An Anthropological Study of El Fishawy Cafe

Built in 1771 AD, and where Naguib Mahfouz, and many other famous socialites frequented much of their lives, El Fishawy Cafe is open 24/7, with people staying there through the night until morning, with smoke hanging from the mirrors and wafting from the ends of hookah pipes, coming out in bursts as laughter is, also, carried around. It is also known as the mirror cafe, as it is ordained with beautiful, old, mirrors, as well as chandeliers.

Groups of friends sit there, chatting merrily through the night, as do couples, lovers, and families. Unlike the nightlife of most of the developed Western world, it is not dominated by friend-oriented groups trooping to clubs or bars, but it holds groups of friends just as much as family with their children, lovers; all groups of people. We arrived at around 10PM and stayed until about 1AM, with little children no bigger than five years of age who’d be gazing around with their large, innocent eyes. Old, national, famous Egyptian songs would be played by various men with their various instruments – the oud, guitar, or just by strumming their fingers to a beat on the table tops, singing in groups or solo at tables, while the rest of the people listened. At one point, the entire cafe was singing and clapping along to an old Egyptian folk-song.

As the smoke of shisha wafts around, and trays of tea with mounds of sugar and mint leaves go around, I looked around- at the content, sun-kissed faces, and felt that this was truly a unique place. Perhaps an anthropological study would even be sufficient here, and no doubt would produce copious and interesting amounts of information. What are the norms in this cafe? If we see it as a meeting place of all sorts of people, what values and norms are suspended once you enter here, and which ones replace it?

It was an extremely chaotic place – with young boys coming through asking for money, or selling beads and the like, other slightly older boys would come through holding at least 15 books all piles up, carrying it with their hands linked underneath them and the books leaning on their chests, likewise trays of tea and hookah pipes would be swinging around by the very comfortable and obviously very-used-to-this waiters, with people dodging left and right. A waiter put down a drink on our table, and we mentioned to him this wasn’t ours and he said “I know.” After he was done fixing the fan on the wall behind us, he picked it up and swung off again to the drink’s destined table- and so, it was almost as if there was a new set of certain values and norms that had been set in place in this very place, with its mirrors, chandeliers, and laughter. Perhaps the study of human behavior in this segmented part of Egyptian social life could reflect certain values and ways-of-life of the Egyptian common man. There was some form of order to the chaos.

In this cafe, the people seemed drunk – but not on the alcohol that many Western societies drown themselves in after the sun disappears for the night, but on حياة (“haya”, Arabic for life), on friendship, on family. On hookah and sweetened mint tea, or drinks of رمان (“roman”, Arabic for pomegranate). A single policeman seemed to have been stationed there, in his smart, ironed-white uniform, and even he, had a lingering smile on his sun-kissed face, as he gazed around. One could sit there and let many hours slide by, just be observing the like. At least, that’s what I did. And so, this is a place of warmth, laughter, with its own customs and norms. One of the oldest cafes in el-Hussein area, one that has hosted kings, princes, movie stars, and the like.

As I was not able to capture a representative video that night, here is one on YouTube that captures much of the cafe’s essence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuGhtPvfWb0

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http://www.asherworldturns.com/cairo-bazaar-by-night/

 

 

 

Alexandria, The Pearl of the Mediterranean

Cities are stories, telling tales of expansion, degradation, conflicts, riots, natural and man-made disasters, of leaders, of change, of persecuted people’s, of cultural, political, of socio-economic histories. Alexandria has many tales on her skin, that would take years to hear and understand wholly. Alexandria tells tales of the mixing and overtaking of different cultures, of fiercer leaders, of a deep well of culture, a trading center, and so much more. It reminded me of San Diego meets Santa Barbara meets Porto. But maybe this is because I make sense of things by drawing comparisons, as humans think and make sense of their world by drawing similarities and understandings. It is how we situate ourselves in the chaotic world, to give some order to the chaos.

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Pompey’s Pillar

I went to Alexandria on a little day trip with my SO, as they seem to be calling it nowadays. We started off in what was apparently the armpit of Alexandria – slummy, on the outskirts, poor roads, maybe not even working, and filled with potholes, etc. There we saw Pompey’s Pillar and the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa. Pompey’s Pillar was as you would expect it – a tall pillar standing erect in the morning heat. Not very many tourists. The Catacombs, however, were much more interesting – there was a tragic backstory that we found out about from a guard who was stationed in the catacombs, 100 feet underground, who had become a sort of tourguide. Apparently a poor pottery maker fell down into the catacombs through a shaft with his donkey, dying on impact, and that’s how people found out about these catacombs that were used during the Greek period. After some research, I realise this may well be a folklore tale of myth, however, if so, it is a widespread one. The catacombs show the influence of multiple cultures of the 2nd century A.D. – Greek, Egyptian, and Roman.

