Alone on the Nile

Sphinx and Camel Caravan, Cairo

These days, Egypt’s reputation precedes it. When we first mentioned Cairo and Luxor as key destinations in our itinerary, friends and family had raised concerned eyebrows. But everyone we’d met who’d visited Egypt in the past six months told us we shouldn’t miss it. There would be no tourists, no lines at the great sites, prices were down, we’d have the country to ourselves. And when we’d planned the trip, Egypt was the boys’ number one destination, hands-down. We weren’t going to let fear keep us away.

Still, when we left Kathmandu for Cairo, it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I’d been to Egypt before, but never with my whole family, lugging bluegrass instruments through the capital, never with a blonde-haired eight-year-old, who’d already attracted unfathomable levels of attention across the Asian continent. We were the opposite of inconspicuous.

“For the next ten days,” I told Miles and Jonah as our plane touched down in Cairo, “we’re Canadians.” They exchanged concerned looks—was Dad off his rocker? “Only to people we don’t know,” I said, “strangers on the street, taxi drivers.” It was a touchy subject to explain to a child. America’s reputation in the Muslim world is perhaps improved from eight years ago, but we’re still a mixed bag to significant swaths of the planet. Vancouver is beautiful—like San Francisco, another great city on the Pacific. Our accents are nearly indistinguishable from those of our northern neighbors. More importantly, the Canadians are a non-controversial people—they have no global colonial history, no bloated military. The bottom line is: it’s hard to dislike a Canuck. Passing through immigration, I tucked our US passports discreetly away.

Outside the Cairo airport, Sarwat, our guest house driver, waved a placard in the sweltering midnight air. He was a large, meaty fellow with eyebrows like bushes and a voice like a jet engine. Half-way to the city he asked where we were from. I paused and glanced back at the boys. We were tearing along an unknown road at a hundred kilometers an hour with a stranger in the middle of the night. “The States,” I said tentatively. I figured if he really wanted to know, he could get this information from the guest house anyway. He turned to me, a huge smile spreading across his face. “We love America,” he said. “Such a wonderful country.” That sort of openness was to become the hallmark of our time in Egypt. Sarwat had a million questions for us, but eventually went on to tout the greatness of his own country. “Cairo is one of the safest cities in the world. You’ll see families walking around at two in the morning, lots of people on the streets, no problems at all.”

The next day we awoke late to Egypt’s first serious heatwave of the year: 115 Fahrenheit in Cairo, 118 in Luxor. In fact, Egypt that first day recorded the hottest temperatures on the globe. But heck, we figured, it was a dry heat. We breakfasted on the deck of our little family-run hostel, hidden on the sixth floor of a stately, crumbling building, hundreds of years old, overlooking the streak and buzz of downtown. Men in flowing kaftans sipped tea at every corner. Bicyclists with impossibly large trays of just-cooked pitas wheeled through the alleys. Not a tourist in sight anywhere.

Wherever we walked, shopkeepers and passersby looked up, all smiles. “Welcome!” they called. They weren’t trying to sell us anything—they genuinely wanted to welcome us. It was as if we were a sign, an indication of a new beginning. Foreign families were here again. Perhaps tourists would start to return now. As if our very presence could herald the end of the economic crisis that started with the Arab Spring, the revolution five years ago.

We hit the Egyptian Museum first—the most astounding collection of antiquity in the world. Colossal granite and limestone statues fill every niche of its hundreds of rooms. “These aren’t replicas,” I told Miles and Jonah. “They’re the actual artifacts from three to four thousand years ago.” Their eyes ballooned and they took off, intent on investigating everything. There are endless rows of jewel-encrusted sarcophagi, golden chariots, entire temples even, their red and blue frescoes still intact. It’s a working museum, and in certain corners you can hear the tap of chisels and catch the scent of glue and cement. I’ve heard that fifty percent of the collection is still in the basement, piled high, not yet catalogued. The galleries are amazingly haphazard, one treasure after another stuffed into different corners. There’s an incredible series of rooms devoted solely to the thousands of items that Howard Carter discovered in Tutankhamun’s little tomb, including the first and third caskets, and the stunning death mask itself – but also the boy king’s shoes, his bow and arrow case, the various games and playthings of an ancient royal.

