16Apr2012

An Open Letter To The Touts Of Egypt

Felucca Nile

Dear Sirs,

For you are all, every one of you, men.

Here are a few things I do not want.

  • A camel ride
  • A donkey ride
  • A horse and carriage ride
  • A taxi
  • A boat ride

I ESPECIALLY do not want to buy a boat ride masquerading as a public ferry, or a horse and carriage ride that takes me to every commission-paying shop in the souk.

Should I require transportation, I will break step, look around and hail the relevant vehicle. Should I require a boat, I will go to the waterfront, inspect some boats, and open negotiations.


Furthermore, I do not want to buy:

  • Papyrus – banana leaf or genuine
  • Alabaster – wax and stone chip or genuine
  • Pyramids – plastic or otherwise
  • Scarabs – of any kind
  • Headscarves
  • Postcards
  • Jewellery
  • Perfume
  • Kohl
  • Plastic Tutankhamun masks
  • Antiques — even genuine ones!
  • Fake Marlboros
  • Tour tickets

Since in Egypt as elsewhere career professionals have other things to do than hang around outside tourist attractions claiming they are shut, I will switch off when you claim to be:

  • An Egyptologist
  • A museum worker
  • A teacher
  • A lawyer
  • A doctor

I will wait politely until you propose a trip to the government bazaar, or perhaps an antique shop, and then exit the conversation promptly.

If, and only if, you are school-aged, I will give you a pen or a pencil. I will not give you money or sweets.

Why? Because I am a bitch.

And because sweets are bad for your teeth, and begging is bad for your future.


Because I am not stupid, I will not:

  • Change your “euro coins”, lavishly admixed with Egyptian pounds, into euro notes.
  • Or, for that matter, Egyptian notes. Sorry!
  • Or English ones!
  • Mistake a 50 piastre note for a 50 pound note, which has 100 times its value
  • Take change without checking it
  • Allow you to identify the correct note for what I am purchasing in my wallet
  • Establish a price for anything in pounds without establishing whether the pounds are Egyptian or English

In fact, if you make change for a note larger than 50 Egyptian pounds without performing the local equivalent of the death aria from Tosca, I will become instantly suspicious of you.


Nor will I:

  • Believe you when you say you can get me into tourist sites for free.
  • Accept your assertion that my hotel is no longer open.
  • Believe you when you say anything has moved.

Further, I will not enter your shop to:

  • Transcribe the yellowed address with which you have been pestering tourists for the last decade
  • Write a text message to your Italian girlfriend
  • Get your business card. I have been trying to lose you for the last three blocks. I DO NOT WANT TO STAY IN TOUCH.
  • Drink tea
  • Enjoy “traditional Egyptian hospitality”
  • Or “just look around”

Nor, for that matter, will I be patronising your restaurant.


“WHY WHY WHY lady?” you say?

BECAUSE I DO NOT WANT TO BUY ANYTHING.

Well, actually I do.

I would like to buy some cigarettes, some water, a soft drink and some flip-flops.

I have found a nice supermarket which, after brief and civil initial negotiation, allows me to buy commodities at a tourist tax only 10p or so above the Egyptian price, without hassle, and with no touts. Therefore I will be patronising them.

He is a nice man. He is helpful.


Whereas you, the gentleman who bodychecked me out of the road and into his pavement kiosk with “Best price!”, are not.

You might remember me.

I’m the one who said: “Best price? That needs to be Egyptian price. 14.”

Now, I don’t normally get hung up on pennies. I know I’m wealthy compared to you. And so I’m happy to pay one Egyptian pound as a tourist tax. This is standard.

Still, if you are going to bodycheck me into your kiosk with “best price!” you need, as I explained at the time, to deliver that. Not charge me 50% over the local rate and 33% over basic tourist rate.

Because that, as we say in England – where we DO NOT, for the record, say “lubblay jubblay!”, or even “lovely jubbly!” – is taking the PISS.

In fact, “English?! Lubblay jubblay!” is up there with “you have beautiful eyes” and “you look like Princess Diana!” on the list of phrases I REALLY, REALLY NEVER WANT TO HEAR AGAIN.


But, back to flip-flops.

I believe that there are streets downtown where I can buy such luxuries unassailed by “helpers” in search of a commission, and, for that matter, walk for maybe as much as a minute unmolested.

Perhaps even two minutes. Or maybe as much as five.

“Where am I going?” you ask.

I am going for a WALK. I am having a look at stuff. I am going to the shop. I am going to my hotel. I am going to the temple. I am going to a restaurant. I am going to meet a friend.

Where I am going is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS and I do not need your help.

You see, I have a map.

I checked the map before I left the hotel, to avoid the kind of unwise pause which will bring a barrage of helpers on me like the time the chap left the lights on in 28 Days Later.

Should I require directions, which I don’t, I will ask a woman. A nice, normal woman, with her kids, and perhaps her husband. Or even the husband.

A nice, normal person. Of whom there are SO MANY in Egypt, and of whom I meet so very few.

Or possibly a police officer, given he, with the stars, will not require bakhsheesh.


Now, I fully appreciate that you live in a desperately poor country, with soaring unemployment and a tanking economy, and I represent riches beyond your wildest dreams.

I appreciate that tourist numbers in Luxor are down 75% – though has it ever occurred to you that the unrelenting hassle may have something to do with this?

Further, I understand that, despite my efforts to adopt a dress code that suits your cultural standards, even in temperatures well above 100F, despite the fact that I am walking with my young son, because of the colour of my skin (and the behaviour of some of my Western sisters), you consider me a whore.

