Up Front by Emma Hart


Egypt: It's Complicated

So it turns out the longer I'm home from Egypt, the harder it is to write about. Everything I was going to say becomes hedged around with caveats. I kept telling people how lucky we were, seeing it the way we did, but was it luck? We made a conscious, and on my part pretty much agonised-over, decision, and that was the payoff. No, we didn't get shot, but I'm not sure that was any more of a risk than it would be anywhere else at any other time. 

I'm going to write about the politics elsewhere, so I don't want to get into that too much. I will say, though, that I had to rethink a lot of things once I was actually there, and get a bit embarrassed re: Western paternalism. I will say that if your view is basically "Democracy = Good, Army = Bad", you need to understand that, very broadly, the grassroots democracy movement supports the army and sees it as an ally. There's an Egyptian pop song thanking the army for coming to the aid of the people against Morsi. 

It's complicated. 

To focus on our personal experience, we never felt we were in any danger while we were in Egypt. Yes, there were times when security was heavy and obvious, and our bags were x-rayed and searched at every major tourist site, but it was less intrusive, and far less pointless, than security in transit at Sydney airport, for instance. In Egypt, they do it Because of Reasons. 

Tourism in Egypt is down 80% since the political unrest began. We wandered through tourist infrastructure designed to cope with thousands of visitors a day, practically deserted. Our Nile cruise ship was one of sixteen operating out of a normal four hundred. To see Philae, and the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings, in this kind of tranquillity is normally impossible. It was fucking amazing. 

The down side was the touts. So many people in Egypt are dependent on selling tat to tourists in order to survive. Middle-Eastern sales tactics can be intimidating to Westerners at the best of times. At the tourist sites in Egypt, and the souk in Luxor, it was off the wall. 

It was interesting to note who coped with this better. For men who've never been able to understand why women get upset about street harassment, I heartily recommend a visit to an Egyptian tourist market. See how long you can handle, "Hello! Good morning! Where you from? Welcome to Egypt! What's your name? Smile!" from men who will not leave you alone. The women coped better because we already knew not to engage, to keep our heads down and not make eye contact, to stick together and walk briskly. Yes, they're being "nice". Because they want something. For a while we were worried that Egypt would make us permanently rude, automatically dismissive of any friendly gesture. It actually took longer to get used to wearing seatbelts again. 

It was a little better in the Khan-al-Khalili in Cairo, though that might have been the tourist police escort we had with us. One man made considerable headway with our group by throwing open his arms and shouting, "Good morning! How can I take your money?" 

In Egypt I saw things I had dreamed of seeing since I was a child. I visited sites I had studied in the abstract at university. No other country has this appeal for me. We also, because of the way we travelled, got to drink NZ$12 gin and tonics and watch Russian women hobble about archaeological sites in tiny skirts and high heels. Cruising the Nile from Luxor to Aswan is the perfect way to see Egypt, to watch it slowly drift into Africa. 

On our last night in Aswan, after the Sound and Light show at Philae and before a 4:30am start back to Cairo, my travelling companion and my shiny new friend Jackie sat up with me in the lobby of the most beautiful hotel. We had an expensive gin and toasted my mother on the anniversary of her death. 

The tour was made for me by our guide, Hoda Sayeed. When we went to the Egyptian Museum, she took us to see almost everything I had on my list. Everywhere we went, she showed us the things relevant to Hatshepsut, and spun that story out across multiple sites. While I was almost overwhelmed at the Temple of Isis at Philae, she confided that this was her favourite temple. When we tentatively suggested that we found Aswan rather more to our taste than Cairo, she dropped her forehead into her hands and, a native Cairene, said, "Cairo is the worst!" 

She talked to us about politics, about the Nubian land confiscations, about sleeping in Tahrir Square with her mother and using her guiding contacts to get the protesters food. Repeatedly, in answer to our increasingly bold questions, she told us what an arsehole Morsi was and why. By the time we left the tour, I don't think there was one of us who wasn't a little bit in love with Hoda. 

By the time we left, to be honest, I was even starting to love Cairo, with its noise and its filth and its incomprehensible traffic. It was becoming more exciting than terrifying. I would go back in a heartbeat. Hoda says we can stay at her house.

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