The hustle in Cairo is no joke! Be careful.
That was the warning I heard constantly from others who had previously visited the city. They told me stories of Egyptians pretending to assist them, then flipping the script and demanding large sums of money for doing almost nothing. Hustles were at the airport, restaurants, tourist sites, souks, and hotels. I couldn’t trust the children. If I handed over my camera to get anyone to take a photo of me, I might not get it back without having to pay a large fee. Painted wood and other cheap materials were being passed off as authentic alabaster. There would be a fee to use the bathroom in the airport. They would attempt to charge entry fees multiple times for places that should be free. I was expecting people to be rude, aggressive, and aggravating.
Part of me understood. Egypt relies heavily on tourism, but the impact of terrorism has plummeted the industry. The media coverage hasn’t been positive since the Revolution. Many people in the tourism industry weren’t able to support themselves and their families in the same way they previously could. Tourism was down, but those bills didn’t stop. Money needed to come by any means necessary. My tour guide dealt with the questions of safety so much, he started his own #EgyptIsSafe campaign to attract visitors.
With all of those warnings in the back of my head, I walked off the plane wearing my resting bitch face in preparation for the shenanigans that would ensue. In addition to this, I had lots of single dollar bills for tips in my wallet. The concept of handing over money for the most ridiculous reasons wouldn’t feel so annoying since I added “tipping for existing” to my budget.
My interactions in Cairo were mostly pleasant, but I won’t pretend it was all great. When I left my hotel on the first day to buy juice and snacks at the convenience store a few blocks away, I was followed by a man who was trying to get my attention. Because I didn’t acknowledge him, he proceeded to follow me for a full block before he stopped. I encountered the same man again on the way back to my hotel, but he didn’t follow me that time. Instead, he tried to act as though he remembered me from my hotel, but I never made eye contact and I never skipped a beat in my walk. Perhaps I should have been frightened by the idea that he knew or assumed where I was staying, but the thought never occurred to me and the metal detectors at the entrance of the hotel gave me a false sense of security. It was just annoying street harassment.
Many people stared, but not with a look of disgust. It was mostly a look of genuine interest about the mysterious foreign girl with dark brown skin and long black braids who wasn’t wearing a hijab. It never bothered me, but one of my guides was obviously unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with the additional attention. Being stared at is a common occurrence in my tales of traveling while black, and it can get old fast. Maybe I’ve adjusted to it over the years, or maybe my Aries sun and Leo Rising enjoys all eyes on me.
My hair was a hot topic to many locals. I’ve only worn braids three times in my adult life, so I wasn’t quite prepared for those inquiries. Most of them were just comments about my hair being beautiful. Once, an officer asked respectfully to touch one of my braids, and I allowed it. Someone else touched it without my permission, and I was furious.
I don’t think I’ve ever been called “brown sugar” before, but I heard that more than I heard my name. It was especially common at the Khan el-Khalili souk.
“Brown sugar, I have galabaya for you!”
“Brown sugar, would you like to see my shop?!”
“Welcome, brown sugar! I have perfume for you. Special price!”
About three times, I was told this pickup line: “Look, you dropped something – my heart!” Yes, the constant street harassment can make one weary, but the best thing for me was to not acknowledge anyone. Even saying “la shukran” would have been an invitation for additional harassment, so I said nothing at all. I walked into the Khan el-Khalili souk knowing exactly what I wanted to buy and nothing more, so it was easy for me to ignore the vendors vying for my attention.
When it was time for me to leave Cairo, the men at the departures hall were like vultures. Although my guide walked me and my luggage directly to the check-in area, they still attempted to “help” me with where to go once he left. I already knew exactly where to go, and they wanted to assist with my luggage despite the fact I had one lightweight piece which rolled easily.
As I mentioned earlier, my interactions in Cairo were mostly pleasant. A group of children on a field trip to the Egyptian Museum smiled at me and each said “Welcome to Egypt!” with such pride that the words could have come from official dignitaries. Their voices and their burgundy school uniforms are stained into my memory.
The man at the market sat me in his shop, gave me hibiscus tea, and showed me photos of his family in his wallet. At the end of my visit, he made me pull out my right hand. He looked me in my eye as he proceeded to place a small turtle carved in blue stone into the palm my right hand. He folded each of my fingers over them until I gripped the figurine tightly, then he wished me good luck and longevity.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when invited into someone’s home or shop, the offer of a welcome drink cannot be denied. It’s customary and considered rude to deny, so I drank more hibiscus tea than ever while in Cairo. Hibiscus tea tastes great, so there were no complaints from me about it.
The Assistant Manager of the papyrus shop gifted me a scroll about black history, and wrote my name in ancient Egyptian letters at the bottom of the scroll. That was a nice gesture. She discussed the meaning behind each letter of my name, and then we talked about astrology.
A man in a perfume shop addressed me as the Queen of Sheba, and tried to introduce me to his son. He encouraged me to come back with a husband, and although he meant well, I’m still in the “marriage is a sham” level of life. If someone placed a gun to my head and forced me to get married, I’d aim to be with a black woman anyway. BLOOP!
That’s not even half of the wonderful things that I can say about the people of Cairo. Having a guide and refusing to acknowledge people who were trying to get my attention were the keys to navigating the city without any incidents. Budgeting for extensive tipping would probably help as well. Thankfully, I didn’t feel hustled because I knew what to expect.