I’ve wanted to explore Egypt since I was a teenager; my room was strewn with DIY Ancient Egyptian art and much to the dismay of my parents I had a shisha set-up in my room, forced myself to be into Turkish coffee and had mastered the art of Kushari (that part is impressive, shut up).
It was one of those things that never came to fruition for one reason or another, until last month – and even then, it was scarcely planned; I’d barely had time to get to grips with the layout of the country on the map, which is something I like to do before visiting any country so I can sound intelligent and informed providing you don’t ask me too much. I mean, did you know the Sinai peninsula was once under attack by… No, I’ll do that later.
I flew to Cairo on December 22 after confirming it the day before and packing on the day.
Arriving after a 5-hour plane ride, I unpacked and hit the streets. I later stayed in Sharm El Sheikh btw, which provides a relaxing, perfectly pleasant time – but don’t stay there if you’re looking for an authentic experience.
Back to Cairo. I went on a tour bus via Charming Sharm Excursions with around 10 other tourists made up of couples and families.
Our tour guide told us about the ‘amazing traffic jams’ in Cairo, comparing them to the traffic jams of London, which ‘aren’t so bad as they have a congestion charge’. I was too tired for these kind of facts. But it got better. We saw Al-Azhar – the first Islamic University, which was said to be founded in around 970. We witnessed an array of unfinished homes, our tour guide explaining that these were designated to the poor who were left to construct them despite clear funding issues. We also passed Cairo’s black market which although I was curious about, I steered away from. Probably because I’ve watched Sex and the City 2 too much and didn’t want them to rip my Miu Miu bag by accident.
We next went to Tahrir Square, which was littered with terrifying looking dogs and even scarier members of the military who were hanging around their tanks presumably in case any shit popped off. Our tour guide pointed to the top of the Ramses Hilton hotel and explained that the roof was where snipers shot down around 1,200 protesters who had graced the square in the battle for their own version of freedom. The Square has since been adapted to include obstacles to prevent masses gathering in the one whole space, with a large amount of it cordoned off with tape. It was pretty eerie under the booming sunshine, and what felt all the more strange to me was the mass of people casually queuing across the road to enter the Egyptian Museum. I was stuck on the violence, passion, aggression, love and ultimate change that had come to life right where I was standing, on that square.
Going to Cairo? The Egyptian Museum is a, cliched I’m sure, must-do. Checking out Tutankhamun’s mask in real life is indescribable, alongside his treasured possessions; his jewellery game was on FLEEK. We got to see a real-life mummy which I couldn’t stop staring at, even though it was gross. We got to see drawings on papyrus taken from ancient tombs and a replica of Rosetta Stone, because the real one is in the British Museum, which was a bit awkward. I found out a lot about figures I never knew existed, from Hatshepsut to Akhenaten.
We then proceeded to make our way to the docks where we got a boat out onto the River Nile, which looked not the way I expected the River Nile to look. Our tour guide kept us chatting, dancing and taking selfies whilst pointing out cool things ranging from an Egyptian Queen-themed boat to Ruby Tuesdays, because why not fam. We exited the boat at a buffet restaurant where we had some okay-enough food, included in the excursion. Boarding back on the bus, I had my first flashback of visiting Pakistan while there when some young boys surrounded the tour bus with hands ready at every window, asking for money. Some were selling some cute purses. They were so persistent it made me question what was behind the desperation and what living circumstances are like for some of the country. We gave them some money and they wanted more, putting themselves in danger as they attempted to cling onto our tour bus long after it began moving.
We headed to the papyrus museum for an education on how the paper is made – great stuff. Unfortunately, the museum owner hurriedly spoke to us for approximately three minutes about the creation process and then allowed us to browse the lovely works of art on offer, which included having every member of staff approaching every person browsing to persuade them to buy a piece. Maybe I would have, but the hard sale attempt meant that I left the underground building, going back up to street level to absorb the sunshine while I waited for the others. I found street watching much more enjoyable.
You know, when you see something on the big screen and in art all your life, when I see it in real life I just don’t know how to react. That essentially sums up my experience with the pyramids, and the Great Sphinx. They were stunning, I sat on the them, I stared at the them, I gazed out at the phenomenal view of Cairo that was laid before them from the angle we had traveled to. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the last ancient wonder left on earth; I don’t know what else to say.
My tour group friends got harassed by people out there. Despite warnings from our home girl Fatima, a well-off couple accepted a keffiyeh from a seller there which he claimed was a present. Of course, they then got harassed for money and followed back to the bus. They explained the story to me whilst they rolled their eyes in annoyance, and I got annoyed. The man didn’t even have shoes on his feet, why on earth would he give you a scarf for nothing? They knew what was expected of them when they took the scarf. It reminds me of a story I read about Bolivia. Some stores don’t see the process of selling as what it is in my world – you ask for some chicken for example, and they’ll give you the chicken you asked for, as a present. You then give them money as a present. They prefer to see the act of selling as one of giving; they give, you give. Which is one of the biggest lessons I learnt whilst in Egypt – giving, receiving and loving, naturally.
From the Pyramids we went to a cotton shop and a perfume oil shop for some more hard selling, yay. The perfume oil shop was actually lovely, full of potent and exotic scents that could be used as a fragrance or even in hot water to drink for particular medical issues, such as stomach aches. I didn’t buy anything because I’m Pakistani which generally means I need to stew over a purchase for longer than I had on this occasion.
Before we knew it, it was time to hit the plane for an hour to Sharm El Sheikh. I stayed at the Sharks Bay Hilton, spending my days dipping my toes in the Red Sea and running away from strange creatures that lurked in the water. It was my first time at an all-inclusive resort, and now I am super fat. Main highlights were said to be Naama Bay and Soho Square. I thought Soho Square, a two-minute walk from my hotel, was boring. However, a friend went there a week after myself with her child and said she preferred it. When I asked her what she did, I quote: ‘I walked around… had some food and the best ice cream I’ve had in a long time. Watched the fountain, chilled with camels, took pictures everywhere.’ So now you know.
