Tag Archives: Cairo

subways, hospitality and risk

I had been warned about Cairo subways. I love to travel, to try new things, meet new people, experience things so different from my daily life. But it’s also been somewhat beaten into me – as a woman, you must be careful. As a woman, things are different.


cairo at night                                                                                       © erin dunigan 2013

I’ve ridden plenty of crowded subways in my life − in New York City, in Osaka Japan, in Mexico City amongst them. Subways where one has to push ones way just to board the train. Subways where women are warned to stay close to their male companions, lest the pushing from strangers become a bit too directed.

So as we descended into the station for the Cairo subway I was prepared with such stories. There was even a car just for women, I had been told, to help mitigate some of these issues. I chose instead to remain with my male colleagues, not wanting to get separated in the journey.

We stepped onto the car. It was rather full, but not so full that we had to push our way on. But standing room only full. As I looked around I saw that I was the only woman in the car.

And then it happened.

A man next to me, seated, got up and stood next to me. As he did so he motioned something to me. I quickly realized what he was suggesting. Was this really happening?

He was offering me his seat. I smiled, and thanked him, using one of my five Arabic words – Shukran. As I settled into my seat the man next to me leaned over and spoke something in my direction. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said and smiled.

I am not doubting that there are harrowing experiences for women on Cairo subways. I’m not doubting that it is wise to keep aware and watchful when traveling in new places, navigating other cultures. I have myself experienced such harrowing subway situations in other parts of the world, as have friends of mine. Caution and entering situations with eyes wide open seem to be wise ways of being.

But what I was struck by that spring evening leaving Tahrir Square, was that I had been taught to fear, to approach the situation with skepticism, with a bit of distance, while my experience had been so entirely opposite – one of welcoming, hospitality, and graciousness.  How often are we taught to fear ‘the other’ rather than to be open to him or her? I wonder if that fear of the other doesn’t keep us from the encounters, like my own, that would so completely disprove that generalized sense of disease? For there are some who, I am sure, would have avoided the subway entirely, having heard the stories, and in so avoiding, would have also barricaded themselves from the encounter to disprove those very stories.

This theme made its way to the surface again in a passage from Esther de Waal’s Living on the Border where she discusses white South Africa during the time of apartheid:

“The white proponents of that regime were so completely and utterly confident of the righness of their stance that they shut the door totally on the other. Metaphorically, they barricaded themselves into their laagers, those circles of upturned wagons that the Afrikaners traditionally used to protect themselves on their long marches. Two worlds had now become polarized, without contact, without sympathy or understanding.”

As I pondered her words it was not long before these stories began to overlap – mine on the Cairo subway, de Waal’s about borders and exclusion of the other, and, of course, current debates within my own society and culture about inclusion, exclusion, of whom to fear and what places and people to avoid.

I find that more than any other emotion, I am thankful for that nighttime subway ride in Cairo. Something that could be seen as inconsequential, or even as reckless or unwise. Perhaps it was more of a risk that I realized. But I wonder, if we barricade ourselves off from the other, if we keep ourselves ‘safe’ from encountering those we perceive as different or strange or alien, if we are not, in actuality, putting ourselves at a far greater risk.

“Across the border then, whether it’s a human border or the strange frontier with God, is something or someone who is more hospitable than we dreamed; and we learn this by taking the risk of hospitality ourselves.”                 -Ester de Waal

photo: melon cart

melon cart      Cairo, Egypt
© 2009 erin dunigan


Like many images, I didn’t set out to ‘capture’ this one–it just presented itself along the way to somewhere else. An image, quite literally, of the ‘journey’ becoming the destination.

I was in Cairo, Egypt, for two days. In the evening I decided to walk down the street from the seminary where I was staying. What struck me about this house of prayer was the brightness of the yellow, contrasted with the design on the door, of the gate, and the tiled floor–the lines that seemed, in a sense, to draw one into the frame.

At first I walked past. But I was drawn back. It was the open door that compelled me. Drew me in. That is when I made this image.

enter, Cairo Egypt
© 2009 erin dunigan

Day 16: walk like an egyptian


sphinx profile

sphinx profile

Mina, my host and tour guide in Cairo, warned me that Egyptians are crazy, especially in driving. I thought he was kidding. I thought wrong.


There are no lanes on the roads in Cairo. There are also no crosswalks. What I thought was a crazy game of human frogger in Chiang Mai was nothing compared with the Egyptian version–sometimes crossing 6-8 lanes of fairly rapidly moving traffic. It really was impressive to watch, but a bit nerve wracking as well.

In addition to watching human frogger, I did also get to see the pyramids and the sphinx today. Wow.

It was pretty crazy to be seeing something right there before me that I have read and heard about for so long. Pretty awe inspiring.

Day 15: Cairo arrival—we’re not in Thailand anymore, Toto

When I booked my ticket the only way to get a flight from Bangkok to Paris was to change planes in Cairo. I figured, if I’m going to change planes there, why not see the pyramids?

I’m being hosted in Cairo by the Evangelical Theological Seminary, which has many connections with the Presbyterian Church, USA. It is great to be part of a ‘connectional’ church!

After a bit of settling in, resting, and a traditional Egyptian breakfast of beans, pita bread and cheese, I headed out with Mina, a member of the seminary staff and my tour guide for the two days, to the Egyptian Museum. I did get interviewed on ‘Nile TV’ so if anyone happens to get that channel, I’m pretty sure I’m famous.

The Egyptian Museum has more sarcophoguses (does that make them sarcophogai?) than you can believe. It is also the location for the King Tut treasures. This was actually my second time seeing them, as I had the opportunity when they came to LA to see them as a young child. They were no less stunning this time, though minus the La Brea tarpits…

Cairo is an incredible city. I feel almost like I am in a movie, it is so completely other than anywhere I’ve been before.

A few Cairo impressions:

•    It is ‘cold’ here…I say that because I think it is probably in the low 70’s, but compared to the high 90’s of Bangkok, low 70’s feel cold enough to wear my fleece. Just wait til Belfast…
•    I’ve yet to see one woman on the street, other than myself, walking around with her head uncovered. Most are just covered, not veiled, but I did see one woman without even so much as an eye opening. I feel a bit naked with an uncovered head.
•    Cairo is a dirty city. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way—it is simply a description. When you are surrounded by a dry, sandy/dirty desert, it seems inevitable that buildings, roads and sidewalks would wind up covered in dust and dirt.
•    I think Cairo may be the most ‘foreign’ feeling place I’ve been yet. (Actually, it’s not foreign here, I am.) I’m not sure why this is. I think part of it has to do with the covering of the women’s heads—I feel as though I stick out not only for being white and blond, but also for being uncovered.  Also, at least in the parts I’ve been in so far, it seems to be much less taken over by Western or global franchises. That said, the place recommended for me to get dinner tonight did happen to be a Pizza Hut. But, I had to walk about 15 minutes to get there, and past nothing else recognizable to my western sensibilities. Except for Pepsi.
•    Coke has lost the battle to Pepsi in this part of the world.
•    Mosques are everywhere. I love the sound of the call to prayer, though I’m guessing when it happens early tomorrow morning I might not love it as much.

Tomorrow Mina is going to take me to the pyramids, as well as to some Coptic churches, and hopefully to Old Cairo.  Should be fun, and hopefully some good photo ops…