"Hello, my friend." In a new country that you are visiting, hearing this phrase can be comforting. Imagine you are walking down the unknown streets, a little lost, a little bewildered, and a little mesmerised with the new world around you. The words that reach your ears are spoken in a language that doesn't reveal its meaning to you. And you hear, "hello, my friend".
But not on the streets of Cairo. Here, "hello, my friend" is beginning of a con trick that may or may not snare you, but will definitely leave you with a bitter aftertaste.
The con-artists, targeting tourists, are everywhere in Cairo. They are relentless. Wily. Shameless. And pathetically desperate. It is possible that hard times, particularly after 2011 when tourists left Egypt and never came back, have made them particularly dogged. But whatever the reasons, they create enough nuisance, enough friction, to turn a trip to Egypt for almost every outsider a virtual nightmare.
The sunset at the famous pyramids is mesmerising. (Photo credit: Javed Anwer)
Egypt is full of man-made wonders, ancient, old and new. I saw some in Cairo recently. But these wonders are also not worth the pain most tourists have to go through. Not even the majestic pyramids, which glow golden at sunset, are worth the hassle and hustling you have to suffer. On the streets of Cairo, the hustling is incessant. The only saving grace is that it is not physical, except the handshake that follows after "hello, my friend". The handshake has to happen because if you refuse then it becomes a case of "you are insulting my hospitality".
The horrors that follow when you are in middle of hustling are downright nightmarish. You hear how your new-found friend is an artist, who has - of course - toured the country of your residence. He wants to chit-chat. About his travels. And the art he creates. And Egypt. And his gallery, where he hosts his art, is just minutes away from where you are standing on the road. Chai - Egyptians love their hibiscus and anise - awaits you in his "gallery". You go there and next the friends of the "artist" are shoving one of his artworks in your hands. "It's our gift to you," they say as they write down your name on the "artwork".
Indians are tough nut. We have seen conmen. We have seen the tricks. Many here in India make the tourists go through the same hoops. So I recognised the con-job when it happened with me and a friend, as we were accompanied to a gallery. We refused and had to shove our way out of the gallery.
Unfortunately, shoving is something I had to do again and again in Cairo. Everywhere I went, it was either "hello, my friend" or just plain "hello India" or "India". I was walking in a lane inside the famous, and dazzlingly brilliant, Khan El-Khalili and I heard shouts of "India" from touts trying to sell antiques even though buying and transporting antiques out of Egypt is a crime. I was walking in a nondescript bazaar, which was no tourist hotspot, and yet I heard shouts of India, trying to sell me something, anything.
This guy on camel and his friends first insisted that I click his photo and then demanded money for clicking the picture. I told them I had no money, although I promised that I would send him the photo if he gave me his phone number. He didn't. (Photo credit: Javed Anwer)
In developing countries, or even in developed European cities, there is always a level of hustling at tourist centres. But nowhere, not even in India's notorious tout-hotspots like Taj Mahal, it is this bad.
In Cairo, the worst is the Giza Pyramid Complex. It is one of the most famous places on earth, and also one of the most visited by tourists. And yet it is in a shambles and overrun by conmen. It's badly managed. It is as if the government doesn't exist. And the guards and tourist police are of no use here. As soon as you take a taxi to Giza - though now there are app-based cabs like Uber and Careem that are better - the hustling starts. The taxi driver will first take you to some restaurant, some art gallery where you will be surrounded by people shoving the China-made goods into your hands. It's a gift, they say. And then ask you to pay for the gift you don't want.
Next, the taxi driver will ask you to book a camel or horse ride. Talking of camels and horses, most of them are famished and treated brutally. If you are in Giza, you will invariably see poor animals baying as they are thrashed with a can. If you tell your driver that you won't book a ride, you will get sniggers and will be told "how people who walk around the Giza complex end up in hospital because it is so big".
In Khan Al-Khalili market, hustling particularly gets bad.(Credit: Javed Anwer)
When you shake-off your taxi driver without getting an animal ride from his friends, don't gloat. The ordeal has not ended. It has just began. Even inside the pyramid complex - and it is definitely possible to walk and see all three pyramids on foot - you will be incessantly and persistently followed, waylaid and pestered into accepting a camel or horse ride, or into buying something or other. Worse, someone will come along and offer to take your photos with your camera and then demand money. This for the photos clicked with your own cameras. Or someone, on a camel, on foot, on a horse, will just walk into the frame when you are clicking a photo and then demand you pay the money for clicking his photo.
Indians have it relatively easy. The white travellers have it worse. And if you happen to be a Japanese or someone from Far East, god help you. If you find it difficult to disrespect people, to just shrug them rudely, you better stay in your hotel room.
There are some tricks tourists can use, though nothing really deters the conmen. In the end, I stopped reacting to "India" shouts. And if somehow I ended up in a conversation, I started telling them that I was from Pakistan. It's poorer country than India. Every time I told Mr "Hello, My Friend" that I was from Pakistan, his smile vanished and pestering shortened. But the trick obviously won't work for everyone.
The perception is that Egyptians are very friendly people. They are also famous for their hospitality. Or so goes the saying. But in my week-long stay, I didn't see much of this hospitality. It is possible that regular Egyptians, those living far away from the tourist centres of Cairo, are indeed the friendliest people in the world. May be I need to spend more time in Egypt. But in the areas where I ventured out, whether these were the local markets in Downtown or old Cairo, or sites where 4,000 years ago Egyptians left their mark, I found no friends.
Behind every friendly face, behind every smile, behind every helping hand, extended even when not sought, there was a motive, a motive to sell something, a motive to con.