From Texas to Cairo: What does it even mean to be ‘safe’?
Is anywhere safe anymore? Dalia Azim dismantles the paradoxes of fear and xenophobia towards the Arab world as an American introducing Egypt to her children for the first time. I like to think I’m a good mother. Not that anyone has suggested otherwise, at least not directly, but I’ve felt my maternal judgment called into question numerous times by well-meaning friends who wondered whether it was safe for me to take my children to Egypt last winter.
While I appreciated their concerns and understood why they were justified, I also heard striking xenophobia in their tones. You see, I’d developed a hypersensitivity to this particular brand of fear while growing up in the predominantly white enclaves of suburban Denver. It became most acute in the years after 9/11 when I lived in New York City. The reason many Americans are afraid of Arabs is not altogether mysterious. As an Egyptian, I can’t help but take it all a little personally.
It’s been 10 years since my last visit to Egypt, an unusually long absence for me. My parents took me back for the first time when I was just a few months old; but the land was already rooted in my consciousness by the time I first started forming memories. All of my grandparents and most of my parents’ siblings and their families lived in Cairo. In sharp contrast, I could count on one hand the number of relatives I had in the States; all of them living in different, distant cities. Our big family gatherings back in Cairo were warm, boisterous miracles to me, something I would miss in the gaps between visits. My parents made it a priority to travel back there as often as we could afford, and eventually we settled into a steady pattern of visiting every 18 months or so, alternating between summer and winter.
The night I arrived with my children in Cairo in December, we were met by a modern reprise of the reunions I remember so fondly. Two of my mother’s three sisters were there, along with their children, spouses and grandchildren. At one memorable point that evening, one of my aunts asked in an aggressive, humorous way why I’d stayed away for so long. I nervously rattled off a list of excuses—work, money, kids, etc.—finally landing on the concern some of my friends had voiced ahead of our trip: “I wasn’t sure it was safe.” “Safe?” she shot back immediately, her astute eyes sparkling with incredulity. She wore her hair covered when out in public, but around family she abandoned the scarf. Her hair was thick and wiry, coppery brown with an inch of regal white around the crown.
“Is America safe?”, she retorted. “Look at Las Vegas!”. Las Vegas had been the victim of a recent American massacre, and a timely example of the United States’ mushrooming epidemic of senseless gun-fueled violence. I reflected that if I’d visited a year earlier, she might have brought up Orlando, or perhaps a few months later the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
There are too many examples to choose from, an ever-growing list of places where hideous tragedy strikes. In truth though, tourism to the United States has been on the decline in recent years, with blame typically assigned to the strength of the US dollar and President Donald Trump’s unwelcoming anti-immigration policies.
But what if fear was also keeping visitors to the US away? Ironically enough, have we become one of those unpredictably violent places people are afraid to visit? My aunt’s words got in my head, so I started looking up statistics related to violence in Egypt compared to the US.
I found that in fact, Egypt is measurably safer than the United States. You’re three times more likely to get murdered in the US than you are in Egypt, and the intentional homicide rate—the rate per capita of willfully inflicted homicide—is four times greater in the US than it is in Egypt. The disparity probably has its roots in access to guns.
The United States leads the world when it comes to gun ownership, where for every 100 residents, we purportedly possess an average of 88.8 firearms. In sharp contrast, the figure for Egypt is 3.5 guns for every 100 citizens, given that it is extremely difficult for a civilian to obtain a firearm in Egypt. Of course, those intent on violence will find other means, and the fact that terrorism has plagued Egypt for decades is likely what led people to question our safety when we traveled there this winter.
But I didn’t feel reassured by the conversations I had with Egyptians about this problem. Like my aunt who brought up Las Vegas when I cited attacks on tourists as a reason for why I’d kept my family at a distance for a decade, instead of acknowledging the issue, they countered with evidence of violence in America. This knee-jerk projection was the norm, it would seem. On our second day in Cairo, we took a tour of the Coptic Christian quarter. I asked our guide about attacks targeting Copts in Egypt (Bassam, the tour guide, was a self-described Christian).
He told me, “That all happened a long time ago,” when, in fact, there had been at least five separate, targeted attacks on Copts in Egypt to date that year. Nine days later, 11 people were killed when a gunman went on a rampage in a church near Cairo. I understand why Bassam would want to underplay the violence — tourism accounts for around 13 percent of the Egyptian economy and for almost an equal proportion of the country’s workforce. Tourism has suffered a steady decline in Egypt since the Arab Spring in 2011, and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (whose representative, Mohamed Morsi, was forcibly removed from the presidency in 2013.
Bassam spoke bitterly about having to sell his wife’s jewelry to make ends meet when Egypt’s tourist industry bottomed out in 2013 and he found himself severely underemployed. Along with Bassam and our driver, we also had an armed guard accompany us on the days we toured Cairo. The tourist agency told us this was a requirement when there were six or more foreigners traveling in a group together.
I wondered at the time whether they might consider less drastic, perhaps more effective tactics—like not operating bright pink tourist buses calling attention to themselves. It was in line with what I’d read about Egypt bolstering its security forces and measures around the country in a recent effort to lure back tourists. The armed guard assigned to us was affable enough and shared my father’s name, which we shared a good laugh about.
His conspicuous presence in the van’s passenger seat with the ever-present outline of his holster visible against the edge of his chair made me feel more anxious than safe. Another day, we even had a police car escort us from Cairo’s famous marketplace, Khan-el-Khalili, back to the restaurant where we were scheduled to have dinner, and eventually back to our hotel. Bassam shrugged noncommittally, and explained it as part of Egypt’s “new rules.” Was this the best use of the country’s resources, I wondered?
With Egypt’s poverty rate holding at a staggering rate of 30 percent, I couldn’t help but think of better uses for the money. Not to mention that so many of the amped-up security measures felt like token, ineffectual gestures. There were metal detectors lining the entrances of every tourist site in Egypt. Meanwhile, guards habitually waved parades of people through the detector as it buzzed, continuously unheeded and ignored.
I was told time and time again that there was no need for me to pass my bag through X-ray machines. Apparently, I looked innocuous enough, just another smiling, unveiled, brown-skinned Egyptian-American tourist. Or maybe it was because they weren’t suspicious of tourists in general. Rather, they feared their own.
Once we got out of Cairo, security lightened up considerably. We flew to Aswan and then took a boat up the Nile to Luxor, stopping at numerous ancient monuments along the way. Metal detectors and X-ray machines were still a clamorous feature at all major tourist sites, but we no longer had armed guards or police escorts accompanying our tours.
In all the times I’d been to Egypt, I had never traveled to the southern part of the country before. This was a first for me, as I experienced the awe-inspiring temples of Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu and Karnak; the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens along with my children and husband.
It was a remarkable, transformative trip for us all, igniting in my half-Egyptian children a deep interest in that side of their heritage. I recognised that same spark in their eyes. I had it once too. Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one still stands: the Great Pyramid of Giza. Every time I’ve been to Cairo, at least to my memory, I’ve insisted on a visit to the Pyramids, and who can blame me? They may look magnificent in photographs, but nothing compares to the experience of standing on that ancient, sandy plateau and gazing up at the time-worn monoliths.
I’m incredibly happy I was able to take my children there, and that it is now inscribed in their memories.
There is still so much of Egypt we have left to see—so much of the world—and I hope we can spend the coming years exploring together, without fear, while accepting at the same time that nowhere is completely safe: especially our own country.