Coping Lessons from Cairo

Old_Cairo_Egypt I lived in Cairo for three months.  During that time, I would occasionally see luxury buses shuffling group tourists from sight to sight.  They look comfortable in those air-conditioned and cushy seats. Pressing their curious faces against windows and surveying their surroundings from an elevated position, they are safely segregated from the crowded, noisy, chaotic and often dirty world on the other side.  I used to wonder what those people saw from where they were sitting, and how different that would be from the point where I was standing.

Dealing with street harassment.  This is not politically correct, but any woman who has traveled through Egypt, or some parts of the Arab Middle East, knows this is a fact of life.  Every non-Egyptian woman I met in Egypt has devised some variation of this multi-step coping mechanism.  It’s ok for tourists to do what they like. But once you settle in and decide to wander around Egyptian streets without getting the tourist treatment, there are unspoken rules one must abide by to avoid harassment.

Step one, learn to walk straight without making eye contact.  Any split-second of eye contact will result in more attention than you’ll get from walking naked on a beach in Rio.  And you can be sure that someone is always ready to catch your gaze, whichever direction you look.  If you’re a woman, you’re a fish ready for bait.  I’ll talk about this more in the coming weeks.

Step two, play dumb or play deaf, preferably both.  Egyptian women walk around going about their business, but few loiter at shop fronts and alleys the way men do.  Getting from A to B, it’s impossible not to walk pass swaths of bored men.  And as sure as prayers will take place at dawn, those men will attempt to get your attention.  Here’s my favourite.  A typical Lothario will learn back against some slab of concrete or pole, tilt his chin up, then move his head up and down while going “pssss, pssstt, psst pssss psstpst”.  My friend Sarah termed this “cat’s mating call”.  So, feigning ignorance is the way to go.

Step three, look like crap.  The first issue here is the matter of clothing.  You need to cover everything up, and I mean everything: forearms, ankles, other exposed areas that do not interfere with breathing or your field of vision.  That means no T-shirt without a long-sleeved shirt underneath, no V-necks, no skirt, no shorts, not even capris.  After that, you need to pick out from your remaining wardrobe items that cling to your body, because nothing can be tight or too form-fitting.  Toward the end of my stay, I walked around my neighbourhood with a pair of beaten up hiking shoes paired with sweatpants that gave me a droopy butt.  Lastly, make sure hair and make-up are as low-maintenance as possible. In this land, the onus of “non-provocation” is burdened by women, and little responsibilities rest with men.

Step four, learn to yell foul.  Egypt is a police state.  And that’s a surprisingly comforting thing to know for foreigners concerned about safety.  I don’t think I have ever felt uneasy with walking home at midnight in Cairo.  The city comes alive at night, and you can hardly walk for a block without bumping into yet another police officer or security booth.  So if one is bothered in any way, yelling loudly is often enough to scare the harasser away.  If not, “police” is the magic password.  Apparently, police has quite the reputation on the street.

It took me a while to get used to yelling, and a while longer to accept the crass person that I had to become in order to yell.  But daily life necessitated the mastery of such skill.  Within a few weeks, I had yelled at taxi drivers for their exorbitant fees, at men making gestures at me or trying to touch me, at cars trailing me and propositioning me for god-knows-what, at getting pinched on the butt at the bazaar.  Yelling scared those creeps off, but it didn’t make them disappear from life altogether.

The price is right? Egypt is one place where prices are not fixed, and how much you get charged depends on who you are and how much you are willing to pay.  In retrospect, it’s really no big deal.  In the words of my ex-boss: when you’re stupid, you pay to learn.

But at the beginning, when you have no point of reference as to how much things are supposed to cost, you bargain with blinders on.  During her first days in Cairo as a student, one German girl apparently got conned into paying 30 (Egyptian) pounds for a street falafel, something that usually costs 1 or 2 (1 pound is approximately 13 Euro cents, or 18 US cents).  After all, 4 Euros was a perfectly reasonable price for a falafel, back in Germany.  Everyone makes this kind of mistake at least once.  Even after a lengthy stay in the country, there’s no full immunity from getting ripped off.  Egyptians also get conned from time to time.

The solution to this problem was relatively simple: just know the price of everything that doesn’t have a price tag on.  Otherwise, bargain, and bargain hard. When I first took Arabic classes in Cairo, and came into contact with a large number of mostly European students, I learned not only of the necessity of bargaining, but the obligation to do so.

I’ll never forget the scolding I received along with a British girl – newly relieved from her tour in Afghanistan.  We talked about the frivolousness of bargaining a taxi ride down from the measly 10 pounds to the fair price of 5 (as there are no working meters in cabs).  Overhearing our conversation, a Swiss woman who had made temporary residence in Cairo gave us a vocal whiplash.  If all foreigners give in to the doubling or tripling of fair prices, then the cost of living for ex-pats – many working on Egyptian salaries, will become seriously unaffordable in no time.  This issue is particularly problematic when it comes to hailing taxis, since that is the only relatively reliable and convenient source of transportation (as far as non-Arabic speakers are concerned) in Egypt.

The matter is actually two-fold.  Egyptian taxi drivers do not take directions the Western way. For example, there are no GPS guides, street names (unless they are major roads) have little meaning, many drivers are illiterate.  So unless you go into the cab with a precise intersection, or landmark (usually a midan, or a mosque), communicated in a clear and understandable manner, the trip can become an affair laden with frustrated hand gestures and agitated voices.

Soon enough, I learned that most Egyptians ask to get dropped off at an easily accessible street corner and walk the last little leg of the trip.  This shortens the taxi ride and lowers the fee, while allowing the driver to pick up another customer with less trouble.  Uninitiated foreigners however, insist on getting dropped in front of one’s doorstep. This can lead to complications for the driver. Getting to the exact street address is no small feat in a city like Cairo.  End of the day, westerners are stupefied by the inconvenience of it all, while Egyptian drivers want to extract an added fee for having so much demanded of them.

I later found out that there’s also some kind of toll attached to having English spoken at you.  Many younger taxi drivers in Egypt are educated university graduates that cannot find a job.  Thus, getting foreigners in their cabs give them an outlet for their education, and some become self-anointed cultural ambassadors for a fee.  After a while, this became a tiring charade, and I learned to stop speaking to the drivers, lest I am demanded to pay for unwanted entertainment after the fact.

The easiest way to maneuver around taxi drivers that always want more – as they are one of the most aggressive parties you must deal with, is to adopt the following.  First, never ask how much a trip costs before you get into the cab.  This works in complete contradiction to common practice in other less-developed countries.  In Egypt, one should always know how much a trip costs and have the exact change on hand before getting into a cab, and knowing directions in Arabic help tremendously.  Upon arriving at destination, one should get out of the taxi first, then hand over the cash through the window, preferably rolled into a wad.  That should give you enough getaway time while the driver counts it.  This may sound highly sinister and paranoid, but unless you want to have a middle-aged taxi driver yelling in your face for five minutes, this is the fail-safe way.

In coming weeks, I’ll talk about navigating through a country with no traffic lights, smooth talking men eager to be my friend, the difficulties of learning Arabic, the small but eccentric ex-pat community in Cairo, and other highs and lows of the Egyptian life.

picture source: ~Abdusalam

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