I don’t like this. Few women would. But I do understand the hows and whys.

And, mercifully, I know that you are not the real Egypt.

But none of this, gentlemen, makes your behaviour any easier to deal with.


Much as I try to maintain a sense of humour, which I use routinely when negotiating with men whose services I wish to purchase – Sales Tip 101: These are not the men who bodycheck me, get right in my face and yell at me! – I find you, collectively, wearing in the extreme.

A few of you have asked why I am afraid. Some of you have correctly identified the relevant emotion as anger, which, much as I try not to display it, does occasionally slip out.

“What is your problem, lady?”

“Why you no want my carriage?”

“Why you afraid? You think I am terrorist?”

Let me try and explain to you, again, WHY, WHY, WHY I DO NOT WANT YOUR CARRIAGE.


You see, sir, here’s the thing. I walked for 40 minutes through Luxor today. To keep my son and myself amused through the constant onslaught of attempted petty fraud and hassle, we kept a running tally.

You were, as I explained to you, the 21st of 23 horse and carriage men to approach us over those 40 minutes.

My son and I differ as to whether it was 14 or 16 men who approached us offering boats – my fault, I know, for having the temerity to walk along the Nile – and either 7 or 9 men offering us taxis.

I would like to have kept a physical tally, but unfortunately this would have involved breaking step and then we really would have lost count.

We agree, however, that there were 10 men inviting us into shops.

That is, averaged over the course of 40 minutes, approximately one approach from one of you every 40 seconds.


I am pleased to report that, thanks to wardrobe efforts which leave me hot and sweaty, only three gentlemen made audible, English comments on my appearance.

Although, as I endeavoured to explain to you, sir, the man who appeared from a baying mob of horse and carriage vendors to request a kiss, IN FRONT OF MY YOUNG SON, “If you said that to an Egyptian woman, she would slap your face.”

I may, I confess, have raised my voice.

Still, at least today not one of you has grabbed at me, offered me cigarettes for sexual favours, masturbated at me or adjusted his genitals at me.

Further, as far as I registered, the only man who swore at me in Arabic did so while smiling and pretending to say something nice rather than as a blast of whispered filth while checking me up and down. A pleasant change for both me and my young son.

So, I guess, things are looking up.

Or something.


“Why you afraid, lady?”

Yes! You are all men. And I am a woman. My male escort is only 11, though more of a man than all of you already, but, yes, many of you are larger than both of us put together.

That does not make me AFRAID of you. I am not awed by your masculinity. I am not terrified by your male power. I am, frankly, f*cking pissed off.

One more time!

I am not AFRAID. I am ANGRY.

“Why you angry, lady? No hassle here!”

Now, I try not to get angry.

But when you get within a foot of my face, right into my personal space, and yell at me “No hassle!” I find it hard to immediately feel the humour in the paradox.

Further, when I see the sheer aggression some of you display to a passing foreign woman on the street, I dread to think how you behave to the wives and daughters you keep at home while you are out harassing strangers.

And, for that matter, your sons.

Grabbing my young son physically to drag him into your shop is NOT, actually, OK. Though I guess you don’t slap him around like you do the beggar children. Another plus!


Gentlemen! For you are all men!

Much of this stuff is, simply, not OK.

You have an ancient culture. You have an old and venerable religion, whose name means peace. Your capital was once one of the world’s great cities. Your landscape is awe-inspiring. You have four Nobel Prize Winners among your ranks.

I don’t expect you to live up to these exalted standards.

I don’t even expect you to be nice.

All I want is that you, please, please, please leave me the F*CK alone! For once.


And, yes, that means you too, “tour guides”.

Tour Guiding 101: The phrase “Dancing, cha cha cha!” does not illuminate my understanding of a tomb relief showing people dancing which I am already discussing with my son.

Even if you say it four or five times. ESPECIALLY if you say it four or five times.

Nor, for that matter, does pointing at headless statues with a cartouche round their hieroglyphs that shows they are pharaohs, and shouting the names of gods at random, help progress my understanding of a site.

“No guide! No money!”

You are no guide, that’s true. But you will want money.

I am more than happy paying an Egyptian pound to take a photo in the tomb. I am happy to pay an Egyptian pound for you to take my photo with my son.

In fact, I will pay an Egyptian pound to dispense with your services altogether.

I will, of course, tip you if you provide covers for my shoes in a mosque or a museum, and pay the requisite fee to use the toilet.

Should you unlock tomb doors for me, escort me up the minaret of a mosque or provide me with useful information, I will tip you higher. In fact, I have a special pocket in which I keep my tipping change and tipping notes.

I am also happy to give all and any of you cigarettes. Because you have a tough job and no education with which to do it.


But, here’s the thing!

Your random guiding interjections spoil my day.

Not as much as your toutly cousins, granted.

But I do not like you breathing down my neck. I do not like you shouting random names from history. I do not like you pointing at pictures when I am trying to look at something else.

And I especially do not like it when you grab me to escort me somewhere, because I know, that at your level of Egyptian society, you would never touch an unrelated woman in that way.


Dear touts! And guides!

In the words of Oasis, “There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how…”

But I think what I am trying to say, gentlemen, is that I like to look around at things, and walk around, and appreciate what’s around me, as I have done on six continents to date.

And, call me what you will – and I know you have and do! – you guys really are not helping!

