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From Egypt (Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Cairo)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Alexandria: "Inshallah"

Dear Friends,

I join you from Egypt's Mediterranean coast in the town that the Arabs call Al-Iskandariyah, but that we know better in the Western world from our history books as Alexandria, site of the renowned library that was tragically incinerated twice well before the end of the first millennium of our Lord. Some learned scholars say that the burning of the Library of Alexandria has set our civilization behind a thousand years. Some say, "What's the Library of Alexandria?" Widely accepted texts attribute the second burning of the library to the advent of the Arabs to Egypt, where the attacking general, when asked by an underling what to make of the institution of knowledge, responded, "Either it contradicts the Quran, in which case it is wrong, or it is in accordance with the Quran, in which case it is redundant. So burn it." The guided tour denies the widely accepted notion, maintaining that, contrary to popular (mis)belief, the "Arabs are innocent" and that the library was burnt centuries before their advent. One thing is for certain: because of the significant amount of foreign financial and intellectual aid in building the modern library of Alexandria, entry for the visitor is inexpensive, unlike Egypt's other sites that charge foreigners a rate an order of magnitude higher than that of the local for admission. The citadel in Alexandria, for example, requires of us twenty-five Egyptian pounds (five USD) whereas tucked away in the juxtaposing sign in Arabic is the price for the Misri (Egyptian) of two pounds (forty cents).

I departed from New York's JFK on Saturday evening after a day with two friends that I had met in Budapest almost a year ago (see "from Budapest"). The direct flight from New York to Cairo was packed to the brim with elderly American tourists from Reading, Pennsylvania. You may (not) recall the tragedy that befell this very Egyptair Flight 900 a decade ago. But the plane ride was pleasant and uneventful, as plane rides ought to be.

Before takeoff, right after the safety demonstration, the crew played a brief prayer over the PA and scrolled the words on the monitors in the cabin, asking Allah for a safe journey. The limited similarities between Farsi and Arabic helped me pick out the operative words from the text. At that point, I abandoned any hope of a half bottle of wine to help me with the flight. (Iberia, Chicago to Madrid, had spoiled me.) When I asked the flight attendant, just to be sure, he said, "This is Egyptair," as if I had forgotten.

When I arrived in Cairo, I bought a fifteen-dollar visa and headed for passport control. Upon observing my name in my American passport, the officer asked me, "What nationality?" "American," said I. "No, for real." Apparently being born in New York State is not enough. You got me. "Iranian," said I, and this was sufficient for his stamp.

Assaulted by scores of taxi drivers, I insisted that I did not need a ride. Even if I did, I told them, I do not even know where I need to go. I was expecting my parents to show up with a private car (it is both necessary and economical to have one in Cairo), but I was skeptical, to be honest, and I waited hopelessly while withstanding an army of tenacious drivers. Sure enough, though, as I was about to leave in search of a SIM card for my rickety quad band GSM phone that had miraculously survived my trip through Eastern Europe, I saw my mother in the distance with a jovial little man named Amir, who, I came to learn quickly, can weave his Mitsubishi through traffic into spaces too tight even for the Italians and their scooters. We embarked on the perilous road to Alexandria, every so often stopping along the way for gas or to yell at or compliment some arbitrary Egyptian truck driver. Indeed, the Arabic I have heard here will not betray its meaning by its tone: without knowledge of the vocabulary, it is impossible to tell whether a loud conversation is friendly or adversarial. I have learned one thing: "Inshallah," literally meaning "God willing," is better translated as "in the best case scenario." "How much longer to Alexandria, Amir?" "Maybe two hours," says Amir with a smile. "Inshallah." "Is this fish good to eat, Amir?" "Yes. Inshallah."

Alexandria is a bustling city with a sandy facade of tall old buildings facing the sea. Coca-cola and Vodafone advertisements add some red hue to otherwise tan-colored towers of stone. The filth and age of the buildings invoke memories of Albania. The azaan, or melodic call to prayer, from the loudspeakers atop the minarets of the mosques are redolent of my days in Istanbul. "Allah akbar," they chant, five times a day.

The travel book guarantees that the traveler who stays in Egypt longer than a few days will experience some sort of gastric ailment. Fortunately, their conviction is not so strong as to be money-back. I am wary after my experience in Romania (see "from Romania"). The Persian proverb goes, "Who has been bitten by a snake is afraid of a black and white rope." I hope, however, to avoid any such gastric complications with a stomach now strengthened by the pathogens of less savory lands. Inshallah.

