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Ways of staying out of trouble in Egypt

Tipping

Keep in mind that most Egyptian workers expect tips after performing a service. 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 EGP1 (about 14 US cents). Due to the general shortage of small change, you may be forced to give EGP5 to do simple things like use the bathroom. Just understand that this is part of the culture; the value of that tip is very small to most westerners but makes up a good portion of monthly income for many Egyptians.

Greeting people

When you approach any individual or a group of people for the first time, the best thing to say is the local variation of the Islamic form of greeting “es-salāmu-`alēku” which literally means “peace be upon you”. This is the most common form of saying “hello” to anybody. It creates a friendliness between you and people you don’t know, builds rapport, and helps build respect! It is also considered polite to say this if you approach someone, instead of just asking them for something or speaking to them directly.

Other forms of greeting include “SàbâH el xēr” (“good morning”), “masā’ el xēr” (“good evening”), or the more casual “ezzayyak” addressing a male, or “ezzayyek” addressing a female, which means “hello” or “how are you?”.

When leaving, you can say the same “es-salāmu-`alēku”, or simply “ma`a s-salāma”, literally: “with safety” or “with wellness” which is used to mean to say “goodbye”. More educated Egyptians will say “bye-bye” derived from the English “goodbye” or “buh-bye” when leaving others.

Smiling: Most people appreciate a smile, and most Egyptians smile when they speak to someone for the first time. People who don’t smile while they speak are considered arrogant, rude, aggressive, unfriendly, etc.

However, be careful not to be too friendly or too smiley, especially if you’re a female speaking to an Egyptian male, as they might mistake you for trying to befriend them or asking for them to flirt or hit on you. Even in a male-to-male conversation, being too friendly might give the other person the chance to try to take advantage of you some way or another. Always use common sense.

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 to dress provocatively, if only to avoid having people stare at you. It is best to wear pants, jeans, long shorts instead of short-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, you do not need to cover your hair; many christian women walk around in Egypt comfortably with their hair uncovered . 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.

Mosque etiquette

Do not enter a mosque with any form of shoes, sandals, slippers, boots, etc. on., as this is very disrespectful. Always take them off before entering as they carry the dirt from the street, and the mosque (a place of prayer) should be clean. However, you can keep socks on.
Etiquette in the Presence of Prayer:

Also, avoid walking in front of persons in prayer. The reason is because when people kneel, they kneel to God. If you stand in front of someone while they are praying or kneeling, it is as if they are kneeling to you or worshipping you, a complete taboo and against the basic foundations of Islam. Otherwise, it is quite acceptable for visitors or Christian Egyptians to carry on as normal in the streets or shops that operate during prayer times.

Public display of affection

Like most other countries in the Muslim world, the Middle East, and even some non-Muslim conservative countries, affection should not be displayed in public. Egyptians are conservative and doing things like making out with your girlfriend/boyfriend in public is considered offensive, rude, or disrespectful. A public hug is less offensive, especially if greeting a spouse or family member you haven’t seen in a while.

You will notice male-to-male kissing on the cheeks when Egyptian men meet their friends, family, or someone they know well. This is not to be confused with the male-to-male kissing of some homosexuals in some western countries. Less commonly, some Egyptian men like to walk next to their male friend with their arms attached together like a loop inside another loop. Again, this is not homosexual behavior.

Other issues

Do not photograph people without their permission, and in areas frequented by tourists do not be surprised if a tip is requested. Smoking is very common and cigarettes are very cheap in Egypt.
Most Egyptians tend to have a loud voice when they speak, which is common to some other countries in the region. They are not shouting, but you will know the difference.

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 expressions such as freedom of speech and democracy. 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.

Take great care if you choose to drink alcoholics (see above), 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.

Written by The Travel Valet

By Judy Karwacki, MA, MBA about Egypt

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