was one of the most prominent, recurring thoughts that occurred to me when I first went to Egypt. Alone, armed with a few months of self-taught Arabic as well as a one month intensive course at SOAS, I arrived in Cairo in July of 2017. Something had propelled me to go to one of the four most ancient civilisations of our world, alongside China, the Harappan civilisation and Mesopotamia. The country of the pyramids, of camels, of heat, of pharaohs. But Egypt was so much more than that. Not only a strategically important area in the region, with it’s history of battling the Sinai over Israel, but also connecting the African continent to the Middle Eastern world, while also at a crossroads between Europe and Africa.
I had constantly been warned of going to Egypt. My experiences showed me a kindness of people’s that didn’t have much – as Egypt’s economy is suffering even more so after the 2011-2013 Arab Spring(s) than before. Tourism has inevitably taken a massive hit in the country due to the current political climate, and tourism accounts for around 13% of the Egyptian economy. Taxi drivers, shop-keepers, and the like each would bring up the degree to which the economy has suffered since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
Egypt is currently a military state. There are tanks on the street, military checkpoints every few blocks. However, I saw people approaching the policemen on the street, asking for help with parking their cars. The police would be sitting on pulled up chairs by the side of the street, holding little glasses of شاي (“shay”, meaning: tea) with no milk. The second or third time I arrived in Cairo, I had forgotten to bring USD currency with me. The reason why I needed USD was due to the fact that they only accepted USD to purchase a tourist visa at Cairo International Airport, and I had foolishly arrived with Chinese Yuan (RMB) and the Egyptian Pound. This is one of the ways they get USD into the country, and the rules were therefore rather strict. I found I was unable to purchase my tourist visa without USD. Panicked, I ran to the ATM in the airport. Alas, it was broken. Not knowing what else to do, I hastily approached a police officer. His sun-beaten face quivered with the slightest hint of a smile as I frantically explained to him the issue. Once I was finished, he motioned for me to follow him. He went up to the desk where they would issue visitors their visas, yelling at them in rapid Arabic. The young man behind the desk looked at him a bit crossly, then, without so much more as a nod, beckoned for my cash. Once I had gotten my visa, I thanked the policeman. It was then that he looked at me, smiled, and said “welcome to Egypt.”