Sit Englizia fi Misr (An English woman in Cairo)
By Saffa Kate
Here’s a snippet of my life when I was just twenty years old and had the privilege to live in a
I’ve decided to include this first so that you are familiar with some of the Egyptian colloquial
terminology you will need to follow this blog.
Common Egyptian words and phrases:
Baladi – local/traditional/working class (depending on context)
Bayto Maana – Stay/Sleep overnight with us
Bebsi – Pepsi
Bedri – Early
Fadal (m) /fadali (f) – After you or take it, it’s yours
Fein – Where
Gutfull – had enough (English/Welsh slang)
Hijabi – person wearing Islamic religious head gear
Khalikm – Stay
Ley – Why
Lissa – Not yet
Lissa Bedri – It’s still early
Sbrite – Sprite
Shay – Tea
Wasta – Someone you know in the know (they can make things happen unofficially)
Ya Gemaa – You people
I first went to Egypt in the Autumn of 1988 – I was young, newlywed, a Muslim and couldn’t
wait to get out of the UK. I’d fallen out with most of my family over the whole being
Muslim, marriage and moving abroad saga and I just needed to escape – and so I did. And
the adventure began…
All I knew is that I would be living in a lovely little area in Cairo called Heliopolis near a
tennis club (my favourite sport at the time), and so had created an image in my head
resembling the beautiful town of Lindos on the Greek Island of Rhodes (the furthest place I
had visited as a kid). Little did I know. Nothing was like Lindos. Nothing at all.
I arrived in Cairo airport around midnight to be met by my new husband and some
authoritative looking men donning dark glasses and safari suits (by the way I fucking hate
safari suits – to me they are the epitome of masculine unsexiness).
There was no queuing at immigration … for me that is. I was promptly swept through by a
Wasta . Yes, a Wasta in a safari suit. And within less than half an hour I was on my way to
my new life with my worldly possessions stuffed into a gargantuan suitcase held together
with an unyielding girdle. You know the ones I mean. Those obnoxious back breaking cases
that only Egypt Air, PIA and Air India still tolerate. They are the best thing ever! Mine
contained clothes, clothes, clothes and more clothes, a Middle Eastern Cookery book that
someone ambitious gave me, sun cream, make up, a Montessori course (random) and some
rich tea biscuits.
Our temporary apartment wasn’t ready, so on my first night I stayed in a mediocre hotel
with a cockroach in the bathroom. I went ballistic; threw a massive tantrum, phoned my
Wali (Guardian) in the UK and told him I want to come back and cried all night. I couldn’t
believe how someone could be such an idiot and not fucking fork out to put ME, Queen of
Merseyside in a 5-star hotel! The next day we moved to more acceptable accommodation
and I was happy… until the diarrhoea kicked in. literally, I spent the next two years being ill,
but I’ll talk about that another time.
By the end of the week our temporary apartment was ready. It was situated in a quiet
street just behind Baron Castle. Now anyone that is familiar with this area knows that it is
pretty swish, just a stone’s throw away from the presidential palace. But for a young
untraveled naïve English girl who had barely been abroad let alone outside of Europe, it
honestly looked to me like a dump.
I thought I was living in a slum; seeing donkeys pulling carts of rubbish and actually working
instead of being on a kids farm to stroke and coo over was distressing! Now that’s me
taking the piss out of my former self and other Western expats that get distressed over
animal cruelty abroad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for animal rights but surely people
I was clearly shocked by many sights including children living, working and begging on the
streets. Only now when I look back I know that from the moment I arrived in Cairo for the
following year, I was in a constant state of disbelief. I simply had a culture shock. Every day
a new experience, person, interaction would literally blow me away. I must point out that
it wasn’t all bad, some shocks were positive experiences, some scary and others just weird.
One day I got invited to a wedding somewhere near Khan el Khalili – it was a baladi
wedding on the roof top of an apartment block. Now the reason I was shocked and
confused is because I was asked to dance. Everyone was dancing; men, women, kids, hijabis,
non hijabis but also some people were clearly pissed out of their brains, but no one was
bothered about it, everyone was acting like they’re normal or just happy. And there wasn’t
a drink in sight… Yes, there was Bebsi, Fanta and Sbrite and some weird wedding juice that
tasted like fake Ribena but that was the extent of it.
