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Though few tourists are around to buy them, camel rides are still offered around the Great Pyramid at Giza. All photos: Nathan DePetris

In Cairo, Marc Kassouf witnesses the Egyptian revolution in afterimages.

CAIRO AIRPORT IS DESERTED when my flight lands. The silence in the terminal is broken only by hurried footsteps echoing loudly off concrete walls. It’s December 2011, during the height of Egypt’s elections, in the aftermath of revolution.

The airport shuttle driver

Abdo is resigned when I first board his shuttle. When he discovers that I speak a smattering of Arabic, he beams and thanks me for coming during the troubles. As I struggle with my rusty Arabic, I learn Abdo’s view on the revolution: It was necessary, and regime change is welcomed, but now Egypt needs to focus on rebuilding.

The camel owner

In typical Arab fashion, I sit down with Abu-walid, a villager who owns a handful of camels in Giza city. The waiting room is all mirrors and maroon lace trim covered in layers of grime and cigarette smoke. Sweet aromas of mint waft across my face when I’m offered tea, a welcome contrast to the strong smell of camel.

Abu-walid describes the route, pointing to a massive board with carvings of the nine pyramids and sphinx. I’m struck by the irony of using hieroglyphics from four thousand years ago to sell tours today.

I begin the haggling. It’s hard to argue when Abu-walid laments about business drying up, the increasing price of bread, and having to support his wife and children. I trek through the sands confident that a camel ride was not such a bad deal after all. Maybe I’ve provided some help to Abu-walid’s family.

A lone woman walks past the Alabaster Mosque atop Cairo’s citadel hill.

The tourist police officer

Alexandria is calm, its attractions empty except for the occasional school group. I’m greeted by Gamil, one of the rifle-toting tourist police. These guys are charged with protecting antiquities, tourists, and the nation’s largest economic sector; they’re known to be fiercely overprotective of visitors. So, when Gamil asks me to walk with him, I don’t hesitate.

He’s pleasant and speaks English well, welcoming me to Egypt and the Qaitbay citadel. But, when the tour commentary starts, I know where this is heading. Many of the lesser laws are broken daily. Police and military, concerned with larger issues and keeping the peace, generally overlook smaller infractions. Gamil is blatantly giving unlicensed tours for tips. I politely decline, saying I want to explore independently.

Harmless as it may seem, I can’t justify taking him away from his real duties. The citadel lends itself well to wandering, so I climb the parapets, mingling with locals and few international tourists.

The grocery cashier

At a large grocery store next to my hotel, I meet Khalid at checkout. He’s a former tour guide and university student turned cashier to make ends meet. In my brief minutes with Khalid, he expresses his disappointment about tourists not returning fast enough. He hopes that more, like me, will start to visit again.

Nubian villagers selling dolls to tourists have been hit hard by the decline in travelers along the Nile.

The villagers

Plying through the early morning mist to visit a Nubian village, the boat’s engine shatters the silence along the Nile as the hull breaks the water’s mirrored surface.

My small tour group of eight is the only to visit in days, a tenth of what the village used to receive before the revolution. I’m greeted by local girls and women selling wooden dolls at the village pier. One woman pushes her way in so closely she’s touching me from shoulder to hip. I’m astonished by the brazen proximity of a married Muslim woman, fully bundled in her black woolen hijaab.

Dismay shows clearly in their eyes as we begin to leave. One girl implores me to buy some dolls so she can afford school. I take a dozen before moving on.

The senior officer

I return to Giza for a second visit. The site is waking up; local camel drivers are arriving and merchants are putting out their wares. I’m accosted by trinket sellers inside the archeological site. While technically illegal, this small act of lawlessness is usually ignored. This morning, however, a senior officer comes by.

He’s a distinguished gentleman in his forties, and he exudes an authority above that of the other tourist police. Immediately, the hawkers begin to scatter as the officer calmly comes to confront them. Most apologize and then exit. I watch as a dozen or so others drift off, seeming to leave, but returning almost immediately after the officer turns his back.

He turns toward them again, and this time, anger and disgust are clear in his voice. “You are the vermin that is plaguing our country! You have no shame! I am the law, the order of Egypt, and you ignore me, you mock your country and your land! Shame on you! In God’s Name, Go!” His heartfelt commands and pleas still unheeded, he sighs and turns to leave.

The temple of Hetshepsut, one of Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations and virtually on every itinerary, had the fewest visitors in recent years this past winter.

The Egyptians

Searching for lunch the next day, I uncover Sequoia at the tip of Gazira Island. Between the oaky smoke of hookahs, I catch wisps of conversations in mixtures of Arabic, French, and English, mainly about the state of local affairs. The tone of discussion reminds me of growing up during Lebanon’s on-and-off civil war, where life had to go on, regardless of the chaos surrounding us.