Thanking you,

THE SWEATY SHOUTY LADY WITH THE SMALL BOY IN TOW
Currently hiding in her hotel


And, to my regular readers, thank you for listening! We’ve been doing some AMAZING things which make Egypt well worth the hassle, and I do appreciate I’ve been a bit ranty of late. But there’ll be more lovely stuff coming soon. I PROMISE!

69 Comments

  1. Kristy says:

    Many of these same sentiments could be shared with touts and guides world over. I hope that the Egyptians get it sorted out soon, I would hate to see the tourism industry lose it all together, as I would rather like to take the family someday.

    • Theodora says:

      I think Luxor is the worst place I’ve been for touts by a LONG way, Kristy, although I haven’t been to India. Hell of a lot worse than anywhere I’ve been in Africa, or for that matter Vietnam, which was a fairly bracing romp. We are, of course, getting three times the attention we would anyway, given tourist numbers are down 75%, which doesn’t help.

  2. Catherine says:

    Reminds me of traveling in India alone! My final days were spent in my hotel room, getting the gumption to leave for a meal.

    • Theodora says:

      Quite. I’m just psyching myself up for the temple of Karnak now. The vendors at the pyramids in Giza force free gifts on you and then demand payment if you don’t put them down and get aggressive if you do, so that should be FUN, FUN, FUN.

  3. Steph says:

    This is a very poised and well-written rant and it reminded me a lot of my time in Cambodia and Vietnam. I loved those countries, and loved many of the people I met there but man it is exhausting to keep saying no all. the. damn. time.
    I spent a lot of time there wondering if these sales techniques work, but I suppose they must on someone.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, one guy said to me, “I might be the one who gets lucky!”

      Tbh, when we arranged our felucca, I found a personal referral to sidetrack the touts. Ditto with taxis.

      But, yes, there must be plenty of people out there for whom the sales tactic does work. It’s also a problem that there are relatively few independent travellers in Luxor and a lot of those do group tours, so there are simply not that many tourists on the streets.

  4. Erica says:

    As angry as you are with these, you make me giggle reading about your cursing-filled rants. :)

  5. Talon says:

    Touts can sure ruin the whole experience. And it sounds like the Egyptian ones are particularly rank.

    • Theodora says:

      Luxor is actually known as the hassle capital of Egypt, and Egyptians have never been short on scams. The funny thing is, there were touts and tour guides at the pyramids 3500 years ago…

  6. Val Hamer says:

    My friend went to Egypt with a male mate (both in their 40s), and still got hassle! It’s a pity, though I can understand the selling element.

    Re the sexual element – here in Asia a lot of men get odd ideas about foreign women based on the media/movies.

    • Theodora says:

      That’s interesting. I didn’t really receive much sexual hassle in Asia. I got groped once and masturbated at once and obscene gestured at a couple of times in Indonesia, but that was over about 8 months of travel there.

      Egypt has been a lot worse, partly because the culture is so sexually conservative, which means that any woman who will have sex outside marriage is basically a whore. You also get quite a few older, female sex tourists here, both in Luxor and the beach resorts, which doesn’t help the rest of us to put it very mildly.

  7. Sabrina says:

    Sounds like somebody had a really bad day in Egypt. I’ve been in that situation and I feel for you. Hang in there! Egypt is so much better than that in many places.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks for the support, Sabrina. I’ve, mercifully, been in many better parts of Egypt. I just needed, as you identify, to get that particular day off my chest before I could embark on the serene photography of genuinely lovely stuff…

  8. Yvette says:

    Damn sounds like it’s far worse than when I was there ~12 years ago… and what exactly is “Lubblay jubblay” supposed to mean exactly?

    • Theodora says:

      It is a faux-Cockney, faux-rhyming slang item of vocabulary (“lovely jubbly!”), last used, as far as I remember, in the sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’, which ran from 1981-1991, with an eerie afterlife in the form of Christmas Specials of which I only became aware when I looked it up on Wikipedia just now.

      Luxor has always been bad, I think. Being a woman with a child makes you a target for everyone, as the default assumption is you’re a soft touch. And, with tourist numbers at 25% of what they were a year ago, and unemployment at a record high, there’s more people trying to make money off a fraction of the tourists.

      Applying a wildly inappropriate statistical approach, a year ago, on the same walk, I’d probably have only hit 3 or 4 boat salesmen and 5 or 6 horse and carriage guys, which would really not have been so bad. So, a) there are more of them per head of tourist b) they are much more desperate and c) in the wake of the revolution I think they are angrier.

      • Yvette says:

        Ah ok that makes sense.

        I confess when I was there ~10 years ago it was with a tour group type thing (hey my parents were organizing it, not me) but even then it was kinda strange. I mean in hindsight the amount of men who hit on me at 14 and my 16 year old sister (and/or gave my dad a thumbs up etc) was frankly disturbing when you realize how old I was…

        Thinking back on it tere was also a 16 year old girl who was traveling in the group alone (it was organized by my high school for students/families/alums associated with it) and it was pretty much understood amongst us younger kids that she was sleeping with the tour guide who was in his 20s and had a Western wife. Which at that age you sorta joke about but in hindsight WTF and I’m not sure why it never occurred to us to tell some adult!

        Also not as disturbing as the first time, but I remember there was a tout who followed us the ENTIRE way when we walked on the path the workers used to take to the Valley of the Kings with one of those scarab beetles, no one ever even hinted that they’d be interested but the guy still kept lowering his price until it was $2 and we went into the first tomb. Seemed like a weird as hell business model.

