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Egypt – But Not as We Know It

February 17, 2010

Excerpt from a group-written piece prepared in the Opinion Writing Workshop:

No-one travels light. Visitors to any new place come weighted with the luggage of their own pre-conceptions, images and expectations. This baggage is often invisible until it collides head-on with the lived experience, and the traveller must choose whether to cling on to their old ideas or accept a different reality.

We are western and eastern, four women and a man, Muslim and Christian, married and single, journalists in print, broadcast and TV, but Egypt was new to us all.

Here are our stories of what we brought with us – and what we left with.

The lecherous Arab is the biggest old cliché in the book, but I came to Egypt cowering. Lurking behind me, loitering around every corner, I waited for the sly smile, the oily compliment, the marriage offer. ‘Don’t look men in the eye! Women travellers should wear a wedding ring!’ said the Lonely Planet guide, but I should have known better than to trust a crappy guide book.  My mother rooted out an ancient family wedding ring dated 1735. ‘Don’t lose it!’ she said. The ring was too big for my finger. I lost it the first day. The moral of the story: don’t believe the stereotypes. I’m still waiting for the marriage offer.

***

Though well aware of tourist attractions in Egypt, I never imagined Egyptians would not be fluent in expressing themselves in English. I have no idea whether I should blame their pride in Arabic language and culture or detachment to the world beyond their great historic Egypt. Despite being a former colony, they also do not play cricket, a hardy virus infecting the Pakistani and Indian people for the last six decades.

Thanks to Arab language music and films, I had a misconception of Egyptian women to be modern and fashionable. They may still be but I had never expected them to be all wearing headscarves.

And talking about Alexandria, treading its streets, I found the city culturally rich but ill-maintained. How could the city municipality of such a popular tourism city be so aloof from being clean and green?

Surely, there is more than meets the eye in Alexandria, leave alone the complex and historic country called Egypt.

***

People say the first impression is always tempting. Yes, I met a driver who drove 120 km per hour and made my heart beat harder. Yes, I saw women wearing veils with tight clothes – which I didn’t anticipate. Yes, I saw the Nile River – which is much smaller than I expected.

But what I found in these past two days was the opposite of what I thought before I came here. I was told that the people were not friendly, that they considered themselves bigger than anyone else in the continent because they originated from an ancient great culture that also shapes our world today. That’s what I heard.

In fact, I met friendly people who were willing to share their experiences, their knowledge, and make friends.

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