Monday, December 12, 2005

Thoughts on Egypt

I returned from a week in Egypt last Monday. I didn't see a great deal of the country, mainly because I was there for work, not holiday. So all I've seen in two trips there are Port Said (at the mouth of the Suez Canal), Cairo, and the road between the two.

First things first. Egypt north of Cairo is flat. And I mean flat. I live on the edge of the Fens, and believe me that I know flat when I see it. On most days there was a haze of (I'm told) Saharan dust in the atmosphere, but apparently one can see the world's curvature during clear weather. It was warm and very pleasant, not too hot even in the sun, because of a cooling sea breeze from the Mediterranean. Cairo is a big sprawling city, and I'm glad I never had to drive anywhere, because Egyptians drive like maniacs: lane markings on the roads are routinely ignored, double and triple parking is common, donkey carts and bikes can be seen travelling towards oncoming traffic in the "wrong" carriageway, and nobody takes any account of the right of way on roundabouts or traffic lights. I found that the best way to get through these hair-raising trips was to stick my nose in a book and not come out until arrived at my destination.

I had an interesting discussion about Islam with an Egyptian colleague in the very civilised (and one could argue, post-colonial remnant) surroundings of the Cairo Shooting Club. The tenets of Islam, from his point of view, sounded eminently reasonable. And if I believed in God, then I might also. The same with Christianity, I think - both Jesus and Mohammad were actually preaching very similar things - it's just the way that their recorded words have been interpreted that differ.

One of the things I had to ask about was the wearing of the headscarf by women in Egypt, as there were huge variations, even in a predominantly Muslim population, in women's dress. Some, generally the younger women, made a token nod to clothing laws by wearing a headscarf and long sleeves, but those long sleeves might be on tight T-shirts, and they were wearing figure-hugging jeans. And at the other end of the scale (a very small minority, I might add) there were the women rigged out in black from head to foot, draped in a robe which allowed nothing of their bodies to be seen, not even their hands or eyes. My Egyptian colleague suggested that this was because they wished to protect themselves from a terrible world, but I have to wonder how much of a protection this actually is. Statistics reported in the Economist last week (issue 26 Nov 2005) suggested that more women are killed every year as a result of violence from their families or due to childbirth than were killed in the Rwandan genocide. Horrifying numbers of girls in the world are still made to undergo genital mutilation, generally by their own families. In these circumstances, how much of a protection can the full body shroud actually be?

Before I finish this post, I should add that nearly all the Egyptians I met were uniformly courteous, friendly and generous. I had been a little apprehensive about how my instructions would be taken on site, but I didn't encounter any problems. Of course, I was there to work, not holiday, and the people I was meeting were generally colleagues or hotel staff, which means that they inevitably have a different attitude to one as a visitor than if one was a tourist. Advice offered: dress modestly, don't go out alone, and be prepared to tip a lot!