“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did”
T.E. Lawrence, 1922.
In the summer of 2016 I spent three months living and working in Cairo, Egypt. This post will reflect on my time there and the magnificent country that is Egypt.
Working in Cairo
I was sent to Cairo as the Liaison Officer for 4 Brigade (4X). The Brigades in the British Army are regionally aligned and the 4X area of interest is North Africa. A number of defence liaison officers are working in North African countries with the aim of improving situational and cultural understanding of these countries.
During the three months in Cairo I worked for the Defence Attaché in the British Embassy. My usual role at 2 YORKS was as the Mortar Platoon Commander so it was a big change in role from leading 40 infantry soldiers to being in an Embassy; with nobody to command and working with civil servants and the Egyptian Armed Forces.
The British Embassy in Cairo is a large building right slap bang in the centre of the city. It is positioned next to the Nile and the American Embassy. I lived in a three bedroom apartment within the Embassy compound. This had both good and bad points.
Good points were:
- 2 minute commute to work.
- Having a decent gym and swimming pool on my doorstep.
- Having the Phoenix Club (embassy bar and social club) again 2 minutes away.
The bad points were:
- Not escaping work during the working week.
- Not living in the same location as the rest of the diplomats in the Zamalek area.
Cool things to do in Cairo
- Go horse riding by the pyramids.
- Eat hamam ma’shi (stuffed pigeon).
- Visit the Egyptian museum.
- Walk around the Khan el-Khalili markets and haggle with a market trader.
- Buy a fez and wear it for a day.
- Smoke shisha at the Nile Zamalek Rooftop bar.
- Travel at ramadan and enjoy an iftar (breaking of the fast) the Al Azhar park.
My first weekend in Egypt was fantastic. The Officer I was replacing booked a weekend away on the Red Sea in Hurghada in a 5 star all-inclusive hotel. We went with a group from the British Embassy and rather than taking the one hour flight we drove for 5hr 30 minutes there. The road to Hurghada is long and industrial. The temperature was starting to soar in late April and luckily the air-conditioning in the car was working.
It was the perfect welcome to Egypt.
The tourist industry in Egypt is really struggling at the moment. After the Russian Metrojet crash and the ongoing conflict in North Sinai, many foreign governments have placed restrictions to their travel advice and put parts of Egypt out of bounds to tourists.
At the time Australia gave the advice that all their citizens should “reconsider their need to travel” to Egypt. From what I saw and experienced, Egypt is a safe country to visit. I never felt at risk at any point in Cairo or in Egypt as a whole. I traveled freely in the city with no restrictions. At no point was I armed. There was simply no requirement.
I would always recommend that individuals follow the foreign office travel advice for your country but my personal experience is that the advice is usually over cautious.
Getting around in Egypt
Whilst in Egypt I visited Alexandria, Sharm El Sheik, Dahab, Hurghada, El Gouna and Seuz. I spent most weekends at the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aqaba. EgyptAir flights from Cairo to either Hurghada or Sharm are very cheap if booked in advance (usually less than £100 return).
The trains in Egypt are also at a very high standard. I traveled first class from Cairo to Alexandria for the weekend. A first class ticket in Egypt is like a standard ticket in the UK. For advice on train travel this website has everything you should need http://www.seat61.com/Egypt.htm.
The diving in Egypt is some of the best in the world. I completed both my open water and advanced diving qualifications in Egypt. It is by far one of the best things I did in Egypt. Once you have done the course, being underwater is so relaxing. I love floating around and seeing all the different types of fish and coral under the sea. For those that are interested here is a short video of my first few dives in the Red Sea.
Alexandria was a great city to visit and is well worth a weekend. Having lived in Cyprus for two years it very much reminded me of Limassol in a way. It has a Mediterranean feel to the city. The atmosphere of the city is a world away from the touristy Red Sea destinations.
Alex is a real, thriving city. The ancient pillars and catacombs are well worth a visit. The seafood there is also top notch.
As with any country, learning some Arabic helped to break barriers with the locals. At a very young age my mother taught me “manners maketh man” (also brilliantly used by Colin Firth in the film The Kingsman) so learning ‘shukraan’ (thank you) was an essential first word and made me feel much more welcome and quickly made people respond with a smile.
I was given only a few weeks notice before heading off to Cairo so I had little time to learn any Arabic before arriving in country. In the future I want to make more effort with the language. You learn so much more about a country and the people that live there by learning the native tongue.
Having finished the job and returned England I will always look back fondly on my time in the Embassy. I am however looking forward to getting my green kit back on and going back to soldiering. My next job is as an instructor at the Specialist Weapon School training the soldiers on the Mortar courses. Dropping bombs on Salisbury Plain will be very different to the three months I have spent playing Diplomat in Cairo.
One of my lasting impressions of my time in Cairo will be of late night parties and the countless drinks receptions at foreign embassies. That and the amazing antiquities, the Red Sea and the great people I met during my time there.
It would be almost impossible to be a teetotal diplomat.