Egyptian Culture, Part 2: Carry Cash

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Egypt is a cash based society. Credit cards are for foreign tourists and the privileged few. Take three steps off the tourist circuit in any direction and you’ll find yourself in a completely different culture. If you get lost, hurt, or hungry, you better be carrying cash. The vast majority of Egyptians have never seen a credit card in their life, and probably half the population will live all their life without ever entering a bank. Cash is King in Egypt.

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Islam forbids charging or paying interest on loans, so banking is not the convenient, lucrative business in Egypt as in the West. Egyptians are careful savers, with little need of banks. They are accustomed to doing everything by cash, even things that we in the West would consider impossible. The Western income is among the highest in the world, but almost nobody pays cash for a new car. In Egypt, if you don’t have cash to pay for a car, you’re probably still driving Grandpa’s donkey cart. In the West, most of us don’t have the savvy to build our own home, much less the ability to pay cash for it. But Egyptians are excellent builders, and buildings are constructed with cash, from the humblest animal barn in the village, to super-luxe high-rise apartment buildings in prime city center districts. Except for the deserts, the entire country appears perpetually under construction, so there’s obviously no shortage of cash in this economy, despite the lack of financing. The pyramids weren’t built with a loan, and today they are still building the same way, thanks to the flow of cold, hard cash.

Bringing our western ways with us back to Egypt, we thought cash was inconvenient. To pay our DSL/internet bill online, my husband and I applied for and received our shiny new debit cards. It took a month of false starts and struggles, going back and forth to the National Bank. Finally, I logged on to our internet account and followed the instructions for online bill payment. The transaction was declined by my bank, according to the response on the screen. We tried using my husband’s card, thinking it was because the DSL bill isn’t in my name. This transaction was also declined by the bank. I logged onto my new account with National Bank, and quickly discovered there’s no actual online banking offered. Not even a way to check my balance! My husband went to the DSL company to pay our bill in person, and was told it was already paid online! Do you suppose it was my card or his that got charged? Who knows – maybe both! Although we only got credit for one month…  It means we must return to the bank to investigate this mystery.

Banks in Egypt look like an airport caught in a sudden tornado. Customers, mostly government pensioners, are packed in, wall to wall, displaying characteristic nonchalance of such mayhem. I get a migraine just thinking about it, but it swirls all around them like weathered refugees in a war zone. To get in and out within a day is a miracle. To actually get something accomplished during that visit is practically impossible. Two or three visits to even approach success is far more commonplace. Strolling in to check my balance and investigate a mysterious debit? Forget it. Seriously, it’s easier on the head to just forget the whole stupid debit card and bank idea, and when in Egypt, do as Egyptians: Carry cash.

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A typical queue outside of Egyptian banks - click for original

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Click Here to return to Egyptian Culture, Part 1: Islam and Sharia Law OR Click Here to continue to Egyptian Culture, Part 3: Don’t Forget Yourself

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29 thoughts on “Egyptian Culture, Part 2: Carry Cash

  1. Good information. Made me think. I usually try to carry cash when I travel to foreign countries. It’s so much easier. But I never really thought about it in terms of the banking systems there. How American of me. 😦

    • Lol you are one of the good ones! thanks for stopping by and reading! Cash is so slippery, I have a hard time holding it for very long… “I’m just going to take a quick look, honey…” ;^)

  2. I feel like it’s easier in the US to go the route of debit and credit cards, but read this it occurred to me what a business it all is and how we are trained to think that way. The simpler route of cash seems so much better though upon consideration.

  3. “The pyramids weren’t built with a loan.” –awesome line. Reminds me of “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Cash truly is King–even in Chicago there are cash only businesses.

  4. i think this is imperative to know…cash is king in many places, and now starting to return to this myself…after that last big computer invasion of debitcards at one of my favorite stores…where I too had just made a purchase…fortuntely no problems..but now i enter that store with cash only.

    And i refuse to pay my bills online. I still send the old fashioned checks and I feel more secure as that check is my proof of payment.

    When i travel to foreign countries i always arrive with plenty of cash and hide it many pockets and luggage. I find the most unusual spots to hide it..*wink. 🙂 …and i am good at coming home with nothing..hahaaa…airports are great for last minute souvenirs. 🙂

    • Hahaha don’t tell, it won’t be secret anymore! Lol, I have to admit I don’t know what I’d do without billpay! Thanks for visiting and reading, I always love to see you!

  5. Aisha, wow – you’ve been doing a lot of writing this week! I saw you over at the Speakeasy too : ) This was a fascinating read. I never knew that Egypt was a cash based society before reading this. Personally, I think the world would be a much better place if everybody decided to just spend within their means instead of “charging or paying interest on loans”. I lost my business and went bankrupt after the most recent financial crisis, and I have been living a cash only life since mid- 2009. At first, I was devastated and worried about how I would survive, but it has turned out to be one of the greatest blessings that I have experienced in my life. I’m still paying interest on school loans though ; )

    I’ve been loving these little glimpses of your culture. Thank you for sharing!

    • You are very welcome, Karen! I love this WP experience, blogging is incredibly enjoyable for me – thanks so much for your encouragement! That’s really tough to go through just a big life change… but as you found out, it may have been a wonderful escape in the final analysis. Cash has so many advantages, for me the top one is it’s actually harder to steal! Paying interest is like participating in the robbery of your own money. Pay cash, take your toy home, and shut the door in the bank’s face! ;^)

  6. Excellent review on cross-country culture and practices. Good to remember ‘Forewarned is forearmed’ especially when travelling to new countries!
    Thank you!

  7. What I really liked about this post was the lovely way you described the value of cash, as the Egyptians see it. Well-written!

  8. This would be so difficult for me as cash has a way of burning a hole through my pocket, but then again a debit card makes me feel like I have more money than I do. Let’s face it. I’m not good with money…

  9. Thanks for a great read! This was a really fascinating and eye opening look into life inside of Egypt. Life might be a lot different for many Americans if we weren’t so dependent upon credit. My family included!!

  10. What a wonderful and informative blog. I love your analogies and insights. I had no idea how different things were there. Cash is king! Love it. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Very nice to meet you! So happy you enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to visiting your blog, too! We just got our landline working again, dsl was down for a week, sorry it took so long to reply! ♥ ;^)

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