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CAIRO - Part 3 - Hospitality, Charm and Con Artists

Egyptians are such masters at the art of hospitality, that. unless we are warned in advance, we will be stopping at every third shop in the business district of Cairo...for tea. The owner just wants to talk about America because he has a cousin in Chicago (they ail have cousins in Chicago, or Philadelphia, or Cincinnati), and plans to emigrate to our country within the next three years, and in the meantime, is just SO grateful for the opportunity to practice his English. He is just so warm and gracious, that, after thirty minutes of charming conversation, and, "really, we must go now" (and he wants us to have a second cup of tea), that, in order to get his permission to leave, we feel we just HAVE to buy something. It works every time. We buy.

 This talent is probably in their DNA, but they also start perfecting it at a very early age. At every tourist attraction, you will find hordes of children, ages from about ten or twelve to sixteen, or so, selling postcards (ten for a dollar), or papyrus pictures, or something. Their beautiful, smiling faces belie the fact they are desperate to make a sale. The problem is this: we are taught in our culture to look a person in the face, smile, and politely say "no thank you", which does not work in Egypt. There, if you do that, it gives them license to continue pleading with you, following you across the plaza or down the street, and this is a sign to every other kid in the area "we have a live one here". What may have started with two or three children, soon will mushroom into fifteen or twenty. Outside one mosque, I witnessed one elderly Americans couple, surrounded by at least fifty children and looking very frightened.

In order to avoid such a situation, the wise tourist looks straight ahead, or up at a minaret, continues to walk or stroll, pretending to be completely oblivious to that kid, no matter how handsome, no matter how much you want his picture. One must take the attitude that kid doesn't even exist, even if your waiting bus is only thirty feet away.

At the little town of Kredessa, near the pyramids, I encountered a twelve year old boy named Ali who saw I had a pencil. He followed me, begging and pleading for that pencil, as I headed for the bus. He was wearing a lovely blue robe, and he was so very beautiful After about twenty minutes, I made a bargain with him to take his picture in exchange for the pencil. He had worked so hard, begging for that pencil but, I felt he had to know I was going to have something from him, in exchange...the picture!

 At Saqqara, a beautiful Egyptian man latched on to Bob and me, wanting to be our guide and followed us everywhere, giving us the same information as was in our guide book. Although we kept telling him we didn't want nor need a tour guide, he kept insisting we could pay him anything. Bob finally said "we don't want a guide but I'll give you a dollar it you will just leave us alone" and the man was outraged because it wasn't enough. We went into the tomb of Unis which was free (having paid to get into the general area) but we had to pay a man at the door fifteen cents just to get back out of the tomb. On that same trip, we had contracted with the cab driver (through Bechtel) to drive us around for the day for fifteen dollars. But, back at the hotel, he insisted we owed him fifteen dollars per person, for a total of thirty. Fortunately, Bob had been told by fellow workers that a cab for a day was only fifteen no matter how many people you had in your party, and refused to give him more. But the driver's insistence that we were wrong, sure put a damper on the day.

The Cairo Museum of Antiquities was only about three blocks from our hotel, and one day, Margo (another Bechtel wife) and I walked over to spend the morning there. It was three dollars to get in and while we were there, we discovered why the guide book said we shouldn't talk to the guards. One of them came over to us and insisted we come with him, as he had something to show us that not everyone gets to see. He secretively took us into another room, pulled open a wall partition and told us to look inside. We peeked through a half inch crack into the next room, a darkened room, filled with crates and then he wanted money for the privilege of our seeing nothing. We felt so stupid we laughed out loud and paid him nothing. In retrospect, we probably should have paid him something for the laugh we got out of the experience.

During our stay in Cairo, I visited the pyramids at Giza three times, and had become quite inured to those very annoying hustlers. So, as I stood, contemplating the sphinx one day, one of them approached me and wouldn't go away, even though I ignored him for several minutes. Finally, without looking at him, I closed my eyes, tilted my face to the sky, took a deep breath and with obvious exasperation, through gritted teeth, I said: "I have come halfway around the world to communicate with the sphinx and YOU are preventing me from doing that. Now, would you PLEASE go away." Then, to emphasize my point, I turned and glared at him. I found myself staring into the wisest eyes and the most beautiful face I have ever seen in my life. He was an elderly gentleman with one of those faces you see in National Geographic. A face that could melt the meanest heart. A face with dignity, compassion and love. To this day, sixteen years later, I am still haunted by that face. How I wish I had changed my stance, taken his picture and given him a dollar.

CAIRO - Part 4 - Getting Around

Once a week, Bechtel (my husband's company) generously provided the American wives with a bus for the day, to take them anywhere they wanted to go. While I was there, we went to a pottery shop and saw them making and selling their product. One day we went to Kredessa, a little neighborhood near the pyramids, where we browsed, bargained, and bought many different products, all within the space of three or four blocks. Then we went to lunch on the way home. And, on another day, we were taken to the Khan el Khalili or bazaar. This is a shopping area that extends for miles within the city of Cairo. Each product has it's own street of several blocks, so that you can compare prices and goods and hospitality. For example, there is the sector for carpets, another for furniture, another for fabrics, another area for jewelry, another for appliances, another for brass goods, etc. It was so much fun shopping in the Khan el Khalili that a couple of us got together and went back in a cab a few days later.

The other way I saw the city was to sign up for city tours out of our hotel. So, with a tour guide, I got to see (up close and personal) the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the 14th century Mosque and College of Sultan Hassan, General Gayer Anderson's House, the Mosque of Ibn Touloun~ the Islamic Art Museum, The Citadel, the Qalaun Mosque, El Gawhara Palace, and the evening Light Show at the Pyramids. Many of these places made you check your cameras upon entering, and in several places we were required to remove our shoes and go barefoot, or rent fabric shoe covers, so as to keep down the damage of the lovely mosaic tiled floors.

When General Gayer Anderson was stationed in Cairo with the British Army, two hundred years ago, he owned this lovely mansion-like home and amassed many treasures within it. He willed it to the government of Egypt and it was well worth seeing. Typical of the elegant homes of the time, there were beautiful mosaic floors, high ceilings, arched doors and windows, a fountain in the center of the main entertainment room, and a balcony for the women. Women were not included in social engagements, in fact they seldom, if ever, left the house, once they were married. They were, however, provided with screened balconies to view the festivities below and as you walk through the streets, you will notice little balconies jutting out from the second story levels, again, for the women to see the happenings on the streets, below, but not to be seen, themselves.

 In the main hall or social engagement hall, the seating is arranged around a square water pond with a fountain. This is not merely to enhance the beauty of the room, but serves to cool off the room with the running water. The high ceilings permit the hot air to rise, and the arched windows, around the top of the room, permit the hot air to escape the house and bring any breezes into the room. Also, the house is kept very dark, which aids in keeping the room cool. But notice where the women reside! On the second story level! Of course! The house hot spot!

Continued on:
Cairo, Egypt by Vicky Blitz (Parts 5 - 7)
Egypt Main Page