An English woman in Cairo

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
magical madness.

Glossary

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
Wali -Guardian
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
come first.
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
like this!’
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
sainthood!
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
losers!’
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!

45 Comments
  1. Amirah

    November 21, 2018 4:43 pm

    I wanted to enjoy this article, but found it really hard to read. The excessive profanity is distracting and unnecessary, which is unfortunate because these types of narratives have the potential to be insightful and eye-opening. But instead I had to stop reading after the 5th “f***”.

  2. A Mohammed

    November 21, 2018 5:33 pm

    Your mother is an amazing woman Mash’Allah. Nothing but love and admiration for you and your family. Keep smiling ya helwa

  3. Jane

    November 21, 2018 11:55 pm

    what an odd post. what was the point of this? insult them then say they are wonderful people? this was all over the place. what a waste of time. I was hoping for something more intellectual.

    • A

      November 27, 2018 1:41 pm

      Completely agree.

  4. Nabila

    November 22, 2018 3:20 pm

    I actually quite enjoyed this snippet into her life. I found it raw and honest. And we need more honesty these days. There is no sugarcoating. Just truth. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.

    • Hawa

      November 24, 2018 3:04 pm

      I agree.

  5. Sss

    November 22, 2018 3:43 pm

    Absolutely hilarious ! Loved it !
    What a great writer we want more pls!

  6. Stella

    November 22, 2018 3:50 pm

    Love this read! Your mom knows how to draw in a reader. I like how your mom gives an honest perspective on her experiences, and she ends it with a simple and thoughtful note about Egyptians pretty much being awesome people. I’m a Muslim convert too, married to an Egyptian man, so it’s totally relatable, and I had a major cultural shock on my first trip to Cairo, but I love the country and people.

  7. Nadia Nightingale

    November 22, 2018 3:53 pm

    Oh how I’ve missed your muma’s writing. I love this writing style and loved the post. I hope it’s the first installment of many more in sha Allah ?

  8. Rotana

    November 22, 2018 4:04 pm

    Omg I laughed my head off reading this, yeah profanity was a bit much but it was hilarious, if your mum wrote a book about being housewife (if she were one) then trust me I would read it.

    I could relate to the guest thing we even face that crap here in the UK. Forget about Egypt

  9. A

    November 22, 2018 4:07 pm

    I loved this! It’s so interesting to hear your perspective of life in Cairo and the culture shock you had to deal with. I can totally relate!

  10. Nadia N

    November 22, 2018 4:13 pm

    Oh how I’ve missed your muma’s writing. I love the writing style and the post. Hopefully the 1st installment of many more in sha Allah.

  11. Sara

    November 22, 2018 4:13 pm

    Absolutely loved it! Part two please??

  12. Nassima

    November 22, 2018 4:23 pm

    I’m sorry for those whose sensitivity has been scratched by the profanities, or those who didn’t find any interest in reading this piece; I’m French from Moroccan parents, and me and my siblings (even my parents really..) never quite fit in all the Arab way of living. We hate bargaining when we want to buy something, we hate having to pretend liking someone who came at home and refuses to understand when it’s time to go.
    So this article as strange as it seems really hit home for me. Keep in mind that I grew up like Dina going back almost every summer but still.. I think that it really is a way of living or personality… because even growing in this, I never liked it.
    Anyway I enjoyed reading this piece!

  13. Jasmin

    November 22, 2018 4:28 pm

    It is very funny as I can reflect on this story … my mother is German and my dad Palestinen and my mother lived in Libanon in the 70tees as well .

    Thank you for sharing

  14. cocacin

    November 22, 2018 4:38 pm

    Omg, loved reading this so much! Actually laughed my ass of, I’m not Egyptian but I’m Arab & the whole guest etiquette thing & putting white convert women on a pedestal is so us haha. I’m happy converts are speaking out about their experiences, it must be really annoying to be held to such standards just cuz you’re a (white) convert. Loved the honesty. Would love to read more from you, ❤️❤️❤️

  15. Julie-Fatoota

    November 22, 2018 5:44 pm

    Seriously! I want more ?. You need to write a book like Dina. I feel like I lived a parallel life to you. Keep going ??

  16. Lisa

    November 22, 2018 5:52 pm

    Were you able to speak Arabic before moving?

  17. Mira

    November 22, 2018 6:16 pm

    Really good read and summary of life in “Um Edunya” 🙂 Appreciate that you haven’t sugar coated anything, just an honest, raw view of an eastern world through western eyes. As a British Arab myself, I can totally relate to your prospective, loved it ❤️

  18. Maysara

    November 22, 2018 6:45 pm

    Having to read this article made me to see my mothers life because i have a fanezwealain mother that came all that way to jordan ?? ans have to experience so many things and one of thim being a muslem woman . Love u

  19. Ton.iep.mon.iep

    November 22, 2018 7:30 pm

    Enjoyed Reding this article. I just laughed so hard coz Its bringing back some good memories ?

  20. Al

    November 22, 2018 7:34 pm

    Found this relatable, made me laugh because I know this too well. Bring Middle Eastern/British myself, living in the middle east, I struggle with what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not in the eyes of ‘religion/society’.

  21. Emma

    November 22, 2018 7:39 pm

    Ooo I loved this! Having moved to the UK at 19 (although from an admittedly very similar culture) it’s brilliant to hear your mum’s story. Would she be prepared to chat a little about how she and your dad met / the challenges they faced? She’s a great writer and I’d love to read more.

