Land of Dichotomies

FOREWORD: These thoughts are from a visit to Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Saqqara. The author is well aware that defining the whole of Egypt based on only those four localities is cause for an unfair, poorly-based generalization. The reader is asked to consider the term "Egypt" to be applied only as if it were the aforementioned localities. The reader is also encouraged to point out (in the comments section) any inaccuracy that (s)he feels needs to be addressed.

At 4 am everything looks surreal. Cairo is no exception. We chose a hotel near the pyramids because it felt appropriate, but that meant that we needed to cross all Cairo and Giza to get to it from the airport; the cab took an hour, with little traffic. It was a blessing in disguise though, as that first hour set the tone for the whole trip. It started out with the sight of dirty streets and unkept temples, and finished out with a pristine hotel with a friendly staff and a perfect room.

Egypt is a land of dichotomies. Its outer shell may be rough and unwelcoming, but inside lies a gem that is eternally beautiful. Everything from the women, that are flirtatious even though they dress very conservatively, to their social culture, which is very religious but tolerant of others, all the way to the land itself, with Cairo being the very definition of an oasis with tropical fruits being grown in the middle of a dessert (by the way, the fruit juices, which are the drink of choice, are more like smoothies). I found Christian cemeteries beside Muslim ones, sandy dunes beside watery palm trees, and a palace beside a ghetto. Christmas is celebrated alongside Ramadan, and traffic in the streets is utter chaos but nobody seems to mind.

Emotions are bared on the flesh and anger is rampant; but Egyptians are a family. They pray together, joke together, and curse each other within literally seconds of a first meeting. They trust. They're a family. And if you're able to handle it, and show sensibility for their ways, they're quick to welcome you to it.

Their cities are not kept up to the standards that we as Mexicans are accustomed. Their museums and their streets are seemingly dirty. Most of Cairo and Alexandria seem like a rundown part of any Mexican city. But, considering that they are surrounded by sand, they're in fact pretty clean. Being at peace with that, you are given a treat when you actually step inside any house, which are mini temples focused on hospitality and warmth and, well, cleanliness.

Egyptians are known for their bargaining skill, instigated by suspicion of abusive prices, but when both parties settle on a deal, no receipt is given, a handshake is enough. Commerce is an art form, and even though we knew our driver directed us to shopping centers he had contact with and that he was being paid to do so, the products sold there were of high quality with good prices. In addition, in every one of them we were treated with the utmost respect and hospitality, giving us an explanation of their product beforehand. It is important to state that this was always done in our native tongue, which my mom greatly appreciated as she doesn't speak English. Maybe this was a ploy in their sale pitch, but it was very entertaining and played well in our visit.

I've read somewhere that most of the touristic part of Egypt is filled with con artists, scamming money out of tourists. We were perfect bait for this, as the trip was improvised and little research was done beforehand. So, if we were scammed, I didn't notice. At every step we wound up pretty happy with our acquisitions and their quality (my mom and me are very picky when it comes to shopping), and every price was negotiated (my mom is pretty good at that). Obviously, Mohammed and Ashref (both our drivers) and their local friends wound up happy as well. And there lies the ultimate dichotomy.

Egypt is ripe for misunderstanding. Horror stories abound of how foreigners are treated as gold pots. The fact of the matter is that, well, I am a gold pot, and the modus operandi is a back-and-forth of fixing prices. In Egypt, you are the money that you carry, and there's no disrespect intended in that; they're merchants, they want to make a deal, because that is what will make both parties happy.

Getting your head around that lets you see that in that process, you are being welcomed into the country, into the family, and that you are one of them, experiencing the real Egypt. It may sound too convenient, and that feeling may only be part of a sentiment-based process to get you to buy something, but, isn't that suspicion too paranoic? And even it it's true, why is it wrong? Considering me part of their family first, and a customer second, is a dream in other parts of the world. I know their names, I shook their hands, and I saw an honest smile while leaving their store every time. I actually felt good about shopping their products, where else does that happen? Isn't that worth the 5% off the bargain price?

Those horrors stories are from people that didn't get that, and felt scammed; of people who always look for a cheaper and cheaper fixed price to prevent feeling scammed. Unfortunately, in doing so, they become the scammer.

Me and them, that's the ultimate dichotomy; the foreigners and the locals. In Egypt, however, such a dichotomy does have a chance to coincide, if only the latter extends a hand of understanding to the former, and the former keeps doing what he has been doing for the last couple of millennia.