An Arab-American shares cameos of desperation, gratitude, and hope during Egypt’s turmoil.
Cairo airport is deserted when my flight lands. The silence in the terminal is broken only by hurried footsteps echoing loudly off concrete walls, the arrivals hall feeling like it was yanked out of a science fiction movie where the world came to a halt while I slept. It’s December 2011, during the height of Egypt’s elections, in the aftermath of revolution.
- An animated airport shuttle driver
Abdo is resigned when I first board his shuttle. When he discovers that I speak a smattering of Arabic, though, he beams, thanking me for coming during the troubles. As I struggle with my rusty Arabic, a complex tongue I don’t use back home in California, I learn about Abdo’s view on the revolution, one that will get mirrored by other Egyptians I meet: Revolution was necessary and regime change is welcomed, but now Egypt needs to focus on rebuilding.
- The despondent camel owner
Visions of the stubborn, ripe-smelling, and headstrong beasts stampede across my mind when I’m offered a camel ride on my first tour. In typical Arab fashion, I sit down with Abu-walid, a villager who owns a handful of camels in Giza city. The waiting room is an eclectic mélange of oriental bazaar, its mirrors and maroon lace trim covered in layers of grime and cigarette smoke. Sweet aromas of mint waft across my face when I’m offered tea, a welcome contrast to the strong scent of camel. Abu-walid describes the route, pointing to a massive board with carvings of the nine pyramids and sphinx. I’m struck by the irony of a people whose ancestors invented hieroglyphs four thousand years ago using them to sell tours today. Grudgingly, I begin the ancient tradition of haggling. It’s hard to argue price, though, when Abu-walid laments about business drying up, the increasing price of bread, and having to support his wife and children. Later, I trek through the sands confident that a camel ride was not such a bad deal after all, perhaps even helping Abu-walid’s family, if but just a little.
- Tourist police officer turn capitalist
Alexandria is blanketed in relative calm, its attractions empty except for the occasional school group. The city is quiet to the point of being eerie, as if holding its collective breath. Gamil, one of the rifle-toting uniformed tourist police stationed here greets me warmly. Egypt’s tourist police are charged with protecting antiquities, tourists, and the nation’s largest economic sector; they’re known to be fiercely overprotective of international visitors. So, when Gamil asks me to walk with him, I don’t hesitate (never mind his Kalashnikov sidekick). He’s pleasant and speaks English well, welcoming me to Egypt and the Quaitbay citadel. But, when the tour commentary starts, I know where this is heading. During the revolution, many of the lesser laws are broken daily; the disruptions even extend to street cleaning and trash pickup. Police and military, concerned with larger issues and keeping the peace, are generally overlooking smaller infractions. Gamil was blatantly giving unlicensed tours for tips. I politely decline saying that I want to explore independently. Harmless as it may seem, I can’t justify taking him away from his real duties, even if I wanted to. The citadel lends itself well to wandering so I climb the parapets, mingling with locals but few (if any) western tourists.
- A sullen grocery cashier
At a large grocery store next to my hotel, I meet Khalid at checkout during one of my late night foraging escapades. He’s a former tour guide and university student turned cashier so he can make ends meet. In the brief minutes with Khalid, his disappointment that tourists are not returning fast enough is palpable. He hopes that more, like me, will start to again visit a country whose rich heritage and history Egyptians are immensely proud of.
- Desperate villagers
Plying through the early morning mist to visit a Nubian village, my boat’s engine shatters the silence along the Nile as the hull breaks the placid water’s mirrored surface. The southern Egyptian way of life has remained largely unchanged, albeit modernized with the twentieth century amenities of plumbing, power, and satellite television. Because of the drop in tourism, my small tour group of eight is the only one to visit in days, a mere tenth of what the village used to receive before the revolution. I’m greeted by local girls and women selling wooden dolls at the village pier, girls shoving each other aside to get to us. One older woman pushes her way in so closely she is touching me from shoulder to hip. I’m astonished by the brazen proximity of a married Muslim woman, fully bundled in her black woolen hijab. Dismay shows clearly in their eyes as I begin to leave, one girl even imploring me to buy some dolls so she can afford school. Unable to resist these acts of an obviously desperate people, I buy a dozen dolls before becoming too overburdened to buy more.
- Attempts at law and order
I return to Giza a second time. The site is waking up, local camel drivers beginning to arrive, and merchants are putting out their wares. I’m accosted again by cheap trinket sellers inside the archeological site; while technically illegal, this small act of lawlessness is ignored by the rank-and-file tourist police stationed around. This morning, however, a senior officer comes by: a distinguished gentleman in his forties, he exudes an obvious confidence and authority far above the other tourist police. Immediately, the hawkers begin to scatter as the officer calmly walks up the rise to confront them. Most apologize, and then exit. I watch as a dozen or so others drift off, seeming to leave, but returning almost immediately after the officer turns his back. Only seconds later, he returns, this time, anger and disgust clear in his voice: “You are the vermin that is plaguing our country! You have no shame! I am the law, the order of Egypt, and you ignore me, you mock your country and your land! Shame on you! In God’s Name, Go!” His heartfelt commands and pleas still unheeded, he sighs deeply and starts to leave, his attempts at keeping order only partially effective.
- Life continues, despite the chaos
Demonstrations in Tahrir square flare up again, ignited after a woman was dragged to the ground and beaten, her clothes stripped down to her bright blue bra. Searching for lunch the next day, I uncover Sequoia at the tip of Gazira island. Nostalgia washes over me while feasting on food that I grew up with. Between the oaky smoke of hookahs, I catch wisps of conversations in mixtures of Arabic, French and English, mainly about the state of local affairs. The tone of discussion reminds me of growing up during Lebanon’s on-and-off civil war, where life also had to go on, and we struggled to make each day a pleasant one, regardless of the chaos surrounding us. That night, my block of the Zamalek neighborhood is rocked by western dance and pop music. At first, I think it must be a club, since the area sports many popular discos. Stepping out on my balcony, I see instead the adjacent apartment building lit up like a beacon, with dazzling disco lights and dozens of people on its expansive terraces; a festive celebration of life in the otherwise bleak city night.
During my last days in Cairo, as the late afternoon sun arrives and with it the throng of traffic and people clogging the streets, I overhear a woman walking her daughter. The young girl tosses a piece of paper on the ground. Gently but firmly, the mother admonishes: “You should not do that, my dear”. Perplexed, the young girl stops and turns to her mother, “But why not? The streets are already dirty.” The mother smiles, pats the girl’s hand, replying “Yes, but they shouldn’t be… not anymore.” I leave Egypt with a sense that the nation and its people are on the road to recovery. Perhaps slowly, but certainly surely, Egypt will find its way to stand tall again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Born in Lebanon, Marc Kassouf lived in Europe, the mid-east and South America before settling in southern California where he writes about travel and owns an award winning travel agency with his partner. He’s been to nearly four dozen countries and sailed on over sixty cruises.
EDITORIAL NOTE: All actual names have been changed to common Egyptian names to protect the identity of individuals.