Monday, February 07, 2011

Thoughts on Egypt

A few people have asked for my thoughts about the Egypt crisis. It has been almost a dozen years since I walked the streets of Egypt, so I'm sure things have changed dramatically. I'm not sure I have anything important to add to the conversation, but after the third request, I thought I would write something. It has just taken me awhile to get it written.

All in all, I would say this - when the citizens of any nation rise up enmasse on their own, and say they want different government, it's a powerful statement. As best I can tell, that's the situation in Egypt. It is incumbent on the rest of the world to support those citizens, not those governments.

It takes incredible courage to make a public statement that you are unhappy with your government in a place where that statement may cost you your life. It seems that is the situation in Egypt, although I have to admit I was blissfully unaware of that during my visit.

The "uneasiness" I felt from locals when there I attributed to the differences in our cultures. It was certainly very different, especially with regard to women, compared to US standards. In retrospect, I realize I was just ignorant of what was happening around me. It was the first time I had traveled in a developing nation and didn't understand the intricacies involved.

One of my rules when traveling is that I am a guest and I act accordingly. I wore very conservative clothes during my visit, kept my long hair pulled up and covered when it was appropriate, and kept my speech circumspect. It is not my place to bring revolution when traveling, it is my place to be respectful.

Revolution only works when it comes from within. It would seem that's what we're witnessing now. The only kind of war that ever has any long lasting effect is true civil war. I hope it doesn't come to that in Egypt.

The people I met in Egypt were warm, friendly, helpful, generous and gracious to a person. I was there about 3 1/2 weeks and interacted with hundreds of people over that time frame. Everyone was wonderful to me.

It is - or at least was at that time - very unusual to see an American traveling alone in Egypt. I met one other couple from the US who were not in a tour group. I saw only one American tour group. That said, I didn't spend a lot of time in places where tour groups would naturally go.

I talked with dozens and dozens of people on the street. Sometimes it was casual, sometimes curious. Once I was approached by a young man who was reading a book and ran up to me asking if I was an American. I said yes and he asked if he could ask me about a word. I said sure and he opened his book to show me "apothecary" written there. "This word? What is this word? What does it mean?" I explained it was like a pharmacy and it was as if a light dawned for him. In retrospect, I remember him glancing around nervously. I took people's caution in approaching me as respect. Perhaps it was fear of some unknown presence. I hate to think that, but it is difficult not to looking back.

People were curious about me traveling alone, not to mention being a woman alone. And they tend to like heavier women, so that attracted attention, too. But no one was ever inappropriate in any way. In fact, on two different occasions, men I was with jumped to "defend my honor" when it had not been called into question as far as I could tell.

Once was when I was walking along a main street in Luxor with a young man I had met there. He had taken me to visit his sister and he was walking me back to my hotel. He would not come into the hotel lobby and I realize now it was because of the "protection" offered there for the tourists. He had just told me he couldn't go inside, and didn't answer the questions I asked.

As we were walking along the street, a man in a passing car said something to me - I speak no Arabic, but I had learned a few words by then, and it was very mild - something like "you are beautiful." The young man I was with ran into the street after that car, yelling in Arabic. Traffic stopped, other men got out of their cars, and all converged on this car with the man who had said something to me.

Much yelling ensued but eventually it was all worked out and the man I was with came back to the sidewalk. I asked what that was all about, and he said, "He can not speak to you like that. He would never say that to an Egyptian woman - never yell at her from a car. For all he knows you are my wife."

On another occasion I was in the car with the taxi driver I had used a lot while there. He had taken me many places and we had had much conversation. Egyptian traffic is not for the faint of heart, and he was amused by my lack of concern. Midway through my trip he told he, "the first day I know you are different. You sit up front, you throw your bag in back and you... you... you never..." and he made flinching motions. I laughed, he laughed, we bonded.

One day we were coming back to Cairo and on the equivalent of a freeway. I was talking to him and not paying much attention to anything else. It was warm and we had the windows down. At one point he leaned forward, looking past me, and yelled at the driver who was in the car in the lane next to me. I didn't understand the Arabic, but it was obviously angry. The other driver immediately fell back. We were probably going at least 60 mph so I don't know how they communicated, but they did.

I asked what it was about. My driver was very mild mannered, so this was very out of character. He shook his head and said, "He was looking at you." I had been looked at a tremendous amount since I had arrived in Egypt - it is not rude in their culture to stare - and I was very much an oddity - so I wasn't sure what the big deal was. I started to say something and thought better of it. My driver looked at me and said, "He should not look at you that way. He would not do that if I was with my wife. For all he knows you are my wife."

What I gathered was that being a wife obviously gave you important standing. And it was an affront to a man you were with if another man gave you a sideways glance.

It was a life-changing experience to be there - in multiple ways.
The people of Egypt were warm, welcoming, generous, gracious and inviting. I spent a lot of time in the Egyptian Museum. Those who know me well know I've been fascinated with Egypt from the time I was very young. I feel such incredibly blessed that I was able to go.

I got to tour many of the closed tombs at Sakkara, including spending time alone in the Pyramid of Unas - one of my two main goals. It was closed to the public but I was lucky enough to get special access. My other main goal - the Step Pyramid - was also closed to the public but I was able to be inside it, too. I saw the pyramids of Giza - the famous ones - but did not go inside them. I had to make a choice because 3 1/2 weeks wasn't enough time to be in Egypt and see nearly everything, and I chose to spend more time at Sakkara.

My dealings with the government were limited, but I can recall two instances.

