Quintessential Egypt

If you want to get a sense of Egyptian culture and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of daily life. These are a few highlights—things you can take part in with relative ease.


Literally translated as "if Allah wills it," the phrase Insha'Allah invites a blessing on whatever arrangements are being made for the future—from the crops a farmer hopes to harvest when he plants in the spring to the bus ride you booked for next week. But the phrase also indicates that you're in a part of the world where arrangements can and do come unraveled, where time isn't counted to the exact second, and where life isn't as regimented as it is at home. Adapting your mindset to expect and accept the occasional delay or change in schedule will allow minor frustrations to flow over you and will certainly add to your enjoyment of the trip.


Tea oils the wheels of daily life at all levels of Egyptian society. It's served during business negotiations in executive office suites, and it warms the Bedouins as they sit around their campfires in the chill of the desert night. Egyptian tea is served strong and black; in glasses, not cups. Egyptians love it sweet. If the standard brew is not to your liking, then you may find hibiscus, mint, or apple tea to your taste. Do spend some quality time at a traditional café such as El Fishawy in Cairo's Khan al-Khalili bazaar, where sipping a glass or two over a newspaper or a game of backgammon is as authentic an experience as you can get.


There's no such thing as a fixed price in Egyptian souks; haggling or bartering is a reality of daily life. So if you want to head home with a souvenir or two, you'll need to get with the program. First, remember that haggling isn't a battle; it's a time-honored method used to achieve a mutually suitable price. Negotiations should always be polite and good-humored. Express surprise at the vendor's first price. Smile and even chuckle. Then counter with a much lower offer. The vendor will certainly reject your bid, but he will also lower his own first offer, upon which you raise your first offer. This process continues until a compromise is reached. Tactics include acting nonchalant. Tell the vendor you've seen bigger or better at a shop around the corner—then throw in a lower counter offer. Keep smiling, and if the price isn't suitable, simply walk away. You'll live to haggle another day.


When Egyptians get together to relax and while away a few hours with friends, they often do so over a shisha. This ornate, glass water pipe is ubiquitous everywhere from local street-corner joints to chic hangouts. Young and old alike enjoy it. You simply suck on the shisha's mouthpiece. This pressure draws smoke from the tobacco burning on the small bowl at the top of the pipe through a water-filled vessel and into the smoker's mouth. The regular sucking and consequent blowing of smoke out the mouth over a period of an hour or so is meant to induce a state of relaxation. Shisha tobacco is sweeter than the cigarette variety and can be flavored with fruit or molasses, but that doesn't mean it's better for your health!

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