I stared at the blank screen pondering which city to feature for the second chapter of Scamography. It’s fertile ground in the world of touts and scam artists and it’s hard to choose: from Parisian gypsies, to Muscovite policemen and Levantine Lotharios, and every place in-between.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something alarming: My inbox tab had suddenly jumped from zero to fifty-two emails in five minutes. One click revealed the dreaded, and obvious, reason for the deluge; I’d been hacked. An alert from my email provider popped up warning me of a suspicious break-in to my account. The IP address was from Egypt.
And suddenly, no further inspiration was required — it all came flooding back.
After a week of doing little more than splaying out on cushions by the Red Sea, and cocktailing all night, the stimuli of a metropolis was well in order. “I’m bored now,” I told the receptionist in Dahab. “Can you recommend a place in Cairo? I really want to actually get some culture and do something.”
What I didn’t know is that deflecting the pesky touts who swarmed around every café, hotel, and tourist site in the capital would take up the greater part of my days and would prove far more exhausting than simply swatting at shwarma-loving flies in the Sinai
I lifted the vintage receiver and phoned down to reception and ordered a double Turkish coffee, then cracked open my French doors and stepped out into the morning sun. It wasn’t at all what I expected; it was better: grand Haussmann-esque apartment blocks with art nouveau flourishes and balconies overflowing with flowers, wide tree-lined boulevards and roundabouts, centuries-old minarets slicing up though the skyline, and billboards in swirling Arabic. I’d come to the city only to see the pyramids in Giza, then head out of town quickly, but I had no idea Cairo was so cosmopolitan and enchanting — well, at least from a distance.
I’d barely stepped foot on Talaat Harb Street when it began.
“Hello, where are you from? Do you like fragrances? Pure essences of lotus blossoms like the pharaohs wore. My brother owns the shop. Please let me take you – it’s free to look.”
What he was selling was appealing; the salesmanship, however, was not. Follow a shady person into a shady room and shady things will surely happen.
I smiled but kept walking, “No, thank you. I prefer to enter shops alone. I don’t enjoy paying a tout’s commission.” He began crab-walking in front of me. “No, it’s really my brother’s shop I don’t get commission. You know Mohammed Ali? He came to my brother’s shop? He’s famous. Now you can be famous, too.”
“That was a very stupid thing to say. And if he was there recently I sincerely doubt he was aware of it. God bless ‘im. Excuse me, please.”
“Come with me. You know the Body Shop? He sells oils to the Body Shop.”
I thanked him for the warning, and after another thirty seconds of volleying back and forth I’d have said anything to have him leave alone so I told him, “Sure, maybe I’ll stop by later.” He stepped aside and I sped up, slid past him, bended around the corner, and, “Hello, lady. Please come into my cousin’s shop. You know papyrus? We have beautiful paintings on papyrus and…”
Without breaking my stride, “That’s impossible; they’re all horrible. No thank you.”
I skipped around him and doubled-back then headed down a shaded alleyway. I’d lost him. Breathless, I paused in front of an antiques shop and peering in the window saw an old man and woman sitting down for tea. Footsteps behind me, “This is my father’s shop, come inside. Where are you from? France? America? We ship around the world.”
“No, thank you. I was just looking.”
“You like lotus oil? Cleopatra wore lotus essence. You are beautiful like Cleopatra…”
“Cleopatra was actually hideous. No, thank you.” I turned on my heel and bolted back into the blinding boulevard and just as my eyes adjusted, “Where are you from? You like this cartouche necklace? My cousin can write your name in hieroglyphics on a pendant. Do you know what is hieroglyphics?”
“No, I don’t. I’m a complete idiot.”
“Lady, slow down.” And then from behind him appeared another one with arms outstretched, laughing “Hello! You said ‘maybe later’ and now is laaateeer. Let me buy you some tea; you need a good Egyptian man. Don’t make me sad, please come with…”
Dodging tourist buses and motorcycles I ran through the gridlock to the Egyptian Museum, paid my entry fee and, “Madam, let me be your guide in this museum. I only want to practice my English. Please, I am not like the other boys. I know everything about the pharaohs. I don’t take any money.”