I was shocked because I’d spent the last 6 months hanging out with practicing Muslims who
even shuddered at the thought of shaking hands with the opposite sex, and alcohol was a
defo Taboo. HARAM in actual fact! The last time I’d been around a drink was at my parents’
home in Wallasey with my step dad spending the evening downing Bells Scotch Whisky
whilst playing Crash Test Dummies and other unconventional mind-blowing music. And
here I was a young Muslim convert in a Muslim country at a crazy wedding with mind
blowing live music to include bag pipes, belly dancing hijabis and people pissed out of their
brains. Yet no one turned a blind eye… it was surreal!
What’s worse is the Muslims back in the UK made me have a bloody segregated wedding
(sorry I hated it and continue to hate segregated weddings, no offence) and here I was in
Egypt at this fantastic crazy wedding thinking, ‘What the fuck? I could have had a wedding
Egyptian etiquette is something I had to learn, I was definitely not prepared for it by the
Muslim community of North London (which one? I hear you say, it doesn’t matter).
So first up; What’s with the bloody Fadali business? Sorry I just wasn’t going to buy it. So,
for those who are unfamiliar, Egyptians can be very kind and will do their utmost to make a
guest or friend feel happy. The general Fadali rule is that if you admire something that
someone has, they have to say Fadali which basically means ‘for fucks sake have it then.’
Joking, it means ‘please have it’ so it’s like what’s mine is yours and vice versa, we’re all one
big happy family and we all love each other so much that we’re prepared to give you our
most expensive possessions just because you like it.
I quickly had to learn to be careful what I admired because people were literally offering me
shit left, right and centre. It was like I had the Midas touch, let’s call it the Fadali Touch;
every time I’d say ‘that’s nice’ or ‘ooh I like it ‘– it was mine. In fact, if I wasn’t such a nice
person and played my cards right I’d be minted by now.
However, as the saying doesn’t really go but it works here, ‘in every opportunity lies a
difficulty’ because the flip side is that others may admire what you have. So , when I had
guests or acquaintances who admired some of the very few things I had, I just said
‘Shukran/Thank you’ unless of course it was a banana or bic biro. Never once did I utter the
magic/tragic Fadali over something I wanted to keep. There would be a pause after my
Shukran, as guests anticipated… ‘will she say it?’
I would always stick to my guns, never bowing to peer pressure. Keeping my English
possessions was important to me at the time so I’d act like I didn’t know how to say ‘Fadali’
because I’m English. I’d always get away with it because everyone thought I was a saint…
I’m not joking; white face, white scarf, speak English, marry an Egyptian and move from UK
to Egypt = Saint
Another one that really used to piss me off, and actually it still does today. It’s the guest
leaving time delay that the host has to play…
FEIN/ where, LEY/why, KHALEEKM/stay, LEESA BEDRI/it’s still early…
No, it’s fucking not! Tts 2am and I’ve had a gutfull! You’ve been here since 7pm, drinking
tea, dropping crumbs, admiring all my shit, my moon white complexion and apparent
Oh, the arguments we would have because when it was leaving time I would NEVER dispute.
Listen I’m just honest, if I want someone to go and they clearly want to leave, I’m not going
to play some bullshit mind game by asking them to stay and then insisting that they stay and
even BAYTOO Maana (stay over with us).
Fuck no! That’s just sick – ‘Go fucking home’ I’d be thinking whilst grimacing and nodding as
my husband would reel off this whole load of bullshit etiquette instead of just saying –
Thanks for coming … BYE!
A tip for those in need of help. A good Egyptian friend of mine gets rid of her guests by
offering a final cup of tea. She is very tactful, she has a clear strategy. Guests will be waited
on hand and foot and spoilt rotten with an abundance of scrumptious sweet and savoury
snacks, luscious teas, coffees and halal aperitifs until a point; there will be a break of about
half an hour to 45 minutes of nothing and then the grand GO HOME HINT finale begins;
‘SHAY YA GEMAA? / Tea anyone?’
she will holler from the kitchen doorway with a distinctive undertone that says, ‘Time to go
I swear it works every time. Everyone politely declines and stands up. Admittedly it takes a
good half hour to 45 minutes for the standing up conversations and kissing goodbyes to
reach the front door, followed by another set of salutations of sorts and plans to go into
massive business, lush holidays and all the other bull crap talk of the town. But eventually,
she wins, they leave of their own accord and they love her for it.
So, what did I learn in my first month of living in Cairo? I learnt that in Egypt people accept
you for who you are and will do anything to make you feel comfortable and happy. What
kept me going in Cairo was the people, and how despite the difficulties they faced on a daily
basis, their sense of humour and ability to have fun was and still is magic!