It is simply incomprehensible and surreal what is going on in Egypt right now.
“Egypt court sentences Al Jazeera journalists”
I don’t offer any easy analysis here, merely a fond personal recollection of way better times. Egypt was the first Islamic country I ever traveled in. I was there during Ramadan in 1979. I arrived at the Cairo airport from Athens around 1:00 a.m. I was startled to see so many people there to greet the plane at that hour in the night thrusting cards in our faces and waving their hands wildly directly outside customs. I wound up following the first hustler who spoke English and offered me a place to sleep, way down into the belly of the city, in a place called the Gresham Hotel that cost 1.85 Egyptian pounds a night. I can still recall the huge cockroaches that scuttled off the tops of the bed into every dark corner of the room the minute he turned on the light to proudly present my room. All night long car horns were blaring non-stop, just like in Athens.
The next day I began to take it all in. I saw mendicants crawling down the middle of the main street. In the train station 500 men were down on prayer mats facing Mecca. Cairo was utterly chaotic, draft animals and cars sharing the streets. I heard one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard, the call to prayer of the muezzin. I’d never been any place like that. I’d read a lot about ancient Egypt before going there. I was in no way prepared for modern Egypt. But I never felt alarmed. I felt welcome everywhere.
What I remember the most about Egypt is how great people there were. Behind the Pyramids I met a guy selling hash. He had none of the high-pressure sales pitches you quite often get in places like that, just a really nice down-to-earth Egyptian guy about my age. I had the most incredible photo of the two of us standing in front of the Great Pyramid that I lost within a month of returning, as with so many other precious things. That was still in the era when they allowed people to climb all the way up the narrow walkway of the Great Pyramid into the King’s Chamber. I remember how claustrophic that walkway was, and how I was so bent over the whole time. I know I must have been telling myself “soak all of this in” but of course you never fully can.
When I got outside the guy was still there hanging around. We walked over to the Giza village, where I took the photograph above. All the streets were dirt then, I bet they aren’t now. We ate excellent falafel from street vendors. Everyone was so laid back and friendly. Afterwards we took a wild taxi ride at breakneck speed out into the country to the small village he was from. I bought a carpet. With his friends it was all in sign language. We all had tea. I can’t remember exactly how I got back to my fleabag hotel, although he probably arranged a taxi for me.
That falafel was definitely a bad idea. In the middle of the night I started exploding out of every bodily orifice, my fever reaching 104 degrees. What followed was one of the most miserable weeks I’ve ever had, a violent dysentery that came back over and over again during the months that followed.
Two days later I bought a 2nd class overnight train ticket from Cairo to Luxor. I spent several days there. I was barely able to eat anything other than entrocid, my stomach was still so sensitive. I was travelling on $15/day so I rented a bicycle and rode it out through the desert in 120 degree heat with bottles of water strapped to the bike. I rode it to Karnak through small villages alongside the Nile, children running alongside me.
The streets in Luxor were dirt. I stayed in a small downtown hotel for 4 days and became friends with the hotel owner, also about my age. We kept in touch by letters for a year or so.
It’s hard to describe the awe one feels in a place like the Valley of the Kings, or in Karnak. And so hard to describe my feelings upon hearing in 1997 that Islamists had massacred tourists there. I oppose fundamentalism everywhere, in every form.
Postscript: I quite often read books related to the place I am traveling, one of the simplest pleasures in life. I was reading “Justine” on that trip for the first time, from Lawrence Durrell’s amazing “Alexandria Quartet.” One morning before I got sick I splurged on the breakfast buffet at the Nile Hilton, which someone had told me was supposed to be fantastic. It was! I had three full plates of food. Afterwards I wandered into the gift shop and noticed a short row of perhaps 20 books for sale. Thinking I might at least maybe find something on Egyptian history, I went over to see if they had anything interesting. What a peculiar twist of fate. Throughout the late 1970s I had been looking everywhere for a copy of the complete 3-volume set of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” Previously published in the U.K., only the first volume remained in print in English. For months (before the age of the internet no less) I had been trying to find the set through U.S. and U.K. used booksellers, without any luck. Right there in front of my eyes, next to a stack of pyramid-shaped nicknacks, was the entire Musil set!