Jim Crow tourism

The Sinai peninsula--sight of Egypt's booming Red sea tourism, of presidential palaces and international conferences, of disenfranchised Bedouin tribes, arms and drugs smuggling, and several terrorist bombings--is a weird place. (Scott Anderson pointed this out in an excellent article in Vanity Fair a while back.)

Driving to a beach in Sinai last weekend, I ran the usual gamut of road-blocks and nosy police officials. I also saw something (to me, at least) new. At a gas station and road stop near the Suez Canal, I went in to use the restrooms. But I was shooed away from the WC inside--where Egyptians were going--and directed next door, where a large, gleaming building was labelled, in large gold letters, "Tourist toilets" ("Hamamaat El-Siaaha"). These toilets cost 1 pound (the Egyptian toilets cost 50 piastres) and were spotless, furbished with large gilded mirros, faux-jewelled hangers and plentiful toilet paper. Next to the signs for "women" and "men" there were also two technicolor portraits of Western movie stars, mounted in oval frames. I didn't recognize the male actor, but the patroness of the women's tourist bathrooms was none other than Charlize Theron.

Anyway, I'm all for clean new bathrooms but there is something deeply disturbing about the level of enforced segregation between Egyptians and foreigners that seems to be spreading across the tourism industry. An argument can be made for making foreigners pay a higher fee at the Egyptian museum or at the pyramids. But what argument can be made for having a two-tiered system in which foreigners and Egyptians are actually banned from using each other's facilities?

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.