His doe eyes looked up at me pleadingly. “Please, lady?” I exhaled and relaxed my shoulders. It was refreshing to let my guard down and actually be able to talk to a Cairene who was genuine. Nasaar told me about his family and his schooling as we strolled though the musty galleries surrounded on either side by golden sarcophagi, and crooks and flails of every dynasty. He excitedly explained the weight of this and the age of that, and he seemed to know his Tuthmosis I from his Tuthmosis VIII, which I thought was odd since the dynasty only went to seven. Never mind that; I told myself, at least the boy is charming and nice.
“Look at this, lady. This is Nefertiti; she is the mother of King Tut.”
“That’s really nice, honey, but I’m certain that’s actually Akhenaten — that’s Tut’s father. You see, honey, the way he is standing shows us that ….”
“Give me money, lady! I want five dollars!”
I’d grown well-accustomed to touts and their petty scams and am generally unbothered by them, after all Egypt was the twenty-fifth stamp in my passport and I felt certain I’d seen it all. What I was not prepared for, however, was this phalanx of fleecers and their nearly comical tenaciousness.
I dragged the desk chair onto my balcony and propped my feet up. The call to prayer echoed against the buildings across the way, and the green neon calligraphy of the billboard cast a glow against the railing. I made a vow that I would not let the touts ruin my trip. Maybe what I need to do is get out of Cairo for the day and head to Giza to see the pyramids and walk in the desert a bit. Surely nothing bad could happen there.
“Ten Egyptian pounds to go to the pyramids in Giza, please?”
The driver nodded and motioned for me to get in. I scrunched down, raised my brows, and held up both hands to ensure he understood. “Ten pounds to Giza, yes?” He nodded, agreed, and off we went. He asked if it was my first time to Giza; suspecting he might try a scam I lied, “Oh, no, sir. I’ve been many times.”
The radio was belching Egyptian pop tunes and I was staring out the window on my right at the palm-lined highway, and art deco cinemas, and chain restaurants. The driver turned left, flicked off the music, and suddenly I heard we were driving over gravel. He turned off the car. “This is it, the pyramids.”
“It is? That’s them? Twenty feet from the highway? I thought you walked through dessert sands to get there. You mean they’re in a parking lot where I can see a Pizza Hut?”
“That is the other entrance. This way is faster. Twenty Egyptian pounds.”
“We agreed on ten pounds, sir, and that’s what I’m paying you.”
Suddenly his English, which was perfect throughout the ride, was quickly replaced by loud caveman-like grunting. His face puffed and bloomed red and he shook his head so hard I was certain he was going to snap his neck. I calmly exited and smiled.
Heading to the ticket counter, I played my new mental mantra over and over I will not let them get me today — I will not let them get me today. Meanwhile, the cabbie cranked down his window and countered with his own special mantra, “You are rude in fucking! You are rude in fucking!” I waved back, smiling, “Actually, I’m quite polite in fucking but have a great day, sir!” He continued screaming “Bitch, you are rude in fucking! You are rude in fucking!”
The second the guard ripped my ticket, touts descended en masse. “Camel ride — good price for you!” “Where is your husband? Come with me: Walk like an Egyptian…”
“Seriously? ‘Walk like an Egyptian?’ Sit down.”
I could hear my cabbie spinning out of the parking lot, gravel flying as he sped away with a one last muffled, “Rude in fuckiiing!”
Heading down toward the Sphinx, I heard a woman screaming from atop a camel. Her guide, holding the reins, was desperately trying to calm her down. I came closer and heard her demanding to be let down from the camel.
“I want to get down now,” she was screaming. “You said it was twenty U.S. dollars before I got on and now you’re saying it’s fifty dollars? No! Get me down!”
What this unsuspecting traveler was learning, I thought, was that the camel ride is actually twenty dollars. Dismounting the camel, however, is an additional thirty bucks surcharge. After twenty-four hours in Cairo I can assure you this makes perfect sense.
While attempting to change my password on my recently hijacked account, two security questions popped up. Rather than the old, “What’s your first pet’s name?” and “What was your first car?” I’d forgotten that I’d inserted my own query and response over a year prior.
“In which country do you find the most annoying touts?”
The answer should not surprise you: “Egypt.”