Long before I ended up living in Egypt, I found myself alone in Cairo for two weeks. It was never meant to be that way; I was planning on meeting a friend, but then they had to leave and go home, so there I was, alone, in this big scary city so unlike what I was used to.
I might add this was September 2013, three months after the protests that brought down Egypt’s President Morsi. The army was in control of the country and had imposed a 7pm curfew, meaning no one was allowed out in the street after this time. And it was the same across the country. Only the tourist towns were spared a curfew. When I landed in Cairo, the only thing that Customs cared about was whether or not I had professional camera equipment. It was a time when the country didn’t want the outside world to see what was going on and foreign journalists were not welcome.
My second day in Cairo, I decided to go in search of a beauty salon, feeling a bit of pampering was in order. Before heading out I google mapped where I wanted to go and was told by the hotel staff that where I wanted to walk was perfectly safe, so off I went. Within two minutes I had half of Egypt’s men following me shouting obscenities in both English and Arabic. I hate to think what the men were saying to me when they shouted in Arabic, but the ones shouting in English all had one thing in mind. They thought I was beautiful and wanted to have sex with me, and there proposals were not nice at all. But I was determined, so I just ignored them and carried on. I even had a car of soldiers drive past me whistling at me, and I caused a car accident. Two motorbikes where so busy gawking at me that they crashed into each other. And what did they do? One would expect them to yell at each other, but no, they started to yell at me. Apparently it was my fault they had crashed. So I sped up and keep going.
Half way to my destination, there was high barbed wire all over the road, but with no military in sight and everyone else just ignoring it, I did too. Then, after having walked for about half an hour, and right round the corner from where I wanted to go, I ran into my first military checkpoint. There was five or six tanks blocking the road, barbed wire in front of them taller than me, and armed men standing on the top of the tanks holding machine guns. It was like nothing I had ever seen in my life, and being already scared from all the men screaming at me, I was afraid, really afraid. I paused, unsure of what to do when a car pulled up next to me and, in perfect English, told me it wasn’t safe to be walking in the street, and to get in the car and he would take me to wherever I needed to go. How stupid did this guy think I was? There was no way I was getting in his car, so I turned around and headed back to my hotel. Looking back now, I don’t understand why I was so afraid, but at the time, I thought I was going to die there on that street. The combination of all the men, the car telling me it wasn’t safe and the wall of tanks I had walked into and I thought my time was up.
Obviously though, it wasn’t. I made it back to my hotel in one piece. I was in desperate need of a drink but there was no way in hell I was going back out in search of a bar, so I went to the supermarket next to my hotel and bought a packet of cigarettes. I had never been so grateful for the lack of smoking laws in Egypt as I sat in my hotel lobby polishing off that pack. Not being a smoker at that time, they tasted disgusting, but in lieu of a drink they were just what I needed.
The next day, I was determined to get that drink I had been craving. I found a nice bar in a nice area of Cairo and had the hotel call me a taxi so they knew exactly where I was going in case something happened. It was exactly what I needed. I got very drunk that night. I met an American that I sat drinking with and we then ordered a pizza and went dancing and before I knew it, it was nearly midnight, and I had stayed out well past the 7pm curfew. Normally you can’t go five minutes without someone shouting ‘taxi’ at you, but that night it took half an hour before we managed to find one. The driver didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Arabic, but I just kept saying Dokki (pronounced do’i) the area I was staying in, and pointing and away we went.
We were almost at my hotel when we ran into a military checkpoint, and my taxi driver looked really afraid of them. After some shouting in Arabic, we were turned around. We were out after curfew without a reason and would not be allowed to pass. Being extremely drunk I wasn’t worried at all, we would find another way it would be fine, but then we ran into another checkpoint; my driver even more scared this time, and again we were turned around and not allowed to pass. I had a pretty good idea of the area in which my hotel was located so I pointed him the wrong way down a one way street, and then all of a sudden there was my hotel, staring at me so large and inviting. It was my lucky day. After paying the driver ten times what it had cost me to get to the bar in the first place I was back in my hotel safe and sound.
That night was the turning point for me. The tanks and the military weren’t scary anymore. They were just part of the landscape. So the next day I headed off on a forty minute walk to an Egyptian clothes store I really liked. I still had men shout at me, but not as many as before. I think they could either see or sense I wasn’t afraid anymore, and I was walking with purpose, like I knew where I was going, which is the key to surviving Cairo. Even if you don’t know where you are going, and are so helplessly lost, as a woman, you have to look like you know exactly where you are going anyway, until you eventually figure it out. And then this time when I walked into a wall of tanks, I just paused to see what everyone else was doing, and when I saw they were all just walking through the middle I did too.
Things are only scary if you let them be. The tanks and the military were harmless. It was only my imagination and my lack of experience with walking into tanks that made me afraid of them. But they were just part of the landscape and pretty soon they just became normal and I didn’t even notice them anymore. Pyramids, KFC, tanks… Welcome to everyday life in Cairo.