Open Season: Being a Ginger in Egypt

I arrived in Egypt with little expectations about how I would be treated as a white, unveiled and ‘exotic’ (I use that word liberally) female.

As a student of gender studies – and someone who has an active interest in global politics – I was well aware that the Middle East’s relationship with woman is far removed from what I am familiar with in the west. It was to be the first time in my life that I represented the minority, and that thought both excited and scared me.

The next two weeks would expose me to a side of humanity that very few things could have prepared me for. It disgusted me; not disgust in the sense that I grew reluctant to venture out of the house without completely covering myself – which, FYI, isn’t even enough to stop men who feel entitled to make women uncomfortable in the public sphere – but disgust in the sense that I couldn’t believe people think that this kind of behaviour is actually okay. The argument from relativity suddenly lost its shine that trip.

Over those two weeks, I was subjected to people stopping in the middle of the street and pointing at me, cars honking as I walked down the side of the road, and the making of rude and unnecessary comments in Arabic as I walked past. At one point, I was in the middle of a marketplace when a man riding a motorcycle zoomed past, shouldered me and nearly knocked me off my feet. When I visited the iconic Great Pyramids, I was surrounded by local tourists more interested in taking pictures with me than the actual wonders. It was flattering until they started grabbing me.

Making friends… us gingers gotta stick together.

All of this was just by existing in Cairo and minding my own business. Whilst I did not veil my head, I was dressed conservatively and respected the culture. None of the behaviour was provoked in any meaningful or justified way.

From my observation, about 85-90% of the women I saw in the streets were veiled. It is also worth mentioning that – compared to their male counterparts – very few women even venture into the public sphere. I counted the occasions I saw people who represented tourists, and the number might amaze you: seven. Just seven – over two whole weeks. Egypt’s tourist economy has plunged from 14.7 million to 5.4 million per year, and it is noticeable. Tourists have become something of a commodity, only fueling the attitude towards them.

The irony of the whole trip was that the occasion on which I felt most comfortable in public was when I visited a nightclub. I remember thinking that there is definitely something wrong with a culture where you receive more unwanted attention on the streets than in a freakin’ bar.

I’m not comfortable arguing that it is easier being an unveiled woman than a veiled woman in Egypt, as other travel bloggers have. There are cultural forces at work there that someone like me can’t even imagine, and it isn’t a competition of oppression. I’m also aware that my experience was far more benign than that suffered by other females. I’m just writing this blog post to share my personal experience so that if you are a woman with intentions of visiting this incredible country, at least you’re not walking in blind.

I never once felt unsafe or threatened whilst I was in Egypt. I think a large part of that is because I mentally prepared myself for the attention and was always in good company. But I can wholeheartedly understand why the experience would be enough to deter someone from the Middle East altogether. It’s a shame, because the two countries I have traveled to in this region so far – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – left me with rich knowledge and positive memories that surpassed my wildest expectations.

You don’t have to lose all sense of identity in Egypt to avoid harassment. Even if you were wearing a niqāb, the chances are, you would still receive some form of it. After all, studies reveal that 99% of Egyptian women have been subjected to misogynist behaviour on the streets of Cairo (what is being called a ‘moral epidemic’).

But what you can do to prepare is educate yourself on the culture and understand that there is nothing you are doing to deserve this treatment. There is nothing morally justifiable about it. It it simply the result of a lack of education, public safety, poverty and dangerous cultural ideas. The only way it can be challenged is by standing up to it and raising awareness about the injustices served.

 All of the photographs in this post were taken at the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel of Cairo.
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In Defence of Cultural Appropriation

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post called Cultural Appropriation (Or Why that Bindi is Racist). Without rewriting the original article, allow me to briefly summarise my key points.

