This is what people often tell us when we tell them we’re in Egypt. We understand why.
Thoughts immediately go to Tahrir Square, where the the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak presidency happened, or to the 2013 aftermath, when forces under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (still in power) attacked protesters after not managing to resolve differences peacefully. In each of these incidents around a thousand people (different sources give different numbers) died, with several thousands more injured.
Thoughts also go to occasional bits of alarming news. A photojournalist was sentenced to prison in absentia for taking photos of a protest. A TV interviewer was sent to jail for interviewing someone who’s gay and thus “promoting homosexuality”. A man was killed last week in the south of Cairo for attempting to prevent sexual assault — stabbed by the assailant. A tourist was just released after over a year of jail for bringing prescription pain relief medicine in her luggage — not even thinking to conceal it. Recent bombings killed tourists near the pyramids and locals in Coptic Cairo.
So why do we feel safe? Well, we don’t, necessarily. Stuff happens everywhere, including our home countries, and others that have safer reputations. But we feel safe by knowing where there’s real danger of and doing our best to avoid those places.
Here’s what we know about staying safe in Cairo, Egypt.
We’re less likely to be randomly murdered in Egypt than in the US
Safety in San Francisco wasn’t crash hot. There are parts of the Mission (where I lived) where you just shouldn’t walk at night. Or in the day. I often say I gave many people a wide berth, and not just because “berth” is a funny word.
While violent assault in the US is statistically rare, in SF you keep getting reminded it might happen at any time. People yell vile things for no reason. If you walk past someone sketchy you face a real risk being lunged at. In our few years in SF, Jo and I were in lockdown in our offices several times because of shooters in the area who had made direct threats.
In the US in 2018 there were almost as many mass shootings as there were days in the year. Definitions vary, but that’s still a lot!
Meanwhile, you can apparently get semi-automatic weapons in Egypt pretty easily (extremely easily at second-hand markets like the Weapons Market, as-sou’ al-aslaaH, where nobody cares about papers, and also from fancy malls for 10x the price, and all affordable for khawaagas like us), but mass shootings by members of the public are basically unheard of. And there are 100 million people in this country so it’s not a numbers game.
Egyptians describe themselves as pretty hot-blooded. “We’re like the Italians and the Greeks!” one friend told us. Even if this is true (we haven’t seen much evidence of hot-bloodedness except on soap operas), it still just amounts to verbal drama.
And yes, violent crime in Egypt is generally noted as being on the rise. But Egypt is still not known for a place where you should generally be worried about physical safety. So if you’re wondering “Is Cairo safe from a crime perspective?” then yes, we still feel safe from threats from random members of the public.
Luckily Cairo people are helpful… once you have their attention
It’s hard jostling your way to the front of the line, like to buy metro tickets (because you really need a human person to sell you one of three values of ticket, I mean how would you automate that). People push in a lot. We let them, mostly because we’re about to hold everyone else up from being slow to understand and slow to get out the right amount of money. (Note: lines are still much more orderly in Egypt than they were in Mainland China, where humans move like a perfectly flowing liquid to occupy any available space.)
But at least but once you’re at the front, the person will help you. They’ll speak slow Arabic. They don’t mind being asked. They’ll help.
My theory on this, apart from people being nice, is that in a world where nothing makes sense and everything keeps moving, explaining things verbally is the only way to keep on top of things. How do I buy ta’meyya (felafel) on its own? I have no idea. It’s not on the menu. I have to ask the guy. To which window do we come back to pick up our visas? I have to ask the person behind the counter. There’s no sign, no website, no official guidance anywhere and what’s a website anyway. How much are the oranges? Five LE per kilo?? They were 3.50 yesterday. And 7 from that guy… so I’ll take it. Whatever. But it’d be impossible to put up a sign for a price, right?
(And no, foreign-ness wasn’t a pricing factor in our more residential neighbourhood. When I asked for 10 LE worth he kept adding oranges until it added up. Again, he was helpful!)
People will stare or ogle, especially at women
We get stared at a lot. It doesn’t help that Jo’s hair is epic all the time. With fair hair a relative rarity, her outrageously great hair is surely a large draw. But that’s no excuse.
It’s creepy. I hate it. It makes me feel very uncomfortable having this many people — men and women, but mostly men — look at Jo. Part of it is the constant dialogue going on in my head, wondering what they’re thinking. Are they judging her? Are they judging me? Well, frankly, they can get stuffed.
The most distressing part, personally, is how it makes me want to ask Jo to cover up. This is me becoming the oppressor. I won’t do it! But at the same time, I have to balance it with the risk of her being attacked, however slim. I’d do anything to prevent that. Including oppressing her slightly, or oppressing both of us by avoiding some areas at some times of the week. So far, Jo feels comfortable not covering her hair (and it’s her call to make), but she does go by general Egypt guidance to wear long-sleeved tops and jeans.
Being ogled is an incredibly common part of life as a woman in Egypt. Two filmmakers made a documentary about it in 2015 (The People’s Girls), and created a video called “Creepers on the Bridge” (in the same vein as “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman”). Just this clip is hard to watch, but you should. There’s a longer one, called “Four Hours of Walking as a Woman in Cairo” which just makes me hang my head in sadness.
