Sandstorms, Travelling as a Woman in Cairo, Photography and being asked “What’s Your Religion”
This is an archive of our letter sent to our subscribers dated 14 Jan 2019, titled “Today’s weather forecast in Cairo is “Sandstorm”.
Just “Sandstorm”. Not “Sunny and Sandstorm”.
So yes, we made it to Cairo. In case you’ve forgotten, this is because we’re on a mission to learn to speak Egyptian Arabic in 60 days. Here’s our Day 1 video of us speaking Arabic (subscribe to our channel), and answers to a few FAQs like “what the **** is Egyptian Arabic?” on our blog.
What we learned in Cairo in two weeks of living there
- Local guys in Egypt 50/50 wear a local garb, “galabiyya”, which I aspire to wear. But I think it would take up my whole suitcase.
- It’s ludicrously cheap, which is another way of saying that Egypt in the midst of an economic crisis, with the local Egyptian Pound at 1/4 of the value it was at five years ago. But what it means for us is that our total expenditures are less than US$1,000/month, and it’d be half that if we were staying longer term and rented a furnished apartment instead of staying in AirBnBs.
- It’s fine to be an American or obviously an Australian (everyone loves Australians, except Kiwis, but who cares). But seems it’s not so cool to be Iranian. Raises too many concerns about what my politics are. Or various other random neighbours (depends who you ask). C’mon guys, aren’t we all fellow members of the “Baklava Belt”?
- “What’s your religion” is a fairly standard opening question. The safest answer, I’ve learned, is “I haven’t decided and I’m currently studying religions.”
- Shawls make you invisible. More on being a woman in Cairo below.
- Many more things are “haram” (forbidden in Islam) than we expected. Donkeys are haram (and delicious, I didn’t point out in that conversation), though camels are halal. Pigeon is halal (and totally overrated), but rats are haram. Crickets are halal but locusts are haram. Dang it, I was really hanging out for a locust sandwich.
- Pretty much all food is excellent, but English menus outside the touristy centre are rare. Here’s an example of a wall of characters we decoded to day for probably the best “shawerma” (doner kebab) I’ve ever tasted:
The gold is in the beginning (top right). A shawerma (a wrap, or doner kebab) on Syrian bread (عيش سورى) is where it’s at. Jo has mastered the important expression: “What’s the best thing you have here?”
The answer: everything. Everything is the best thing.
Why photography in Cairo is hard
There were a lot of aspects of life in Cairo we couldn’t really figure out before we came here. Near the top is how to travel in Egypt if you’re a woman. Part of the reason it’s hard to figure this out is that there are two kinds of travel writers:
- The “Life is wonderful! Travel is grand” kind who always seem to be swinging from hammocks overlooking serene waters and holding cocktails (you don’t know that they’re being bitten by mosquitos, are getting an uncomfortable amount of sun in their eye and it’s actually kind of windy and cold), and
- The “Stay only in the Intercontinental, don’t drink the water and also don’t go to Egypt” type of writer, typically denizens of TripAdvisor.
Your life sounds terrible and you sound terrible, “TravelRocker”. Because street food (breakfast, in this case) looks like this:
Travelling as a woman in Cairo
So what’s the truth about travelling in Cairo as a woman, especially if you travel solo?
In summary: It’s not dangerous, probably. But it’s very annoying. Here’s what we’ve learned.
People will always look at you, if you’re a woman. Yes, they’ll look at any foreigner. But they’ll look at you more if you’re a woman. Especially if you’re foreign, and double especially if you’re fair-haired, and triple especially if you’re young (say, under 40).
You definitely have to cover your legs, shoulders and preferably your arms. You don’t have to wear a headscarf in Egypt (you’ll see the whole range from zero covering, mostly among the Christian population, to relaxed headscarves, higab, showing a bit of hair, through to a full-on niqab with only a small slot for eyes). If you do wear a headscarf (or even just cover your hair with the hood of your jacket), we find that the full-on stare diminishes to a curious glance (probably “hey, a foreigner”). Others have shared similar
If you want to vanish, wear a headscarf.
Some places are informally off-limits for women. For example, local coffee shops/shisha bars, the equivalent of a local bar in other countries. You can go there as a woman, sure, but it’d be better if you’re with a man (and preferably an Egyptian one), but still weird. People will stare at you creepily if you’re in one regardless.
The rule of thumb, we’ve learned is that if a place feels creepy, it IS creepy. It’s not all in your heads. Well it is, but your head is correct.
People do say/yell things at you if you’re a woman travelling alone. It’s something like what women experience in Latin America. It’s provocative, from a safe distance. Here, it can, in isolated circumstances, result in brushing up against you (e.g. in the subway) or in some cases, groping (also known as ‘assault’, actually recently criminalised, but almost never enforced in Egypt). We’ve heard it can happen. But we’re travelling as a couple, and I’m brown, plus I can put on a scary face if needs be and you better watch it, habibi, because I took several boxing classes back home and I probably could punch something other than a bag. (JK, we avoid trouble!)
Gyms, the metro, clubs and some other establishments have “women only” sections where women can go to feel safe.
Finally, when meeting a woman, let them take the lead on how to touch, whether it’s a handshake or just a friendly nod.
It’s not all roses if you’re a guy. I can’t wear shorts on my way to the gym (it’s not illegal, but nobody else does and I try to fit in). And… that’s it.
But I do appreciate the benefits of travelling with a woman, not as a solo male.
- We can stay in more places as a couple (though Jo could stay in
even more places as a solo female – many are listed as “foreign
female only”, with the landlord being a local female)
- It’s easier to connect with locals. She finds language partners
easily, who then hang out with us.
- People recognise us as foreign. It earns us a bit of foreigner
leniency. “What the hell is that guy doing, walking around in
shorts?? Oh he’s with a foreign woman… he must be a khawaaga.
Besides, his hair is too long.” (I need a haircut. I always need
Stay in touch
Tell us if you liked or didn’t like this letter. Too long? Too short? Too sans-serif? Tell us.
Got more questions? We’ll answer them in follow ups.
Meanwhile, we’re studying every day. Expect video 2 in a couple of weeks, in which I will exclaim that whatever Jo is suggesting is haram.
Dana & Jo