Is it safe? This is a question we were either asked or asked ourselves for weeks before we left. Actually, we were asked much more directly – are you nuts? Why are you going? My dear friend, Judy, who lived in Egypt off and on several years ago, was so concerned that she showed up with a protective amulet to keep the evil eye away. I carred it tucked into my wallet. Sasha, on the other hand, from his vantage point of Wahhabi-ism in Riyadh, thought that Egypt was like Sweden compared to Saudi Arabia.
What is safe? As we were boarding the plane to leave Boston, word came that Bob Simon of CBS News, war reporter for over 40 years from some of the scariest places in the world, died in a car accident in his home city.
What is safe? While we were in Egypt word came of the horrific video of ISIS decapitating Coptic Christians in Libya. (I know that had I been in the USA, I might have succumbed to geographic amnesia that because Libya and Egypt are neighbors, they are much, much closer to each other than they actually are, separated by a desert called The Sahara.)
Four years ago decent people in Egypt tried to remake their country and ended up worse off – another military dictatorship, the paralysis of uncertainty, encroaching Islamization, and what next? If your father is a doctor, you can and will be a doctor. If your father is a policeman you can and will be a policeman. But if your father is poor and has nothing, so will you.
- Billboard in the Cairo smog. Revolution?! Now? Then? Obviously an official declaration
- Diorama in the Nubian Museum of a village madrassa; rote memorization of the Koran
Poverty, horrible governance, corruption, graft, overpopulation, dysfunction, bureaucracy, no incentive for initiative and the lack of critical thinking embedded in Islamic instruction, is a terrible combination.
The examples are endless: four clerks at a hotel are at their stations but only one is working. Everyone lines up for the one. What about the other three? They are busy. The tourist site closes at 4:00. The place is empty. 5 guys are hanging around half-asleep waiting for 3:59 on the dot. We may be the only visitors they’ve had all day, but would they stay open one minute beyond 4:00? Not on your life.
The lovely Nubian Museum in Aswan, and superb Luxor Museum are much-needed additions to the museum scene. The exhibits are well designed, and well explained in English. And what an opportunity to have a good quality museum store to sell the obvious – books, jewelry, good replicas! But no. Instead there are small shabby stores run like a souk with mostly junk and trinkets and no prices. After a while there is only so much bargaining you can stand – especially with a tight (ie normally western) schedule. We’re so programmed to make a quick decision and move on (and this does put predictable money in peoples’ pockets) that the prospect of arguing for 20 minutes over a scarf that I don’t want but might buy just to be a nice person becomes exhausting. (I keep wanting to give everyone marketing advice: You can’t all stand around and try to sell the same stuff! You – sell scarves; you – sell statues; you – sell papyrus. Split it up guys! And if I just bought two scarves from him; I’m not going to buy one from you.) Somehow, this increases the intensity of the sales pitch – which ratchets up vocally as vendors surround you holding out their wares and sounding desperate – and it’s hard not to resent feeling like an ATM.
At the citadel in Cairo – a classic tourist site (although I don’t know why – it’s in terrible shape, has disgusting bathrooms even for an Arab country, and a view only on clear days, which — given Cairo smog — must be hens’ teeth) there is a former palace that was badly damaged by the earthquake of 1992. That’s 23 years ago, and it has not been restored. Money was allocated and work started. Then it stopped; the money disappeared into someone’s pocket; reboot; same deal. And there it sits on prime real estate that is highlighted to all visitors: Look! We can’t be bothered to fix this up.
- The Citadel palace; damaged 23 years ago – an unreconstructed hulk at the center of a major tourist site.
Why should citizens care when their government doesn’t? When you’re treated like shit by the people who run your life (Sasha’s theory of the Third World) it just trickles down. You treat the next guy like shit and so on. And you just stop noticing how shitty everything is, until you charge tourists to see it and they ask the obvious: huh? (Although, truthfully, I shudder every time I see anyone from outside Boston getting on the T. Do they think we live in Rwanda? This decrepit hulk of non-functional mass transit should be a major embarrassment. This is the US, folks! Pony up your bloody taxes and fix our infrastructure before we look like Third World countries that are in way worse shape for real reasons.)
- Poster of Nasser in the Luxor souk.
Thanks to our friends the Saudis for keeping Egypt afloat since the revolution. (And for giving the world the religious model for ISIS and Al Queda and the Taliban.)
Is it safe? I never felt unsafe. On the contrary, I often had the sense that people were so happy to see American tourists that they would have protected us at all costs. There are military checkpoints everywhere. On the road from Aswan to Luxor (most people take a cruise on the Nile between these spots) there were 6 checkpoints. We had to submit copies of our passports to local authorities and no tourists are allowed on the road after dark. If you don’t get to your destination within the allotted hours, they know you are out there. There were also random checkpoints on the ring roads in Cairo (making the already awful traffic even worse). Not subtle, they pull over anyone with a beard who looks like a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. (Post Morsi they are on the run, in jail, and regrouping in extremis in the Sinai to cause mayhem.)
- Rising crescent moon in the blue desert sky; symbol of Islam
On the way to the airport en route home, we were in a shuttle bus with two young Brits on assignment on the mega-project to build a new Suez Canal alongside the old. The consensus seemed to be that whatever was going on was pretty chaotic and they were both thrilled to leave. (This massive pharaoh-nic project ordered by General Sisi is supposed to be completed by the end of year.) At the Cairo airport the guy ahead of us, with a US passport, was on his way to Tripoli (really?) and I revert immediately to stateside assumptions of alarm and fear. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone (but maybe not too far out) just to remember that there are people all over the world who live with risk that they just have to take. And this brings me back to the Coptic Christians compelled to leave their country to find work to end up headless in Libya. What is safe?