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Culture and etiquette

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To get the most from a trip to Egypt, it is vital not to assume that anyone who approaches you is on the make. Too many tourists do, and end up making little contact with an extraordinarily friendly people. Even in response to insistent offers or demands, try to avoid being rude or aggressive in refusing.

Intimate behaviour in public (kissing and cuddling) is a no-no, and even holding hands is disapproved of. Be aware, too, of the importance of dress: shorts are socially acceptable only at beach resorts (and for women only in private resorts or along the Gulf of Aqaba coast), while shirts (for both sexes) should cover your shoulders. Many tourists ignore these conventions, unaware of how it demeans them in the eyes of the Egyptians. Women wearing halter-necks, skimpy T-shirts, miniskirts and the like will attract gropers, and the disapproval of both sexes. If you’re visiting a mosque, you’re expected to be “modestly” dressed (men should be covered from below the shoulder to below the knee, women from wrist to ankle). It’s also obligatory to remove shoes (or don overshoes).

When invited to a home, it’s normal to take your shoes off before entering the reception rooms. It is customary to take a gift: sweet pastries (or tea and sugar in rural areas) are always acceptable.

One important thing to be aware of in Egypt is the different functions of the two hands. Whether you are right- or left-handed, the left hand is used for “unclean” functions, such as wiping your bottom or putting on shoes, so it is considered unhygienic to eat with it. You can hold bread in your left hand in order to tear a piece off, but you should never put food into your mouth with your left hand, nor put it into the bowl when eating communally.

Egyptians are likely to feel very strongly about certain subjects – Palestine, Israel and Islam, for instance, and these should be treated diplomatically if they come up in conversation. Some Egyptians are keen to discuss them, others not, but carelessly expressed opinions, and particularly open contempt for religion, can cause serious offence.

Tipping and baksheesh

As a presumed-rich khawaga (foreigner), you are expected to be liberal with baksheesh, which can be divided into three main varieties. The most common is tipping: a small reward for a small service – anything from waiter service to unlocking a tomb or museum room. Try to strike a balance between defending your own wallet and acquiescing gracefully when appropriate. There’s little point getting upset or offending people over what are trifling sums for a Western tourist but an important part of people’s livelihood in a country where many people live on less than £50/$75 a month.

Typical tips might be £E1–2 for looking after your shoes while you visit a mosque (though congregants don’t usually tip for this), or £E5–10 to a custodian for opening up a door to let you enter a building or climb a minaret. In restaurants, you do not usually leave a percentage of the bill: typical tips (regardless of whether the bill claims to include “service”) are as little as £E3 in an ultra-cheap place such as a kushari joint, £E3–5 in a typical cheap restaurant, or £E10–25 in a smarter establishment. Customers also usually give tips of £E1–2 in a café, and sometimes 50pt–£E1 in a juice bar.

A more expensive and common type of baksheesh is for rewarding the bending of rules – many of which seem to have been designed for just that purpose. Examples might include letting you into an archeological site after hours (or into a vaguely restricted area), finding you a sleeper on a train when the carriages are “full”, and so on. This should not be confused with bribery, which is a more serious business with its own etiquette and risks – best not entered into.

The last kind of baksheesh is simply alms-giving. For Egyptians, giving money and goods to the needy is a natural act – and a requirement of Islam. The disabled are traditional recipients of such gifts, and it seems right to join locals in giving out small change. Children, however, are a different case, pressing their demands only on tourists. If someone offers genuine help and asks for an alum (pen), it seems fair enough, but to yield to every request encourages a cycle of dependency that Egypt could do without.

Since most Egyptian money is paper, often in the form of well-used banknotes that can be fiddly to separate out, it can make life easier to keep small bills in a separate “baksheesh pocket” specifically for the purpose. If giving baksheesh in foreign currency, give notes rather than coins (which can’t be exchanged for Egyptian currency).

Hustlers

Hustling is a necessity for millions of Egyptians – cadging money for errands or knowing a “cousin” who can sort things out. The full-time khirtiyya who focus on tourists are versatile, touting for hotels, pushing excursions (often vastly marked up), steering tourists into shops or travel agencies (where their commission will be quietly added to your bill), and even being gigolos. They’ll latch on to you as soon as you arrive (at the airport in Cairo or Luxor), hail you on the street like an old friend (“Hey! Remember me?”), or say anything to grab your attention (“You’ve dropped your wallet”). If they don’t already know, they’ll try to discover where you’re staying, what your plans are, and pester you regularly.