        • Theodora says:

          Yes. In theory the legal age for marriage here is actually 18. In practice…

          I think the thing about your 16 year old experience is that at 16 (well, I know I did), one thinks one IS already an adult, so what’s the point in another adult knowing. I have never felt so knowledgeable and authoritative and adult as I did at 15-16, though maybe that was just me.

          I see a lot of teen Western girls here dressed REALLY inappropriately. And I think, “Christ! What ARE your parents thinking?” But then I didn’t take kindly to dress advice from my parents, either…

  9. Great rant, Theodora! Sounds like a positively dreadful situation without any easy fixes. We’d love to go to Egypt, but I would definitely be nervous about Mary walking around in that environment without me. Do they accost women traveling with their partners in this way? I’d have to keep myself in check if I witnessed this kind of behavior, as I tend to get pissed off such tactics, especially towards women…

    • Theodora says:

      Firstly, I would highly recommend Egypt, despite the hassle. It is something you get at many wonders of the world, and, of course, it’s worse at the moment because tourist numbers are low and unemployment is high.

      My impression is that provided you are appropriately dressed and wearing a wedding ring when walking with a male partner, they lay off the sexual element of the hassle. Also, going with a private guide — the group tour experience of Egypt strikes me as eminently unsatisfactory — will slash your hassle factor.

      Not all parts of Egypt are like Luxor and tourist Cairo, mercifully. I’m about to post about our trip down the Nile, which will give you an idea. I’d recommend Abu Simbel as very zen, also Dahab, and various smaller towns: Aswan, too, was very low in hassle.

      For Luxor, I think that, male or female, you need to brace yourself and accept that it will be hard work, and that that is the price you pay to see wonders like the Valley of the Kings (with Tutankhamun’s tomb) and the temple of Karnak.

  10. Angie Away says:

    This cracked me up because I have been there and I feel your pain! I would’ve bought so much stuff if not for the constant harassment… someone (maybe us?) needs to conduct a seminar for all the touts and salesmen and tour guides in Egypt!

    • Theodora says:

      We actually invested in a licensed guide today for Karnak! They are few and far between in most places, but he really knew his stuff and was excellent.

      Did you get this level of hassle even travelling with a group?

      Interestingly, I met a fellow-Brit today who had also been keeping count, and his hassle count was similar to mine. Minus the sex stuff, obviously, being a chap.

  11. Shane says:

    I feel your pain. After coming back from Egypt I ran away and hid in the next aisle from a shop assistant in PC World – I just couldn’t cope with other human beings for a while.

    Somewhat surprisingly – considering the country turned me into a snarling maniac ready to punch anyone that looked at me a bit funny – Egypt is my favourite country. We’ve never laughed so much anywhere else.

    • Theodora says:

      I have a great affection for Egypt, too, bizarrely. You just need to adopt an appropriate sense of humour and take a lot of deep breaths. We wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t rewarding, and if we didn’t like at least some of the people.

      But, feeling you on the “snarling maniac ready to punch anyone that looked at me a bit funny”, all the same.

  12. Ainlay says:

    Quite restrained considering the circumstances…

  13. YES!!!! This instantly brought back my time in Morocco!!

    • Theodora says:

      It’s sort of an open contest, isn’t it, Morocco versus Egypt? Some parts of tourist Africa have very aggressive touts as well, but the sheer numbers in Morocco and Egypt give them the edge. And, yes, it makes Vietnam look like a walk in the park.

  14. Laurence says:

    Cor blimey, what a lubbley jubbley rant! I suspect very well deserved and needed – and fun to read. Hope you’re recovering well now :D

    • Theodora says:

      YES! We’re in Alexandria, which is ridiculously zen. On our second day here and I have been overcharged (slightly) once and sexually harassed only once, both of which felt like one-offs. Hardly anyone has tried to sell me anything and nobody has tried hard. Sooo relaxing.

  15. Wanderplex says:

    A highly-justified rant in my opinion! I can’t count the number of times I’ve experienced similar touting/soliciting during my travels and it’s frustrating because it really ruins your experience of the country and has you looking forward to the day you depart – even if the sights/food/culture etc were amazing. I wish the locals would try to understand that not all Western women (or hardly any, in fact) are like what they see in the movies.

    • Theodora says:

      Unfortunately, it’s not just the ones they see in the movies. Now, Egyptian underclass men are also vile to Egyptian women — cf Mona Eltawahy’s article on Foreign Policy here http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/why_do_they_hate_us — BUT female sex tourism is quite a big thing in Egypt, for older women, particularly in Luxor and the Red Sea resorts like Sharm el Sheikh.

      But Egypt is the worst place in the world I’ve been for it. Worse than Morocco. Way worse than anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and I think it is founded in a deeply conflicted sexuality and entrenched misogyny.

  16. Holly says:

    I went to Egypt in 2009 and had the same experience. I was traveling with another female friend and the harassment was relentless both from the touts and from the men hitting on us, even though we dressed very conservatively.

    It makes a huge difference if you have a man with you – the only time I wasn’t hassled was when I walked back to the hotel with an older couple from our group tour.

    Egypt has so many great places to explore and visit and we met lots of friendly and helpful Egyptians, but dealing with the touts and the sexual propositions really took away from the experience.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes! We were hanging out with a chap in Luxor for a couple of evenings and it basically stopped. He got the odd “Sir, you have a beautiful wife” (which was hilarious), but that was pretty much it.

