January 19, 2009
Egypt or Not?
On January 19 we were scheduled to fly from Addis to Cairo to start our three-week stretch in Egypt. But in the days leading up to our flight we still weren’t sure we would go. The issue was that Israel was in the middle of a war with Hamas in Gaza, and Israel’s actions caused the deaths of over a thousand innocent civilians. As a result there was a lot of anti-Israel sentiment in many parts of the world, not least in the arab countries. A lot of people told us we should skip Egypt. My parents were trying to convince us to go to Cypress or Morocco instead. But there was another complication. Because of the Timkat celebrations taking place in Ethiopia, all the businesses were closed. So, even if we wanted to change our flight we couldn’t find anyone to do it for us – the Kenya Air offices were closed too. In the end we decided to just go ahead and travel in Egypt but to play it safe. In other words, we decided to keep people from knowing our association with Israel.
Introducing Jeff & Nina
Since Egyptians might know that “Shahaf” and “Pnina” are Israeli names, we adopted new names. For Pnina it was an easy choice: “Nina” is a western-enough name and it’s pretty similar to Pnina. We couldn’t think of a western name that sounds a lot like “Shahaf”, so I went with “Jeff” (something I did once before when I traveled in Malaysia). As you can imagine, it’s tough to get used to answering to a different name all of a sudden, and there were a few times we screwed up, but in general the strategy worked. We used our alter-names in all situations, even when we introduced ourselves to other travelers from friendly countries (we later sent them emails saying “by the way our real names are Shahaf & Pnina, but pretty much everything else we told you is true”).
Also, we avoided speaking Hebrew during our entire stay in Egypt. This was tough. When Pnina sneezes I instinctually say “labriut”, but in Egypt I had to train myself to say “bless you” instead. Also, in our trip so far it was really convenient to have another language that the locals don’t know. Whenever a vendor offered us a price, Pnina and I would discuss the offer in Hebrew to decide if it’s a good price or not, and what our counter-offer would be. But we couldn’t do that in Egypt.
Of course, we couldn’t hide our identity in all cases. Our US passports say that we’re born in Israel, so Egyptian officials who asked for our passports knew our secret. Luckily these officials didn’t make a fuss. Egypt depends on its tourism industry, and technically Israel and Egypt are friends since the truce signed in 1979 (for which Egypt’s president Sadat was later assasinated).
Another strategy we considered was to introduce ourselves as Canadians – we weren’t sure how Egyptians feel about the US, considering that America generally supports Israel’s actions towards Palestinians. We actually spent some time on wikipedia learning about Canada in case someone tried to call our bluff – who’s the president? What are the provinces? What’s the national anthem? But in the end we found that this wasn’t necessary. Egyptians are incredibly friendly towards Americans.
Our flight from Addis to Cairo was pretty silly – we had to fly back south to Nairobi only to then fly north to Cairo. We chose this silly flight because it was the only one available on a friendly airline: Kenya Air. The only other flights we found were on Yemen Air and Sudan Air, but those countries really don’t like Israelis so we decided to stay clear.
It was pretty hillarious, then, when we discovered that Kenya Air made a slight adjustment to our flight such that we made a stop in Khartoum, Sudan. 🙂 Luckily we didn’t have to get out of the airplane. We just sat there while some people deboarded, and then we took off. So, Pnina and I have been to the Sudan!
Oh, one strange thing is that Sudan requires incoming flights to be sprayed with insecticide. Before landing in Khartoum, a stewardess walked up and down the aisle emptying a couple of arasol cans.
Arriving in Cairo
We arrived in Cairo late at night and founds that our bags didn’t make it. We weren’t too surprised because we had a really short connection in Nairobi.
We grabbed a taxi into the city and checked into the colorful Nubian Hostel.