Written by Aishwarya Phadke
In 2018, I realized how my prejudices and limited knowledge about Egypt could’ve almost cost me a trip of a lifetime. I was supposed to travel to Egypt for a youth conference and I knew nothing about the country other than its pyramids, mummies, and the river Nile. Well, also the terror attacks that would make headlines every now and then and how risky it could be for a solo woman traveler.
How I coaxed myself into going is a story for another time. What happened once I was there is more important and also, way more interesting.
On the late night Mumbai-Cairo flight, I’d dozed off only to be woken up by someone offering me two soft pillows. It was a kind looking older gentleman, one of the crew members on Egypt Air. I thanked him, we started talking and the Egyptian culture opened its doors for me. He spoke about his 33 year career with the airline and upcoming retirement and about his wife and kids.
He also enquired about my family, and taught me some arabic greetings. He gave me his contact number in case I needed help and I saw the first ray of hope for my trip.
Well now, I know we all meet polite strangers on travels who engage in small talk and I wouldn’t have made a big deal of it, if it had been just that chat. It’s what conspired over the next 10 days that took my breath away. More on that in a bit!
The week in Sharm-el-Shaikh was fabulous and I made friends from across the globe and the most diverse backgrounds.
I took the opportunity of some immersive learning about Islam by visiting mosques and watching my friends pray. They introduced me to the Egyptian food and told me stories from centuries ago. Especially with the women, a surprising bond of sisterhood came to be formed. Zambia, Egypt, Kurdistan, Lebanon and India. Geography never seemed more irrelevant, social dividers like religion and language never seemed more more inclusive.
During this time, Mamdouh, the friend I’d made on the Mumbai-Cairo flight, and his wife, Hoda would message and check up on me every so often. Mamdouh worked for Egypt Air, so I casually shared my flight arrival details to Cairo when he asked. I made a mental note of meeting them for a meal or coffee before leaving for India.
At the end of that week, I flew to Cairo with Farida, my Egyptian friend. As we were walking out of the airport to meet her mom, I spotted Mamdouh. Wearing his big sunshine smile and a dapper suit, Mamdouh welcomed me and in his broken English announced that he’d come to pick me up. Farida quickly stepped in and they spoke in Arabic. He told her that he and his wife wanted to host me. I was perplexed. Honestly, also a little bit scared. I hardly knew him, had only chatted with his wife, and didn’t feel comfortable going to their house directly.
I had made arrangements to stay elsewhere, so Farida politely declined the offer on my behalf. In the car with Farida’s mom, we discussed the matter and we all agreed that he seemed like a really genuine person and that hospitality of this kind was not uncommon in the Egyptian culture.
Over the next couple of days I experienced this fact first hand. Farida’s mom took us to the Khan el-Khalili night market and treated us to dinner.
I met a bunch of Egyptian youth who had volunteered to be tour guides for participants from the conference I’d attended. They showed us around the Pyramid complex and took us to try the Egyptian national dish ‘Koshary’.
In the evening we sat and gazed out over the majestic river Nile. They wanted nothing in return. They were just college kids happy to meet young travelers from different countries and show us their culture and places.
By the end of two days, I came to trust the Egyptian hospitality and agreed to stay at Mamdouh’s place for the last leg of my trip. It was in fact, an honour that a local couple wanted to host me, which I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate before. Farida and her mom came to drop me, met my hosts, and the safety aspect was further resolved.
The two days with Mamdouh and his wife Hoda were incredibly wonderful. We cooked together, spent hours exchanging stories and immersing in one another’s cultures, and unknowingly breaking down all our religious prejudices.
They took me to visit Mamdouh’s brother’s family, who was visiting from Yemen and I heard about the war torn country from them.
In the mornings, I’d wake up to find Mamdouh watering his small garden and Hoda knitting in the living room. I felt at home. I felt grateful.
Amongst other things I’d wrongly assumed about Egypt, I’d assumed women would be leading repressed lives at home, but I met Farida’s mom, who was a basketball player and a school teacher. Hoda had a master’s degree in …. and worked at the university. Farida, at just 18 became Egypt’s youngest person to scale Everest Base Camp and was a two time Tedx speaker!
Biases kept being proven wrong and I kept becoming fonder and fonder of the country and its people. I’m not saying it’s a paradise. Bad things happen there. Extremism exists. It has it’s own share of struggles. That doesn’t take away from the generosity and hospitality. It can’t fade away the goodness the strangers showed me. ‘Never generalize’ was a lesson reaffirmed in my consciousness.
That Egypt trip will probably always remain the most incredibly serendipitous experience of my life. I shall forever remember the taste of warm Karkade on my lips and the love of my chosen family in my heart.