Stepping foot into downtown Cairo is like taking a shot of caffeine straight to the heart.
My first hours in the crazy city were so full of fast rushing colour, garbled inaudible language, smells, sounds, feelings. I was overcome with a weird maniacal joy and I can’t really recall many details. One thing I do remember clearly is being confronted by a few of Cairo’s finest street characters.
I was a piece of fresh meat, clearly marked by my rolling suitcase and wide-eyed wonder. Sensory overload is an easy to spot emotion for the enterprising “sales rep”. Many men tried to lure me from my path that day.
Leading tourists astray
The conversation usually starts off with, “Where are you from?”
I am from England and — surprise! — the man approaching me says his cousin lives in an obscure UK town. This is a clever tactic to build a connection and trust. Of course, if I had claimed Uzbekistan as my home country, the man would no doubt have a nephew working in a cell phone shop there!
Rather than being strictly con-men, these men are more like sales reps, and they work on commission (maybe we can call them com-men?). They have a myriad of witty and well rehearsed lines disguised as offers to help the hapless tourist. Ultimately, you are steered into some kind of tourist trap, where the owner of an establishment pays a kickback to the man who brings in a money-spending tourist: A restaurant, a perfume shop, a hostel that you didn’t plan to stay at or some other inescapable fortress where the exit doors only open after a certain amount of money has been siphoned from your wallet.
My travel experience (and of course the fact that I had read The Lonely Planet!) made me fully aware of these tricksters. With my guard fully up I managed to not get sidetracked in those first hours. And, as my time in Cairo drew on the “Where are you from?” or “What are you looking for?” calls reduced dramatically. I gained the relaxed swagger of a weathered expat and downtown’s finest sales reps knew I was a waste of time for the most part.
However, a portly, imposingly tall man, with great English and a stereotypically gruff Arab drawl, approached me regularly. Sometimes I entertained his questions for a few moments, and sometimes I replied in brief Arabic — which always caused him to retract quick enough.
For the most part, these men mean no real harm. But one day, for some reason, I decided to rescue two tourists (and very probably their money) from the portly giant.
I walked through the busy streets of downtown Cairo, paying little attention to the honking, shouting, tea drinking and shisha smoking going on around me. As I reached Midan Talat Harab, I saw the portly man. He didn’t come over to me, though; he already had two pasty-faced blond fish on his line.
I wasn’t in the mood to watch these fresh faces conned into going to the wrong hostel, led into buying some tourist tack, or whatever their fate would have been, so I approached: “Don’t listen to him, he is going to take you to a place so he can get commission.”
The portly man’s face contorted to insulted anger and he replied, “I just want to help. Why are you bothering us?”
I told the stunned and confused-looking tourists that they should leave and not trust this man. They promptly left. The portly man pushed me, and I told him not to touch me. “Why would you do that?” he snarled. I angrily told him that I knew his business, and that I wasn’t happy about him conning these people.
Sales rep or con-man?
“We all have to do our jobs to survive,” he insisted, upset and insulted. It was clear he didn’t see his actions as truly harmful. The portly man felt he was doing a job even if it involved a little overly persuasive salesmanship!
Now I felt bad. Not bad that I had stopped him conning a few tourists out of a few dollars for a plastic Sphinx they didn’t want. I felt bad about the weight of poverty, overpopulation, the need to survive and the way people go about just getting by each and every day. It’s true that these men act like pushy sales reps, but ultimately they just want enough cash to pay the rent, buy food for their kids, and maybe get an education.
I’m not saying what these men do is right, but everyone deserves compassion. If we travel with such a mindset it makes injustice we feel against us feel far less severe. As a traveler we know what we are getting ourselves into. We bring our wealth, or at least perceived wealth, into a place where people genuinely are struggling to feed themselves and their families. That small commission / small sale is life to them even if it is extreme annoyance to us.
Of course it’s hard to keep your cool when being harassed. Wandering Earl talked about the time he shouted at an Indian man for no reason and Aaron from Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures puts some of his dislike of Luxor down to a very uncomfortable situation with a boatman. I try my hardest to look at the situation from their perspective. They see that we can spare the cash and they desperately need it, it’s easy for them to dehumanise us as their life is very tough. Even if angry, uncomfortable or upset in the moment we need to step back and forgive afterwards.
The confrontation ended with an uneasy truce. I apologized for causing him offence, but also explained that tourists were people, not just open wallets, and didn’t deserve to be conned. He kept it clear that he just needed to earn a little money and that he wasn’t trying to harm anyone.
A week or so later I returned for another downtown jaunt. As I headed toward Midan Talat Harab, the portly man saw me. Our eyes connected, his mouth opened: “Where are you from?”