The Upper Egyptian governorate of Qena may not have many upscale restaurants or cafes, but the pleasantness of a walk in the streets of its capital city of the same name makes up for it.
Qena is notable for its Upper Egyptian customs and traditions and the characteristic kindness, generosity and chivalry of the people. The downside of its location is the ruthlessly hot weather.
My first encounter with the goodness of the people of Qena came during the train ride there. The air conditioning on the train was inhumanely cold and, knowing that I was heading to an extremely hot place, I didn’t have any jackets. I had no idea how I would get through more than eight hours in the cold until the gentleman sitting next to me, who turned out to be from Qena, insisted on giving me his jacket (not that I resisted much). I was anticipating he might use the jacket as an opening to chat me up endlessly, but he actually left me in peace until the end of the ride.
While exploring Qena, you have to make sure that you have a healthy bladder, because every person you talk to is sure to invite you for a drink. This is common if you’re in someone’s house, but talking to people inside a coffee shop, there is way to get out of having a drink at every table.
After meeting a group of young Qena residents for work purposes, I took out my wallet to pay and the four of them starred at me as if I had just committed a capital sin. One of them said, half-jokingly, “This is the kind of action that can start a war around here.” I slowly put my wallet back in my bag.
Not only did they refuse to let me pay – even though it was a work meeting – three of the young men insisted on walking home in order to free the fourth’s car to drive me. And when I say insisted, I don’t mean the Cairean insistence that can be shaken with a bit of negotiation, I mean the Upper Egyptian rock solid insistence that you really can’t argue with.
Asking for directions in Cairo, the most you can hope for is for the person not to get you lost. When I asked a woman in the street in Qena for directions, she immediately looked up to me with a big smile and gave me exact directions, I smiled back and turned away elated with her friendliness only to hear her voice 20 seconds later repeating the directions. I looked back and found her standing where I had left her, looking my way and making sure that I took the right turn before she continued on her way.
In Qena, for the first time in my life, I saw a taxi driver who had to be nagged to take fees for rides, sometimes unsuccessfully. Because my friend was a regular client of his, the taxi driver would take the fee one time and refuse the next.
I wasn't even able to pay for the souvenirs I brought for my friends. My friend from Qena who accompanied me during the trip took care of that. If you're traveling on a tight budget and want to see true Egyptian hospitality and a community in the best sense of the word, head to Qena.