Naama Bay however, is far more interesting. On arrival, I noticed some spices outside and was mildly curious as to what they were. The shop owner saw my eyes flicker for a couple of seconds too long and ushered me in, literally, by the arm. After gushing about how he reminded me of his first love in Cairo he put an almond oil blend on my face and began massaging it in. Five minutes later of me squirming anxiously, he was still massaging my fucking face. This is a big man I’m talking about, and mama don’t usually take no nonsense. But I froze for some reason, just waiting for it to be over. Eventually as I escaped, the man kissed me goodbye and I left feeling like I was doing the walk of shame. But no matter. Naama Bay is a great place to enjoy some shisha and food and if you’re up for clubbing, you’ll also find Pacha and the Hard Rock Cafe which turns into a nightclub after hours. I also purchased a pretty rocking purple maxi dress from one of the cool stores there. Beware though, after visiting three of those stores, you realize they’re essentially all the same. But that’s not unusual, is it? It’s just like the shops of Times Square and Leicester Square.
I spent the majority of the night on the Bay talking to the workers at a shisha bar which consisted of carpet and pillows laid out on the pavement – cosy, and amongst the hectic atmosphere of the strip. They also had a makeshift stage where they danced in their thobes to the likes of Jermith, Chris Brown and Soulja Boy, which was fun. Never trust a man that can dance, right? Yep, right, because they ripped me off when it came to the bill – drinks and shisha cost more than it would on Edgware Road, London – but hey, I expect to get bumped a little on holiday. What burned was the fact that I’d come to think of them as friends after hours of discussing our lives, and knew that they’d given me a real shit deal. This wasn’t the case everywhere of course – I went to many fairly priced places after that.
Maybe they were bullshitting me, maybe they weren’t, but their lives appeared hard – harder than mine. Explaining that they earn around 1000 EGP a month, equivalent to just under £100, a worker called Ahmed said, ‘what do you do, when that’s what you earn but buying a new t-shirt alone can cost you 200 [EGP]?’ Many men I spoke with were from Cairo and were living there to support their families who they went back to visit a few times a year, depending on what they could afford. Many of them were full of understandable complaints about their earnings and the jobs market, but many were also adamant that they’d never leave Egypt – they ultimately love their country and couldn’t imagine what would be on the outside for them.
I went to get a cab from Naama Bay to my hotel, for which I had paid 70 EGP for the night prior. One man offered it for 75 EGP and I tried to haggle it down to 70 EGP. I felt bad when he said ‘please don’t talk to me about 5 Egyptian Pounds, please,’ which is equivalent to less than 50 pence to be fair. I get it I get it, I’m a prick. I sat in his shop and we shared a smoke while waiting for his ‘shit brother who doesn’t leave the ladies alone’ to pick me up. I told him he looked Syrian, because he did to me. He laughed. ‘Is it because I’m bald?’
‘No!’ I said, but in honesty he reminded me of my friends dad who is Syrian and well, bald. ‘It’s because I am from Sham, you know. Life is very hard there, you understand?’ I asked about how he feels about his place of birth. ‘It is hard, but alhamdulillah [praise God], we eat there, we have clothing there, we snore at night, you understand?’ he said as he mimicked himself snoring on a pillow.
But I did understand. I understood that gratefulness is not a large enough part of my psyche. I left Egypt a lot more grateful and patient, something that the pyramids couldn’t give me. The highlight of this place was the people. I met a young boy who once worked in a shisha shop but recently joined the army. I was taken with his casual ‘just get on with it’ attitude and was bursting with questions that I felt like I just couldn’t ask.
While I spent a fair bit of time with tour guide Fatima, another thing I noticed from my short time across Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh was that I did not see many Egyptian-born women. Now, I’m in no way saying because I didn’t see them that they don’t venture outside, but I had a sneaking suspicion that native Egyptian women are not allowed the same freedoms as the female tourists, who swanned around Sharm El Sheikh in tiny bikinis with no judgment.
According to the BBC, tourism is Egypt makes for 10% of jobs there and brings in around 14% of their GDP – so they can overlook women under-dressing in their own opinion for the sake of revenue? What does this mean for their view on morality as a whole? Or do they do not concern themselves with the perception of female tourists because they are not one of their own? Where are the Egyptian women? It was something that played on my mind, but not something I’m knowledgeable enough on to draw any form of conclusion or judgment.
Another excursion I did was the Bedouin one. Bedouins are Arabians who reside in the desert, in short. We drove to the edge of the desert and climbed aboard some really cute camels who adorably walked us to the tents where the bedouins greeted their foreign visitors, escorting us up a mountain to watch the sunset. We came back down to shisha and tea, and food which was the best I had throughout the whole trip – it was essentially the best Nandos I had ever had in my life. We saw a phenomenal fire show courtesy of a topless man rocking a black bandana – just my type thooo. We also witnessed the stars via a telescope and I felt that I was starring in a love story, just me and one of the most magical places in the world.
My last day in Egypt was a sad one; I wasn’t ready to leave, I wanted to venture Luxor and Alexandria, and I’ll certainly go back to do so. The people, as I’ve said already, are the highlight – the people, the culture, the energy, the richness contained in the minimalism.
Many people asked me if there was any ‘trouble’ – no, there wasn’t. But I went there with no anxiety that I would experience anything negative. If you are travelling to the land of awesomeness though, I’d advise checking FCO for further advice to rest your mind.
Shout out to Mahmoud and Fatima at Charming Sharm Excursions, who were lovely hosts.