Here and There – Egypt

For the average young and ethnocentric Englishman, few places sounded more exotic than Egypt.  This is the land of camels and Cleopatra; Lawrence of Arabia charging through those vast deserts dotted with the occasional oasis surrounded by date palms; and those striking and vast testimonies to past glories, the pyramids, Abu Simbel, the Sphinx, and all the other amazing ancient ruins from a past, exotic civilisation.  Egypt appeared to be a world so unlike the familiar, it could have been on the moon.  To add to the allure, I saw it as a place of danger, from the fictions of Casablanca through to the reality of Rommel playing hide and seek in the desert in the Second World War.  Murder, too, with Death on the Nile, its star-studded cast including Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, and Bette Davis acting out Agatha Christie’s drama back in 1978, only to be updated with another version in 2022.  Yes, another world, dangerous and alluring.

Why are we  fascinated by Egypt?  It’s a western obsession, given it has one of the longest recorded histories of any country, tracing its heritage along the Nile Delta back to the 6th millennia BCE.  How do we see Egypt?  As far as we are concerned it’s the cradle of civilisation, and Ancient Egypt is the site of some of the earliest developments of writing, agriculture, urbanisation, organised religion and central government.  The monuments that reflect that past are still studied today, and Egypt’s long and rich cultural heritage is an integral part of its national identity, as well as a subject of fascination and envy.  In some sense, we want to ‘own’ Egypt as ours – and for a short period it was an unwilling British protectorate, a tiny blip in its storied history.

Egypt is also unusual in other ways.  At just over 1 million square kilometres it’s large, if not especially so ( it is the world’s 30th-largest country).  However, this is an arid, desert land, the population concentrated along the narrow Nile Valley and Delta, meaning that about 99% of the population use about 5.5% of the total land area.  In fact, 98% of Egyptians live on 3% of the territory.   Egypt is bordered by Libya to the west, the Sudan to the south, and the Gaza Strip and Israel to the east.  Strategically, it is a ‘trans-continental’ nation, offering a land bridge (the Isthmus of Suez) between Africa and Asia, as well as being traversed by The Suez Canal,  that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean by way of the Red Sea.

Despite its fascination, I had no reason or expectation I would ever go there.  However, in 1975, I accepted a position in an Australian university, just about the opposite side of the world to our home in Edinburgh.  I had been working hard for the previous five years and had taken little time off.  We decided to make the travel over a ‘trip of a lifetime’.  We would take three months to get to Adelaide and visit several countries.  Which would we choose?  In the end, we decided on a democratic process, at least to the extent that everyone could nominate at least one country they wanted to see (of course, I should admit I and my partner had the greatest degree of control).  One daughter wanted to go to Egypt, and after pottering around Europe, where our last stop was Greece, it was just a short hop over to Cairo.

I had an Egyptian PhD student in Edinburgh, who had helped make the arrangements for our visit.  To begin with, this stage in our long journey seemed to go well.  However, we knew we had arrived in a different world when the plane landed at the Cairo airport.  As the passengers disembarked, most of them simply walked across the tarmac and out of the airport without going through immigration.  We were better behaved, of course, and joined a small number who entered the airport buildings, had our passports stamped, and collected our luggage.  Since we were emigrating, our luggage was substantial.  The five of us each had a large suitcase and a backpack:  the three children had a soft toy (one child had a Paddington Bear), I had a large camera case, and my wife a handbag.  We were laden!

Once through immigration, I was pleased to see my student, Mohammed, waiting for us.  He escorted us out and across a parking area over to his car.  As we started to get in, a man opened my door, and put out his hand: “baksheesh”.  Whoa!! Mohammed took us to the Golden Hotel.  I began to wonder just what we had let ourselves in for as he drove the wrong way down a one-way street to deposit us at the hotel entrance.  He had chosen where we were staying, and I think he might have feared he would be paying: it was cheap.  When we went inside, we discovered it was way beyond cheap, it was horrible!  I looked it up recently, and it’s still operating.  If you look at the website, it is advertised as an economic and apparently clean place.  However, one trip advisor review caught my attention:

“Extremely dirty, (dust everywhere no signs that it was ever wiped out), noisy, smelly, no amenities whatsoever (except a small fridge, a 19” TV and leaky toilet) … no bathroom privacy. Staff will deceive you regarding taxi prices, distances. … Bedsheets are just glorified rugs; the balcony door does not close so you have 24/7 noise and pollution … only good thing about location is the museum”

It doesn’t sound like all that much has changed.  Perhaps because of the squalor, perhaps just because it was a different environment, everyone except me became very sick.  No, Egypt was proving to be far from a great experience.