      It’s the sex stuff that really gets me, though — and the implied utter disrespect for my son. I’d recommend Alexandria, in fact. I’ve had one incident in three days.

  17. […] pretty intense at times – so much so that it almost ruins your impression of the country. This open letter to the touts of Egypt describes one woman’s frustrating experience of being hassled incessantly while traveling with […]

  18. Very eloquently written rant! I’m snapping my fingers whilst I’m sitting at my teacher’s desk right here!

    I can’t believe that any tout had the audacity to touch and try and drag your son anywhere though – that’s beyond unacceptable and the most shocking thing to me (sadly, the sexism and crude comments don’t shock me as much, based on what I’ve read about Egypt already).

    • Theodora says:

      Well, quite. I was geared for the sexism and crude comments, because, y’know, anything you read on Egypt from guidebooks through to political commentary tends to flag that up. But, yes, watching Z being manhandled was really annoying.

  19. michael says:

    enjoyable reading…though I thought Egypt was a breeze compared to Gambia, Kandy or Istanbul

    • Theodora says:

      That’s interesting, Michael. I had no problems in Kandy, at all — I don’t remember having an issue with touts anywhere in Sri Lanka, in fact. The Gambia, which I visited in my teens, was pretty hectic, from memory: the beach boys in particular were on the aggressive side. Istanbul I have yet to visit, though we’re there in a month or so, so I’ll take a deep breath and hope it’s not too bad.

      I think there’s probably two factors that made Egypt especially bad this time. The first is raised unemployment and lower visitor numbers, so you have 1/4 the number of tourists there used to be and more guys trying to make money out of them (tourism in Luxor is WAY down).

      And the second, for me, was the sexual harassment thing. On previous visits to Egypt, I’d been in the Sinai, which is much more zen, and I think I thought that because I was with my son, I wouldn’t be sexually harassed. So that made the whole experience that much more intense.

  20. Kim says:

    I know that all I did was spend a few days in Cairo and a trip to Giza, but I found the touts nowhere near as annoying as other places I’ve travelled. Bali, Indonesia comes to mind.

    • Theodora says:

      Wow. I lived in Bali for three months and spent the odd week there at other times and it was *nothing* compared to Egypt: “Transport?” “No thanks!” “Maybe tomorrow?” “No thanks” and that was the end of it. Though I do tend to avoid Kuta.

      Did you do a tour for your Giza trip? I think that mitigates the tout factor…

  21. jamie says:

    hehe sounds you like me have become so very very feed up with touts, i used to ask them if they needed a taxi as they where always yelling “taxi”

  22. You got it! I just finished going through Egypt (umm, I’ve given up — temporarily — on blogging) and I found it a vicious place. Not only were the touts being the most annoying of anyplace I’ve been, far outshining the most aggressive in India or China, but they were MEAN. When I’d politely turn down their donkey/camel/horse rides for the 8th time in a row, they’d swear at me and sometimes even grab me.

    I kept telling myself that normal Egyptian people were probably really nice — but it’s hard to keep that mentality when clearly SOMETHING in their culture makes it acceptable to cuss out a lady just because she doesn’t accept your stupid donkey ride. Once I was even taking a horse ride in Luxor — simply because I didn’t feel like walking in the heat to the temples — paying a more than fair price for it, and the guy actually starting cussing me out and poking me in the leg because I wouldn’t agree to riding his carriage a second time after I finished visiting the temple. Jerks! So many jerks there! I’ve never been happier to leave a country. *Sorry, rant over.*

    • Theodora says:

      I am beyond schizy on Egypt. I’ve met some lovely, lovely people here, but the touts are hell. I’ve not been to India (embarrassingly), but it’s the worst country in the world I’ve been to for touts, and I’ve been to China and a lot of Africa.

      Fundamentally, you have a huge, angry underclass, incredible sexual frustration, and it’s just, well, difficult. And then you have theses incredibly cultured, genuinely lovely people and… well, I oscillate. Wildly. And now we’re back here, although in Dahab, which doesn’t entirely count, because it’s Sinai.

      My pathetic anecdotal evidence suggests that it is even worse with a kid than as a solo woman (having done both). So, so glad you agree on how bad and how aggressive they are, because for me Luxor, in particular, was a real eyeopener.

      And, you know what? I’ve got so used to being sworn at in Arabic it doesn’t bother me. Although ANY physical contact really does…

  23. Touts can be overwhelming. I found it especially bad in India, Vietnam and Cambodia. I found it hard to keep my composure at times.

    • Theodora says:

      I haven’t done India, Samuel. Vietnam and Cambodia I found annoying — particularly the woman who insisted the boat we were getting had already left when I could actually SEE the bloody thing in front of me — but there wasn’t the aggression that you can get from touts in the Middle East and Africa. I think there’s added desperation here because of the low tourist numbers….

  24. Yosra says:

    Asalamu Alaykom from Giza,

    I’ve read the rant and the comments. I’d like to offer my take on it. Whatever I write is my own view and doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to yours—of course you do.

    I’ve been both a married woman traveling through Egypt and a single mom traveling through Egypt. Any guess which is easier? Of course it’s so much easier navigating a male-dominated society with an Egyptian man by your side. He acts as protector and teacher. A single mom is actually seen as LESS respectable here than a single woman. You misundertood that before but I think you feel it now. Not saying it’s right! Every woman deserves respect without conjecture. The Egyptian male mindset is that the single mom is not a virgin (duh) and therefore is sexually bereft and misses a man so much that she would allow the suggestion and the touch. Why? Why would they think that? Because so often of the time they are right! There are some very lonely tourist ladies who take those come-ons as real love or at least real affection. They don’t see the dollar signs (or in your case Euros) dancing in their eyes. My advice for any woman wanting to travel through Egypt (with child or alone) is to have an educated tour guide with a vehicle.

