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Life in Egypt is very different to that in the West, and Western expats may experience a touch of culture shock. People are brusque one minute and incredibly helpful the next; many shops expect patrons to barter (the asking price being at least double the going rate); and power cuts are part of everyday life. Egypt can be frustrating, but its friendly people and fascinating culture more than compensate for these challenges.
Language and communication in Egypt
Arabic is among the hardest languages to learn. The language has several dialects and Egyptian is but one. Many phrase books, dictionaries and even Google Translate do not differentiate between them. Westerners find learning numbers and speaking a few basic phrases straightforward, though, and getting the gist of conversations by picking up on a few keywords will come with time.
Most Egyptians who deal with foreigners speak some English. That said, it isn’t always easy to know if an expat has truly been understood by locals. “Yes” often replaces “I don’t understand”. Locals strive to please and to earn a living. Sometimes, the best policy is to phone a friend who speaks Arabic and good English and ask them to act as a translator.
Egyptian abruptness shouldn’t be interpreted as rudeness. Often someone is trying to be helpful, with the curtness being a result of poor English or a misplaced sense of urgency.
Expat women in Egypt
It is an unfortunate truth that a few Egyptian men see foreign women as the answer to their suppressed dreams. Cinema and TV have planted the idea that Western women are promiscuous and available. Verbal harassments such as lewd or suggestive comments are a reality and rape – although rare – does happen. The risk factor is lower in certain areas where expat women are more frequently seen and can blend in.
Recommended methods of dealing with this include avoiding eye contact, keeping conversations businesslike and not allowing physical contact. Walking with another woman can also help ward off unwanted attention. Other ploys include chatting about one’s husband and several children (real or not), wearing a wedding ring, and refusing offers of food and drink from strangers.
Egyptians are very friendly and in a tricky situation, expat women can turn to a passing local woman for help. She will invariably be happy to assist. If travelling with a male friend, referring to him as a husband is better than calling him a boyfriend or partner. Appropriate dress can help avoid problems, but even traditionally dressed Egyptian women are hassled. There are women-only coaches on the Cairo metro and Alexandria trams.
Time in Egypt
Egyptians are keen to show respect for their foreign visitors and will try to be on time. Business appointments are usually held close to schedule, Cairo traffic permitting, but tradesmen’s concepts of time may astonish. Social engagements are flexible and arriving half an hour late will not cause offence.
Meeting and greeting in Egypt
The handshake is ubiquitous between men. When introduced to a group, it's customary to shake the hands of everyone present. Handshakes tend to be limp and prolonged and should include eye contact and a smile.
Family members and men who know each other well will kiss, touching cheek to cheek a few times. Advice varies for women meeting men for the first time. Some consider it correct for the woman to initiate the handshake; others feel this is too forward. A foreigner will have more leeway in this than Egyptian women. Courtesy, respect and a sense of humour will paper over any etiquette faux pas.
Religion in Egypt
The vast majority of Egypt's population is Muslim, with most being Sunni Muslim. A small percentage of the population is Christian. Religion is central to the social and legal framework of the country.
If expats find someone at prayer, it is polite to allow them to finish – this usually takes only a few minutes. The Muslim holy day is Friday, beginning at sunset the previous day. For Christians, the day of rest is Sunday, so it can be difficult to determine on which day a business will be closed. The best strategy is to find out definitive hours of a particular business ahead of time.