On a necessary lighter note: women are interested in Jo too. In a busy area, various women will ask to take photos every couple of minutes. I genuinely wonder where these photos are going. “This is the time we met an Asian woman.” ?? Does anyone know? Why don’t they tag her on Instagram?
Anyway, if you are female and in Egypt, you will be ogled. Do whatever you like to attenuate this (if you want to), but just expect it.
People harass women way too much in Egypt
Being ogled is one thing. Safety for women is a whole other thing. Is Egypt safe for women? Yes and no.
Even though Egypt is pretty forward-thinking with regards to women compared to some of the Middle East (women can drive cars, have jobs, don’t have to wear a veil), Cairo the worst major city in the world for harassment according to Thompson Reuters. You can google it and find interviews with young Egyptian men who like calling out at women — things like “I love you” or “marry me” (maybe worse things, but I don’t know them) — and who genuinely think that being ignored is a sign that they like it. Genuinely.
Most women we speak to have a number of strategies for avoiding being harassed in Egypt, if travelling solo.
- Cover your hair. It’s like becoming invisible, one Lebanese Christian* friend told us. She didn’t like that she had to do it, but she felt an immediate change in that she went far less noticed, except that she still didn’t look very Egyptian. Jo does it using the hood of her jacket sometimes, but not as a rule.
- Eyes forward, somewhat angry expression, purposeful walk. Jo finds this makes walking around a lot more pleasant. I still don’t really like thinking about it. I know people look. Besides which, this doesn’t sound like a fun way to live.
- Get older. As women age, they’re harassed less. As men age, they also harass less, thankfully.
* Going against Western taboo here and mentioning religion to say she didn’t need to cover up for religious reasons.
Harassment is so bad in Egypt that some enterprising and educated locals created HarassMap, a map where you can see where harassment is likely to occur, or report an instance of it. From its name, I thought it was international. Nope. It’s Egyptian.
The one main difference between Egypt and the west in harassment is that this is a highly communal and interventionist society. Strangers will break up fights. Strangers will stop harassers or crazy people from harming other strangers. It’s something we’ve already seen, so we know that when our friends tell us this, it’s true.
It can be dangerous for interventionists though, as I mentioned above. And it’s definitely not something I’d rely on. If I were to give advice, I’d say if travelling to Cairo alone as a young woman, stay in group tours. And if possible, don’t travel alone.
But there’s a counterbalance of traditional Egyptian Etiquette
When visitors think of a people as “rude” it’s often before they’ve understood how local people express courtesy. Once you begin to learn that you start to see the little niceties that are vacant in your language. After years in China, I find it vaguely impolite when someone non-Chinese hands me anything with one hand, without even bowing.
In Egypt we’ve come to appreciate some aspects of Egyptian etiquette, too.
In every single metro we’ve taken, men have made way for women. If they have a seat, the men will offer it up for women of any age (including Jo, but not just her). Even if all they have is a wall to lean on, they’ll offer that to a woman who has less. It’s a nice touch in a world where as a woman it’s hard to feel safe, to the point of metros having women-only cars and gyms having women-only floors.
In the microbus (see our transport guide), men will give up seats for women. Men will go to efforts to make sure there’s no inadvertent touching of shoulders and hips.
We always enjoy seeing men giving each other two kisses on the cheeks for greetings, or a father affectionally grabbing his son’s head and kissing it. It might be because physical interactions between the sexes are basically unseen. But it looks very cute.
In the Egyptian dialect, people modify their language to use respectful terms with no equivalent in English. First-time acquaintances get a “sir” or “madam” treatment that forces reverence and politeness. Saying “hello” or “goodbye” to people requires at times multiple interactions, call-and-response style. “Good morning, sir!” “And a morning of light to you!” “And a flowery morning to you!”. It’s fun.
Anyway, Cairo’s traffic is more likely to kill us than anything
There are a few ways of getting around but they’re all deadly. The per-capita mortality rate for traffic in Cairo is around 10-20 times that in Australia, with 12,000 reported deaths on average each year (I suspect the real number is much higher and closer to 20-30,000, given how many people in Egypt are not actually registered, living extra-legally). This amounts to somewhere between 40 (officially) to 100 (my guess) people dying every day in traffic accidents.
Even the same night I wrote the guide to transport in Cairo, we saw a motorcycle with two people on it get hit by a car. They limped away, but the guy’s left leg was hit by the car and wasn’t in good shape. They weren’t wearing helmets; nobody wears helmets.
It’s impossible to use the sidewalks in most parts of Cairo because cars are parked on them. So we’re forced to walk on the roads, staring down oncoming traffic or trying to get a sense for when it’s sneaking up on us. (Estimates are that about 25% of traffic deaths are pedestrians.)
Microbuses operate outside the official transport system and regularly hit other traffic, and go a billion miles an hour to collect as many fares as possible. A few days ago, over 10 people were killed when two microbuses rammed each other in heavy fog outside Cairo.
Taxis and Ubers almost never have seatbelts, but are probably the safest option, as we’d still have to walk to the metro.
Or… we could just not go outside.