Egypt is a Middle Eastern country and has Middle Eastern customs. Whether Muslim or Copt, the Egyptians are deeply religious and religious principles govern their daily lives. Combined with religious belief is commitment to the extended family. Each family member is responsible for the integrity of the family and for the behaviour of other members, creating an environment that would be envied by many people in the West. Certainly, the result is that the city of Cairo is safer than any western metropolis.
Yet when westerners visit Egypt they are often apprehensive. Their views of Egyptians and Arabs, formented by unkind and untrue media stories, often bear no relation to reality. Travelers are often surprised by their friendly, hospitable reception and take home with them good feelings about Egypt and its population.
Egyptians have been raised in a social environment steeped in Islam, a background that can colour their decision-making in a way difficult for foreigners to understand. Yet it is precisely this training that makes Egyptians some of the most charming and helpful of hosts. By understanding the culture and with consideration for your hosts, you can be a welcome guest in Egypt.
Devout Muslims do not drink alcohol though most do not object to others imbibing in reasonable amounts. If in doubt, ask. In addition to the prohibition on alcohol, the faithful do not use drugs or eat pork, which is considered unclean. Explicit sexual material--magazines, photos, tapes, or records--is illegal and subject to confiscation.
Keep in mind that proselytizing is illegal in Egypt. Foreigners actively working to convert Egyptians have been asked to leave. Remember, almost all the Egyptians are either conservative devoted Moslems or Coptics.
In Egypt there are hardly any restrictions on foreign women. Ticket lines, for example, are occasionally segregated. Women should line up with other women (especially since the lines are usually shorter). On buses, the driver may want you to be seated in the front with other women. On the metro lines, the first car is usually reserved for women.
For men, speaking to an unknown Egyptian woman is a breach of etiquette. Take care in any liaisons you form because some families still follow ancient traditions.
A man who expresses himself physically in public to a woman (it doesn't matter if she is his wife) incurs the belief that she is, to put it politely, "loose". Holding hands in public is becoming more socially acceptable, but beyond that, restrain yourself.
While it is inappropriate to touch a woman in public, don't be surprised to see men holding hands, with arms wrapped around each other or kissing each other on the cheek in greeting. Friendships between men are an important part of the culture and, because the assumption is that homosexuality and bisexuality don't exist, men are physical with each other.
Egyptians, if offered anything, will refuse the first invitation which is customary. Therefore (unless you're dealing with Egyptians used to Western frankness) you should do the same. If the offer is from the heart and not just politeness, it will be repeated. If you're invited into a home, especially in small villages, and have to refuse, the householder will often press for a promise from you to visit in the future, usually for a meal. If you make such a promise, keep it, for having foreign guests is often considered a social coup. If you fail to arrive, your would-be host will be humiliated. To repay invitations, you may host a dinner in a restaurant, a common practice.
Please do not offer tips to professionals, businessmen, or others who would consider themselves your equals. You may seriously offend them by your act.
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