We always felt safe and well cared for in Egypt, but this segment of our trip was not about immersing ourselves in an authentic cultural experience. Egypt is a challenging place for westerners, and especially for western women. In public spaces, men seem to outnumber women by four or five to one, and sometimes local women are absent altogether. To my ears, the Arabic language sounds querulous and the men seem intense and emotional. If you don’t understand what they’re saying (yelling), if you don’t know the context and can’t tell the difference between good-natured teasing and serious disagreement, some part of your brain remains constantly alert for the latter.
Our only direct interactions with the Egyptian people were with the crew of the dahabiya, the tour guides, and men working at and around the tourist attractions. Usually they spoke enough English to deal with tourists. They seemed to love to joke and tease; they weren’t shy about making fun of our attempts at Egyptian, but always with kindness. The hawkers were incorrigible flirts and flatterers.
We did our best to have a good chat with whomever we could. The people we spoke with were still almost giddy with the freedom of speech they’ve won since the revolution — as long as no other Egyptians of unknown sympathies were within earshot. Before the revolution, there were informers everywhere, and you could be arrested, or your career could be ruined, if the wrong person overheard you criticizing the government. The recently elected government has disappointed almost everyone, but the population seems divided about what would be better, and the old fears about expressing your opinion in front of the wrong person are re-emerging.
As a result, we had several lively and/or furtive conversations about the situation in Egypt. Shortly before our trip on the river ended, we were warned about the demonstrations that were scheduled in Cairo on Friday, when we were planning to visit the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. We were advised to end our visit before the end of midday prayers, and move on to other sites that were further from the city center and the famous Tahrir Square.
Back in Cairo on Friday, we expressed our concerns to Maged and Essam, but they assured us that there was nothing to worry about. The demonstrations were an almost weekly occurrence, and no big deal. Essam wanted to show us a Coptic church, a synagogue, and a mosque, but due to special religious services scheduled that day, we could only see them in the morning. The museum would be open until 6:30, giving us the entire afternoon to explore all its treasures. Karel and I were not happy with the plan; the museum was the one place where we could see what had once been inside all the temples and tombs we’d explored for the past week. The museum, I told our guide, was our highest priority for the day.
Nevertheless, we started with the Mohammed Ali Mosque, also called the Alabaster Mosque, in the Citadel of Cairo. It isn’t the oldest mosque in Egypt, but it has historical significance. Inside, Essam demonstrated how Muslims pray.
Next, we entered the old Christian quarter, a fascinating network of narrow streets, like canyons. For the first time in a week, we saw local women without headscarves. The oldest synagogue in Egypt was just at the edge of this neighborhood; unfortunately, there are no longer enough Jews in the vicinity to form a minyan, required for communal prayer, in this gem of a building, although there is still at least one active synagogue in Cairo.
We arrived at the church of St. Mary — known as The Hanging Church because it was built over empty space, so it “hangs” in the air — just as morning services were ending there. As a result, the churchyard was thronged with both tourists and churchgoers, which created a lively scene, with children playing and vendors hawking souvenirs. Inside, there were at least two baptisms just finishing — an occasion of great joy that had the families singing and laughing and snapping photos. It reminded me of the party we’d gone to on Bali, celebrating a baby girl’s 110th day of life.
Essam turned us loose in the Khan el Khalili Bazaar just as midday prayers began. I think he planned it that way, because the shops and streets were serene and uncrowded while everyone was at the two nearby temples, and only a few persistent hawkers gave us any trouble. We weren’t in a buying mood, though. After a brief wander through the market, we joined our guide at the coffee shop and listened to the sermons emanating from loudspeakers. One was mellow; the other was strident. As they wound down, the streets and market began to fill again.
By then we were getting very hungry, so Ahmed, our driver, took us to a restaurant along the river. It was probably 2:30 or so before Essam deemed the timing right to go to the museum. In Tahrir Square, less than a block from the museum entrance, a demonstration was getting underway, but there weren’t many people and it seemed relatively low-key.
Inside, Essam led us to several key exhibits, considered the highlights of the collection. After that, the plan was to allow us to visit the mummy room and the King Tutankhamen collection on our own, and then to let us wander freely through the rest of the museum for as long as we liked.
