If it weren’t for Lina, I wouldn’t have travelled to Egypt again. I had just visited 5 years ago, it was where I learnt that real solo backpacking as a woman isn’t all that terrifying (though I was sexually harassed in Jordan right after that but that’s a whole different story.)
I’d rather spend the money exploring somewhere new but Lina was getting married and didn’t give me an option to skip the wedding. Lo and behold, there I was in Cairo with a ball gown, a backpack, and de javu.
This was my second Summer in Egypt, both times I came after the nation suffered shocks to its governance, economy and daily life. During my first trip in 2012, my Egyptian friends talked about their beloved homeland before and after-revolution.
At that point, it had been a little over a year after the Tahrir Square uprising. The political scene was sensitive and uncertain, security was tight and downtown Cairo was in shambles. Revolution graffiti marked the walls like fresh wounds, deadly bombings drove away tourism and good men relying on tourist dollars to make a living were so desperate, their touting turned harassive. But in the streets and in the homes, life went on as normal. The people still woke up every morning, walked through the metal detectors at the metro stations, shopping malls and school entrances, and lived their lives in a country coping with a political crisis.
I returned to Egypt this July 2017 surprised that it looked and felt exactly the same. The buildings are still the colour of sand and the sky an intense cloudless blue. Security is still tight with rifle-toting military men guarding the streets. Sporadic bombings, now of the terrorist nature, are happening in parts of the country, and the tourist sites are empty. The touts are hungrier and more aggressive than ever; offers for horse carriage rides in Luxor went from E£10 the last time I visited, to only E£2.
This time, my friends spoke of their country before and after-currency devaluation. “My school fees doubled overnight.” “I’m so happy I bought my wedding dress before the devaluation.” “Thank God I did some traveling before the devaluation, I’d never be able to afford it now.” Life suddenly became unaffordable even for upper-class Egyptians.
The government had devalued the Egyptian pound by 48% last Nov to secure a $12bil loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), all in the name of reforming its struggling economy. The announcement came as a surprise, I could only imagine the rude shock of waking up one morning to a world where everything was 50% more expensive overnight.
Little did I know, I had arrived in a country where the economy is sensitive and uncertain, and prices are inflating at a shocking rate. However, Cairo was noticeably cleaner – the rubble from the revolution had been cleared and buildings restored, revolution graffiti was erased, signaling a country trying to heal. As the days go by, the people dutifully wake up every morning and live their lives in a country coping with an economic crisis.
Despite the soaring cost of living, the weddings must go on and Lina’s was fit for a princess. It was held in an international hotel with a buffet spread serving salmon and cocktail prawns; there was a DJ alternating between Arabic songs and Western hits; hired belly dancers livened the mood, and guests decorated the ballroom with their finest suits and gowns.
It was opulent compared to a village wedding I stumbled upon in Quesir town whilst on a 7-hour road trip. Equally lively, this humble affair was held outside a home under pitched tarps. Instead of a dance floor, they had the ground; instead of a DJ they had four elderly men playing traditional Arabic melodies; and instead of hired dancers, they had really, really, reaalllly enthusiastic and fun-loving women. One even strong-armed me into dancing with them!
I shifted between marvel and disbelief at this dichotomy between the upper and lower class, it is made even more obvious by the fact that the middle class here is tiny, almost non-existent. Upper-class Egyptians work hard but play even harder, evident from the number of billboards selling luxurious beach houses with fancy English names many Egyptians can’t read. To my surprise, it is a norm for upper and upper-middle class people here to own second homes by the coast. Egyptians love traveling and weekend getaways to beachside resorts are a regular occurrence.
Meanwhile, the lower class relies on subsidised bread and second-hand clothing stores to survive. Many of them drive donkey carts, sharing the same roads as the imported German cars of their more fortunate counterparts.
I had not expected this trip to become a discovery of a tale of two worlds co-existing in the same space.
During our Bachelorette weekend getaway in the oasis town of Fayoum, we drove through poverty-stricken Tunis Village and into a boutique hotel surrounded by mud-brick village homes in dire need of proper lighting. While weathered women and unshowered children walked along the dusty streets outside, we and other local tourists tucked into delicious stuffed-pigeons in the safe comforts of our hotel.
In Quesir, women strolled through the markets in their hijabs and abayas, some with their face covered. A drive away in the overpriced gated-resort town of Port Ghalib constructed for the very purpose of tourism, beautiful young women sunbathed in their tiny bikinis while sipping cocktails.
I met the rich, very rich and the very poor, and spoke to friendly Egyptians with perfect, not very perfect and very poor English. In them, I saw a shared resilience to survive the crises their country keeps finding itself in.
The touts, for one, have come up with creatives plays to scam tourists into tipping them. At the Saqqara Pyramids, one man physically lifted a French tourist and put him on his camel and “forced” him into a photo op, then sneakily asked for baksheesh (tips). I’ve even had bellboys and self-appointed tour guides brazenly telling us off for tipping too little! It’s rude, but I can only attribute it to a desperate need to feed their families.
In the cities, white-collar Egyptians feel the pressure to work harder and save more, choosing to live in cheaper neighbourhoods, shop in cheaper stores, and spend less. What they fear is not the end of their lavish lifestyle, but their job security, their children’s education, and the safety of their homes.
Like Lina, many of them share their wealth generously and work tirelessly not for the sake of protecting their lifestyle, but also to create better job, income and education opportunities for their countrymen on the other end of the spectrum, so they can bridge the growing gap between them.
I listened as the Egyptians I met spoke with melancholy about their struggles and then complained about Egypt with frustration – the infrastructure is lacking (although their 3G connection is admittedly pretty good), the government is corrupt, petrol prices are increasing – but once they’re done venting, they would excitedly dive into recommending places that I “absolutely must” go. All of them exclaimed, “Egypt is so beautiful!”
Ahmed, a very sincere taxi driver, was almost offended that we did not visit Hatshepsut Temple before leaving Luxor. “It’s the best temple in my town, you have to visit! Insha Allah, you come back to Luxor,” he insisted.
From their passionate rambles, it’s easy to see that no matter how fucked up things are, Egyptians are immensely proud of the beautifully chaotic place they call home. They have seen better days, but many are grateful that things haven’t gone the way of their war-torn neighbours. Their cheerfulness despite their quandary tugs at my heartstrings.
If it weren’t for Lina, I wouldn’t have visited Egypt again and would’ve missed an opportunity to discover this side of the people. At the end of 12 days, I flew home with an excess of Egyptian pounds in my wallet, fingers crossed that the currency left growing mould in my drawer coupled with Lina’s firstborn would be a good excuse for a third visit to Egypt.
Insha Allah, that day will come.
(No pressure, Lina.)
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