We then had some hookah right by the sea. Ah yes, the sea part of Alexandria. The pace of life in Alexandria is exceedingly slow, but not in the same way as Cairo – which is a sort of slowness in the way that “we don’t care if you are here, we are a capital of a big, important country, and so we won’t be attentive or considerate to anyone else’ whereas the Alexandrian slowness was more of a “we live by the sea and we enjoy life here”. Quite c’est la vie-esque. We also dined at the Greek Club – filled with people from all walks of life, with fresh fish and the like and overlooking the Mediterranean sea. At night, families and children would all go into the sea, staying by the mouth of it, where dozens of plastic white chairs seemed to be almost stacked on top of each other.

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View from the Greek Club 

The Roman Ampitheatre and the Qait Fortbey didn’t leave much of an impression. Perhaps it was because both were closed, but also due to the amount of castles and ruins I have seen. Perhaps it was the lack of the story behind it that I got to know. We didn’t end up having time to see Montaza Palace, with its stretching gardens. No matter, next time.

I left the two most interesting parts of Alexandria until last – the cars/streets, and the Bibliotheca. We drove to Alexandria from Cairo and therefore had the car between each stop. At the end of the day, I was wondering if we should have taken the train there and hopped in cabs throughout the day from site to site. The traffic was the worst traffic I have ever experienced in my life. This is because Alexandria has recently experienced massive projects of expansion without consideration for how this would affect the congestion, traffic, housing, the local people’s, etc. The constant background hum of car’s honking in the streets reminded me of the chaotic streets in Shanghai. A few years ago, it was illegal for cars to honk in Alexandria. This struck me as particularly sad. Cars would often have to stop and wait for people to cross – this would happen maybe 5-6 times down one block. Parking was horrific, it was like in San Francisco. Anyone that has been to San Francisco in a car or tried to find parking there knows what this is like – almost impossible. We drove around 4 laps, doing u-turns, because we couldn’t find parking in any of the small streets in order to go walk by the quarry bay.

Finally, a young man had seen us desperately trying to squeeze our car in a space (only to find it didn’t fit, just as it had seemed, although desperation had taken over by this point hence the idiotic redundant attempt) and offered us to park on a slope, originally not meant for parking. There was a man who must have been about 100, holding a walking stick and the arm of a younger man who was chewing gum and had his earphones in, who were waiting patiently to cross a very narrow little street. We let him pass, only to have about 20 cars lining up behind us by the time the poor old man had passed. On the upside though, the abundance of interesting little old vintage cars was amazing. I’m not a car person myself, so I’m not able to name names but I could tell they were vintage, and “cool.” Some were pink, some old box-ish brownish red cars that you see in films like Greece. The buildings were colourful – many walls lightly pastel coloured, with trams plodding along slowly, countless people holding ice-creams in their hands, men sitting in big round wooden chairs on the pavements of cafes, one hand with tea, the other holding the pipe of a hookah.

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Hookah by the sea

Last, but not least, the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It had the most beautiful architecture on the outside, and in the inside it was all modern, but still kept the qualities a library should have. Many libraries I’ve been to that have been modernised have lost the “library” feeling – with books not even seen in sight. This one was filled with lovely wooden walls, but with modernised tables and desktops. We stumbled across the Rare Books Collection room, with the help of a secretary who wrote us the number of a book (otherwise you couldn’t get in). On a whim, we said we’d like to see the oldest manuscript they had of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – the influential physicians and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age for philosophy in the West and non-West and medicine across the world. We went into the absolutely freezing room and waited in a hushed silence for it. When we left, we saw rows and rows of digital archives in rooms that stretched on for what seemed like miles, alongside shelves and shelves of books, floor after floor. Standing there, it was overwhelming to think about the amount of knowledge compiled and unified together in that building. I strongly recommend visiting the Rare Books Collection for anyone going to the Bibliotheca Alexandria, which used to the biggest library in the world – with much of it burned when the city was overtaken by different leaders and empires throughout the ages, including supposedly by Julius Caesar during his civil war. However it is often noted that historians may glorify and exaggerate, the extent to which the library has suffered destruction and fires.

So that was Alexandria. The second biggest city in Egypt. The old Capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. The old cultural hub of the Mediterranean world.

Egypt’s “McDonaldization”

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El-Moshir Tantawy Mosque in Cairo. Eloquently encapsulating religion’s meeting with modernity.