Next stop, Luxor.


from Luxor: A city of [in] ruins

Dear Friends,

Al-Uqsur is a small dirt-ridden village grasping onto the Nile River for dear life. It is known in the Western world as Luxor, inspiration for the Las Vegas casino by the same name. Truth be told, Luxor by night is not so dissimilar to its Vegas counterpart. It is largely one long road wrought with gaudy lights and commercial enterprises. All in all, this town in Upper Egypt (which is the southern part of the country but derives its name from its relative altitude) is rich in history but wretchedly poor. The obelisks of the Ancient Egyptian ruins of the city of Thebes cast their long shadows on the contemporary locals who attach themselves to the hordes of tourists offering to sell anything or nothing for a few Egyptian pounds. Eye contact is dangerous, for it is an open invitation to solicit. Here, not only is there no such thing as a free lunch, there is also no such thing as free directions to lunch. If someone shows you the way, rest assured that either you or the store owner at your destination is paying for the favor. The only difference between the con artist who tries to pass-off a two-cent necklace made in China as some Egyptian novelty and the semi-official-looking tourist information agent is that the latter speaks slightly better English. The machine-gun carrying "tourist police" guard will gladly offer to give you unsolicited directions that are entirely self-evident and then demand a small bakhshesh to buy some sisha for his troubles.

In the north, I identified two types of Egyptians: those quintessential Arabs who look like their Syrian, Saudi, and Iraqi counterparts and the more distinct ones who had some Sub-Saharan features like curly hair and thicker lips. In the south, the sun is much stronger and the people are darker, very distinct from the people in north. There are certainly kind people among them, but many cannot afford the luxury of geniality, and it is understandable.

After a while, one develops a brisk unwelcoming gait to fight the tenacity of the locals. The villagers are a constant threat to personal serenity. A simple "no" is never sufficient. The bashful tourist will waste minutes per each molesting local. At first, I thought that my Iranian affiliation would help me connect to the local people, but I learned that when the going gets serious (as it always does), there is nothing more fearsome and commanding than an American who has become impatient. Almost all conversations ultimately lead to some demand for money. Some will be more generous when they learn that their clients speak the same language as the Iranian president Ahmadinejad, who is somewhat of a hero in the Arab world while a villain in the Iranian one; however, speaking softly in an attempt to form a cultural bond rarely accomplishes much here. The destitute locals ultimately treat the darker-skinned traveler as they treat their own: with an unrelenting competitive drive to extract as much revenue as possible. The higher goals of cultural exchange are an indulgence that most seem to avoid.

Thursday morning, we set off from the East Bank of the Nile, where we were staying, to the West Bank to see the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and a few celebrated temples. In the center of Luxor where the boats depart for the West Bank, there are teams of ferry drivers waiting to pounce on anyone who looks like he can be convinced to take the ride. While on the East Side, we encountered one such local who first demanded to drive us in his boat and then take us in his car for the whole day to see the sites. When we told him that our intention was to rent bikes and see the sites ourselves, he said that there were no bike rental shops on the West side of the Nile and that we would be forced to take his car. He was lying, of course, as most of the tourist-facing locals do. Not only had we seen such shops and heard testimony from honest North American tourists on the West Bank the previous day, but upon reaching the other side the driver then proceeded to follow us to the very bike shop that allegedly did not exist only to demand a finders' fee from the bike shop owner for the four costumers he had "brought" him. Our bargaining power suffered, of course, because of this useless middleman. (It was our mistake not to have told him off from the beginning.) We finally reached a reasonable price and were on our way, ever more disheartened by the indolent villager that demanded an unreasonable premium from the bike shop owner for nothing.

The Ancient Egyptian ruins are worth the trouble. The Greek and Roman ruins that I have seen do not match the scale of these: statues of pharaohs with heads bigger than my height in diameter. The tombs are not so impressive though, and the vivid colors traced inside the hieroglyphic carvings suspect the claims from the guards that no restoration has been done. One such guard assaulted us on our way out of the tomb, demanding to see our camera to catch us with unauthorized photos of the inside. The fight escalated quickly, and soon a group of guards escorted us to a small hut to testify before a corrupt policeman. The man then demanded an outrageous fine of 50 LE (10 USD) per photograph, and by his unscientific estimate totaled the fine to 300 LE (60 USD). We admitted our mistake, but we questioned their motives. Had we been convincing enough that we were American, I am sure that the policeman would have let us go out of fear. Our dark complexion, however, betrayed our Eastern origins so that we would never be more than savages in their eyes, for unfortunately that is the way that they see each other. They played out a good-cop-bad-cop routine in a hybrid of English and Arabic. We were finally khalaas (finished, released) and down 50 LE. We had learned that the one correct answer to the question "Where are from [sic]?" is a loud and confident "America."

