Our Metro train stopped at the Sadat station in Tahrir Square and we walked up the steps, anxious to be spending the day at the Egyptian Museum. As we ascended the last flight of steps, I made brief eye-contact with an Egyptian man in neatly-pressed western clothes walking near us. We now started to walk along Meret Basha, looking for the museum. As we walked I looked down at my map trying to determine if we were on the right track, when the gentleman from the Metro said, “You are looking for museum, yes?” “Yes,” we responded, put at ease by his dress, manner, facility with English and the fact that he, like us, had come out of the Metro and was on his way somewhere and probably not trying to sell us something. “Unfortunately, it does not open for another hour,” he said, with a smile. “Oh, I’m so happy,” he continued, “my daughter gets married tomorrow. She is 22 years old.” We congratulated him and he said, “I am Ahmad…I am so happy…you have a nice family. I’d like to invite your family to my wedding.”
My first thought was: Wedding? That would be awesome! Getting an intimate glimpse of what life is really like in any foreign country is what travelers yearn for. I remember being in Fiji years ago and my taxi driver casually invited me to stay at his home and attend two weddings – one Hindu and one Muslim – and it was a great experience. I remember drinking kava and “getting low” with all his taxi buddies yet never being introduced to his wife. I recall caravanning to multiple stops for the Hindu wedding and eating a small, spicy yellow pepper at the Muslim wedding reception that made me unable to do anything but lay down for 45 minutes afterward.
While I did have my guard up against a potential scam, the thought of attending an Egyptian wedding completely trumped any concerns about getting fleeced. “That would be great,” I said. “Do you have a business card so we can contact you?” Yes, at my uncle’s place, not far from here,” said Ahmad. We walked along the street and Ahmad continued to beam with delight about his daughter’s wedding, talking about the number of guests and the amount of food he had to buy. We arrived at his uncle’s place and he opened the door with a key and said, “Come in please. Have some tea while I find a business card.” “Oh, no thanks,” I said. “We need to get to the museum.” “I insist,” he said. “You must have tea. Besides, the museum doesn’t open for another hour.”
Now that we were in what looked like a shop, my scam sensor was starting to beep more loudly. He led us towards the back of the shop and introduced us to his smiling family: an attractive wife and two pretty teenage daughters. If this was a scam, it was an elaborate one in which the whole family was participating. “Come and have a comfortable seat,” Ahmad said, and led us to a sweetly-scented, dark room with a large comfortable couch. Towards the back of the room an older gentleman sat at a desk, on top of which were what suspiciously looked like perfume bottles. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, went my scam sensor, now ringing very loudly in my head. Yes, we’d been had. We were in the middle of the spider’s web, ready to be shown perfumes until we’d buy a case just to get out of the shop. “This is Ali, my uncle. He has been to Minnesota. He knows your country.” Ali started talking and I muttered to my wife, “We gotta get out of here.”
While Ali talked about how beautiful Minnesota was and Ahmad moved to bring over a tray of perfume bottles, I thought about how we found ourselves in this predicament. Ahmad was indeed artful. He must have been waiting for foreign tourists in the Metro station and I was pretty sure that his information about the museum opening times was a lie. And his daughter’s wedding? I’ll let you decide that one.
If Ahmad’s artistry got us in to the perfume shop it was going to be our steely determination that got us out. I shot a glance at my wife and stood up. “We really need to go. Come on guys,” I said to the kids, who were confused at why we were leaving when we had just sat down. “No, no. You must stay and have tea!” said Ahmad. “No, we need to go now. I’m sorry,” I said, thinking our chances at escaping were better if we did not drink any of his tea. Ahmad reminded us that the museum was still closed, but I repeated our mantra: “We need to go now.” Ahmad’s tone quickly evolved from polite confusion about our impending departure to one of righteous indignation. “But you just sat down! You can’t leave!” he said, standing in front of the door. I reached around him for the doorhandle and brushed by him. He continued to protest, “You must have tea!” as the four of us skulked out the door towards the main entrance. We breezed by one of the daughters as she was bringing the tea tray. We opened the front door, walked outside and did not look back.
As we walked, my son asked why we had left and I explained the ruse to him. When we arrived at the museum we found that it was open, and had been for a couple hours. While we were fortunate to have escaped without buying perfume or having to politely try to leave for an hour, I had to admire Ahmad’s skill in getting some fairly seasoned travelers sequestered in a sales pitch. Ahmad was indeed an artist and the unsuspecting foreigner was his canvas.