Cairo’s history and culture make it quite a destination for foreign youth. Some come for a short visit with a Lonely Planet guide in their hand. Some come to study Arabic. And some come hoping to experience a different culture.
Some of these foreigners are single and like to live their travel experience to the full by sampling romance with Egyptians. Such relationships may be common, especially among foreign students spending a long period of time in Egypt, but they are often laden with complexities both on a daily level and in the longer run.
The complexities concern issues of gender and culture identities. For example, while it is commonly believed that it is more socially acceptable for Egyptian men to date foreign women than it is for Egyptian women to date foreign men, some see the latter as an escape from stifling social norms.
“I don’t think that only female foreigners date Egyptian men,” argues Christi, a Bulgarian student in Cairo. “I think that even Egyptian girls are interested in dating foreign men. It depends on social class, but some Egyptian girls would like to be in a relationship with someone less complicated or demanding than an Egyptian guy.”
Some believe that Western culture provides for some looseness in the relationship as there is not as much social pressure to legitimize the relationship into an immediate marriage. But cultural expectations also extend to other aspects of the relationship.
“Some boyfriends ask their foreign girlfriends to dress in a certain way, or act in a different way than they are used to back home,” says Valentina, an Italian woman dating an Egyptian man. “That attitude bothers me.”
But if social norms can be tweaked, religious norms cannot be easily challenged. “I don’t think Egyptian girls can date a foreign guy, for the simple reason of belonging to different religions,” says Valentina.
Being the conservative country that it is, Egypt can be unsuppportive of a free-flowing relationship between a foreigner and an Egyptian. Traveling together is a case in point.
Elizabeth says vacationing with her Egyptian boyfriend can be a problem: “No hotel would agree to give us a double room and we always end up renting an apartment with a fake marriage paper.” This rule applies to Egyptian unmarried couples but foreigner-foreigner couples are exempt. Yet some say they are willing to bribe hotel receptionists to allow them to share rooms.
In Cairo, this social interference in the relationship is embodied in the personna of the bawab (doorman), whose occupation can be quite central to city dwellers’ lives. “Bawabs seem to play a major role in our relationship,” says Sarah, an American who has been in a relationship with an Egyptian man for the last two years. “My bawab will inform the landlord of my unacceptable acts when my boyfriend visits during the late hours or stays overnight. The landlord can create a problem and force us either to stop these visits or to leave the apartment.”
Successful foreigner-Egyptian love stories can last for years and some even end up in marriage. These are the ones who manage to face the pressures of society, family norms and cultural differences by virtue of strong emotion and true grit.
Some of the names in the article has been altered to protect the privacy of the interviewees.