Cultural appropriation is defined as when “people from a dominant culture take cultural elements from a marginalised group without knowing or caring about how their actions affect marginalised people.” I later stumbled upon a slightly more detailed definition that I think also fits the bill: “Cultural appropriation… is a form of oppression for members of an identifiably dominant social or ethnic group to make use of the history, personages and/or habits of another, for the purposes of literature, music, art, entertainment, fashion. In short, for culture.”

Since publishing my blog post, I have shared a number of thought-provoking conversations with friends that have challenged my perspective on the issue. Dissatisfied, I decided to update my opinion — a part two, if you will — and to argue against what I originally wrote.

To begin, I am going to explore the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. There is a tendency to conflate the two, a misunderstanding which is arguably as dangerous as cultural appropriation itself. Whilst cultural appropriation tends to concern the power dynamics between two unequal groups, cultural exchange refers more so to the sharing of practices between two different yet balanced groups. In many — I’d even go as far as to say most — cases, cultural exchange is criticised for being cultural appropriation. Whilst I myself am persuaded that cultural exchange is justified, cultural appropriation is still something of a delicate matter.

Should we amend cultural appropriation to cultural misappropriation? Maybe it is possible that this whole discourse hinges around semantic specificity. From henceforth, I shall use cultural appropriation as somewhat interchangeable with cultural exchange, and refer to the detrimental kind as cultural misappropriation.

One of the central arguments for cultural appropriation is that it offers an opportunity for people to be educated about the rich diversity of human culture. After all, isn’t a more connected and compassionate society an objective goal? The topic of cultural appropriation also opens the door to what it truly means to own something. In my previous article, I discussed how it’s dangerous because it is as though a dominant group has ‘stolen’ a practice that belongs to a marginalised group. But do practices really belong to someone? Cultural practices are meaningful because of the ideas attached to them — can someone really claim ownership over an idea?

“Cultures are not intrinsically valuable, nor should they be preserved by virtue of their uniqueness. Cultures emerge from different groups of people trying to best navigate the world.”

The author of the above quote also put into words my exact thoughts: “… cultural ‘pride’ is absurd… there’s nothing to be proud of. (Cultures) aren’t superior or inferior to any other. You have nothing to preserve.” This message ties into the flaws of group identity. If you consider major conflicts between different groups of people, you’ll observe that that main source of conflict is the (often symbolic) trespassing of identity politics. We cannot abolish this discord without challenging our relationship with cultural pride.

By maintaining the mentality that cultural appropriation is in and of itself a ‘bad thing’, we are only causing further destruction. Through reinforcing exclusivism, some would even go as far as to say that it is as racist as cultural appropriation itself claims to be. If we cannot explore other cultures through participation, how are we — as a collective civilisation — expected to evolve and develop?

Perhaps cultural appropriation is indeed a positive thing, and participation in diverse cultural practices ought to be encouraged throughout society. Perhaps it’s the most constructive path to a more global, shared culture. “It is not an evil but rather a public good when different cultures are assimilated into the mainstream”, writes J. Wilson.

I have expressed why I believe cultural exchange should be condoned, and (hopefully) no one needs reminding that this should always be done respectfully. We know that malicious intent – whether that be through racism or whatever have you – is never acceptable. We know that there’s nothing respectful about dressing up as a ‘slutty Indian’ for Halloween in a costume you bought from Walmart, and we know that there’s nothing respectful about mockery. The key therefore is to strike a balance whereby different cultures are accessible and celebrated whilst still bearing courtesy and consideration for their history.

To what end does maintaining divisions between people serve? Cultural misappropriation can be harmful and leave devastating effects on persecuted peoples by reducing them to an idea. But cultural appropriation might be the answer to societal segregation rooted in identity politics.

Photographs sourced from Unsplash.

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Monolithic Giants: The Great Pyramids of Egypt

France has the Eiffel Tower. Italy has the Colosseum. And Egypt has the Pyramids.

