Published in Glimpse by SU’s Max Nepstad.
“Welcome to Egypt!”
“Please, come have some tea at my uncle’s perfume shop.”
The next thing you know, you’re spending your afternoon smelling various fragrances, looking for an opportunity to politely excuse yourself without buying anything.
As an American in Egypt, I often felt like a walking cash machine. Fed up with the constant attention I received from street merchants, I took matters into my own hands. I decided I was going to learn how to walk like an Egyptian.
Strangely, it is common for street merchants to tell foreigners that they “walk like Egyptians,” but none of my Egyptian friends are entirely sure what this means. Whether or not it is a reference to the Bangles’ 1986 hit, I suspect that merchants say this to flatter tourists and gain the trust of potential customers.
But I wanted to walk like a true Egyptian. To blend into the crowd and avoid unwanted attention on the streets of Cairo, I followed this step-by-step guide:
Step 1: Start with your hair and eyes
If you’re a guy, head to a local barber and ask them to give you what I call the “Egyptian poof.” Keep the sides short, leave the top long, and drench everything in hair gel. You may already have a darker complexion, but if you’re fair-skinned and blond, like me, some further alterations to your physical appearance will probably be in order. Go to a pharmacy and buy some dark brown hair dye and brown contact lenses. Grow your beard out and dye that, too.
Women who are trying to camouflage will likely opt for a headscarf (see step 2), so there is little reason for you to alter your hair.
Step 2: Smother yourself in clothing
If you’re a guy, just wear a T-shirt and jeans. Egyptian men rarely wear shorts, even in the scorching months of summer. Or, if you want to go all out, get a gelabiya—a dress-like robe that comes in solid colors or simple designs. Just remember that in the city, this traditional, rural look might actually attract more attention.
If you’re a woman, get some gloves and a niqab—a face covering with a slit for the eyes. If that’s too hot for your taste, just wear a hijab (headscarf). Make sure you color-coordinate the scarf with the rest of your outfit like almost all Egyptian women do. No matter what, dress on the conservative side: no sleeveless shirts or miniskirts, or you’ll immediately be pegged as a foreigner.
Step 3: Forget the sidewalk: walk in the road
Ready to hit the streets? Many Egyptians take the phrase literally by walking on the side of the street rather than on the sidewalk. In fact, if there isn’t much traffic, you should feel free to walk right in the middle of the road. And don’t act like you’re in much of a hurry—Egyptians never seem to be rushing to get anywhere. You might have to slow down your natural pace, especially if you’re a New Yorker.
Step 4: Be aggressive about crossing the street
Crossing the road in major cities like Cairo isn’t easy. If you wait until you don’t see any cars coming, you could be waiting all day. So make like an Egyptian and cross the road one lane at a time: When there is a gap in the traffic, cross the first lane, then wait between lanes for the next gap to come.
Traffic in Egypt doesn’t necessarily follow all the rules we’re used to in the United States: taxis will take “shortcuts” (the wrong way down one-way streets) and cars will go in reverse against the flow of traffic for three blocks to find a turn they missed. Don’t despair! Egyptians walk casually in front of these stampedes of oncoming cars; they do the same with fruit carts, gas delivery trucks, and goatherds.
Step 5: Keep your hands to yourself, with one exception
If you’re walking with your spouse or significant other, it’s best not to hold hands or show outward affection. In March of 2005, two Hungarian tourists were stabbed, apparently for kissing in public. Unless you enjoy being stabbed, stay on the safe side and keep public displays of affection to a minimum.
On the flip side, if you are a man and are walking with another man, feel free to link arms. Egyptian men are physically affectionate with one another in ways that would make most straight men in the United States squirm.
Step 6: Learn a few key Arabic phrases
If you don’t speak Arabic, a few key phrases can help you maintain your “disguise.” At the very least, be sure to master the popular greeting, as-salamu alaykum (literally, “peace be upon you”), and the return greeting, wa-alaykum assalaam (“and upon you be peace”).
Step 7: Put your disguise to the test
In downtown Cairo, on Tahrir square (the main square downtown) start walking on Tahrir street. Smile and greet the merchants on your way toward a popular local restaurant, Koshary El-Tahrir. If you are truly walking like an Egyptian, you will arrive without having been followed or otherwise bothered. Reward yourself with a delicious meal of koshary—macaroni, lentils, rice, fried onions, and spicy tomato sauce.
Just make sure you eat it like an Egyptian.