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The Middle East @ Work

From Cairo, with a smile…

Meaw Mar 7, 2008

The thing I’ll remember most about my trip to Egypt is definitely the people. Egyptians are perhaps the warmest, friendliest folks I’ve ever met.

When you pass them in the street, they’ll say, “Welcome. Have a good day.” They say “have a good day” even at night or when it doesn’t make sense to say it. You can’t help but smile. And that’s the one thing Egyptians do a lot – smile. And the kids? They are precious. They swarmed around me everywhere I went and wanted to speak English and shake my hand. What is your name? How are you? Welcome to Egypt!

There was a security guy on my hotel floor who looked like a secret service agent. The first time I passed him, I kind of gave a little nod and said hello. I wasn’t sure the protocol for greeting a security officer. He responded with a big smile and a warm greeting. It’s very charming. My housekeeper made a point of talking to me every day.

The hotel staff, the waiters, the shopkeepers – everyone goes out of their way to provide good service. They earn their tips for sure. It’s quite a departure from much of the customer service in the US. And these people don’t make much money. I kept asking myself, how can they be so pleasant when their lives are so hard?

But there is a catch to some of the hospitality… people who just want your money. They’ll engage you in brief conversation and then try to lure you into their perfume shop. Or if they point you in the right direction, they’ll ask for a tip. I even had a guy talk to me for 10 minutes before I realized he was trying to gauge if I needed a lawyer! It happens so often, you become wary of everyone you meet, which is too bad. I guess they’re just trying to make a living.

One thing I noticed is that the neighborhoods we visited for stories or for dinner had very few tourists walking around in them. We came up with one explanation. The tourists are afraid to cross the street! Crossing the street here is no joke. I swear the buses speed up when they see a pedestrian coming. I learned to step into the traffic only in front of cars. And even then, you better have 8 pairs of eyes.

I didn’t learn to speak much Arabic – just a few words. But in lieu of Arabic, it helps to pronounce English the way Egyptians do. Telling the cab driver, “Nile Hilton please,” doesn’t seem to work. But if I say, Neel Heel-tohn… The driver replies, “Oh, yes, Neel Heel-tohn! No problem sir.” It’s pretty amusing.

I learned a lot about the way the Egyptian economy works at all levels. I interviewed the CEO of Mobinil, Egypt’s largest mobile phone company. His office is on the 33rd floor of a very western-style office complex. He has a breathtaking view of Cairo, and his company is a huge success story. I also went underground and saw where Egyptians measured the Nile’s water level for centuries to determine taxation on farmers.

I saw wealthy suburbs sprawling out into the sandy desert. They have names like Beverly Hills. I also visited the very humble apartment of an Iraqi family. They live in one of the many “informal” communities in Cairo. Slum is probably the right word for it. They were lovely people, but felt trapped by their circumstances. Getting work here is difficult, but they don’t want to go back to Iraq either.

So many stories, too little time. I hope you found something enjoyable about our broadcasts and web elements. Getting on the street in another country can really change your perspective on the world. My trip to Egypt has certainly changed mine.

Ma’is Salaama…

Scott Jagow

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