    I do take exception to your comment about how those men treat the women in their life once they are home. They, in no way, view you and their family members in the same category. You are in two VERY different cultures so why should they? You travel between countries free as a bird whereas their wife can’t go to visit her relative across the city without permission. Not saying which is right or wrong! Just stating the obvious. These men love their mothers. ADORE THEM! They love their wife. At the same time, they know the stories of touts who get some kind of opportunity (monetary, sexual, business) from a foreign woman and it plays in their brains (and elsewhere). So, they act the fool. I’m sorry that they do. Yes, they put a bad name on their fellow countrymen and the religion of Islam. However, a fool can still love his female family members and not ever think of hurting or mistreating them. The fabric of family society here is held together better than elsewhere so believe that the Egyptian men and women are on good terms to a large degree.

    Grabbing ahold of a boy here is very normal. It’s wrong to do to your son (since he’s foreign) but it is not seen as it would be seen in the West. It’s playful not criminal. Men routinely act silly and playful with my son here. I’ve asked my husband to tell them to stop because my son and I don’t like it. However, it is normal from their standards.

    It’s good how your comments brought up the differences in diffferent cities. Egypt is a big place with distinct cultures throughout! The people of Aswan are so different from those in Alex as to be almost two different species. The cities themselves vary greatly. What holds true for one isn’t for another.

    And honestly, people vary so much too, don’t they? My husband and I have helped lost French tourists get to their hotel and invited them back to our house for dinner. No tricks. Simply being hospitable.

    Your time could have been better. I wish it had gone better. One reason we step out of our comfort zones is to experience the differences of places and people. Rarely, is it good to decide an immediate response to a new culture. Often the response would be negative. As your later comments show, you softened your poor views of Egypt. You still hated what was bad but you found more things to like or ways to cope. Maybe blogging a trip allows for more rants than reflection. It’s been some weeks now and I hope you found more good than bad since returning from your trip.

    I wish you all the best—from the Pyramids!

    Light and Love!

    Yosra

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Yosra,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      That was the product of a very bad series of days: I do enjoy many aspects of Egypt and, for that matter, even have Egyptian friends. And, if you actually read through my posts on Egypt, you’ll see many positive posts as well as the odd frustrated howl, and, I think, some understanding of the culture at a deeper level.

      And, yes, you’re right, that as a single mother you count as available — and, especially in Luxor, especially as a British woman (because we seem to lead the market in sex tourism), the indicators that I considered as unavailability may indicate precisely the reverse. That’s also true, of course, in the Sinai, where we are now.

      I do have to say that I’m not comfortable with some aspects of attitudes towards children — on the one hand, Egyptian men of all classes are very good with little children, on the other I’ve seen guys *hit* street kids or hustlers, and there’s an objectification there, particularly among the less educated, that I find unpleasant.

      I do also think that a man who is sexually violent and aggressive towards strange women on the street may well be unpleasant to the women in his life as well — though, as you say, DEFINITELY NOT HIS MOTHER — in most cultures there’s a crossover between men who abuse strange women and men who abuse the women in their lives. I’d also flag the sexual assaults by Egyptian men on Egyptian women demonstrating in Tahrir Square, for example, as an indicator of a deeper problem with women — Mona Eltahaway’s written well on this, as have other Egyptian female bloggers.

      As regards tour guides and vehicles… The tourist sites are certainly easier when experienced from the security and safety of a private car, but then, on the same level, you are actually insulated, which is something I don’t like to be. I would, honestly, rather take the crap, some of the time, and have the experience, than see Egypt through cotton wool.

      I’m with you, though, that whenever I’ve been walking with an Egyptian or Egyptian-looking adult male, my experience has been infinitely more positive.

      Personally, I find Egypt fascinating yet also often very frustrating and enraging. I’m glad we’ve spent time here, and I think it’s given, with the other countries in the region we have visited and are visiting, my son a good handle on the Middle East. But I do still feel that Luxor has close to the worst touts in the world…

      Theodora

  25. Anne says:

    Just wondering what happens if you slap or push away someone who gets in your face like that, especially if they’ve touched you first?

    I’ve not been to Egypt yet and all these reports have me wondering if I would get arrested for assault if I did go.

    Also how old are these ‘older’ women who are looking for sex? I’m hoping they are enough older that I’m not automatically assumed to be one if I’m there alone.

    • Theodora says:

      I don’t know what happens if you hit a man who’s pushed you, but I would imagine that he would hit you back. I wouldn’t want to risk it, personally.

      Not all parts of Egypt are that bad: check out Dahab Luxor is probably the worst place I’ve been to, and the Pyramids (of Giza, at least, not the other pyramids) are hell on earth, although you can mitigate this by joining a tour, or by hiring a private guide, which is probably the best option.

      And it’s not JUST older women who come to Egypt looking for sex, or are thought to be there looking for sex. I’d say the worst age range to be in is 40-60, though.