My brother and I returned from the West Bank after about seven hours from when we had left the hotel in the morning. After some twenty kilometers of exhausting bicycling in the ninety-degree Egyptian sun, we dropped off the bikes at the store and walked toward the local public ferry that crosses the river for at most twenty cents per person. Along the way, we heard offers from private boats to do it for unreasonably high but increasingly lower prices. Finally, just meters before the dock of the public ferry, the last man said he'd do it for the local fare. Their web was engineered to extract the reservation price of every customer, with the last driver stationed as the final net with the lowest price to catch the tourist before the public boat. We passed the boat ride in awkward conversation. The driver's partner tried to force me to agree to some hour-long cruise later that evening. "Maybe," I said to all of his offers. "Why you never say 'yes'?" he finally demanded of me angrily after it was clear that I would not commit to anything. I took my sunglasses off and looked him in the eye, responding with unwavering American frankness, "If I want a cruise, I'll let you know. Right now, I want to get to the other side."

Egypt is blessed with a rich history. But when a country so poor is endowed with such cultural wealth, the degenerate social infrastructure in the more rural areas exposes the underlying problems. There is too much corruption because the officials are underpaid and their survival is uncertain. Attempts at social and political justice are then vulnerable to the temptation of bribes and extortion. This region of Egypt suffers from an unfortunate pathology. But poverty is not enough to mangle the decency of a people. Abjectly impoverished Albanians are generous, hospitable, curious, and hardworking despite living in Europe's second poorest country (see "from Albania and Kosovo"). It is the peculiar and rare endowment of history that throws the natives of Luxor into a chaotic Hobbesian jungle. When the only feasible conduct among the locals is to fight each other rather than to work together, no progress will be made. Nor will money alone cure the plague. No amount of fifty-pound photo fines will pull this town out of destitution. Careful social reform must realign the incentives of people and policy so that the country's manpower is not squandered tearing its reputation apart while depending on past glory. Until then, Luxor is great for a single visit just to see the ancient ruins, but it is a city to which I will gladly not return. This trip I consider a duty as a student of the world, but the memory it forms is not pleasant.

* * *

"Where are from?" the ferry driver asks me.


"You don't look like American," he accuses me with a grin. "You are dark like Egyptian. Maybe you are Indian or Pakistani."

"How you look's got nothing to do with it," I tell him as the boat bobs in the wake of a passing ship and I look into the distance where the Nile meets the sky at the horizon. "We've got all kinds of people in America."

I look forward to my return. More to the point, though, I look forward to Cairo where I know for a fact that the sophisticated urban natives will restore my sanguine demeanor. I look forward to a meaningful conversation with an Egyptian, rather than an enervating exchange of lies. I look forward to Amir (see "from Alexandria"), whose goodwill, amicable effervescence, and worldly charm are the reasons I love to travel.


from Aswan: Farewell to Upper Egypt

Dear Friends,

We arrived in Aswan by train on Friday evening.

On Saturday, we visited the site of a quarry where the Ancient Egyptians obtained their granite. In this quarry lies a gargantuan and mangled embryo of an obelisk that the Egyptians had begun to carve but abandoned after an engineering error was realized. What remains of this aborted obelisk is the entire outline of a column that weighs perhaps five thousand metric tons. It is incredible how the Egyptians hauled such massive objects down the Nile from Aswan, where the best granite was located, to modern Luxor, the ancient city of Thebes. The task is unimaginable even with current technology, let alone with that of millennia ago.

Here I ate one of the better meals that I have had on my trip. The first great meal was in the Balbaa area of Alexandria at a restaurant where we handpicked freshly caught fish that were immediately grilled and served with delicious sides. At the restaurant in Aswan, I ordered a meat tagen dish, a Moroccan specialty consisting of a meat vegetable stew baked in a pot, similar to the tavë dishes that I had in Albania and Kosovo almost one year ago. The meal was topped with a special spiced Nubian coffee served in a wooden kettle over coals.

One thing that I enjoy here is the coffee. In my first night in Alexandria I bought a stainless steal Turkish coffee pot, a hot plate, and cups with which I have been making coffee every night.