However, we were not quite finished with the mummy room (fascinating!) when Essam surprised us (tour guides ordinarily don’t go into that room because talking is enough to disturb the delicate environment needed to preserve the artifacts). The demonstration was getting bigger; perhaps we should hasten on to the King Tut room, just in case.
There was a lot to see in there — stunning works of gold and precious stones and woods, but we could hear the shouting just outside the walls. Essam appeared again. “The historic items may be interesting,” he said, “but perhaps the history being made right now is just as important.” We climbed onto a chair to see out the window. The demonstration was escalating into a riot; people were surging across the square while others ran along the periphery; police seemed to be trying to form a cordon. Still, the crowd was not very big, and I had the impression that all the commotion was being created by a few troublemakers, trying to stir things up. We heard a volley of gunshots, but no screams or sounds of panic, so this was probably just warning shots, an attempt to get everyone’s attention.
The museum staff began insisting that we leave. During the Revolution there had been some looting, and the museum couldn’t afford the security needed to protect the collection, so they decided to close early and lock the building down. I didn’t like that plan very much. It seemed to me that the few of us would be much safer inside until the crowd outside was dispersed or decided to go elsewhere.
Well, it wasn’t up to me. We were turned out on the back side of the building, along with a very small group of other visitors, while Essam telephoned our driver. Little by little, everyone else found their rides, and after a bit, we were the only ones left. Two or three vehicles passed by, heading towards the square, full of young men. When you see reinforcements heading towards trouble, that is not a good sign. “We should get out of here now,” I said to Essam. As if on cue, Ahmed pulled up at the end of the street. We scurried over and jumped in.
It was only a short distance to the highway, but several streets were closed off by tall security barricades. We found our way onto the on-ramp, just behind a pickup truck filled with construction debris. Halfway up the ramp, the truck stopped and men began tipping the debris — rocks, bricks, and chunks of concrete—onto the roadway. Ahmed swerved around the truck, and that was the last we saw of the demonstrations.
Later, we learned that the van was hit by a rock when Ahmed tried to pick us up, so he had to turn around and find a different approach to reach us—not easy with security details closing down the streets. On the news, one fatality was reported from one of the other demonstrations in the city. But the next day, on our way to the airport, Maged told us that this was all a staged event by the Muslim Brotherhood, “protesting” the corrupt judiciary. They want to make it look as though there is popular support for Mursi’s agenda. No one is fooled.
We were deeply disappointed that we didn’t get to spend the time we wanted at the museum, and frustrated that our guides had not listened to our wishes. When Maged tried to tell us that no one could have anticipated that the demonstration would get out of hand, we pointed out that even the US State Department had issued an advisory to avoid being near the square yesterday afternoon. That surprised him. Of course, there was nothing that could be done at this point, and instead of seeing a bunch of dusty old relics, we had a little encounter with Egypt’s ongoing struggle for freedom and justice. As we said our farewells at the airport, we gave an especially good tip to Ahmed, who had braved the rock-throwing protesters to get us safely back to the hotel in time for dinner.
In the weeks since we left, we’ve checked in on the news now and then. The situation in Egypt is continuing to gradually deteriorate as they run ever lower on reserves of food, fuel, and cash to pay for imports, while the economy flounders. The government is incompetent and only interested in one constituency. The police are ineffective, and the army appears content, for now, to sit on the sidelines (although it’s my belief that the army will ultimately cast the deciding vote in Egypt), so the conditions seem to be less and less secure. I don’t believe we were ever in a situation that would have caused us anything worse than some inconvenience; on the contrary, we were fortunate to have visited Egypt during a brief interlude of extraordinarily light tourism and safe conditions.
We wish the Egyptians assalamu aleykom — peace by upon you, and best of luck in finding your way to a fair and free society.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013
2 thoughts on “Shades of Gray”
Hi, It’s very interesting to hear of your adventures and good that you are not traveling to Egypt now. I hope to see you when you visit in August-hope you get something going for the 11th, as Ted and I are going to the bluegrass festival on the weekend, possibly on the 8th. Colorado is in trouble-hope the frought improves. Maybe you two are just destined to lead adventurous/? dangerous lives 🙂
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