The foreigner's word was rarely questioned in Egypt, and
the essence of that custom remains even now. One day while
walking in Cairo with an American friend, two young boys
called out to us, "Give us money!" When we didn't reply, one of
them threw a stone at us. In an offhand way my friend told an
Egyptian man what had happened, and immediately the man
summoned a police officer who swiftly collared the two boys
and, to our dismay, beat them silly with a bamboo stick. Neither
man had witnessed the event, neither had questioned
whether our story of the thrown stone was true. The foreign
tourist, protected by Egypt's dependency on her cash, enjoys
an unwarranted elevated status. In 1849 Flaubert wrote, "It is
unbelievable how well we are treated here - it's as though we
were princes, and I'm not joking." That particular social luxury
had altered only slightly in a hundred and fifty years.
The truth was that the biggest obstacle to my trip would not
be political, natural, or criminal, but cultural. My attempt
merely to purchase a boat would prove nearly more arduous
than the trip itself. Had I a boat of my own with me, I would
have simply put it in the water and slipped away, taking my
chances as they came. But I had no boat, and I knew that finding
one in Egypt would involve dealing with a succession of
men who would wonder why a female foreigner wanted such
a thing, would try very hard to dissuade me from my intentions,
and would eventually suggest that instead of rowing
down the river I should spend my time in Egypt dancing and
dining with them.
The Egyptian temperament - invariably gregarious, humorous,
and welcoming - is also spiked with a heavy dose of intrusiveness.
Curious and paternalistic toward foreigners, Egyptians
watch over their visitors with elaborate concern - a sweetly
self-important trait, as though one could not possibly survive
without their attentions and advice. On seeing a pen tucked in
my shirt pocket a gentleman says with genuine alarm, Madame!
Be careful not to lose your pen! As I leave a hotel another
says, Oh, lady! Please be sure to close your bag tightly for safety.
Without asking if I want him to, a delightfully friendly shopkeeper with mahogany-hued teeth and one pinkish, weeping
eye, takes proprietary hold of my backpack, tamps at his tongue
with a greasy crumpled cloth, and rubs dust from the pack with
his plentiful saliva, saying, Better this way! When I put my hotel
room key under the leg of my breakfast table to keep the rickety
thing from wobbling, a waiter hurries over, plucks up the
key, and says with regal self-congratulation, You dropped your
key, madame. You must be careful! Once more, surreptitiously,
I tuck the key beneath the table leg; dramatically he picks it
up again. If I stand before a shop window full of wristwatches,
within thirty seconds a passerby will put his nose to
mine, point to what I am looking at, and inform me with the
patronizing indulgence of a kindly professor instructing a
barefoot hillbilly, "This is wristwatches, you see." And it is
nearly impossible for a foreigner to proceed down an Egyptian
street without having to answer the same dozen investigative
questions shot from the mouths of six dozen people within the
span of, say, five minutes: What your name? Which your country?
You are alone? Married? Children? Where you went today?
My God, you shouldn't go there. What you did last night? Oh, my
God, I will tell you something better to do. What you want? No,
no, you do not want that. You will want this better thing more.
Do not walk that way. There might be a wolf/snake/bad man.
Look out, my God, for the traffic.
In Egyptians, this trait seems derived not only from a wish
to try out the few English phrases they've learned but also
from a particular conviction that they know far better than
you do what's good for you. Confronted with foreign tourists,
Egyptians become noisy and nosy, bossy and brash, intrusive
and terribly friendly.
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