It’s easy to get fed up with being hassled and react with fury to any approach from strangers – even a sincere “Welcome to Egypt”. Try to keep your cool and respond politely; intoning la shukran (no thanks) with your hand on your heart, while briskly moving on, will dissuade most street peddlers. Or you could try a humorous riposte to classic come-ons like “I know what you need” – Fil mish mish (“In your dreams!”) works well. If necessary, escalate to a gruff khalas (“Enough!”) and if that doesn’t suffice, bawling shorta (“Police!”) is sure to send any hustler packing.

Women travellers

Sexual harassment is rife in Egypt: 98 percent of foreign women visitors and 83 percent of Egyptian women have experienced it, according to one survey. The perception that women tourists are “easy” is reinforced by their doing things that no respectable Egyptian woman would: dressing “immodestly”, showing shoulders and cleavage, sharing rooms with men to whom they are not married, drinking alcohol in bars or restaurants, smoking in public, even travelling alone on public transport without a relative as an escort. While well-educated Egyptians familiar with Western culture can take these in their stride, less sophisticated ones are liable to assume the worst. Tales of affairs with tourists, especially of Hurghada’s Russian visitors, who are regarded as being quite scandalous, are common currency among Egyptian males. In Sinai, however, unaccompanied women experience few hassles, except from construction workers from “mainland” Egypt.

Without compromising your freedom too greatly, there are a few steps you can take to improve your image. Most important and obvious is dress: loose opaque clothes that cover all “immodest” areas (thighs, upper arms, chest) and hide your contours are a big help, and essential if travelling alone or in rural areas (where covering long hair is also advisable). On public transport (buses, trains, service taxis), try to sit with other women – who may invite you to do so. On the Cairo metro and trams in Alexandria there are carriages reserved for women. If travelling with a man, wearing a wedding ring confers respectability, and asserting that you’re married is better than admitting to being “just friends”.

Looking confident and knowing where you’re going always helps, and it’s worth avoiding eye contact with Egyptian men (some women wear sunglasses for the purpose), and best to err on the side of standoffishness, as even a friendly smile may be taken as a come-on. Problems – most commonly hissing or groping – tend to come in downtown Cairo and in the public beach resorts (except Sinai’s Aqaba coast, or Red Sea holiday villages – probably the only places you’ll feel happy sunbathing). In the oases, where attractions include open-air springs and hot pools, it’s okay to bathe – but do so in at least a T-shirt and leggings: oasis people are among the most conservative in the country.

Some women find that verbal hassle is best ignored, while others may prefer to use an Egyptian brush-off like khalas (enough!) or uskut (be quiet). If you get groped, the best response is to yell aram! (evil!) or sibnee le wadi (don’t touch me), which will shame any assailant in public, and may attract help, or scare them away by shouting shorta! (police!).

Spending time with Egyptian women can be a delight. The difficulty is that fewer women than men speak English, and that you won’t run into women in traditional cafés. Public transport can be a good meeting ground, as can shops. Asking directions in the street, it’s always better to ask a woman than a man.

Gigolos are part of the tourist scene in Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada, Sinai and Cairo. The exchange of sex for cash usually occurs under the guise of true love, with misled women spending money on their boyfriends or “husbands” until their savings run out and the relationship hits the rocks. Enough foreigners blithely rent toyboys and settle into the scene for locals to make the point that neither side is innocent, but be aware that HIV is a big danger on the gigolo scene – always use protection.

Many enter into so-called Orfi (or “Dahab”) marriages, usually arranged by a lawyer, to circumvent the law that prohibits unmarried couples from sleeping under the same roof. These allow couples to rent a flat without hassle from the Vice Squad and can be annulled without a divorce. However, an Orfi marriage does not confer the same legal rights as a full marriage in a special registry office (Sha’ar al-Aqari) in Cairo, which is the only kind that allows women to bring their spouse to their own country or gives them any rights in child-custody disputes. Women can bolster their position by insisting on a marriage contract (pre-nuptial agreement).

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