Those that waft between places gain the gift of being able to see the changes more clearly than those who are in that place everyday; the incremental changes steering clear from their attention. I want to focus on two points in this post, of things that are, by late 2018, quite prominent and relevant:

  1. China-Egypt Relations

It should be no news to many that China-Egypt relations have been improving and increasing in the past years. Sisi came back from China last week, to discuss the FOCAC cooperation (China-African cooperation). The bilateral partnership is being strengthened by many projects the Chinese fund in Egypt, including creating Chinese language schools in Cairo, the Northwest Suez Economic zone, indeed, the new capital of Egypt is being funded largely by China. From a more macro view, Africa-China economic relations is an increasingly beneficial relationship, with China often funding infrastructure projects in return for resources for their rapidly growing consumption.

Beyond the international relations, political discussion, culturally I have seen very interesting developments in regards to China-Egypt relations. However, the racism prevalent in both countries is both sky-high. As a biracial person with a Chinese mother, I have spent my middle school and high school years in Shanghai, and often return to see my mother. This last time I was there, a couple of weeks ago, I experienced horrible remarks regarding black people that I will not repeat here. In Egypt, I am constantly mistaken for Japanese (something that has never happened to me before). A cab driver once translated what he was trying to say (which was objectification) into Japanese and handed me his phone. I stared at the Japanese on his phone before stuttering out “I’m Chinese” in poor Arabic. And so on and so forth.

Political sensitivity, “PC culture” (Political Correctness) is not a luxury developing countries can afford. This is something that I believe developed countries should take into account. It almost seems as though once a country largely pulls itself out of masses of poverty and corruption, they forget the authenticity of humans – it becomes individualistic, the race to make the most money, get the best car, the best house, the most charming spouse, etc., seems to be the entire point of life. Not that I know what the point of life is, nor does anyone else for that matter, but I am as certain as I can be that that is not it.

In these developing countries, people are the most important. Human connection. Having clean water, some shelter, food, and health. In Egypt, bread is literally called “Aesh”, the word for “life”. This isn’t the case in the other Arab countries. Yet, paradoxically, developing countries like Egypt and China also experience higher rates of racism and oblivion to racial ideologies and thoughts. It is yin and yang- there must be a give and take for everything.

At the end of the day, I hope China-Egypt relations will continue to flourish and will not turn sour. I suppose China is Egypt’s new papasito, after Russia and the US. Let’s hope China will be a benevolent papasito.  I saw a few Chinese people walking near me yesterday in Ikea, precisely in the bedroom section (I knew they were Chinese because they were speaking Mandarin), and I thought, ah, they must be struggling with being in a country where they can’t speak the language. This, I’ll admit, was a presumptious thought on my part, because later on I saw them again, and one of them was yelling down the phone in rapid Arabic, with a strong Delta accent. I hope to see more of this, everywhere- one of the positive results of globalisation. Things brings me to my second point of focus.

2. “McDonaldization”

The second point of focus I’ve been pondering upon regarding Egypt today is its “McDonaldization”. Originally coined by sociologist George Ritzer, the term is rather self-explanatory, referring to the rapid spread of McDonaldization globally. However, more deeply, and more importantly, it refers to the homogenisation of cultures due to globalisation. Some would argue it isn’t the homogenisation of cultures, but the Westernisation of cultures. This is a point of contention many argue within academic circles and the public sphere. There has been, up until recently, largely a Westernisation of cultures. However I believe the rapid dispersion of things like China Town, Korea Town, Japan Town, and restaurants of all around the world popping up around the world might be showing a shift to the homogenisation of cultures. It is simply too early to say, although we must be aware of ideological simplifications, such as the clash of civilisations theory, or the theories of the Edward Said-ians (the “West vs the Rest” notion is oversimplified and arguably outdated in today’s post-modern society).

Being in Ikea, I forgot for those two, stressful hours, that I was still in Egypt. Indeed, being in the complex in New Cairo – Festival City Mall – surrounded by fast food restaurants, clothing stores like DeCathlon, Toys R Us, and TGIF (not to mention McDonald’s itself, KFC, Costa coffee, etc) – I could have been in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Shanghai.

If I were driving by in a car, it would just look like any of those cities, just with a few more covered women. Another experience I had that shows this “McDonaldization”, or homogenisation of cultures, or perhaps the intertwining of cultures, was the boy who took care of the camels in Giza, one of which I was riding, and who was wearing a galebeya* with a sports cap – this strange and awkward juxtaposition perfectly captures this sentiment. As more and more of these places pop up, completely derived from any cultural authenticity, perhaps this is creating a new culture – a global culture.