I don’t know what it is about these Egyptian megastructures that puts them on a tier above the rest. Maybe it’s the fact that they are the last surviving wonder of the world. But what I do know is that visiting this archaeological site has been one of my greatest aspirations for a very long time, and compared to my expectations, my actual experience did not disappoint.

History lesson! The Giza Pyramid Complex includes the Great Pyramids – Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure – guarded by the limestone sculpture known as the Sphinx. Located in the Sahara Desert on the outskirts of Cairo, the Complex was believed to have been built to house the remains of the Pharaohs (Ancient Egyptian rulers).

“The people of Ancient Egypt believed that death on Earth was the start of a journey to the next world. The embalmed body of the King was entombed underneath or within the pyramid to protect it and allow his transformation and ascension to the afterlife.”

The largest pyramid – Khufu – reaches a height of 138.8 meters, and is estimated to have taken 200 years to build. 200 years! It is also fascinating to learn that the Great Pyramids are precisely aligned with the constellation of Orion, which was associated with Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian god of rebirth and afterlife.

Did you know?

There are actually six pyramids that comprise the Giza Pyramid Complex, not three as is commonly believed. The remaining three (called the Pyramids of the Queens) are much smaller and located in a row behind Menkaure.

  

I had already been in Cairo for over a week before paying a visit to the Giza Pyramid Complex. This meant that I had grown accustomed to the pyramids dominating the horizon every time I ventured into the City of a Thousand Minarets. But as my boyfriend and I approached the gates to the site, I couldn’t help but feel consumed with awe at the monolithic giants towering over us.

I don’t think I’d ever get used to the level of (attempted) security in Cairo. No sooner had we pulled up outside the main gate than did three guards descend upon the car demanding to check us for any weapons or dangerous goods. After asking needlessly if we were married (🙄) they let us through. We parked the car at the foot of Khafre and began to explore.

The pyramids rise grand and resplendent from the cripplingly arid desert. The size of the individual slabs are enough to astound you, let alone the size of the actual structures. Given the sheer volume of security at the entrance, you’d expect the Complex itself to be meticulously patrolled; in reality, there are no barriers or guards, meaning you can climb onto the lower landings of the pyramids and get up close and personal with the ancient wonders.

If I had to choose one thing that left a negative impact on my time at the pyramids, it would have to be people (namely men) trying to scam you. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car before they swarmed upon us, offering deals on tours and souvenirs. One boy even followed us all the way around Khafre, relentless and dogged in his pursuit. If I took a picture of a camel, its owner would materialise out of thin air and demand some sort of payment. If I accepted a ‘free gift’ from a souvenir seller, they wouldn’t leave me be until I returned the favour in some (*cough*monetary*cough*) form. In all seriousness, if I had not been there with my boyfriend – an Egyptian citizen who speaks Arabic – I am pretty damn sure I would have been guilt-tripped or manipulating into losing a lot of money.

Tip

To avoid getting scammed, give a wide berth to people at the Complex who are not official employees. The only people you should be interacting with are those at the ticket booth and those at security (both at the gates and succeeding the ticket booth). Even if they flash you their ‘license’, people claiming that they will show you where to park your car, or that they take the tours included in the entry price (spoiler alert: bullsh*t), or that tickets have sold out and they have the only remaining pass, are just trying to empty your pockets.

But as far as bad experiences go, those men were a relatively insignificant one. If anything, they were amusing. I had the luxury of sitting back and relaxing as I watched my boyfriend’s patience slowly fizzle out like an old firework. It’s worth mentioning some of the good things that happened during my visit, such as the fact that hardly anyone else was there. This can be seen in the solitariness of my photographs, and has motivated me to write a blog post chronicling the deterioration of Egypt’s tourism industry… stay tuned 😎

Before I arrived in Egypt, I had been warned by friends and family members that I would stand out like a sore thumb. I had dismissed their words of caution, but the truth to what they were saying really hit me here. Foreign tourists were something of a rarity, and the fact that I have red hair and the complexion of a white walker probably didn’t help on that front. Many local tourists asked to take photos with me, and one woman physically grabbed me by the material of my shirt and held me still until she had taken a satisfactory number of selfies. My boyfriend had to drag me away from the growing crowd so that we could continue with our sightseeing.