I was able to get into a controlled area and climb the red pyramid. It was supposedly an off-limits, military area but my taxi driver pulled up and had a conversation with the guard, explaining my interest, and he allowed us entrance. I was warned by the taxi driver to not offer a tip to him - that it could be seen as a bribe. It was good he warned me because it was customary to tip everyone for everything. However, when we emerged from inside the pyramid, the gentleman who was the overseer there was not a government employee so I tipped him for his time.

I hired a professional guide to go with me to Edfu and Esna. I don't know what it's like now, but at that time tourists could not travel to those areas without being in a "convoy." I was the only person going so it was the driver, my guide Sophia, and me in the car. There were maybe eight cars in the convoy when we left Luxor.

All the tourist cars went together in convoy with official cars front and back. At various checkpoints, you stopped and convoys went in different directions. At one point, our car was the only one continuing on to Edfu so we had to wait, and it looked like it was going to be 2-3 hours. Because fewer tourists go to Edfu, there was less demand for convoys going that way.

My guide and driver pleaded the case with the officials at the checkpoint. I understood very little of it except the word, "American," being mentioned regularly. Eventually, they reached a compromise and sent a guard with us, who sat in the front passenger side with a machine gun while we went the rest of the way to Edfu. At Edfu, my guide convinced him to stay behind and he and the driver watched as we walked up to the temple and returned. I did receive a few quizzical looks from the locals, but I'd grown accustomed to that by that point in the trip. I knew I was a curiosity.

The other time I can think of that involved anything government related was a wedding. I was invited to a wedding by a gentleman I met in the Khan - a huge shopping/market area in Cairo. It was his wife's brother getting married. I went back and met him the afternoon of the wedding, then went to his home where I met his family - the sweetest two daughters you could ever imagine. Anyway, we drove about a hour to the place where the wedding was taking place - some sort of military place. It was a beautiful area.

A little while into the event the gentleman who had invited me and some of the other male members of his family were talking to an official there. Eventually, the gentleman came to me and said that the official wanted to hold my passport while I was at the wedding. I politely refused and said I would leave. I didn't want to cause any difficulties and I appreciated his kindness. He didn't want me to leave, but I was not going to give up my passport - to anyone - for any reason - period.

Eventually I was in an office with the official, and a couple of the men from the family, including the man who had invited me. I continued to flatly refuse to give up my passport, but was happy to hop on the subway and leave. Finally they relented and let me stay without having my passport. It was probably totally innocent - just procedure - but I do not give my passport to anyone for any reason.

One of my rules for traveling in developing nations is ALWAYS keep on your person your passport, a credit card you can buy a plane ticket with, and some cash. Keep them against your skin in a travel wallet. If you need to leave the country quickly you do not want to have to go back to the hotel to gather your things. Be prepared at any moment to abandon everything and get yourself out of the country.

I've never needed to use any of those things and have never been in any sort of dramatic situation. I'm a pretty relaxed traveler, but that is one rule I do not break. In the developing world you should always, always be prepared to leave with nothing but what you're carrying on you, and get out of the country. That said, the scariest "crowd situation" I've ever been in was in Louisville, Kentucky, but that's another story.

I have nothing earth-shattering to say about the situation in Egypt. Politicians in every country confuse me. But people in every place are much the same. They want to live content, safe lives. I'm certain that's true for the people of Egypt.

On my last day there, as my usual taxi driver took me home he said, "You, you see more in three weeks than most people see in years. You come here, you see Egypt, you meet people, you love Egypt." He was right about that. I do love Egypt. And the people. I hope I get to live among them at some point.


bailey said...

Thanks for this. I always want to hear from "real" people who have actually been to the place they're talking about. You learn so much more!

Patsy Terrell said...

You're so welcome. It has been too long since I've been in Egypt. I hope to return soon.

Judith said...

Interesting post! I can see you and your relaxed attitude in the taxi. You are a force to be reckoned with. BTW, you have some great memoir material here - and you merely grazed the surface - didn't even leave a scratch.

sigerson said...

Very nice account, Patsy. I've been to a lot of places in the "third world," but I've never been a woman traveling alone in Egypt. You got guts. Good on ya.

As a social-media expert, what are your thoughts on the political implications of Facebook, Twitter, etc.? How have they changed politics? How will they change politics?

Deb Brown said...

Nice article - and a gentle look at a people of a country you love. I'd only wish you'd write a book.

Patsy Terrell said...

Sigerson... What social media gives people is a voice they don't have otherwise. That's true in any part of the world. It allows people to tell their story in a way they've never been able to before. And they can tell it to a large number of people all at once. There's a reason the Egyptian government "pulled the plug." And, frankly, I needed no other indication the government should go than that they were trying to silence their own citizens. On the other side of the keyboard, people who are receiving those messages are people likely to care about openness. The internet was built in the idea of openness - not initially, but when it became a force. And people who believe in that will simply find a new way for the people to speak when government tries to silence them - just as they did in Egypt. Any people who have access to the internet can not be silenced any more.

Patsy Terrell said...

Thanks, Judith. I could write a series of memoirs from that one trip. It was filled with insights. But I'm not sure it's something I'm inspired to do at this point. I did keep a detailed journal while there so I wouldn't forget details.

Patsy Terrell said...

Deb, thank you. You're so kind. I've written more than one book. But, as is so often the case with writers, they remain in my computer instead of out in the world. I haven't written about this experience publicly - this is probably the most I've written about it. It has been so long since I've been there I hesitate to talk much about it anymore. I don't want to be one of those people who is talking about the great trip they took back in the long, long ago instead of talking about the cool thing that has happened since. But, I do love to write... and have written many thousands of pages by now about various subjects... maybe one day I'll figure out what to do with them. Thanks for reading.