And then there are the mummies of the pharaohs, lying still in their climate-controlled glass cases. You can see skull fractures of those who were killed in battle. You can see some horrific dental problems. The last mummy you pass is Ramses II. “Historians think that this one,” I whispered to the boys, “is probably Pharaoh. The Pharaoh. History’s worst villain according to Exodus, Moses’s Let-my-people-go guy.” We stood staring at the slight, small-boned man, the leathery face and the knuckles of his feet completely unwrapped. He was less than five feet tall.

We struggled to take in the antiquity of it all – the ancient Greeks are practically our contemporaries relative to the early pharaohs.  No wonder, then, that today’s Egyptians take incredible pride in their past. It’s said that during the revolution, the young protesters in Tahrir Square linked arms and surrounded the entire Egyptian Museum to keep looters from making off with anything. No one messes with Egypt’s heritage.

There was tremendous hope in this country five years ago, hope that percolated throughout the Muslim world. Mubarak had ruled over Egypt for nearly thirty years, assuming the presidency just eight days after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Egyptian youth took down a thirty-year dictator (relatively) non-violently. Twitter became a key tool for political revolution, which was to usher in a new, open, genuinely democratic country.

But five years later, with the economy in tatters, tourism dead, and journalists and social activists disappearing by the hundreds, Egyptians speak with great nostalgia for pre-revolution days. Mubarak, they say, was a competent dictator. Sisi is merely a dictator. The eighty-eight-year-old Mubarak still resides in a bare military hospital room, looking out over the capital city of the great country he used to control. The military intends never to release him—they’re waiting him out until he dies.

“Before the revolution,” our Giza guide told us, “I received five calls a day to guide. I would take the first offer and apologize to the other four. Now,” he said, “I get one call a month, inshallah.” God willing. Everything in Egypt is inshallah. Your health, that of your loved ones, your financial well-being. The revival of your nation’s tourism industry.  “They’ll come back,” we said, “Who wouldn’t want to come here?” “Inshallah,” he reminded us gently, as if perhaps those of us from less ancient cultures—Canada, for instance—might not yet have learned the foolishness of presuming to know what the future will hold.

Camel Riders at the Pyramids

“Come have a ride on my camel!” a Bedouin man called to us as we approached to enter the pyramid of Khufu. “Cheap price for you.” It was our twelfth offer of the morning. “La, shukran,” we replied with a wave of a hand and a shake of the head. We’d been duly warned not to accept rides from the camel touts around the pyramids—there were stories of tourists getting up but not being allowed off until they’d paid the owner an extortionate fee. In fact, though, it seemed like most of the pyramid salesmen had simply gone home. There were only a dozen other tourists at the site after all, most of them Egyptians. No one to sell to. The camel touts who remained seemed subdued, resigned. How long do you keep waiting for the tourists to return before you finally pack it up and find other work?

“How about a photo in front of my camel?” the man asked. “Very cheap.” We declined politely and kept walking.

He threw up his hands, and called to us one more time, “Sir, madam, maybe you want to buy a camel?” He was only half-joking.

Ramses II

A noteworthy finding from an anthropological research project that we conducted during our travels: When any Egyptian man asks, “Your country?” and you say, “America,” he will always reply, “Obama.” However, if instead, when he asks where you’re from, you answer, “Canada,” he will say, “Canada Dry. Never Die.” These results are replicable one hundred percent of the time. Draw your own conclusions.

Karnak Temple
Karnak Temple, Luxor

The morning after we touched down in Luxor, we awoke to news of the EgyptAir tragedy. The victims were almost entirely Egyptians. It was unthinkable. How could this happen now? Luxor was already a ghost town. Seventy percent of the storefronts are shuttered. Nearly every restaurant we tried was completely empty. But this day had the feel of a national funeral. Not just for the Egyptians who’d died, but for the entire country. “We were hopeful that tourists were finally going to come back,” a stunned restaurant owner told us. “But it will be years now.”

Colossi of Memnon
Colossi of Memnon, Valley of the Kings

As we exited the hotel our second day in Luxor, a tall Egyptian with a hipster haircut and the posture of a model asked if we needed a ride. Taxis outside the hotel were half the price of those booked inside, he explained. We hopped in his car.

On the way to Luxor temple, he told us in his slow, deep bass voice that he was Nubian and lived in the village abutting the hotel with all 2,300 members of his extended family. He was twenty-seven-years old. His name was Abdul. “But people call me Chris Rock,” he said. The resemblance was incredible actually. He was funny and smart. He claimed to have seen every video ever made of Chris Rock’s standup. But Abdul’s goatee was longer, and stringy. “Tourists sometimes worry that I’m a terrorist because of this,” he said, unprompted. “But I grew it only to remember my girlfriend when she passed away. This is how we remember our loved ones.”