After taking in the marvel of Khafre, I made the executive decision that we would embark on a camel ride. After riding an elephant in Thailand last year, I was bursting to get back in the saddle. (Yes, I realise that camel-riding is probably dodgy. Yes, I plan to educate myself on this topic. And yes, I understand that condemning my own participation only in hindsight not once, but twice, makes me a textbook hypocrite. I’m working on it.)

A few minutes later and we were climbing onto the backs of two camels. You don’t really appreciate just how high it is until you’re up there. I’d read that camel riding is a largely uncomfortable experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s nothing of that sort. Sure, you have to keep one hand firmly clamped on the horn of the saddle to save falling off, but hey, where else is the adventure? Led by a boy no older than thirteen, we padded back around to Khafre, snapped some more photos, laughed at the noises camels make (seriously though, have you heard them?!) and then meandered back to where we started.

The Great Pyramids are the beating heart of Egypt. They have survived for 186 generations and they will survive for many more. Standing amongst these giants was a simultaneously humbling and inspiring experience, and one I hope to recreate again in the future.

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Global Street Art: Part One

“People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish… but that’s only if it’s done properly.”
Banksy

I was never a huge fan of graffiti. For the most part, I found it selfish and something of an aesthetic atrocity. But a few years ago, my home town – Dunedin – launched a street art project. This project opened my eyes to the beauty of urban creativity and the important distinction between the construction of street art and the destruction of graffiti tagging.

When I arrived in Madrid, the first destination on my travels around Europe, I was gobsmacked by the way street art dominated the suburbs of the Spanish capital. I had the pleasure of staying in one of the most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods – Lavapiés – and stumbled upon new artwork every day.

My newfound appreciation for this genre was only fuelled during my subsequent month in France; specifically in the capital of Paris. Paris boasted a different flavour of street art – more minimalist, performatory – but still one that I could admire.

Through my lens, I captured the standout pieces I discovered over my two months in Spain and France. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the first edition of my Global Street Art series…

A stunning painted door in my favourite village in Provence, France: Roussillon

Winter is coming… Game of Thrones vibes in Paris

Enjoying the famous mural buildings of Lyon during a French river cruise

A beautiful painting on the side of a building in Madrid’s neighbourhood of Lavapiés

Parisian philosophy

A gorgeous portrait in the French town of Arles in Provence

Quite possibly my favourite graffiti script: I declare war upon this way of dying

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The Beach Review #2: Nice

If you’re a long time reader of the Ginger Passports, then you might remember a wee blog post I published several months back where I reviewed Saint Kilda Beach in Dunedin, New Zealand. As the first edition of my beach review series, Saint Kilda scored 6.5 stars out of a possible 10, exceeding expectations in isolation and sand, but falling short in temperature.

A week in Nice in August offered the opportunity to dip my toes in the waters of the Mediterranean. The French Riviera is famous for it’s luxury and iconography, and I could hardly wait to embrace the coast after a month of meandering down central France.

For those perhaps unacquainted with my system of rating, here’s how it goes… I take a beach and evaluate it according to seven attributes: water, sand, temperature, wildlife, beauty, recreation and congestion. Each beach has the potential to earn 10 stars (★) and are stacked up against one another at the end of the post.

#2
Beach: Nice
Location: Nice, French Riviera, France

Water

Whilst the Mediterranean may not be like dipping your toes in a warm bath, it’s not far from it. I’m a complete wuss when it comes to the cold, so the fact that I was able to submerge myself after taking a few steps speaks volumes.

The water gets deep very, very quickly. This is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. There’s no jagged reefs or coral to cut yourself on, so it makes for a carefree swim. There are also no waves – but more on that later!

