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Tourists in Egypt, picyured by IBA/Mohsen Allam, 21 june 2006

Alice in Cairoland

Why some expats’ over-assertiveness is constantly interpreted as rudeness by most.


by Dominika Maslikowski


I once knew an expat who lived in Egypt and annoyed many of the locals while driving most of us foreigners nuts. Let’s call her Alice.


Before moving here, Alice had done research on internet forums where European tourists tell stories of their short and failed involvements with Egyptian men. This research, Alice thought, made her an expert on the challenges of intercultural relationships and on the country’s complex matrix of social classes. Luckily for the rest of us, she dispensed her life coaching sessions for free. And you didn’t even have to ask.


Alice had never actually dated an Egyptian, but didn’t rule out that option as long as that special someone shared her Western values: he would be liberal, tolerant and hopefully rich. Alice took an excited pleasure in hearing stories of failed inter-faith relationships and marriages. The fact that many foreigners were happily married to Egyptians and had raised functioning families didn’t concern her. It would be naive to believe the success stories, after all, and Alice knew better anyways.


Many who knew her agreed that Alice went past that fine line that divides caution and paranoia. Cultural differences do exist, but so does common courtesy. The latter dictates that it just isn’t decent ― at your first meeting, even before the waiter has brought the coffee ― to call an adult woman naive when she mentions she’s dating an Egyptian, or to ask her about his flat or his salary. Alice had every right to be curious and to speak her mind, but that other woman also had the right to later block her from Facebook.


Alice thought she was constantly the target of elaborate rip-off schemes wherever she went. In the taxi, at the cafe or the hair salon. What to a normal human appeared to be a traffic jam was in reality ― to the more enlightened Alice ― a premeditated tactic of the taxi driver’s to get the meter up. How to get out of the mess and make the traffic jam magically disappear? Alice yelled “yalla!” to the bewildered driver.


Do you want a good deal at the hair salon? Don’t believe the brochure, Alice warned. Announce loudly that you want “local prices,” and that will do the trick. Why is everyone in the reception ― from expat to Egyptian to the cat outside ― suddenly staring? They must be envious of Alice’s street smarts, of course.


Tourists in Egypt, picyured by IBA/Mohsen Allam, 21 june 2006Alice thought she was constantly in danger and didn’t feel safe anywhere, not even in the leafy suburb where she was surrounded by dozens of other expats leading normal, often routine, lives. Is that strange man behind Alice yelling at her or maybe sexually harassing? Oh, he’s selling ful sandwiches.


Alice appeared confident on the surface, but what she thought was assertiveness got constantly interpreted as rudeness by most people she came across. Alice believed cultural differences were impossible to overcome, and she walked the streets of Cairo like a ticking time-bomb full of suspicion, distrust and fear. Plenty of expats tried to break Alice out of her shell, but she refused to make that first crack. Most expats gave up and deleted her number from their mobiles in frustration. Security guards once gathered around Alice at a museum when she loudly refused to walk all the way back to a booth to purchase tickets.


Alice is such an oddity that I’ve only come across similar characters before in novels. Yet I had gone out with her a few times, and feel all those hours of frustration should yield a life lesson, if nothing else:


The self-fulfilling prophecy is real. If you believe all of Cairo is out to get you, cheat you and rob you, then the city will become a dark and sinister place, especially for you. If you believe that being rude, mistrustful and suspicious will protect you from any of it, then people will hardly smile in return. So be cautious, do stay stay safe and don’t wander around Imbaba in skimpy summer dresses. But try and stay sane and courteous, too, and you’ll find that most people will return the favor.


The last time I saw Alice, we were standing in front of a historic mosque. We’d just taken a tour of a few religious sites, where Alice kept saying she didn’t understand the dress code, then later sat at a cafe where Alice misunderstood the waiter and argued over the bill.


“Are you sure you’re going to be ok?” Alice asked as I got into a taxi.


“What do you mean?” I said.


“I mean going to downtown, by yourself,” she replied.


“But you know I live there,” I said. “I take taxis all the time.”


“Well send me a text when you get home, so I know you’re alright,” Alice said, with a touch of annoyance in her voice.


“Yeah, sure,” I said, sliding into the backseat. I rolled the window down and took a look back at the minarets as the taxi inched toward Attaba. I breathed in the cool evening air, fragrant with the scent of cinnamon and spices, and I got home alright.


Sometimes, though, I still worry about Alice.


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