*traditional Egyptian dress wear.

The Egyptian Cafe

For those who don’t know Naguib Mahfouz, he’s often considered the most influential writer of the Arab world, having won a 1988 Nobel Prize in literature and having produced over 30 novels and over 350 short stories. He is, of course, Egyptian. One of the reasons he is so well known is due to how he captures the colours, smells, and the atmosphere of Cairo in many of his novels. My favorites are that depict Cairo very strongly are Khan al-Khalili, Adrift on the Nile, Children of the Alley, Cairo Modern and of course, arguably his most famous work, the Cairo trilogy. 

(to see list of books written by Naguib Mahfouz, see https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/naguib-mahfouz/200620/).

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The cafe scene depicted in many of his books is a strong part of Egyptian society. Where one goes to escape the corruption and desperation of nihilistic tendencies, as graduates realise they are unable to  get a decent job or the ones they want without connections, as nationalistic individuals realise their fate has been placed in the wrong hands, or religious zealots lose their faith in God- many of the day to day troubles are forgotten in the smoky, hashish filled, cafes, with little cups of coffee or Egyptian tea (the one with no milk, occasionally mint leaves or sage, and usually many spoonfuls of sugar). Laughter fills the cafes, it is a place where, for a moment, we can truly be in the present.

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Throughout the day, one can hear the calls to prayer resounding from the mosques, the أَذَان  (pronounced “adhan”)  in Cairo. Five times a day. Although we don’t really understand what time is, we have, in some way, captured it to some extent- by being able to accurately get on a flight at the right time, meeting a friend at a cafe at said same time, and so on. The calls to prayer are, for me at least, incredibly calming, placing our stake, some sort of hold on reality , despite being infinitely small in the grand scheme of things, some order to the chaos, and that all is good and constant. Here is a beautiful video I found on YouTube that captures that essence, in a call to prayer taken in Giza: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMxUGB-lSqo

Particularly in today’s political climate, it’s important to understand Islam before judging it by the media that survive on the deviants and extremes of society. In 2010, the Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowment decided to have a single Islamic call to prayer resound from downtown Cairo, which will then be transmitted through thousands of mosques. This is because it was said before, when each mosque used their own muezzinine, or callers, there was chaos and lack of unity.  Many were unhappy about this change, as often times, change meets resistance, and many cling on to familiarity, confusing familiarity with a stubborn righteousness, perhaps in the attempt to feel we have control over the otherwise chaotic universe.

 

My Heart is in Sinai

Why was I, a nihilistic agnostic, going to Sinai, the land connecting the Middle Eastern world to the continent of Africa; where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments, one of the most significant places amongst the Abrahamic religions? Beyond religiously held importance, it has been a politically strategic area in the Arab-Israeli issue. Connecting Israel and Egypt, the 1957 Suez Crisis, the 1967 June war and the 1973 October War (aka Yom Kippur war) were each fought over the Sinai. Today, it is a place fought over between Islamic extremists and the authoritative entities of its surrounding nation-states. In 2018 the schools in the region were all shut down, due to Egyptian and Israeli authority cooperating (a big feat, considering their recent history) in battling Islamic State, which has control over parts of the Northern territories. However, the South, is considered, overall, to be safe, protected by its tourism and Bedouins.

The “Sinai Trafficking Cycle” is another phenomenon in the Sinai. It refers to the ransom of humans, mainly Eritreans, occur. These Eritreans are fleeing from the Eritrean dictatorship, only to be caught up in a web of corrupt Egyptian, Sudanese and Israeli officials along the borders and within Sinai. Many attempt to reach Israel, however they are instead greeted with things like Israel’s Anti-Infiltration Law, which doesn’t protect refugees but merely treats them as social deviants (instilled originally in 1954 under the Prevention to Infiltration Law aimed at Palestinians or nationals from other Arab countries Israel was not allies with). These each, in turn, contribute to this cycle of extortion.

Yet Sinai is more than its political, economic and religious affiliations – it is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I traveled to Dahab (meaning “gold” in Arabic), and Rashidun. These two places were quite different from one another. Our first stop, Dahab, was a brightly little coloured town, where you could smell the salty breeze throughout. Many hippie expats and travelers were there- many scuba divers, and the like. We rented bikes and biked to the edge of the slice of land we were on. There were some Bedouin’s there, who had tents set up, horses grazing by, and would come and offer us tea and other little trinkets. So we settled there, gazing into the mirage of the brilliant sun , the sea, the rocky mountains surrounding us, and let our imaginations carry us away.