Sand

Yeah… that’s some misleading heading there. Unfortunately, you won’t find any sand in Nice (you’ll have to head westward past Antibes for that), but rather smooth pebbles by the name of ‘galets’. While these pebbles aren’t sharp, they’re not exactly nice to walk on either. I would make the regular dash from the towel to the shore grimacing in pain and searing heat, cursing my decision not to bring sandals.

Temperature

The biggest drawback to Saint Kilda is that it’s freakin’ freezing. I’m not just talking about the water, either – the south of New Zealand in general is a pretty chilly place to be.

Nice is hot but not uncomfortably hot. In fact, I would go as far to say that it is perfect beach weather. I visited during August, a month that on average scores between 24-27°C during the daytime. I was relieved to escape the 40°C highs of southern Spain whilst still being able to break out the bikini and sunscreen (because, y’know, I’m ginger).

Wildlife

When I came to write this part of the review, I had to actually open up another internet browser to search the answer. Even then, Google failed me. I never saw a single sea or land creature during my time lolling on the beach in Nice (save for perhaps a few nosy gulls). While there have been past sightings of sharks off the coast of the French Riviera, there isn’t really anything notable or iconic that I can discuss here.

Beauty

Strolling down the French Riviera is like strolling down the canvas of a painting. The colours, the texture, the music… everything titillates the senses. It may not be the natural landscape itself that draws the eye, but rather the mix of people and culture, blending together like wet paint on a palette.

Recreation

The adrenalised parasailing scene draws fun-seekers of all walks of life, but that – and the odd jet ski here and there – is about as lively as it gets. As a keen surfer, I was disappointed to learn that Nice has very little to offer in terms of waves. Nevertheless, myself and my budget were satisfied with floating in the water for hours on end.

Nice Beach runs alongside Promenade des Anglais, a coastal highway offering delightful (albeit overpriced) cafés and the sort of souvenir shops that you can’t help but check out every time even though they’re all the same. Although there is much to eat on offer here, Cours Saleya Market is a mere 50m stroll away. Here, you will find fresh fruit, local produce and savoury specialities of the Côte d’Azur. If all else fails, you can always count on people to be doing the rounds on the beach selling everything from chilled beer to carved watermelon 🍉

Congestion

Holy f*ck.

If you’re someone who values their personal space, then Nice is not for you. Be prepared to be sandwiched like sardines between holidaymakers, struggling to find just one square meter of free space to lay out your towel. People will assemble umbrellas right in your face. They will walk straight over you to get to the water. They might even strip right next to you (hey, it’s Europe). I distinctly remember waking up from a sun-soaked slumber to an eyeful of an old woman’s naked breasts.

The Verdict

7.1/10

★★★★★★★

I had imagined the beach at Nice to fulfil my wildest Mediterranean dreams: kilometres of white sand, gorgeous cerulean waters and a landscape like something out of a vintage postcard. I guess you could say I had high expectations.

The good news is that the reality of Nice wasn’t that different to my imagination. The ocean, heat and landscape all ticked the boxes, and even the severe lack of wildlife and lush sand didn’t dull my enjoyment. If I had to choose just one aspect of Nice that really impacted negatively upon my experience, it would have to be the pure congestion of bodies.

But hey – I suppose you can’t have everything.

The Rankings

  1. Nice 🇫🇷 France
    (7.5 stars)
    ★★★★★★★
  2. Saint Kilda 🇳🇿 New Zealand
    (6.5 stars)
    ★★★★★★

If you weren’t aware of the excessive links to my previous post in the Beach Review series, then here it is again: Saint Kilda. Or, if Nice has tickled your fancy, then you might like to read about a scrumptious food tour I embarked on in the unforgettable city (featuring a delicious recipe!).

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Vlog: Paris Edition

There’s a lot in the works here at the Ginger Passports… subscribe to our YouTube channel to ensure you don’t miss anything!

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