Monday, January 26, 2009

To get to the other side

Traffic in Downtown Cairo is ridiculous. To cross a street, you have to dodge bicyclists balancing giant trays of bread loafs on their heads, honking taxis and speeding buses and trucks. Traffic lights and signs are universally ignored, and pedestrians simply dart in and out between cars that show no sign of stopping until they are about an inch away from you.
At first, my fellow lodgers at the hostel and I would run two meters, shrieking at the top of our lungs, stopping briefly in front of an oncoming car, panic-stricken, and would then continue on in a fit of hysterical giggles. We've gotten better, but not by much.
The daytime host at the King Tut has made several illuminating remarks about traffic accidents in Cairo over the last few days. In chronological order:
1. "People get hit all the time."
2. "Just cross, the cars will always stop for you."
3. When I suggested, "I guess you just have to look non-chalant and self-assured," he shook his head. "The cars never stop."

I give you this as an example of the inconsistency in Egyptian stories. Information changes all the time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why are Americans always afraid?

I got into Cairo and spent the first two nights in the King Tut hostel in Downtown by myself, waiting for other AUC students to arrive. Yesterday I decided to venture out alone for a while and get an Egyptian cell phone, a power converter and something to eat.
When I was waiting to cross the street on the grand Tahrir Square, a young man approached me and said, "You look like you could be Egyptian." (I wondered why he addressed me in English, but didn't mention it.)
I tried to fend him off, but he insisted that he didn't want to sell me anything and just wanted to engage in a "cultural exchange." We talked for a bit, and then he asked, "Do you see that KFC? I want to show you something." "Yes," I said, hesitantly.
So, I followed him (his name turned out to be Salem, and he's a 28-year-old student of Ancient Egyptian history at the University of Cairo) to this coffee shop, where we had hibiscus tea and Arabic coffee and he introduced topics of conversation ranging from Hillary's chances at still becoming president to the value of astronomical predictions, to his thoughts on the afterlife.
Finally, he said, "I must ask you a question which you should answer honestly."
"Ok," I said, taking a rather large gulp of tea.
"Why are Americans always afraid? When I talked to you on the street, you looked so nervous, and I asked myself all these questions in my head. Why are Americans always afraid?"
He proceeded to mime an American tourist looking up, down and behind himself in utter terror. 
I considered his question and gave a rather long-winded response, which amounted roughly to: "I'm always cautious in places I don't know. I'm not afraid in New York because I know how to handle myself and my surroundings there. Here, I am unsure of customs, etc."
He was unimpressed by my explanation and assured me that crime is virtually nonexistent in Egypt. 
"But it's different for women," I said. "What about harassment?"
"Oh, that," he waved his hand in polite dismissal. "That happens to Egyptian women too."
Not feeling at all reassured, I gave up trying to explain my position.

So, I'd like to consider a few questions:
1. Is it ok to be slightly nervous walking around alone as a woman on one's first day in Cairo?
2. Was it a good idea for me to follow Salem to the coffee shop?
3. Are Americans really more afraid than other foreigners?
4. Why didn't he understand my problem?