Demonstrations in Tahrir Square have flared up again, ignited after a woman was dragged to the ground and beaten, her clothes stripped to her bright blue bra.

But that night, my block of the Zamalek neighborhood is rocked by Western dance and pop music. At first, I think it must be a club, since the area has many discos. Stepping out on my balcony, I see the adjacent apartment building lit up like a beacon, with dazzling lights and dozens of people on its expansive terraces. A festive celebration of life in the otherwise bleak city night.

Commuters scramble on to any space they can find during rush hour at the main train station in Alexandria, Egypt.

Narrative


 

About The Author

Marc Kassouf

Born in Lebanon, Marc Kassouf lived in Europe, the mid east and South America before settling in southern California where he writes about travel and owns an award winning travel agency with his partner. He’s been to nearly four dozen countries and sailed on over sixty cruises. His online portfolio is at www.wanderlustjournal.com.

  • Jared Krauss

    Marc, I was in Egypt from February to May of ’12. Mostly in Cairo and Nuweiba, Sinai. So, I appreciate this.

    • Marc Kassouf

      The whole scene was surreal: chaos and revolution while daily life still had to go on. Meeting the people as they struggled in the aftermath of revolution, especially as an Arab-American, left a lasting impression. I ran into few other foreigners touring Egypt at the time, mainly Russians, Chinese and Australians.

    • Jared Krauss

      Interesting, I met mostly Australians, Italians and Japanese people. In Cairo, by February, it was pretty localized, the protests. As in, if you didn’t go to Tahrir, you didn’t really know about it. Except for on Friday afternoons, obviously. In the Sinai, I arrived there just after the “kidnapping” of the two elderly women who later said, “I went to the Sinai for the real experience. There is no way I would have gotten it otherwise. I can’t wait to go back.” I’m taking liberty with that quote, recreating it to represent the sentiment I felt in what she said. What she actually said I’m unsure of.

      I never felt any worry, but granted I was mostly traveling with bedouins, and so no other bedouins ever bothered me.

      How long were you there for?

    • Marc Kassouf

      Oh, I forgot to mention the Japanese… you’re right, they were definitely around. I guess I was more surprised to find Chinese and Russians taking advantage of the values in large flocks, especially at Karnak which still felt crowded.

      My trip had a portion that was an organized tour group starting in Cairo for three days, then a Nile cruise for a week and back in Cairo for two more nights. My partner and I flew out 12/15/2011 and returned home 1/5/2012, with two days lost in transit through Istanbul, arriving about a week earlier than the tour. Five nights were spent in Cairo on our own, with an additional three nights spent in Alexandria (we went by train), mostly staying on the main touristy areas.

      On several occasions we were very heavily discouraged (in strong Arabic terms) to NOT to go to Tahrir or Fayoum Oasis in the desert. I really wanted to visit the Egyptian Museum (adjacent to Tahrir) on my own before the tour group portion, as you could literally spend days in there. I was glued to the local TV stations and Al Gazira news in Arabic, constantly seeing all the images of ‘protests’ supposedly taking place around us. The irony of it all is while we didn’t go to Tahrir on our own for five days in Cairo, we drove through it at least half a dozen times daily going and coming by taxi (it is a traffic circle, after all). Not once did I feel threatened or even inconvenienced except because of traffic when one or two side streets were diverted. The contrast was amazing: images all over the news, but nothing happening in real life. Admittedly, there was a serious incident and flare up when we were in Alexandria (lucky timing on our part), but that lasted one day; our taxi was briefly stopped by police that day in Alexandria at a makeshift checkpoint, but after one brief glance at us, the police officer said “welcome to Egypt” and let the cab go.

      A deeper irony: our very first morning as part of our organized tour group we drove right up to Tahrir square, parked the tour bus, and waltzed leisurely to the Egyptian Museum where we spent a totally uneventful morning admiring the antiquities.

  • Carmen Johnson

    thanks

    • Marc Kassouf

      You are quite welcome. I tried to capture the essence of the people at the time, and how throughout their struggles with the tumultuous events around them they still persevered.

      My advice to anyone who has postponed or is contemplating visiting Egypt is to visit NOW. Why? The people need our support and there’s never been a better time to go. There are relatively no lines at the major sites in the Nile valley and there are many values to be had which mean a richer travel experience for those willing to brave the headlines.

      TIP: Make sure to use a reputable western tour operator that knows Egypt who will in turn be partnering with a local Egyptian company to run your tours and monitoring events daily. Expert travel agents can also point you in the right direction. Using larger US, Canadian, UK or Oz based tour companies ensures a conservative outlook on whether the tour will run or be cancelled for safety reasons.

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