Today, I depart Awsan by plane for Cairo, where I will spend the next and last three nights of my trip.


from Cairo: Middle Eastern city

Dear Friends,

As you receive this email, I am in Chicago, my trip to Egypt concluded. I report on the final and most anticipated leg of my journey.

I arrived in Cairo (Al-Qahira) by plane on Sunday afternoon. I was in the car with Amir, our driver, when we heard the news of the bombing that occurred near the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in central Cairo. We were looking for a place to park at the time when a young boy approached our car and signaled Amir to roll down the window. The boy told Amir something in Arabic. Amir translated it for us: "He says there was an explosion by Khan el-Khalili. He says to stay away from there." I refreshed the New York Times webpage wherever I encountered an open wireless network, awaiting updates eagerly. The most recent account I have read reports one dead and twenty-four injured.

This attack is devastating for Egypt's economy, whose primary crutch is its tourism. The bombers' motives are clear: they are attempting to sabotage the country in protest of the Egyptian government's pro-Western stance. The attack both promotes fear within the country and deters tourists from the outside, delivering a double whammy to an already beleaguered nation where forty percent of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. But Cairo continued on with its daily life unhindered. The Khan el-Khalili bazaar was a little quieter than usual, but tourists and merchants were still making trades. I visited the site of the attack on Tuesday afternoon. El-Hussein Square showed no sign of the recent bloodshed.

Monday night, my family and I were invited to the house of our kind driver, Amir. Amir, like many Cairenes, lives farther afield from Cairo's bustling markaz (center) in a district known as New Cairo. Here, mid-rise apartment complexes with cement facades line the streets. We enjoyed a delicious and copious Egyptian meal of stuffed grape leaves, stuffed intestines, oven-baked chicken, and stuffed zucchini. In fact, many Egyptian dishes consist of some edible vessel stuffed with spiced rice and perhaps a bit of meat. Paramount among these is hamam, stuffed pigeon, which I had eaten earlier that day for lunch. Following dinner, we honed our belly dancing skills, leading us to a late bedtime in the AM hours. The next night, we were invited to the house of our kind hosts who introduced us to Amir and helped us with the planning of our trip. We enjoyed yet another traditional Egyptian meal and the kind hospitality of our friends.

On Monday, I saw the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, located just outside the city. We climbed through the narrow passageways into the unambitious and cramped chambers beneath. The Great Pyramid of Giza, paralleling our modern Manhattan skyscrapers in height, is largely intact, only worn around the edges. Its peak is visible from the minarets of the mosques in the city, which has its own worthy wonders.

On Tuesday, I explored the various districts of Cairo with Amir including the Coptic Christian area where Mary and Jesus are alleged to have hidden in their flight from the Romans. The Islamic part of the city is a patchwork of mosques from varying time periods, stitched together by roads and alleys with as much order and logic as the fault lines in a cracked windshield. The commercial center of the city is slightly more Western, with colorful banners advertising expensive European brand names, but with an inevitable hint of nonnative awkwardness that was a constant reminder of our distance from the Western world.

Cairo is not like the Istanbul that I saw almost a year ago (see "from Istanbul"), for Cairo exudes an unmistakable Middle Eastern and Arab mystique that Istanbul does not categorically embrace. Turkey, and namely Istanbul, with its lighter ethnicity, Latin-based alphabet, and desperate hopes of eventual annexation into the European Union, can still feel like it is farther West than it really is. Cairo, on the other hand, is a city founded on the narrow Nile Valley and the surrounding desert in an unmistakably Arab world.

* * *

Late Tuesday afternoon, Amir and I take a break from our Cairo crash course to drink some coffee and smoke some shisha. Amir takes me to his preferred shop in a nook behind an alley where skilled rubbersmiths reuse old tires to form useful products. I am sitting outside on the plastic lawn chair, reading a New Yorker short story, calm and resigned to the fact that I can not shoo away the flies that land on my shirt.

Amir points to the only other man among us, sitting in a chair five meters away staring blankly into the clouds.

"That man," he says, pointing to him, "is crazy. Since eight years he has been here. Nobody knows where he came from." Then he calls out to the man, "Ahmed! Ahmed!" There is no response. "Do you want some shisha?" he asks him in Arabic. Ahmed does not move. "His mind is gone." Amir donates a few Egyptian pounds to the petrified Ahmed. We pay our fifty cents for the shisha, coffee, and tea, and head back toward the main street.

Next stop, the wide open world.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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