The Temperature on the Streets of Egypt
by Jimmy Dunn
Welcome aboard a new Nile Cruiser
We have just returned from Egypt. Prior to leaving, a number of people asked that I examine the pulse, or as one travel agent put it, the temperature on the streets of this oldest of all countries. In other words, I was asked to provide a report on the attitudes of Egyptians towards western travelers.
I should start out by saying that I visited a number of different areas of Egypt, spending considerable time in Cairo, but I also bounced around the Western Oasis and Upper Egypt. Part of my time was spent touring so that I could gather information for new stories, while about half the trip was directed towards business meetings and such. I had the opportunity to speak to a number of tourists from a variety of different countries, as well as many Egyptians and ex-pats.
Modern Egyptian youth at the "local school store".
My grand report may be summed up rather easily. Basically, not much seems different from my trips to Egypt prior to September 11th of 2001. On the street, one cannot really distinguish any differences.While touring, the only obvious change is that there are fewer tourists. Other than that, topics related to Middle Eastern affairs never came up, even though I often made it clear that I was an American to any number of people in a wide range of contexts. Other travelers I spoke to, including a number of other U.S. citizens, also reported no problems or adverse attitudes. As usual, the biggest grips by anyone were the rather normal but annoying pressure of the cabs and carriage drivers in Luxor. But on the other hand, and also as usual, these same tourists expressed surprise by the lack of safety concerns they felt after traveling about the country.
In the second part of my trip, I spent more time talking to people outside of the normal tourism circles. Even though many of the people were not directly connected to tourism, it wasn't Middle Eastern politics that surfaced as their major concerns, but rather the lack of tourism. Many Egyptians have become aware of the country's reliance on tourism, and rather than the situation in Israel, most of the time they seemed more interested in the lack of tourists, and what could be done to encourage more tourists. When virtually forced to talk politics, the locals seemed simply to be curious about my opinions, and there seemed no hostility towards me as an American, though most Egyptians (as well as the Europeans I spoke to) clearly do not agree with American foreign. policy.
Egyptians and Tourists having fun in the Western Desert
Egypt does continue to change. Though we continue to advise people to dress conservatively in Egypt, the acceptance, and even adaptation of western dress seems to always progress. Egyptian men, particularly the younger men, can sometimes be seen wearing shorts on the street these days. Stepping out of a store one day, I was amused to find a male tourist walking along absurdly dressed in very short shorts and wearing a traditional Arab turban. I decided to follow him for several blocks in order to observe the reactions of the local Egyptians, and was surprised to find that he was almost completely ignored, with the exception of several Egyptians who offered him a welcome, since he was so obviously a tourist!!
The real problem with Egypt is not with the country, but rather how westerners perceive it. I know that many people from the west think of Egypt as a Middle Eastern country and even associate it with the violence in Israel and the occupied territories. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Life is not "cheap" in Egypt. Like in the west, Egyptians worry about their ability to support their families, the education of their children, and the quality of their life. In fact, Egypt is a country unaccustomed to violence, and many Egyptians that I encountered expressed concerns that did not vary much from those of other nationalities, including the Germans, English and Australians I spoke to while in Egypt. What may surprise many Americans is that every Egyptian I spoke to, as well as non Egyptians simply believe that violence, whether propagated by terrorists or the military of established governments, has no place in the modern world. Most feel that it is time that differences should be settled with reason and intelligence, rather than guns, tanks and bombs.
In the end, I can only reflect on the certainty that almost every western tourists arrives with certain opinions of Egypt and Egyptians, and just as certainly leaves Egypt with a different attitude, and often a better understanding of the world we live in. I find many who depart Egypt with more optimism about the world we live in, as well as a new respect for a civilization as old as civility itself.