We never found out how she died, but we got to know Abdul well. We called him every time we needed a ride, every day for nearly a week. Muslims stop for the call to prayer five times a day, but Abdul often stuck with us for hours on end. “Business is holy according to the Quran,” he said. “If there are business matters that you can’t miss, you skip prayers. You pray when you can. God understands.” Would God understand why we’d told Abdul Chris Rock that we were Canadian? I wondered. Did we even understand ourselves?  As Abdul rattled off stories about life in Luxor, pointing out landmarks and family members (“Hey!” he’d call out to his two hundredth uncle, “I’m driving a family of Canadians!”) we cringed at our own paranoia—but it felt too late to confess. The lie hung between us, a small curtain reminding us of the limitations that fear imposes.

We had the incredible Luxor and Karnak temple complexes completely to ourselves. This was ancient Thebes, the greatest city in the world, and as we padded through endless rows of colossal columns, eyes tilted upward toward the peaks of obelisks, it was impossible to believe that this most amazing of places was, today, nearly empty.

In the Valley of the Kings, we channeled our inner Indiana Joneses and climbed back through time into the brilliantly decorated secret tombs of Thutmosis III, and Horemheb, and Ramses IV. And then finally into Tutankhamun’s. The curators decided to leave his mummy in the tomb where it was discovered. His body is even smaller than that of Ramses II. He was just a boy when he died. His parents’ child.

Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor
Temple of Hatshepsut, Valley of the Kings

On our last evening in Luxor we rode horses along dirt paths through the villages that dot the Nile, children waving to us, boys herding goats. We passed the spot where Moses was said to have been discovered in the reeds. There were places along the dirt trails where little has changed in the past three thousand years.

Obelisk, Karnak Temple, Luxor

It would be easy to say that our fears permanently dissipated as a result of the kindness of the Egyptian people and the beauty of the country. I wish that were true; at times, it certainly was.

But as our last EgyptAir flight takes off, bringing us from Luxor to Cairo and then on to Athens, the welcome video zooms in on an image of an ancient mosque. A droning Arabic prayer fills the cabin. Arabic script scrolls past on the overhead screens, and I notice something tight and uncomfortable in the pit of my stomach. Something I’m not proud of. It’s barely been seventy-two hours since the crash.  The prayer, unlike the rest of the inflight announcements, is never translated to English. Sarwat, our driver, was right, I keep reminding myself. Most of Egypt is probably safer than San Francisco. And Oakland, and San Bernardino, and Chicago, and Binghamton, and Washington, D.C., and Newtown, and Aurora, and Columbine. And Orlando.

Thankfully, it’s a short flight—soon the pilot’s voice is blaring through the cabin. “We’re starting our descent toward Cairo,” he says. “We hope for a safe landing, inshallah.” I glance at the faces of the passengers around me—old Egyptian women in hijab, Coptic priests in flowing black robes. God willing, we hope for a safe landing?  This is not what I want my pilot to say. It’s not why I pay for professionals to fly the aircrafts I ride. But no one else seems fazed.

Inshallah. Maybe I’m the one who’s over-reacting. After all, this is the thing about the human life. The miracle of it all. The brief, blazing flash. The more you hear the word, the more you start to realize—in a visceral sort of way—how little is in your own hands. In times past, you’d spend any wealth you were lucky enough to amass building shrines and monuments and temples—as high and elaborate as you could. These days, instead, we fool ourselves, thinking that our endless selection of consumer choices means that we’re somehow in control—of our lives, of our children, of the world. But in the end, every breath, every precious moment is inshallah.

8 Comments on “Alone on the Nile

    • Thankfully not! (Everything was already so quiet there.) Alas, we’re two countries behind with our posts–currently in Israel with Richard and Terri!

  1. It is fascinating to read about your experiences. Wishing you all more adventure and self-reflection–we’ve so enjoyed your writings. Thinking of you all on your travels… Beth, Finn and Eleanor

    • Hey, you guys! So glad you’re following along with us. Very much looking forward to reconnecting one of these days too–in Bay Area or So. Cal.

      Hope you’re all doing well!

  2. I was just mesmerized reading the account of your Egyptian travels.

    • Thanks, Maxine. So glad you’re sticking with us. Home soon 🙂

  3. Wow! I’m so excited you saw all that and had a safe visit! Laura

    • Thanks, Laura. I know one of these days you’ll be there too 🙂

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