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Cultural ambassadors bring peace to Egypt


We entered the city with a bang as the open-backed van that carried my brother Jason and I swerved through the constricted dirt arteries radiating from the center of the city and rammed off the side mirror of a hapless lorry. The hippies sharing our van snapped out of their hashish comas and watched in panic as a pack of turbaned, bearded men leaped into the dust cloud of our wake to jut their palms at us.

“Aren’t we going to stop? I think we just nailed that guy!”

They looked relieved when our driver chided that he would find the owner of the maimed Nissan later. The business of tourism must go on! This is as true in Luxor, where almost nine of every ten Piasters in circulation are injected from abroad, as it is anywhere in Egypt.

We were dirty and hungry, and the smell of our own sweat mingling with that of our harder-traveling companions had us aching for our destination and the promise of a shower and dinner. I nurtured a hope for hot water, whispering the name of our destination from the dog-eared guide book: “Golden Palace Hotel.”

Two weeks earlier, Jason and I had arrived in the sprawling metropolis of Cairo. After a short period of introductory folly, we fled the overbearing taxis and evil-eyed papyrus salesman of urban Egypt and left by train to Aswan, the charming and more reserved hub of the south. From Aswan, we chartered a Felucca with an English couple also bound for Luxor (the authorities demanded that the passengers outnumber the crew), and sailed 50 kilometers north in two days, first to the captain’s village and then to a small agricultural town named Kom Ombo.

Our journey was delayed when, after viewing the Temple of Kom Ombo, our inquiries for onward travel led us to a crisp-uniformed army officer in mirrored sunglasses. He informed us that we should make ourselves comfortable. A guarded convoy would be leaving eventually, he said, but not until it accumulated sufficient human cargo to justify the trip to Luxor.

That the Egyptian Government insisted we have armed guards was unsettling, but it made sense that they took an active interest in protecting tourists. Disaffection rears its ugly head even in the most materially wealthy society that has ever existed. Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. is full of dangerous crazy people when news clips periodically air of well-armed survivalist militias in Texas. It isn’t a particularly acute problem for the States because, as it turns out, people will still buy fighter jets, iPods, and trees from you even if they think you are nuts.

Except for a thin strip of green around the Nile River and the odd oasis, though, Egypt is a desert. There are few trees, so they make due without them or rely on tourists to spend lavishly on hotels, carpets, and little ceramic pyramids in order to trade for the things they want.

A series of attacks by Islamic terrorists in the ‘90s began to threaten the flow of visitors to the country, which was increasingly perceived as a dangerous place, and the tourist industry was dealt a body blow in 1997 when 62 people were slain at a popular archaeological site near Luxor. Dependent on tourists and foreign aid for economic prosperity, the Egyptian Government was compelled to act.

And so we waited. Four hours, three Cokes and two bags of ketchup-flavored potato chips later, the same officer stood, stretched, and casually mentioned that the convoy was about to leave without us. Without another word, my brother and I grabbed our bags and ran in the direction of his outstretched finger. They were there to keep us safe, yes, but military service is compulsory for men. Forget about customer service.

Once in Luxor, we set about investigating the pool at the Golden Palace. Given its size and temperature, it seemed to us that it must have formed from the frozen drinks spilled by guests on the way back from the discotheque in the basement. The brochure claimed it was a lively place at night. Then again, it also showed people smiling in the pool.

The shower, in contrast, was sizeable, and stocked with endless quantities of hot water. After a week without bathing, it was downright transformative. My brother and I exited the hotel well scrubbed and in good spirits, full of good will and good intentions. Being reasonable, and wishing only for kindness, it was obvious to us that a mutual beneficial understanding would naturally follow between the local citizenry and us.

The theory was immediately tested when we stepped off the rough, concrete sidewalk in front of the Golden Palace and were approached by a thin Egyptian man in his mid-twenties. His skin was chestnut and sun beaten, and when he spoke to us his eyes ranged around sightlessly like a shark’s. They peered out from under high brows that gave him a look of permanent and somewhat feigned surprise.

“Some dinner, please? Come, I will take you to a good place. Very nice. You will like.”

“La shookran,” Jason replied. “No thanks.”

