Monday 5 of December, 2022
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Egypt: A Diamond In The Dust

10 months into his life in Cairo and Conor Sheils is now a believer. This is why you should visit Egypt now, as told by Egypt's most cynical expat.

Staff Writer

Welcome in Egypt is a well-worn street heckle, the bane of tourists and long-term khawaga residents alike.

The seemingly innocuous phrase uttered to anyone with even a slight air of mish Masry is fine in and of itself - if it were not usually followed by a "cheap price" offer to purchase a camel, a pair of Colven Kleen jeans or a craptastic hotel room.

The longer you stay, the more the phrase grates, to the point where after a fortnight, the short-lived feelings of being welcome have given way to a murderous intent directed specifically at those foolish enough to try their luck in such an unoriginal fashion.

This results in a flurry of formerly excited tourists leaving this glorious land with a mindset far more akin to that of a jaded mother desperate for sleep after yet another night spent caring for a crying tot.

The figures reflect a sad truth - leaving poor old Egypt as a one-time hookup who's just a little too clingy for you to ever want to call again. But it's because of this casual flirtation mentality that many never get to see the true beauty that lies in the chaotic, tortured soul of Om El Donya.

It's little under a year since I stepped off of a cramped bus from the Red Sea paradise of Dahab and onto the dirty, dusty, noisy streets of Cairo.

To say it wasn't a culture shock would be at best a well-meaning polite gesture, and at worst an outright lie. The noise, the chaos, the people - why are there so many people in a tiny space?! - was a lot to take in for an Irish man far more used to the stone-cobbled streets of Stockholm or the lined-up and orderly mannerisms of the average Londoner than the loud, chaotic insanity of Wust El Balad.

But many months later, I feel that the time has come to put my hands up and admit it: Egypt, I was wrong.

Over the past weeks and months I've seen Egypt take a hammering internationally. The media paints Cairo as a war-zone that has more in common with downtown Baghdad than a bustling, metropolitan start-up hub. Meanwhile a never-ending string of travel bans and wishy-washy airlines have made the capital a desert for tourism at least.

But what many fail to see is the utter charm, kindness and genuine generosity which lies beneath the surface in post-revolution Egypt.

Don't get me wrong - Egypt is far from a Utopian dreamland. There is division everywhere; religious/atheist, veiled/non-veiled, Al-Ahly/Zamalek - but what makes it bearable is the everyday quirks found in places, things and mostly people that make living in Cairo just a little bit special.

A perfect example of this is during a recent Ramadan excursion to the city's Chinatown; my friend and I were struggling to find our restaurant of choice. After much wandering, we asked a man - who as luck would have it - was also on a mission to eat following a long day's fasting.

Five minutes later, we find ourselves sitting at a ma2edet rahman (an outdoor make-shift Ramadan table designed to provide sustenance to the city's hard-working poor). After some initial curious glances, we are presented with a delicious baladi feast - brimming with meat, rice, vegetables and a tasty cup of Sobia.

We ate, we drank, we talked and left feeling merry after the owner not only refused to take a financial donation, but also invited us to return the following day. This is just one example of the true spirit of Egyptian hospitality (and no, you don't need to purchase some knock-off papyrus to partake).

From super generous snack-loving kids in a second class train in Luxor to the taxi driver who insisted on giving yours truly and pals a free ride home after we had both enjoyed a local brew over political discussion in a downtown baladi bar, Egypt has got some pretty damn good eggs sandwiched between the bread and butter of everyday Cairo life.

Call me presumptuous, but I'll eat my hat if I ever experience such kindness from the suits dishing out travel bans in the boring boardrooms of Birmingham or the stuffy bureaus of Berlin. But it's not just the people that give Cairo a unique feel, which frankly will make for a much more interesting chapter in your memoirs than a beach holiday in Bodrum ever could.

Where else can one experience one of the world's great wonders, just a 20 minute microbus ride from your vegetable market, fuul cart or all-night cafe? Sure, the Pyramids at Giza have become a code word for desperation, "dollar-dollar" prices and all-round hassle - but a pair of headphones, a few polite but firm Arabic phrases later, you can be completely alone, surrounded by little else but the desert silence and an eye-watering view of Africa's most populous smog pot. Try that one on for size, Dubai.

Large triangular rocks aside - Egypt's got something for everyone. Take the beautiful beaches of Sinai or the small-town kindness; a matter of pride in upper Egypt. Once while visiting Aswan, I was invited to a Nubian wedding, a sha3by party and late-night felluca ride within hours of arrival. Meanwhile, the Bedouins of Sinai will actually take offence if you refuse their offer of tea, or other locally grown substances.

Alexandria offers a unique trip to the past, while Ain Sokhna, Sahel and Hurghada offer a beach or water sports holiday beyond your wildest dreams, without the need to even think about whether you've remembered to print off your boarding pass.

On any given evening in Cairo, one can put the world to rights in a downtown bar, sample an atmosphere rarely experienced outside of a football stadium at a nearby cafe or check out a free exhibition or movie screening at a central Cairo art space.

Yes, the country has its problems - harassment, corruption, poverty and a total lack of green living - but find me another spot on the map where one can encounter the sheer volume of experiences that form part of day-to-day life in Egypt.

Frankly, I firmly believe that Egypt has robbed me of the ability to ever be shocked or amazed by anything, ever again. It's all here, on my doorstep - all the time.

And no, the political division, social conservatism and utterly crazy driving skills don't exactly make for Kodak moments but they do give you a sense of utter disdain for bedan Facebook buddies and their endless viral stream of first world problems.

After a year in Egypt, "Ahlan wa Sahalan" has replaced "Welcome in Egypt" while "dollar-dollar" is now replaced by "Ma3lesh, bokra."

In Ireland, we have a saying, "home is where the heart is" and - for now at least - my heart is right here in Cairo.

If you don't understand why, then I dare you to come here and join me (and 90 million others) in our quest to find Egypt's diamonds in the dust.