However, we did summon up enough energy to see the sights of Cairo, and especially the Museum.  Back in the 1970s, museums and tourist facilities were fairly basic.  Inside the museum, we wanted to see Tutankhamun’s mask.  We found it behind the glass door to a wooden cabinet.  Unlocked, I could have taken it out for a closer look.  I didn’t.  Even though Museum’s approach to presentation was somewhat limited, it’s contents were fascinating.

So was the area where we were staying.  Outside our hotel and close to our hotel was a railway line.  The trains ran alongside the road, and there were no barriers.  More to the point, the trains were more than just packed, as people were hanging outside the carriages, or standing between carriages on the buffers.  The trains didn’t go very fast (how could they with such a load to pull), but it was still scary.  It reinforced something I should have anticipated.  Leaving Europe from Greece to go to Egypt was more than a short flight:  we were in another world.  Athens had a poor area, but this did nothing to prepare us for an overcrowded city where even the most basic infrastructure was close to collapsing.

I had to make a telephone call.  I don’t remember exactly why, but I think it had to do with a connection later in our travel, about catching up with a contact in Alexandria who I wouldn’t be able to meet.  The hotel did not have a telephone system for guests.  In fact, I don’t think had a telephone system.  I was directed the major post office.  Inside I eventually found my way to the small number of public telephones, each in its own small cubicle (somewhat like a version of a Tardis with windows).  You picked up the receiver and engaged in a negotiation with the operator.  Then you waited, or to be more precise you waited and listened!  Every interaction between the operator and others was audible, as ‘my’ operator slowly linked the call to its end point, engaging in conversations (in Egyptian, but clearly not all about business) and making links.  The process, for a 30 second call at the end, took just over 20 minutes.  I emerged from the booth hot (it was very hot inside), and exhausted.

This city had been chosen by one of my daughters, and, as she requested, we took a taxi down to Giza, to see the pyramids.  They were spectacular, and this was well before urban sprawl had surrounded them – they were outside the city limits, surrounded by desert.  Both daughters wanted to have camel rides:  it looked very uncomfortable, but they were delighted.  Despite all the horrors of that stage of our journey, the visit to the pyramids was a high spot.  Some time later, when she was in her first year in school in South Australia, the teacher asked our younger daughter about travel.  Other students had been to resorts south of Adelaide, and I think one or two had been to Melbourne or Sydney.  Proud of her choice and the adventures there, my younger daughter explained, “I’ve been to Egypt.  I saw the pyramids and rode on a camel!”  Unwisely, the teacher responded.  “Please don’t tell fibs.”.  Furious, our daughter came home, collected her Egypt photographs, and marched up the teacher the next day!  To her credit, the teacher did apologise, but our daughter never forgot.

In Cairo, despite most of the family not feeling the best, we made some other tourist visits to sites in the city, learning to ignore how dirty everything seemed to us.  Then, suddenly, we faced a second challenge.  A civil war suddenly broke out in Lebanon, our next stop, and we had to change our travel plans.  After some discussion with the airline (we had been travelling with Alitalia for this part of the trip, which was linked with Qantas at the time), we decided to go to Baghdad.  Off I went to the Embassy of Iraq, to be told a visitor visa would take two weeks.  Two weeks?  The man at the desk nodded sadly and sat waiting.  Slow, but I got there eventually:  of course, baksheesh.  A few Egyptian pounds and an hour later, the visas were in our passports!

Looking back years later, what did I get out of that visit?  Before we left the UK, I had been asked why we wanted to go to Egypt and Lebanon.  As is so often the case, the reasons were almost incidental.  My daughter had wanted to go there, but I suspect I influenced her, given my Egyptian student.  As for Lebanon, which we never saw, the reason was a bit more complex.  When I was four years old, the Olympic Games were held in London, and schools were used as accommodation for teams.  My father taught at a grammar school in Greenford, close to Ealing.  That school was allocated members of the Lebanese and, I think, Egyptian teams.  He had been given an engraved silver cigarette box by the Lebanese team as a thank you, and somehow Lebanon stuck in my mind.   As we were planning our crazy trip, so there I could see Lebanon, just near to Egypt.  I had a vague recollection of nice people, and so – choice made!

