We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Egypt
Keep in mind that most Egyptian workers expect tips after performing a service, known as Baksheesh. This can be expected for something as little as pressing the button in the elevator.
Many workers will even ask you to tip them before you get a chance. The typical tip for minor services is 50pt to 1 LE. Due to the general shortage of small change, you may be forced to give 5 LE to do simple things like use the bathroom. Just understand that this is part of the culture; the value of the baksheesh is very small to most westerners (USD$0.10 to $0.25) but makes up the a good portion of monthly income for many Egyptians. Do not photograph people without their permission, and in areas frequented by tourists do not be surprised if a bit of baksheesh is requested. If you’re male, don’t be surprised if another male holds your hand or forearm or engages in some form of bodily contact – there’s no taboo against men holding hands and unlike in the West, this behavior is not associated with homosexuality.
In general, Egyptians are a lot more comfortable with less personal space than are most Westerners; however, pairs of Westerners should be cautious in engaging in same-sex contact. Normal contact is quite acceptable (shaking hands, pats on the shoulder, etc.) but holding hands could be mistaken in Westerners as a sign of homosexuality, which is quite taboo in Egypt. Smoking is very common and cigarettes are very cheap in Egypt. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the second President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, and many others are considered national heroes in Egypt; you should say absolutely nothing that could be perceived as offensive or derogatory regarding him. Tread carefully around such topics and let others guide the openness of the discussion.
Many Egyptians have a different interpretation concerning ambiguous expresions such as freedom of speech and democracy. Likewise, don’t bring up politics and other delicate issues impulsively. It is advisable not to discuss Israel even if tempted; do not speak loudly about it as it may attract unwanted attention, even if you are only talking about it as a travel destination. Never discuss religion from an atheistic or similar point of view. Even highly educated Egyptians who studied abroad won’t appreciate it and doors will close for you.
Also be aware that the Islamic “call to prayer” happens five times daily and can be heard loudly almost anywhere you go. Just understand that most Egyptians are used to it and enjoy it as part of the cultural experience. Take great care if you choose to drink, especially if you’re from countries where heavy drinking is accepted. Even if you are used to it, you can’t estimate the effects of the climate, even at night. The impact drunk people have on Egyptians is quite large and very negative. The best plan is just to abstain or limit yourself to one drink per meal while in Egypt; it will be cheaper too.
Do not elicit any conversations about politics, but don’t be afraid to partake if a local you are speaking with (typically a middle-class and well educated shopkeeper) begins a rant about his hatred for Morsi and the current administration (for whom they blame, rightly or wrongly, for the drop in tourism and economic loss). This will be a common theme that you’ll find many of the friendly locals go into, but certainly you don’t want to be seen as a foreigner coming in to insult their government with knowledge of only what you hear in the media. Dress Egyptians are generally a conservative people and most are religious and dress very conservatively.
Although they accommodate foreigners being dressed a lot more skimpily, it is prudent not dress provocatively, if only to avoid having people stare at you. It is best to wear pants or jeans instead of shorts as only tourists wear these. In modern nightclubs, restaurants, hotels and bars in Cairo, Alexandria and other tourist destinations you’ll find the dress code to be much less restrictive. Official or social functions and smart restaurants usually require more formal wear. At the Giza Pyramids and other such places during the hot summer months, short sleeve tops and even sleeveless tops are acceptable for women (especially when traveling with a tour group).
Though you should carry a scarf or something to cover up more while traveling to/from the tourist destination. Also, it’s perfectly acceptable for women to wear sandals during the summer, and you will even see some women with the hijab who have sandals on. Women should cover their arms and legs if travelling alone, and covering your hair may help to keep away unwanted attention.
Though as a foreigner, you may get plenty of attention no matter what you wear, mainly including people staring at you along with some verbal harassment which you can try to ignore. Egyptian women, even those who wear the full hijab, are often subjected to sexual harassment, including cat calls. You may find that completely covering up does not make a huge difference, with regards to harassment, versus wearing a top with shorter sleeves. In regards to harassment, it’s also important how you act. Going out with a group of people is also helpful, and the best thing to do is ignore men who give you unwanted attention. They want to get some reaction out of you. Also, one sign of respect is to use the Arabic greeting, “Asalamualaikum” (means “hello, peace be upon you”), and the other person should reply “Walaikumasalam” (“peace be upon you”). That lets the person know you want respect, and nothing else.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Egypt, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Egypt food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Egypt? Please comment below.