Dreaming About Egypt: Advice for Western Travelers in Muslim Countries / by Denise Thibodeau

By Denise Thibodeau

My time in Egypt now feels like a dream. But I was there and through my written words I hope some of you will catch the fever and travel to Africa to spend time in one of the most amazing, unique and interesting countries I have been fortunate enough to see.

As I sit to write about this beautiful country, finding the right words is difficult. It’s not as much about culture shock as cultural sensations; all of my senses were overloaded from the sounds, smells, tastes, landscape, even the air. It was incomparable to anything I have known in my life that I find it difficult to relay the incredible feeling of being ‘birthed’ into what seemed like a world all unto itself.

The pyramids standing strong and mighty, the Nile with its touring boats, the Mediterranean with its harbors and fishing vessels, the color and beauty of the Red Sea, the Mosques and old Churches, the museums and architecture. All are reasons to visit this beautiful country.

But, those are obvious sights that you would expect to see.

It is in the streets – with the people, traffic, shops and cafés – which are a complete contrast to North American living, where the mind gets truly turned upside down. The different modes of transportation, the variations in food, and even the music makes it feel as though you have stepped through a portal into a world that cannot be understood except through experience.

I went to Egypt alone. I traveled through its countryside to various cities and found a people that were warm and welcoming, a lifestyle that was intriguing and a country that was filled with poverty but rich in history and life. And the cuisine, especially along the shore of the Mediterranean in Alexandria, was to die for!

As I was once was a convert and practicing Muslim for a number of years, I know that there are many social conventions in countries like Egypt. Knowing and respecting these social rules can make your journey much more enjoyable. Besides, isn’t truly experiencing another culture part of the goal of travel?

Practical Insights Into Traveling in a Muslim Country

  • In Egypt, eating with your fingers is favorable and considered good manners.
  • If a man looks at your feet or doesn’t make eye contact, it’s a sign of respect.
  • When entering a mosque for any purpose, a woman's hair must be covered and shoes (for men and women) must be removed at the door.
  • ‘Minfadlik’ means please and ‘shukran’ is thank you; you will hear these words often in Egypt.
  • Most everything is bought by bartering. Although there are many stories about tourists being ‘taken’ by a vendor or cab driver, Egyptians love to dicker with one another and often laugh about good deals they got and who was able to get the cheapest price. A love of the 'game' of bartering is knitted into their culture, and no offer will be taken as an offense.
  • Change all money into Egyptian. I found that American money did not work well and many places would not take it. There are debit machines and Western Union outlets throughout Egypt where you can exchange money; make use of them.
  • The police do not always respond quickly. Do not be under the assumption they operate as they do in your own country. Bribes are common and they police tend to come when they get around to it. Locate your Embassy and carry their phone number with you. In my experience people on the street and in shops were more than willing to help out whenever I looked in distress.
  • Take a pen and paper with you when you go out site seeing. The streets are confusing and their names are all in Arabic. I found that writing down the path I took helped enormously when trying to return to my apartment; remembering the names in Arabic was impossible but when I showed the street names I’d written down to people they were often able to direct me when I was lost.
  • Crossing the street in Cairo is a death-defying act. Drivers do not stop for pedestrians and there are few traffic lights or crosswalks. I found that standing with others and running as fast as I could with the group as they crossed worked the best. I loved the challenge of weaving through traffic in the wake of those who were more experienced!
  • Camels are S L O W. Boringly slow. I would not waste my money ‘riding’ one again.
  • If you get lots of bug bites and you need some relief, go into any store that looks like a pharmacy. In my experience, showing them my bite marks, without any English exchanged, resulted in them selling me wonderful ointment that worked well.
  • Outside of western-style resorts, men and women are not allowed to share a room unless they are married. Men are not even allowed to visit a woman’s room and to do so is a serious offense that is not taken lightly. Keep in mind that you can be arrested and charged for something as simple as this, though it is unlikely to happen to a Westerner as tourism is an important part of the economy; but best not to take the chance of breaking a law in a foreign country.
  • There are many armed soldiers throughout Egypt and although they weren’t friendly, they didn’t cause me any problems once I showed them my passport.
  • The ‘Azthan’, or call to prayer, happens five times a day and the Quran is read on loud speakers each morning. Ask where the closest mosque is when inquiring into accommodations if hearing this throughout the day poses a problem for you.
  • Men and women pray in separate parts of the mosque. Some mosques have a curtain separating the two areas, some have a completely different room and some have a small barrier. The best tip I can give regarding this is to ask if uncertain. Some mosques will let tourists visit the entire structure and others will not.
  • Ramadan is a month long religious holiday. If traveling to any Muslim country during Ramadan, keep in mind that it may inhibit some of your activities as shops, restaurants and events may close completely or partially.
  • If your luggage is lost upon your arrival into Egypt, try not to worry. Their approach appears to be one of nonchalance and indifference, but to my amazement when it happened to me, I found my luggage at the front desk two days later.
  • Many children live on the streets in Egypt; they often beg for money or sell flowers and trinkets. An Egyptian lady I know from Canada told me not to give them money because often the children are forced to turn it over to an adult who lives off their avails. It was suggested I give them food instead to help with their hunger, which I did and found them to be very grateful for it.
  • Do not book accommodations off the Internet unless it is a well-known or western resort-style establishment. If your intention is to stay in hostels or apartments (of which there are many and they are cheap), book a place for a couple days and then go in person and check them out. Once you have committed to a rental, it is very difficult if not impossible to get out of the deal regardless of the state of the place even if the pictures on the Internet are not what you find upon arrival.
  • Unless you do not mind being stared at, women should wear light, loose fitting clothing. In many Muslim countries it is uncommon to see a woman dressed in the ‘western’ fashion; just as we tend to stare at women fully veiled in Canada, they will tend to stare at women who are not fully covered up in their country. The choice is yours to make but 'looks' and 'remarks' may be the result of your choice. In the gated resort areas throughout Egypt, western dress is appropriate, and some areas even permit topless sunbathing.
  • Some cafés are for men only. Besides the awkwardness of accidentally stumbling into a man-only café and being gently ushered out, I encountered few problems. It is probably best for tourists to stay within urban centres, not for safety reasons but because tradition and cultural beliefs are more strongly adhered to in rural settings; if one is not familiar with Islam then the chances of accidentally showing disrespect may create problems that are best avoided.

Finally, the best tip I can give to anyone traveling to a Muslim country, or anywhere really, is to put aside all personal judgments and political views and try to immerse yourself in the lifestyle of the country; it’s the only way of truly experiencing how another culture of people live. Quit trying to make judgments about what you think is 'right' or 'wrong' and focus on soaking up new experiences. I can guarantee you that if you take this approach, Egypt will take your breath away and leave you with a feeling that our world is one of amazement, wonder and diversity.

Happy traveling!

Image Credits:

Egypt by Lukey B Untitled via We Heart It