I am standing at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Across the street and the chaos of cars is the monumental building of Mogamma. In my back is Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is a beautiful view with the sunset in front of me and on my right side the rose-coloured building of the Egyptian Museum. I get my phone out of my bag to make some photos and to let time pass by faster until my friend will arrive at our meeting point.
Suddenly a man stands next to me. I had not realized when exactly he came closer. He is wearing sun glasses and is a bit taller than me. I guess he must be in his 40s or 50s. I get nervous. I immediately forget the calm atmosphere with the sunset and start asking myself: What does he want from me? “This is the Tahrir Square.” He answers as if he had read my mind. He is smiling and pointing at the wide place in front of us. “And this is the Egyptian Museum and this is…” “Ana ‘arifa – I know.”
I interrupt him in Arabic to show him that I am not a tourist wandering around in Egypt but that I in fact know exactly at what historical Square I am standing right know. “Ah, you speak Arabic, welcome to Egypt!” He now talks Arabic with me and asks me where I am from and what I am doing here in Cairo. The longer we talk the more relaxed I become. The horrifying pictures which had risen in my head from the minute this stranger started talking to me are fading. The man and I are talking for a few minutes. Then he wishes me a wonderful time here in Egypt and goes away with another: “Welcome to Egypt!”. And he leaves me behind being confused and a bit angry at myself.
Alone, in Egypt, as a woman
I have thought a lot about this situation since then. I am now three months in Egypt for my semester abroad at the Cairo University. Before I came to Egypt my friends and family gave me many advises how to behave here. Never talk to strangers, never look a man on the streets directly in the eyes… The question I was asked so many times was: “Isn’t it dangerous to go to Egypt all alone – as a WOMAN?” All these fears and worries kind of implemented in my head. In the first few weeks in Cairo I was afraid of walking alone in the streets and scared of nearly everybody. I just left my apartment to go to university or to meet friends.
But the situation at the Tahrir Square made me realize: It is not more dangerous in Egypt than in Europe. The online difference may be that Egyptian people are more open and curious about new people. This man just wanted to be nice and to explain to me the place. Ok, to be honest, he surely wanted to sell me anything or wanted to invite me to his shop which is of course selling the best perfumes in all of Egypt for the best price. But what matters is that he did not intend to rape or to rob me.
As soon as I realized that I started to take a closer look on everyday situations:
I was standing in the hall of my university and was waiting for a friend who was discussing something with the professor. Suddenly a boy approached me and asked if I am lost or if I need any help. When I told him, everything was fine he said, “Welcome to Egypt!” and went away. He did not want to flirt with me. He just thought I could need a helping hand.
I was ordering Shawarma at a street shop and during the time it took to prepare the meat and the bread the seller started a conversation with me. He was asking me where I am from, what I am doing here and welcomed me in Egypt.
“Your are not German, you are Egyptian!”
I was sitting in the car of an Uber-driver on my way home. I tried to explain to the driver the way and we had a discussion if it is better to take the University-bridge or the Abbas-bridge. In the end, I was right and the driver gave me the biggest compliment he could which lightened up my whole day. He told me: “You are not German, you are Egyptian! Welcome to Egypt!”
Egyptians are more open and more communicative than Germans. In Germany, you just try to do your work as fast as possible and you don’t want to be disturbed by talking to strangers. So, when you buy food you do not start a conversation with the seller about his family or problems in life. And when you take a taxi you just tell the driver where you want to go and do not explain to him your whole life story. That is maybe why many tourists or foreigners misunderstand the Egyptian behaviour and always think: “Those people would not talk to me if they don’t want anything from me.” So, Germans are often sceptic when it comes to strangers.
The rare animal species in Cairo’s streets
Of course, there are still situations when I feel uncomfortable – especially as a girl. For example, when I am walking by a street café in which dozens of men are sitting, smoking shisha and scanning me with their eyes. I always try to ignore these stares which are so obvious that I wonder why those men are not ashamed of themselves. I do not understand why most of the men don’t even try to hide their looks. But never did one of these men talk to me or even tried to touch me. So again, this may be just a curiosity but nevertheless it makes me feel like an alien or a rare animal species.
The point is to not get misled by prejudices about other people and other countries. What may seem strange for a German could be totally normal for an Egyptian. It is not necessarily more dangerous to live as a girl in Egypt than to live in Europe. Therefore, it is so utterly important to keep your mind open and to just experience different culture. Because sometimes people are just happy to see tourists in their country and want to explain to them the history of the Tahrir Square. In this sprit: welcome to Egypt!
By Sabrina Ahmed