  22. Majid/ IG lightwithin2

    November 22, 2018 7:42 pm

    My god she reminds me of my mother personality… brutally honest!
    Very interesting read! Would love to read more.

    Loved the bebsi ?

    Please ignore those comments who can’t accept other people just being real and honest about their emotions.

    Your mom is truly an inspiration for being an individual and having the resilience, to choose a life for herself. I’m sure you guys are lucky to have her.

  23. Karima

    November 22, 2018 8:04 pm

    Fucking great ! Dear oumi-Oumra..in the 19hundred!!
    I really love those story seems like I feel you !!✔️

  24. Milly

    November 22, 2018 8:10 pm

    Loved reading this! I hope this is to be continued! I want to know more.

  25. Mimi

    November 22, 2018 8:32 pm

    So true about the people not wanting to leave and the fact that you have to offer/gift the thingd people enjoys and which is yours… i am also like dina, european mother convert, arab dad, grew up in europe and went back there every year. The « angel white face » is also true, until now. And i still pretend i dont know/understand/get it for some formalities :))))
    No offence to the locals, one may also look at one’s defaults… we never thought we’re perfect, novody’s perfect and i can totally relate… its difficult to move from uk to arab countries, i knew my fathers country but wjen i got married i moved there from europe to algeria and even though i went there several times before it was hard strange difficult to adapt… but great experience. By the way they think we’re saint, kind angels and thats fine, what i disliked is that at the same time they think we’re naive and stupid……. well. Crazy experience.

  26. Mi

    November 22, 2018 8:38 pm

    No offence but everything is true. I have the same family configuration as dina except i lived 2 years in my dads country wjen i got married. And i can totally relate ?

  27. RCHK

    November 22, 2018 9:39 pm

    From a fellow Englishwoman married to an Egyptian this is hilarious and spot on! The fadali game has always BAFFLED me since the day my sister in law started unpinning her hijab saying FADALI because I had said the colour was lovely on her !

  28. Iram

    November 22, 2018 9:44 pm

    Love this article. I want more!
    Your mum writes so well, it was an amazing read.

  29. Yomna

    November 22, 2018 10:52 pm

    This is hilarious!!! Loved reading this..looking forward to more ?❤.

  30. Sophie Taylor

    November 22, 2018 11:03 pm

    Loved reading this! More content from your Mum!

  31. Salma

    November 23, 2018 1:26 am

    Now I feel homesick ? I miss Egypt and the people there. My favourite childhood memories were in Egypt.

  32. Diana

    November 23, 2018 1:39 am

    It’s a nice point of view about Cairo, even after lots of years I was in 2013 in Alex and I faced the same things about getting used to their culture and very late visits hahaha. I totally agree with how Egyptian people are kind with you and they try their best to make you feel happy, they are aware of the kind of country they have. They want to give the warm as a family. Thanks for sharing! 😉

  33. Dina BxS

    November 23, 2018 1:53 am

    I don’t understand why people are criticizing the article. I personally loved it! And as a half Egyptian individual (mom is from Egypt & dad is French), I found it to be rather insightful. As a matter of fact, it helped me understand more the Egyptian culture which I love and consequently my unease sometimes when going to Egypt.
    Thank you for this article, and looking forward to read your mom’s upcoming post! 🙂

  34. Mina

    November 23, 2018 2:32 am

    I enjoyed this blogpost and admire your mum for her honesty.
    For all the sensitive haters:
    Why should people change and pretend to be someone else?
    Just be your authentic fucking self!
    If this is how she talks, why should she change her ways, just to please someones fucking ears! No man!

    …also I think this was not insulting to anyone, she loves Egypt and its people!

  35. Ayesha

    November 24, 2018 11:57 am

    Fab article; honest and insightful! I would love to read more.

  36. Pettra

    November 26, 2018 3:23 pm

    This took me back to when I moved to Egypt when I was 20 a recent convert… It took me ages to get used to all the cultural elements but I can honestly say Cairo still feels like home and I was only there for three years…I remember walking on the street getting filthy looks because I am Lightskin but my husband is from the Caribbean. I used to scorn at them and say BOOSI ALA EH? LOL

  37. Sabrya

    November 27, 2018 2:55 pm

    Love how brutally honest your mom is, that’s so funny! It was deffo a nice read

  38. Bailey

    November 29, 2018 6:54 pm

    I’d there a sequel – such a cool read!

  39. Alexa

    February 21, 2019 2:19 pm

    Please make “An English Woman in Cairo” a series! I am American and my boyfriend is from Alexandria, but this was spot on from what he and his family have told me about Egypt. Plus Saffa’s humor just kills me!

    I can’t wait to visit Egypt myself and, even if you don’t read it, I’d like to write a response to this post once I do.

  40. Karry

    February 24, 2019 3:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Iltalehti. Regards

  41. Lacey

    February 26, 2019 7:24 pm

    It is really a great and useful piece of information. I’m happy that you just shared this helpful info with us.
    Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

  42. Daniella

    March 16, 2019 8:04 pm

    Thanks for such a fascinating post, it’s given me a lot
    to consider.

  43. panoseuraa

    April 3, 2019 11:16 pm

    I’ve been checking out a great deal of posts just recently on this topic,
    however you actually make an engaging argument.

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