Philadelphians Can Learn From Cairo

Posted: July 06, 1992

A week ago, I was in Egypt, soaking up the sun and culture of Cairo. My first visit was back in 1978 when I met and talked with President Anwar Sadat. Changes there inspire awe.

My purpose in going to Cairo was to examine the differences between that city (pop. 10 million) and American metropolises. The differences were many and obvious.

The people possess an unmistakable pride, whether they are rich or poor, black or white. Self-pride is first, but it extends to community, region and country.

While the majority of the people of Cairo are poor, most are rich in spirit. There is so much friendliness that it causes suspicion among visitors. Americans are generally not used to kindness from strangers. Most who were obviously poor were unashamed of their condition.

I saw almost no one sleeping on the streets. Boys begged coins from passengers in cars just as many of America's poor do. However, there was a difference in attitude. With outstretched hands, they offered winning smiles. No harassment, no demands. Only an appeal to conscience.

Nearly everywhere I traveled, people attempted to hustle me. It became a sort of game. Taxi drivers tried to empty my wallet, and everyone I met claimed to have a "shop" where I could buy "the best" of anything I wanted. No one was overly aggressive.

In some of the shops, merchants offered tea and made visitors feel as if they were in a home. One man guided me into his shop when I stopped to ask how to get to the Egyptian Museum.

"Oh, it is closed for a half-hour due to too many busloads, right now," he lied amiably. Meanwhile, he nearly carried me into his perfume shop, called to an assistant to bring me tea and began a spiel about his products. I managed to resist his easy charm, insisting I had to leave.

"Don't go so fast," he said. "Whether you buy or not, you are welcome. Of course," he smiled, "if you buy, you are more welcome."

I was affected most by the people. Their skins range from the darkest black to the lightest white, but they are all Egyptians and everyone I asked insisted that skin color was not a matter of concern, which for me, was a new experience. I didn't detect that split-second of discomfort or self- consciousness that many Americans feel when facing fellow Americans of a different color or culture. There is no obvious concern about color in Cairo, and I was startled each time someone approached me speaking Arabic, mistaking me for a local.

"You must remember," a female journalism student said at a dinner party at American University, "that our president, Anwar Sadat, had black skin. He was deeply loved by most Egyptians."

I read the newspapers carefully and watched the news on CNN. I don't think I read a single story or heard any account of a bank robbery, a mugging, a

drug bust, a shooting or murder, except in stories concerning events back at home. Cairo is one of the world's most civilized cities.

There is a clear absence of fear in the streets. Rape is rare.Most crimes in Cairo occur between families engaged in longstanding feuds.

During 17 days, I visited an Egyptian home, many shops, a university, a village, restaurants, mosques, monuments and papyrus shops and other places. Not once did I hear an angry word or see a gesture of hostility. There was only a quiet exchange, often laced with humor, friendliness and respect.

Although there are Catholics and other religious faiths in Egypt, most of the people believe in Islam. Visitors are struck by the humility of the Muslims.

"We believe deeply in the Holy Qur'an," (literally, a "recitation" of the word of God or Allah in Arabic as directly transmitted by the prophet Muhammad), one man explained in the doorway of his tiny shop. "Its teachings live in our hearts."

When I protested an attempt to overcharge me for a taxi ride, the driver responded calmly by saying: "No problem, sir. Pay me what you think is fair." Startled, I gave him what he had asked for. He shook my hand, bowed his head and drove away smiling.

If I experienced disappointment, it was at the famed Pyramids of Giza. They may be the largest tourist attraction in all of Egypt, but are nearly overrun with offensive men hawking T-shirts, camel rides, and even walking tours on the burning hot desert where temperatures reached as high as 114 degrees.

Cairo's fascinating Egyptian Museum was the same way.

"Expert guide, sir?" inquired an army of men and women outside. "I explain the statues for an hour in museum," a woman asked with outstretched hand. Only 20 pounds (about $7), sir, she pleaded.

There is not enough work for those who seek it. As a result, many share jobs, increasing the effectiveness of service.

Egypt is a Third World nation. But in terms of its civility, it is clearly a First World state whether hosting visitors from neighboring Israel, far away America, or other places throughout the world.

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