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.
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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