      • Nonplussed says:

        I realise I’m late to the party here but; I have never seen such a chillingly accurate account of what it is like to be a tourist in Luxor. I wish one could publish the post in its entirety in the local Luxor press. As you point out, we are nor helped by the fact that the town seems to have become Benidorm on the Nile over the past decade as expats from Spain relocate, unable to afford the Eurozone, bringing their “tastes” with them. There has always been hassle in Luxor but the familarity and nastiness is new and there has to be a reason for that. One local bemoaned the fact that Luxor has become a place people go to to save money, not spend it. I seem to go every decade (from the 70s), it evidently takers that long to forget the unrelenting crappiness of most of the people one meets there.

        • Theodora says:

          There ARE a lot of nice people in Luxor, it’s just that you don’t meet them, unfortunately. I had an altercation with a particularly persistent sex-pest tout in front of two middle-aged gents, and, after he’d stomped off, I just turned to them and said, “I’m sorry about that.” And they said, “It’s OK. It’s Luxor. We understand…”

          We had an absolutely fantastic taxi driver, in fact, a great professional guide to the Karnak temple as well, and the guys at the place we stayed were lovely, too.

          But you are spot on with Benidorm-on-the-Nile! I’d set my body clock to Egyptian time, so we went out to eat at 10pm and ALL the foreigner places were shut, because everyone, be it local expats or the folk off the cruise boats and tour boats, eats early in the evening. As a result, in fact, the town itself was much, much nicer, as the touts had gone to bed along with the foreigners — in fact, it was a normal, rather pleasant Egyptian small city.

          How was Luxor in the 70s? I can imagine it being rather charming…

          • Nonplussed says:

            Luxor in the 1970s probably differed little from Luxor of the 1870s. I doubt it’s ever been exactly attractive but it had a taupe dusty integrity which it’s lost now, maybe along with some of its more extreme poverty? Most of roads were gravelly dust, not much tarmac around and what kerbs there were, were not two feet high. I don’t think they had taxis. In fact, I recall very little traffic at all. No satellite dishes. A Caleche was the only form of public transport, the ferry was the only way over the Nile and one tended to cycle everywhere. There were far fewer people, definitely fewer boats, one would be alone in the Valley of the Kings or Karnak. There was certainly some hassle, but not much and what there was, was generally with a wink and easily deflected, it certainly wasn’t constant and “no” actually worked, eventually. Fraudulent letter reading/translating existed then too. One would be offered (what in retrospect I realise were sometimes real), antiquities by shady men in the West Bank villages and there would be the speculative whispering of “Hashish?” The souk really was a souk, though I don’t recall it being where it is now, and the tourist knick-knacks were usually handmade. The Nubian Banana was on offer then though not actually in evidence. Even though there’s always been a tourist trade, people otherwise tended not to approach you, they got on with their own lives and you fitted in, English was not as widely spoken and there was a certain formality, you were conspicuous yet often ignored and everyone dressed in a more traditional way. People had fewer teeth and there were frequently spectacular maimings and eye-diseases on show, you don’t see that now. The circus around the station was the main street cafe area for those who were not at the Winter Palace, that said there really weren’t many restaurants, cafes or much of anything anyway. Tourists were either very posh indeed or or backpackerish (though I don’t think we used that term), The street lighting was very dim and sulphurous at night and yes, you’re right, everyone did eat later. It was a small provincial town then and definitely a “foreign country”, they did things differently. The last decade has been the most transformative with the massive influx of expat Brits (apartments can cost £9,000), and I think organised crime is endemic now. I do like your blog.

          • Theodora says:

            So…. another world, then?! So glad you like my blog.

            My father has a very possibly genuine shabti that his father bought in Cairo during World War II. Interestingly, folk are still finding and robbing tombs even now — there was one in Heliopolis discovered and robbed this spring. And, according to a Bedouin smuggler we met, there’s a flourishing trade in old Egyptian gold to be melted down: people like the colour of it, you see. But the antiquities trade is now firmly under the carpet.

  26. Shane says:

    Do you think that hiring a young boy or old man solely to keep the other touts away would work or would they ignore or curse the person you hired and still tag after you?

    • Theodora says:

      An Egyptian tour guide, male or female, will really help keep the touts away, and, yes, should one successfully latch on to you, the others will largely leave him be. I’m not sure how one would go about hiring a tout to do this, though. There are some good pro tour guides at Karnak itself (licensed, knowledgeable and the like).

  27. Ebony says:

    haha WELL SAID!!

    I wish I had read this before our trip to Egypt!! I may have been able to hold my anger in and your words could have provided some comic relief during the same experiences!

  28. anonymous says:

    this is an amazing blog. i am in cairo now, and SO happy i came, and it’s amazing, and completely different to anything i have EVER experienced (and i, like you, have traveled a lot). but everything you list here is so accurate, and the reason i made my trip to egypt a 2-day side trip from another nearby destination – i just wanted to hold my breath & dash in to see the pyramids, the nile, a mosque or 2. i sympathize with you 100% on everything you wrote here, and i am a 30-year old male new yorker traveling solo. from a pretty different walk of life than you, but similar experience. definitely worth it, but definitely mind-blowingly exhausting defending yourself every 10 steps from the moment you step out of your hotel to the moment you return. i have encountered many wonderful Egyptian people in 2 days — but unfortunately they are the millions that breeze by minding their own business, not the ones aggressively chasing after you or demanding to know if you are a Democrat, a Republican, or a Muslim as the 2nd question after “Where are you from?” i considered saying Canadian to see what the stock response is, but saying Polish didn’t really save me any trouble, so i just stuck with the truth. and yes — they are definitely all men. i am a male, and i habitually contain my hunger or thirst until i see the rare occasion of a woman behind the counter.

