When I first began visiting in Egypt in 2014, I never went anywhere unless it was with my husband. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t know any Arabic, and I had no clue how things work in Egypt realistically. It would’ve been impossible.
The more I learned about Egyptian transportation protocols over the ensuing years, the more intimidating it became. It’s complex, disorganized, and confusing on its own. But that wasn’t the only factor. I was married to a highly conservative, traditional Arab man, and that meant never traveling anywhere alone for the sake of principle and honor. The two factors created in me a monster of fear that I could never move independently in Egypt. Even if I had the know-how, I was at risk for being seen and treated as a dishonorable woman if I adopted such a lifestyle. And nothing has been more important for me than being clearly known as a chaste, virtuous woman. That’s been true since I was a teenager.
Anyway, things had to shift somewhat after I moved here permanently last spring. I still, for the most part, never traveled alone. But when my children arrived for last summer’s visit, my ex allowed me to go with them in Uber to places that were roughly around 10-15 minutes away. But they definitely had to be with me. One time, after my daughter left and my son had started school here, he missed the bus. I took him in an Uber to drop him at school, but naturally had to ride home alone. My ex was out of town so he couldn’t have gone with me. I got in trouble for that. So the parameters were always burning their presence into my mind.
After I split up with my ex earlier this year, I was working a job that was 45 mins from home. By then, my 16 year old had arrived. Every day he would accompany me to work in Uber, sit around at cafes in the neighborhood until I got off, and we would ride home together. His sole purpose was to be my mahram escort. I was not married during those months, but I was so keen to keep my dignity and honor clear to everyone. So I stuck to what I had been doing and knew.
Eventually I met another man for a brief period. He lived on the other side of Cairo in Madinat Nasr. During Ramadan we met often for iftar or even suhoor. Many times he would travel to October to see me, but other times I traveled to him (again, in Uber, because I didn’t have a clue about anything else). Eventually my son, being a typical teenager, balked at having to be the third wheel all the time. By this time my daughter was here again, so I took her with me the majority of the time. But sometimes I just wanted to be out on my own. So on a few occasions I actually left my kids home and ventured out in Uber by myself, even during the late nights of Ramadan.
No one bothered me or treated me differently. Nobody gave me any looks of shame. And since moving around on my own had been not even worth a thought in my former American life, I began to ease about the idea altogether. I know what is ideal Islamically, and I still highly value that. But I was becoming less willing to cut out other important parts of my life just to secure my piety. I began to question if even Allah expected that sort of sacrifice at all.
Then, I reunited with my ex, and all the same restrictions were re-implemented. I didn’t really mind them until we moved to the more remote city of Banha, which lies 40 km north of Cairo. Being in Banha for the past 6 months and limited to only going out accompanied had become more and more of a strain. I didn’t see other Egyptian women living like this, as far as, never going out. Not to say that they were all going out alone in private cars with men, either. They were taking public transportation. And public transportation was the Rubik’s Cube of autonomy to me.
So when my ex and I recently divorced, he agreed to start teaching me how to get around the public transportation. Here, it has many layers. First, there are trains, like real trains, that travel from city to city from upper Egypt to the North Coast. Then of course in Cairo there is a metro, an underground network of train lines with stations throughout the city. Of course there are public bus lines as well, but these tend to be very limited in their route distribution. The prevailing mode of public transportation here in Egypt is the minibus/microbus system, which consists of multi-passenger vans that run along designated routes. There are countless mawwafs, or bus-stops, where these microbuses congregate so routes can be transferred. This system is completely informal, and that means that the mawwafs can be put anywhere and everywhere. I am not even sure who decides how a spot is a good one for a mawwaf. The routes are determined based on need, and are being created and modified constantly. Like a city bus line, each microbus route has stops along the way until the end of the course is reached. So using the microbus system means knowing which mawwaf you need to get on the microbus that is going where you want. That might mean simply the microbus that goes to another mawwaf to change to another one, that ultimately takes you to your destination. Whenever you are on the microbus you need, you need to recognize which stop you want. So if you don’t know what the stops are, what the routes are, where the mawwafs are or how to get to them, then you’re basically screwed to use this method. And that was me.
Desperation and isolation made me fed up and I continued to pressure my ex about teaching me this system. A few nights ago he took me around Banha and explained the different areas of town that indicate “lines” (routes) that each microbus goes to. He showed me the two mawwafs that offer microbuses to the main Banha mawwaf that has lines to Cairo. This is what I most wanted to know. How can I get myself to Cairo….there’s not a whole lot to do in Banha.
So after getting that much clear, I ventured out on my own the next day (yesterday) to Cairo by myself with Shukurah. My ex was kind enough to drop me at the big mawwaf to catch a ride to Cairo. The van seats 15, and as soon as I settle into a seat next to a young woman, I see here offering a part of her sandwich to my daughter (who embarrassingly refused it). Here in Egypt people are so generous, and being offered food by a stranger is common. I had a lady Uber driver offer to share her dinner with me she had been waiting to eat after fasting all day, but I encouraged her to enjoy it for herself. This particular lady asked me (in Arabic) if I was Egyptian, and I told her I was American, but she said I seemed I could be Egyptian. These sorts of compliments really make me feel proud of myself!
