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Impressions of Egypt

April 5, 2006

I am back in sunny Glasgow, back at work, and our recent trip to Egypt is fading from reality very quickly. Time to capture some impressions before it’s gone forever. Firstly, there are pictures here.

I have really mixed feelings about Egypt. My first thought, when arriving at Cairo airport and climbing into a 30 year old taxi held together by wire, was “wow, it’s great to be back in a third world country”.

This is because it is so much more relaxed. Britain is such an uptight, controlled and monitored society. There’s monitoring in Egypt too, but it’s done by bored and corrupt humans who check papers unenthusiastically. In the UK, you are conscious of CCTV watching your every move, and it’s enough to give you paranoid fantasies, or at the very least have you self-censoring your behaviour. It was great to disappear in to the anonymous chaos of Egypt.

And Egypt is living proof that there is a self-organising principle in nature, that letting go of the Eurocentric need to control every situation does not mean the world will fall apart. Egypt, to the casual observer, is pure chaos, yet it is friendlier, safer and more human than any Western country.

But sometimes I feel like the entire country is one massive scam designed to rip off foreigners, that the pyramids were built millenia ago to lure tourists from the ancient world and cheat them out of their money, and that everyone from the president down to the lowliest shoe shine boy is out to sell you some worthless tat as ancient art.

Take the Egyptian museum, which is controlled by the State. It is expensive, by Egyptian standards, to get in, and you have to go through three disorganised and uncoordinated security checks. At the last check point, they tell you you are not allowed to bring a camera into the museum (why not?), and you have to go back to the first check point to check it in.

Once you are in the museum, you find that you will have to pay again – a fairly substantial amount – if you want to go into the section where the mummies are kept.

The Egyptian government does absolutely nothing to improve the museum – it is pretty much in the state it was in when it was created over a hundred years ago, with hand-written labels and so on. While this is charming enough, you will certainly not come out of the museum with any greater knowledge about ancient Egypt, since no attempt is made to enlighten you.

You can of course hire a guide, who will tell you “very big, very old”, and then hold out his hand for baksheesh, something travellers to Egypt have been complaining about for around a thousand years.

Or, having paid your entrance fee, you might find the lights are switched off, and you have to tip some one to switch them on.

If you feel the need for some refreshment during your frustrating trip around the museum, you can go to the museum cafe, where you will be overcharged by a factor of ten. You will be charged London prices in one of the cheapest countries in the world.

By way of comparison, I went to the British Museum in London two days later, and checked out the Egyptian exhibit. It is free to get in, and you can take as many pictures as you like. If you get thirsty, the cafe will charge you standard prices for a drink.

The exhibits are well organised and plenty of information is available.

Of course, Britain has more money than Egypt, but it is about more than this. To the Egyptian government, Ancient Egypt is merely something they can make money from, whereas the British Museum is something of a shrine to knowledge and culture. It used to anger me that Egyptian treasures had been taken to Europe to be exhibited, and I felt that they should be returned to Egypt. But at least in Europe you have access to them, and they are treated with due respect.

It is almost not worth visiting the pyramids at all because of the frustration that results from various people, official and otherwise, trying to extract money from you.

Then there is the famous haggling, which is supposed to be part of the colour of Egypt. I just find it really irritating though, because the buyer is always at a disadvantage, especially since the merchant will feel perfectly justified in lying to you. He knows exactly what he paid for each item, while you have no idea whether it is worth £100 or £1.

And the Egyptians will say, “but in your country this is cheap!”, and mostly there are right – but this is not Britain, it is Egypt, where a meal costs 6p and a bus ticket 7p, and it cost me £300 to fly here, and I don’t see why I need to pay expontentially over the going rate to enrich one corrupt merchant.

I know Egypt is poor. I really don’t even mind paying double what something is worth, but I get really angry when everyone tries their luck and charges prices that would make a London cabby blush.

So I had moments in Egypt where I wanted to hop straight on a plane and leave. It seemed like the entire country was trying to cheat me and I couldn’t get an honest answer from anyone.

And just when you reach this point, you have some amazing serendipitous experience, when you meet some one who is genuinely friendly and interested in your life and wants nothing from you but to share something across cultures, and you get invited into a secret private world and have experiences which are both priceless and free of charge, and it makes all the hassle, lies and scams worthwhile.

The problem, exactly, is this: 98% of Egyptians are wonderful, warm, friendly and welcoming people who wouldn’t dream of ripping off a foreigner or doing anyhting to create a bad impression. The trouble is, unless you speak the language and spend a fair amount of time in the country, you’ll never meet them.

Unfortunately, the 2% of the population that makes it’s money from tourism are, mostly, corrupt, lying scum who will take your last penny from you if they can and abandon you in the desert as soon as you stop pulling notes from your pocket.

What’s frustrating is that I would be inclined to spend a lot more in Egypt if I felt I wasn’t being cheated. I like the country and want to bring money into it, rather than spend it in the UK. I am willing to hand over baksheesh quite freely to anyone who is helpful. Having it extorted from me really makes me angry, though. The cheating makes me suspicious and inclined to keep my wallet firmly in my pocket. So, in the end, they shoot themselves in the foot.

So, Egypt’s vice is cheating and dishonesty. It has to be said, it could be worse: South Africa’s vice is rape, murder and armed robbery, while Britain’s is racism and arrogant imperialism, so I guess they’re doing better than us. But it’s still irritating.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Candide's Notebooks permalink
    April 7, 2006 4:44 pm

    Your impressions were picked as one of two featured posts in today’s edition (April 7) of the daily Best in Blogs review at Candide’s

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