At one point, a Bedouin man came and lay near to us, but he wrapped a blanket under him so it ballooned over him in the wind. There he slept peacefully on the sand next to the sea. I could tell he was a Bedouin due to their relaxed manner, the way they work with the land, and their calm, serendipitous expressions.

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Our next stop was Rashidun. This is not a place many tourists or foreigners go to. Indeed, there was only about 30 huts or so, and almost all were empty. A few Bedouin’s that took care of the place would cook us dinner every night. There was one communal bathroom with cold water. We washed our swimsuits and towels in the ocean. I’ll admit, the first night I let my fears get the better of me, promising myself I’d leave the very next morning. However, I slept better than I had for a very long time. Our hut was about 10 meters from the sea, and falling asleep to the sound of the waves that stretched on to the horizon and then fell over the horizon, made me feel comfortably cocooned.

We climbed a jagged rock mountain, with a stray dog who eyed us suspiciously about half-way up and whom we eyed back suspiciously, but alas it did not leap at us nor did it bite us, it was, contrary to my fears, not rabid. The top of the mountain was very rewarding. I’m not sure if a word for this feeling exists in other languages, but in Mandarin and English it does not- the feeling one gets when atop of a mountain, and when looking down on the land and the little ant-like human figures that from below seem like everything; it puts things into perspectives and makes one realise (remember?) our place in the grand scheme of things.

 

Things Are Not What They Seem

The second time I visited Egypt was one week after I had left – that’s how long it was bearable for me to be away. I wanted to find a tabla (Indian drums) for my aunt, who lives in Oxford and loves playing the tabla. I found myself walking along Muhammad Ali Street, chaotic and full of musical shops. Not realising the word for tabla in Arabic was “tabla”, I had the image of a tabla on my phone, which I would gingerly show men* as I walked down the street.

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Finally, one young boy took my phone, and began to walk away with it, while motioning for me to follow him. Alarmed, I immediately began following him, preparing myself to sprint after him if he decided to bolt with my phone. He brought me to a little shop where there was a round, little old man sitting inside, with a pair of spectacles hanging around his neck, and he was happily talking away in Arabic on the phone. The young boy and I awkwardly waited there (he still had my phone), before the little old man hung up the phone, looked at me with smiling eyes surrounded by wrinkles, and said (in quite good English) to me, “Good Morning!

It was a great feeling to find someone who could speak some English, perhaps the first for a few days. “Good Morning!” I replied back to him happily. Soon enough, he and the young boy had invited me in for tea at least three times. I could no longer refuse. So there I was, sitting in a store with this round little old man whose name I can’t remember, drinking hot tea in little plastic cups with no milk, chatting away happily. He asked me many questions, and had me write my email down on a piece of paper. Ah, the difference between the Instagram, Twitter, and FaceBook dominated first world! At one point I was on the phone talking to his brother who lived in England and his brother’s wife. Finally, he led me to another shop, where they sold tablas, and where I, according to him, got a tabla for supposedly much cheaper the original price.

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My experiences in Egypt are filled with stories like this. The kinds of stories that only happens in a country free of the burdens of the everyday rush, the 9-5, the commutes, the competition of who-can-make-the-most-money-the-quickest; it is a society where human connection, a conversation over some tea, under the golden haze of the sun that is only quite so golden in Egypt, and عيش (“aish”, the Egyptian Arabic word for “bread”, literally meaning “life”- this is symbolic of their society and views), is everything. It wasn’t long before I had fallen in love with the Egyptian sun, their aesh beladin (Egyptian flatbread) ,طعمية (“ta’ameya”, Egyptian falafel made with fava beans) , and the Egyptian people and society itself.

One of the nights that trip I found myself at a concert of Ghalia Benali, the Tunisian singer who is extremely influential in the Arab world for contemporary Arabic music. It was set inside a huge mosque, with babies, grandparents, families with members of all ages there, spread out across the grass. Some had brought stools. By the time it was the end of the concert, people had stood up on stools to see her better (some brave individuals even stood on the backs of chairs). Everyone clapped to the tune, as, in that moment, we were all connected, through the same vibrations that coursed through our bodies, our hands clapping in the same movements harmoniously.

*Men due to the fact that most of the people on the streets in Egypt are men. There are many factors due to this. As a religious, military state, where women do not enjoy the freedoms such as they may in the US or UK, or other democratic Western countries, the men are often sauntering in the street, gazing at you. This is also due to the destitute state of the economy currently, rendering many bored out of their minds everyday.

Greatly Misunderstood

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“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.”