So we were off, the entire ride costing 7 pounds per seat. Microbus drivers drive like I used to in Atlanta, haha: weaving lanes, speeding, and playing loud music. That afternoon’s selection was some man singing his heart out about something romantic. Most Arabic music is devastatingly romantic, with lyrics that far surpass Western songs in complexity and imagery. While most Americans would probably feel they are in a death trap in a microbus like that, I trust Egyptian drivers because they know how to react well and don’t get as distracted with their phones like Americans seem to do. As a matter of fact, not a day passed in Atlanta when it seemed like I was driving by a major wreck on the interstate. Here, I’ve barely seen any like that.
My stop on this line (destination Shubra) was the kobri el metro- or the bridge that links to the underground metro station. After I got off the microbus I had to pick my way through a small side street to the stairway that led to the elevated walkway which passed over the highway to the metro station on the other side. Along the entire bridge were street vendors sitting along the sides selling everything from socks and clothes to snacks and hair accessories. With a little poking around I finally found the way in to the station itself, then bought a ticket (my daughter was free) to the station I intended to exit at. 5 pounds. I headed toward the Giza line.
When the train arrived it was packed- mostly with men. I was trying to work out how I would fit myself in with them and avoid any unwanted advances. Fortunately, when the doors opened, most everyone left. I went in and found a small bench away from the few other men who had come in the car. As the train traveled south, more passengers got on (again, mostly men), but no one bothered me. No one spoke to me or even, from what I could tell, looked at me for more than a split second. For all the horror stories I heard about the sexual harassment here being worst in the metro, I was shocked. To be honest, everyone was quiet, keeping to themselves, and going on with the business of life. It was actually a more positive experience than I would say I lived in Atlanta, when it came to riding Marta there.
I got off at Sadat station because I had to switch to the Helwan line. There was not really anything tricky about this, and fortunately from that point I could stay in the “women only” cars. I only had two stops to travel on that line before I reached the station I wanted to exit through: Sayeda Zainab. There were two exits out of the station and I was not sure which one I should take. So I randomly chose one and even though it was only 6 pm, was very dark, and there were no immediately visible signs of a lively street life. I was feeling a bit more wary at this point and going my way much more alert, and totally ready to try to kick someone’s ass if anyone tried to bother me. I looked for any direction of bright lights, because that would mean a well populated street with stores and safety in numbers. It only took me a few minutes to get to such an area (in Cairo these are rarely far away). I planted myself on the sidewalk in front of a medical supply store staffed with a lady, and ordered an uber. It was a safe place to wait, and ubering in Egypt usually means at least a 10-15 minute wait. This time was no different.
I didn’t have a proper address for my destination so I called the place I was trying to reach and they explained to the driver where to go. So at that point, I was in an area of Cairo called Qasr Al Aini that I was totally unfamiliar with and never had been to before, and I was going to a place in Mokattam where I had also never been before. Mokattam, as we arrived to it, was clearly in a remote desert region, with high sand and rock hills all around. The main street we came through, called street 9, had a lot of decent shops and restaurants, looked solidly middle-upper class, and was well lit. I felt encouraged about that, because I had heard negative things about Mokattam and imagined a run down ghetto. It was not that…at least not that part.
Past street 9 we turned into a residential area with expensive villas. I was going to a place called the Fegi House, to check out a potential room to rent. We found the address of the house and waited outside while the landlord came to open the gate, which was secured with a keypad lock. That uber trip (including a 20 LE discount promo), ended up costing 46 pounds.
I spent 25 minutes or so talking to the landlord about the particulars of the room and lifestyle of the house itself. My main questions were about how transportation works, because clearly uber would not be a cost efficient way to travel if I stayed there. The villa neighborhood didn’t seem close to any microbus lines. The landlord explained that there was another street in the compound that goes directly back to street 9, and there are microbus stops on that road. I expected to uber back to the station like I had come, but the landlord was nice enough to drop me at the Syeda Aisha mawwaf on his way to maadi.
Now, since all this microbus/mawwaf stuff was brand new to me, the last thing I had planned or expected was to be taking any in Cairo that night. I was mostly focused on familiarizing myself with the metro lines. Nevertheless, this was going to be the only way to get home. So as advised, I went into the mawwaf and asked for the microbus to Tahrir metro. Found that no problem, and the ride was only 1.50 each for my daughter and I- 3 pounds.
Once I got to Tahrir I entered the metro again, and got a ticket to koliyet el zahraa, which is situated right next to the mawwaf for the cars that return to Banha. 3 Pounds. I had been to that particular mawwaf many times with my ex, so I knew exactly where to find the Banha cars. By 8 PM I was already on my way back home.
But then the car had trouble about halfway there. The driver ended up pulling into a benzene station and tried to fix it himself, but couldn’t. some of the passengers went to the road to try to flag down another microbus. But after some time the driver himself found another microbus with space to take us remaining passengers back to Banha.
Once in Banha I got in a Suzuki. In Banha there are two types of Suzuki: the private kind, like a taxi, and the public kind, that run on lines like a microbus. I took the public one for the Ishara line, and got off at nagda stop so I could take my daughter to McDonald’s. After being so good with all that unfamiliar traveling, she earned that much!
I feel much more confident about figuring out the rest of what I don’t know now. I feel more empowered, Alhamdulillah. And that’s not small because there are some potential new developments coming my way soon. But I won’t write about that until next time….