I had gone out early to try to beat the heat, so the street was relatively quiet. A man in an expensive looking track suit was jogging towards me on the other side of the road. Seeing me, he crossed the street, ran up and took my hand in both of his. “Welcome to my country,” he said and then jogged off before I had time to answer. I had developed a theory that once a city became too big, people just didn’t have time to be friendly. That theory was being shattered. This was Cairo in the early 90’s- around fifteen million people.
It was my first time inside the “developing” world and I remember how different everything seemed. Men smoked from hookahs. Women walked barefoot caring baskets on their heads. I remember feeling the weight of the gaze of a little girl who watched me- a woman traveling alone, as I sat by the ruins eating a sandwich. There was a constant onslaught of heat, dust and cries for baksheesh. Every intercity bus or train that I took broke down. Traffic careened through the streets (20 years and nearly 20 countries later, Cairo still holds the record for the worst driving I’ve ever seen. What do they have against using headlights?). The Great Pyramid was so overwhelmingly large I almost didn’t notice that I was walking by the Sphinx. All of the earth seemed to be made of fine brown dust except for the well-defined, luscious, green stripe that was the Nile valley. And Abu Simbel blew me away. What was more amazing – that people could build something that enormous, or that they could move it?
But more than anything, I remember that time and time again complete strangers invited me to sit with them and have tea. The Koran says that one should give to the weary traveler, and the people seemed to take this literally. I recalled reading a book by Freya Stark in which she said that people in the Middle East, “practice hospitality as if it’s a religion- which it is.” I have been welcomed in many places that I have traveled- but nowhere else have I repeatedly had people invite me to join them (sometimes in their homes) the way I did in Egypt.
So I was very surprised last fall when a friend, who I know to be highly intelligent and a brilliant traveler, came home from a trip to Egypt and described it as hostile and unfriendly. Was she talking about the same country where I had been treated so well? How could our experiences have been so different? Then a few months later, we watched in amazement as the Egyptian people took to the streets. My friend was absolutely correct in sensing that the people were angry and frustrated. Yet I think I am correct to in believing that warmth and hospitality are at the core of their culture.
A new generation is now working to build a new Egypt. I don’t know what it will be, but I hope it will be more egalitarian than before. However, I also hope that they do hang on to some traditions of the past- particularly “practicing hospitality as if it’s a religion”. This seems to me to show Islam at it’s best.Published in