    • Theodora says:

      They do have some women behind the counter in Cairo, in fairness — central Cairo coffee houses, and Western-run chains, seem to have some equality measures in place. But, boy, it’s exhausting. On the other hand… Pretty much anywhere else is a walk in the park. We’re in Nepal at the moment and the touts just seem so polite and uninsistent!

  29. Tracy says:

    Wow! I could have written your blog entry myself! I spent 3 months in Egypt in 1989, covered from heat to foot, travelling with my boyfriend (now husband) and I remember the hassling and touts, but I particularly remember the sexual harassment – it was relentless. I have often contemplated returning, to see if things have changed in the interventing 23 years, but I honestly can’t bring myself to do it. Some parts of Egypt were fantastic and we met many wonderful, helpful and friendly Egyptians, but the men who constantly followed us, touched me, touched themselves in front of me, looked under our motel doors, looked over toilet doors, looked through holes in the walls and made lewd suggestions have unfortunately left an impression that I can’t get past.

    • Theodora says:

      I found that sexual harassment was relentless in Cairo and Luxor, also happened in Alexandria. The Sinai was sexual harassment free, and Nubia was also remarkably easy (one might attract the odd compliment but none of the hissing or staring or grabbing). It’s the touching themselves in front of me that was mot annoying, I thought. Like you, I met many wonderful, helpful and lovely Egyptians. But, like you, the sexual harassment was really rather epic.

  30. Neil says:

    Theodora, a great piece of writing, I loved it and although I am a guy I could understand your situation. I spent a month travelling independently in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank last September and decided to return to Petra after a ten year absence.

    What a change, so much hassle from the ‘donkey boys’ as I ended up calling them, although there were camel boys, horse boys, carriage boys, postcard boys etc etc.

    I was lucky I escaped into the wilder parts with few people and enjoyed the experience.

    while I understand that people have to make a living, the Jordanian government are in danger of turning the place into ‘Blackpool’
    It’s a difficult balancing act in an already very fragile economy.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, Petra obviously felt like a walk in the park to us after, say, Giza, but, you can imagine how persistent the donkey/horse/camel/carriage boys were with a fair-skinned child in tow….

      I really wish we’d actually hired a car in Jordan — I’d have loved to get out into the desert proper and pootle around those bits instead — or even done the typical thing of flagging rides, except my Arabic’s so bloody limited.

      And, yes, I agree with you that the Jordanian government is doing things wrong. It’s a wealthy country compared to Egypt, and there shouldn’t be that level of desperation in play.

  31. Stephen says:

    I am currently sitting at Cairo airport after a 9 week trip to Jordan, Israel and Egypt. I will NEVER recommend egypt as a travel destination. I have travelled to 25 countries over 1 year in Central America, SE Asia and Western Europe and the Middle East.

    Of all countries, Egypt is definitely on the bottom of my list. I will be showing this article to anyone travelling to the region so they are aware of the constant negative attention. Thankfully I have probably only been scammed at most $50US over 4 weeks here but hearing the stories of other tourists is worrying.

    At Abu Simbel I witnessed one tout constantly harassing and touching a Japanese lady who I coincidentally met the day before. He even went so far as to try and take her purse out of her bag. “I just want to show her how much” was his response when I has had enough and stepped in. Throwing his purses into the ground (which were been advertised as 100E£ – the same item at Luxor souk is 5E£) was the only way to get rid if him. He looked for a moment to decide if he should start a fight, but the 6’3″ 27yo man in front if him obviously wasn’t a good target for him.

    My only outlet was to say “stop been rude to me” to anyone who asked the usual questions. This seemed to work quite well. For those who would pester me or grab my hand a firm LOUD “moxxu gazma” worked wonders. I know this is extremely rude but it is the only way to get rid of these relentless touts.

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah, it’s a shame Egypt can be like that. I do know some wonderful Egyptians, and we were very happy in Dahab, but it’s a total assault course around the tourist sites.

      That poor Japanese lady!

  32. Stephen says:

    I should point out. Egypt has some amazing sights and experiences and I will never regret coming here. However there are so many other countries that can be visited that are less hassle and has just as amazing sights. Guatemala, Vietnam, Jordan and Mexico come to mind instantly.

  33. I’m a keen letter writer, and would love to know if there is anyhow of creating a letter writing community via this. Creative letter writers writing to creative letter writers the globe over. I will reply to all those who wish to write and not just receive. 51 Lavender Sweep, London SW11 1DY. England

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Madalene, I’m not sure this is entirely the right forum for you to post this question, and I think many pen pal organisations have now moved online. Why don’t you visit http://www.globalpenfriends.com — they have a section for people who prefer to use postal mail rather than email? Theodora

  34. […] the touts of Cartagena compare to their counterparts in the likes of Morocco or Egypt. Judging by this open letter to the touts of Egypt, maybe Colombian touts are rather amateurish in comparison. Perhaps three days in the city was the […]

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] pretty intense at times – so much so that it almost ruins your impression of the country. This open letter to the touts of Egypt describes one woman’s frustrating experience of being hassled incessantly while traveling with […]

  2. […] the touts of Cartagena compare to their counterparts in the likes of Morocco or Egypt. Judging by this open letter to the touts of Egypt, maybe Colombian touts are rather amateurish in comparison. Perhaps three days in the city was the […]

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