You might wonder how much planning I did on this part of our holiday travel.  The answer is that it was embarrassingly little.   The World Health Organisation, with which I had undertaken some projects, had an office in Alexandria, and I was invited to go and meet the staff.  I was led to believe it was just up the road from Cairo, and in the panic of organising the long and complex trip were undertaking, I didn’t check.  It was only when I was talking to my student in Cairo, I appreciated that this wasn’t just nearby, and a trip there would be a major undertaking.  Of course, if we were to go there today, I am sure there is an excellent suburban train network that links the cities, but in 1975, I wasn’t about to cram myself into an overcrowded train and travel at walking pace to visit the WHO offices.

Indeed, it was arriving in Cairo, after the relatively easy stages of visits to cities in Europe, that exposed an uncomfortable truth:  I was well out of my depth.  After the Middle East, the next stage of the journey to Australia was going to take us to Asia, but that seemed more manageable.  We had a host to meet in Malaysia, one of my father’s ex-students.  He would understand the ignorance of travellers, while my student in Cairo appeared to believe we were absolutely comfortable with where we were and what we were doing.  To a large extent, he had left us to our own devices.  He knew his way around the city, and surely, I, as his academic supervisor, would have no difficulties at all.  From a very unequal world, I think he assumed my wife and children would be fine, as they would simply do as they were told!

Nearly fifty years ago, was I over-confident or out of my mind?  To go wandering through various non-English speaking countries, with my partner and our three young children now seems like the height of irresponsibility.  Not just outside Europe.  I can remember being in Barcelona on that trip, even if I can’t remember why we wanted to go there!  As we were going up to the old cathedral, there was a great kerfuffle:  a lady close to us had had her purse, passport and other items taken from her handbag, and hadn’t even noticed until a minute or so later.  At least that incident had taught us to be a little more careful!

However, this isn’t just a story about the hazards of travel in unfamiliar countries.  It is a reflection on the curious status of the tourist.  At various stages of my life, I have wanted to visit another country.  I read some guidebooks, often take one with me, and plan out an itinerary to ensure we (myself, partner, and usually various children) see several ‘points of interest’.  Without meaning to do so, we treat a visit as if places were there for us to see.  That perspective is often compounded when the visit has been part of a larger exercise (like the two river cruises we took some years ago).  Then we are taken as a group, and, ignoring the local population, stop at various vantage points to look at the sights and listen to the explanation.  What gives us the right to assume the city, the buildings, the museums and galleries, are all there for our benefit?

When I look back, the most rewarding visits to another country seem to have been those when we met with a friend, a local, and let them decide where to go, and what we might want to discover.  We’d still see famous parts of a city, we’d still go into art galleries, but our guide is a friend.  Part of the enjoyment is their enthusiasm about the places we visit.  More to the point, they know us, and shape the experience in a way that reflects an amalgam of what they know we like and at the same time what they feel is interesting or noteworthy.

A simple example of that was visiting Geneva on one occasion and being taken out of the city to visit the Fondation Martin Bodner.  If you look up museums in Geneva, you are unlikely to see this mentioned, but our friends guessed we would find this collection interesting. It has a  “permanent exhibition, dedicated to the history of civilization in a journey through time [in texts], covering 5000 years since invention of writing, which offer a contrast with the 170-million-year-old fossils displayed at the museum’s entrance …a unique heritage library recognized as World Heritage by UNESCO, a place for research and conservation, as well as a museum open to all and dedicated to writing from its origins to this day”.  It was superb.

What didn’t we see in Cairo?  Yes, we enjoyed seeing the Great Pyramids, and the treasures in the museum.  That’s the one-day visitor’s sights.  We were taken past markets, shops, residential areas, fascinating buildings where, on another occasion we might have spent time wandering around with a local friend, who wanted to help us see the Cairo of which she was proud.  Those are the visits that make a difference, the ones you remember.  If I think of San Francisco, I think of a dinner I had with a couple I knew well in a tiny restaurant, just around the corner from their home.  If I think of Geneva, it’s that Fondation that sticks in my mind.  However, on far too many occasions the experience has been like that in Cairo:  not much better than looking at a selection of photographs in one of those colourful travel books.  Sadly, I have to admit I have never really seen Egypt.