Although I found the people in Egypt to be mainly friendly and helpful, there was a sad exception: the border guards.
When you leave Egypt via Cairo airport, you encounter a mix of high security and total chaos. Before you can check-in at the airline desk, you need to put all your luggage through a security gate. There’s a sign telling you to separate liquids, computers, etc like normal security checks—but there are no trays, and nowhere to put them. There are men, scurrying to help people lift their bags (for a fee) and we fought to retain control of our bags. Everyone ignores the sign and puts all their cases through the scanner. We did the same, and walked through the metal detector. Everyone is then hand searched. I also had my hand-luggage bag opened. The guard said he could see something unexpected, and opened my bag. Two guards rummaged through it, while it was on the belt, with other passengers pushing past, trying to retrieve their bags. It felt very insecure, and I worried that they might put something into my bag. They mainly investigated the books I was carrying, flicking through them and checking the titles. One was a text book, and quite thick, so I wondered whether the density had worried them. They pushed my bag, and a variety of scattered possessions towards me, and moved to the next passenger.
I reloaded my bag, collected the rest of my luggage, and we continued to the check-in desk. First hurdle crossed.
The check-in desk was efficient, though there were still men trying to give unwanted help, and we were soon heading to the lounge. There was another security check. We went through passport control, and moved to the luggage check. Again there was a sign telling us to remove liquids and computers, and shoes and belts and watches, etc. This time there were trays (just two, so it was slow). We obeyed the sign, passed through the scanners, were hand-checked by a guard, moved to collect our luggage. I arrived as my bag was passing through the X-ray machine, and one of the guards pointed to the screen, indicating a vase that I had in my bag. This was a terracotta pot, bought on the street for 75p, and rather lovely. We had bought two, and put one in the suitcase and the other in hand-luggage. They had spotted it in my bag.
I thought that perhaps they were checking I wasn’t stealing something valuable; they opened my bag (again, on the belt, while other passengers tried to reach their bags). The guard lifted my pot, turning it in his hand as he examined it. He then put it under the table, and waved me on.
I asked for my vase, but was told: “Not allowed.”
I refused to move, and asked why. “Not allowed,” he repeated.
I asked why. He shrugged, and told me it was too heavy, and not allowed.
I went back to the woman who had searched me, and politely, in my best (not very good) Arabic, I asked her to help me. I told her I wanted my vase.
She spoke to the guard, then told me it wasn’t allowed because I could use it as a weapon, it was very heavy.
This was clearly rubbish. All around were duty-free shops, selling a variety of bottles of alcohol, all much heavier than my vase and ideal for use as a cosh if a passenger was so inclined.
Another passenger leaned over, and told me that they had also confiscated some giant marbles from his bag. The guard was currently playing with them, weaving the ceramic balls through his fingers; hard to imagine on what grounds they were a security risk.
But what could I do? I told the female guard (who looked more sympathetic) that I wanted it, but she simply shook her head. I asked for a receipt, but they shrugged and moved away. I asked if I could photograph it, and they agreed.
I considered offering a tip—is that how things work here? But I have heard stories of things like that going wrong, and I didn’t want to be arrested for trying to bribe an official. I had no option but to leave it there. What a shame.
It’s also a learning point. We saw many over-priced goods in tourist shops, and the vase could have cost me several hundred pounds, the outcome would have been the same. When I next visit, I will put valuables in my suitcase. If the guard planned to keep or sell the vase, he will be disappointed. It really did cost about 75p (so cheap, we didn’t even try to haggle). I loved it, because the rough terracotta and simply beauty and incredible price would be a lovely reminder of Egypt—with its roughness and beauty and unexpectedness. Instead, I will remember the guards, and the frustration of confronting rogue officials, when there is nothing that can be done but comply.
Luckily, we had two vases. The second made it home intact, and now sits in the window—a happy reminder of Egypt, but with a sting in the tail.
The airport security is something that Egypt really does need to sort out. The hassle begins as soon as you arrive in the country, as drivers are allowed to enter the airport to meet guests before security checks, and keeping control of bags can be a struggle. The chaos on leaving was enough to make me think twice before I return. In Cairo there are many empty hotel rooms, and reading stories online, I realise that mine is not an isolated case. If people feel cheated, their possessions stolen, then they won’t want to visit Egypt. Tourism will plummet, and that is a shame. Egypt is an amazing place, with wonderful people. The history of our world can be found there, it’s somewhere that everyone should long to visit — but it needs to be safe.
Thanks for reading. Hope that only nice things happen to you today.
Love, Anne x
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