30 Things To Know about Cairo & Egyptians
I spent the last year living in Cairo through its chaos and ridiculousness, enjoying its unpredictability and contradictions to the fullest. You either love Cairo or you hate it. If you can’t learn to let go of your expectations and laugh at your disasters the city will only make you cry and pull your hair out. In order to survive Cairo you just kind of have to accept it for what it is; the chaos is kind of charming, and it grows on some of us. Despite all the hell Cairo gave me, I will always have a place in my heart for it (mostly because of my dear friends that are still there, inshallah they are always safe). That said, it’s not for everyone, but here are some tips everyone should know about Cairo and Egyptians before traveling or living in Egypt.
- Egyptians have no sense of time. Add 2.5-4 hours to determine accurate Egyptian time. “Mumpkin Bukra Inshallah” (probably tomorrow, God willing. = never!)
- Get used to “Egyptian time.” Forget early bird gets the worm. No one wakes up early. Egyptian bedtime is typically between 2 and 4AM. Get on the Egyptian routine.
- Bargain for EVERYTHING. You are foreign and they will rip you off anyways, but at least you can reduce the damage. Here’s your chance to practice your negotiation skills.
- Traffic is a mystery, sort of. It’s predictably slow, so be aware of this for important appointments, like catching flights! You’re best traveling really early in the morning, which is almost impossible in Egypt. A safer bet is traveling in the middle of night. At least you didn’t die in traffic! Get a data plane on your smart phone or other device for the many hours you will spend stuck in traffic.
- The Nile is GROSS. It’s Cairo’s garbage can….but even with that mentality, they still can’t keep the garbage off the streets! Sad fact.
- More often than not, do not go to Tahrir/Downtown on a Friday. More likely than not there will be a protest, and you never know when it can get out of control. Tear gas and molotov cocktails aren’t as fun as you might think.
- Forget Hong Kong: Cairo is truly the city that never sleeps. Where else in the world will you see women or families out at 2 AM? This is one of the great perks that I always cherish and continue to miss.
- Koshary is power food. Cheap and delicious power food. It’s full of carbs, but it’s everyone’s occasional guilty pleasure. Don’t scrimp on the garlic sauce! Abu Tarek in downtown is delicious.
- Don’t throw toilet paper in the toilet! Put it in the trash so you don’t destroy the plumbing systems. Wondering what that hose in the bathroom was for? Now you know! That’s also why you don’t eat with your left hand.
- Don’t drink the tap water: Unless you have an iron stomach or like food poisoning. If you do run out of tap water and are too lazy to go out or too incapable to order more water, try making lime water. Boil the water and chill it. Keep limes or lemons at home and squeeze them into the water; it makes it much less horrible tasting.
- Don’t go around dressing Oriental wearing everything you bought in Khan El Khalili. It’s EMBARRASSING. You (expats/foreigners) look like a cleaning lady from the village, because those are the only people in Egypt who really dress like the way you are imagining. Everyone has their own Lawrence of Arabia fantasy, but wearing these things are a dead-giveaway that you are a newcomer study abroad or a tourist.
- Zamalek is overrated. It is not the only cool place to go. It is an exclusive expat bubbles and not an accurate view of Cairo or Egypt. Heliopolis has a number of lovely restaurants, cafes, and other cool hangout spots. Korba is one of my favorite parts of Cairo, and has amazing architecture and unique cafes. Downtown does too, but it’s not always safe to go due to protests, and traffic is terrible. I also love some of the cafes near Azhar and Muattem. (Other friends of mine like Maadi, Dokki & Mulhandeseen)
- Everyone smokes. Pretty much…I’m not a fan of it either, but you’re in a developing country, so there isn’t much you can do about it. If you can’t handle that, then Egypt might not be the place for you.
- Egyptians do drink, but not everyone. Bars have been in the country for hundreds of years, and Stella and Heineken are no strangers to Cairo. Don’t assume people drink though, and girls realize that guys inviting you to drink probably don’t have the best intention for you.
- Egyptian guys don’t marry girls they have sex with. 99% of the time, even if Egyptian guys are modern or “international,” they still wouldn’t marry or take seriously a girl that they date and have casual sex with. At the end of the day, Egyptian guys are pretty traditional.
- Service is terrible. Most often times they will get your order wrong, and it will take ages to even order, let alone get the check. Be persistent and creative with getting their attention, but also don’t let it stress you out. If you’re living in Cairo, being in a hurry really won’t work, and getting mad won’t change much.
- Don’t live in Rehab. Trust me. Unless you have a family and really can’t handle the city, and then you should probably not be in Cairo anyways. It’s a stale and boring gated community that has all the bad parts of Suburbia without the luxuries in the outskirts of smoldering Cairo. Water and electricity shortages are frequent, and it’s in the middle of the desert. It’s hell for singles living alone. (Rehab is a popular and elitist gated community in the desert on the edge of Cairo in an area called New Cairo)
- No matter what your Cairene friends say, Cairo isn’t all of Egypt. There is life outside the city, and it’s a lot cleaner than Cairo. Alexandria and many other cities are beautiful and less crowded/polluted.
- Go to Sinai: It’s AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL & not as dangerous as everyone tells you. It has some of the most incredible beaches and greatest diving in the world. Go there if you can, but if you are really worried about safety and 100% want to make sure you have a way to get back to Cairo in a timely fashion, consider flying. The road isn’t the safest, and foreigners have to wait long at check points. Sometimes there are fuel shortages, and it can be hard to get back to Cairo.
- The pyramids are dirty and full of thugs who will harass you and hit you up for money. It’s hard to enjoy the world’s wonders when you are annoyed. Take pictures of camels and they will charge you. You will loathe taking guests there.
- The Egyptian Museum of history is awful. It is one of the most depressing museums you will ever go to. It’s like a big warehouse with things unlabeled and strewn everywhere. It’s exhausting; go there once, and make it quick. They don’t let you bring in cameras, but camera phones do the trick.
- Say “yaani” for every three words you say; it makes you sound local, and tricks you into thinking you speak half decent Arabic. It will become a unconscious habit soon.
- Egypt has pretty good dates (the food that is), and they are affordable, so enjoy them while you can.
- Go to Dokki for awesome food. Try the hole-in-the-wall Yemeni, Sudanese or other delicious places.
- For the best Asian food in Cairo, go the area around Azhar. It’s a little bit sketchy and people there don’t speak English, so bring an Egyptian, or wait until you live in Cairo a bit before you try to venture there for some cheap and delicious eats.
- Go to Azhar Park for a retreat. It’s a pleasant green surprise, and it has a great view of the city and the citadel for sunset.
- AUC is seriously overrated. It may be one of the best universities in the Middle East, but that’s not saying a lot. Quality does vary with programs and departments, but seriously think twice before you consider being a full time student there.
- Relax: Egyptians aren’t as scary as they seem. They might seem pretty irrational or drive you crazy sometimes, but they are fairly harmless. Egypt is a developing country, so you have to stay aware of your surroundings, but Egyptians aren’t going to mug you like they do in Oakland or New York. Be savvy about your stuff and don’t act oblivious, but in many cases, you are safer in the Middle East than in America.
- Nothing is guaranteed. So when plans change, roll with it. That’s how you stay sane and have a good time.
- Moussy malted beverages are amazing. Pomegranate is my favorite. Enjoy it while you are there; they are delicious.
Even with all of this, I STILL LOVE EGYPT! …maybe I’m crazy?
By economist & writer, Heather R Morgan (@HeatherReyhan)
I still love the place!
Bedouin women in Sinai that I bought way too many crafts from
Near Nuweiba, Sinai