We wanted to explore the city a bit before helping one of the local restaurant mavens earn their nightly commission. It was a conversation that happened dozens of times per day, but something about our after-shower glow seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way.

“F#$%ign Americans, eh? Too big to come look?”

Jason and I were unnerved. We were neither big enough nor dumb enough to finish a fight in Egypt, and certainly too sober to start one. We stepped around him quickly and were relieved when he gave up and walked back in the direction of the hotel.

Harmless though it was, the encounter set the tone for our experiences in Luxor for the next two days. Not least because there were only two streets of substance and we kept bumping into our new friend. Tourists and their predators run the same circuit. Middle-aged men propositioned me with queries unmentionable. The large green 1.5 liter bottles of Stella beer that had been so refreshing in Aswan now turned to vinegar on our tongues. Even the much-anticipated foray to the Valley of the Kings left us disappointed: More hieroglyphs. More bored guides telling bald-faced lies. Taken together, it was more than a well-meaning tourist deserved.

The evening of our second day in town, we ran into a group of Australians at the King’s Head Pub. They had been on our bus to the Valley of the Kings earlier in the day, where we noticed them tastelessly teasing a young merchant for having greasy hair. Now they were slamming down pints and giggling incessantly at eighty decibels with an American Marine, a clichéd pack of bad tourists if there ever was one. Nothing could have looked more attractive.

Arriving with a nod and a fresh round of drinks, we squeezed into the faded, red booths adjacent to Aussies and struck up a conversation. There were four of them, all in their early ‘30s, tan and stubbly, and their hair a little long in the back in that way that only Australians can pull off. They were on holiday from Perth, or maybe an overdone stag party – both were raised as plausible reasons for their being in Egypt. It seemed impossible for them to stay serious for longer than a minute, and they frequently broke into fits of laughter with next-to-no provocation.

As the flow of oxygen to our brains steadily decreased, so did our inhibitions. The dampers stifling our anger at being treated like unwelcome guests were raised as we recounted the slights and humiliations of our travels in Egypt. Each party’s stories were mutually reinforcing, fueling a vengeful groupthink and soon we were primed for the sort of beer-soaked irresponsibility that only modern law and policing can regularly endure. The staff turned us out.

A taxi was hailed, which Jason and I blocked from escape while the Aussies waved money at the driver, demanding that he cram all seven of us in and convey us to the disco at the Golden Palace at once.

“It’ll work. We’ll put two up front with you and the rest will form a human pyramid in the back. We’re acrobatic, mate.”

“No. Please. The disco is closed! It is very late!”

“Nonsense. It’s barely midnight.”

“Oh no, no. For so many, you must each give…”

We crammed into the four-door as if it were a clown car, straining the already overworked suspension. The Aussies sang crazily as we made our way back to the Golden Palace and urged the driver to go faster. When it stopped in front of the hotel, we sprang from the windows and doors and bolted in all directions.

“Distract him!”

The driver gave chase on foot, collecting his pay and unwittingly drifting further and further from the vehicle. When he cornered the marine, the rest of us circled back to the cab, disengaged the emergency break, and started it rolling down a gentle incline. The driver cut his losses when he noticed the car thirty meters down the street, rolling for glory, and sprinted after it. We fled into the Golden Palace disco before we could see if he caught up to it.

The sick joke of dawn yanked us from the void of recuperation a mere hour after we lay down. The bus to Hurghada, a small diving hot spot town on the Red Sea, was leaving in thirty minutes. Our spongy brains willed us to the station before the locals could launch a counter-offensive.

Luxor had never been welcoming. It called out to us from the guide book like some stooge operating a carnival game and then emptied our wallets. It coaxed out our worst behavior. Nevertheless, there were feelings of cross-cultural inadequacy in Jason and I. Our self-image of thoughtfulness and flexibility had shattered.

The English couple that had shared the felucca with us from Aswan were at the station when we arrived, looking bright-eyed, rested, and dressed to travel.

“How’d you guys make out?”

“Ugh.”

“I can smell it on you.”

That bit of demeaning small talk out of the way, we climbed to our seats and promptly fell back asleep.

Three days of snorkeling and dining in Hurghada did much to restore our health and spirits. Hurghada was a place of soul and hospitality, and we left friends there. Towards the end of the tedious seven-hour ride back to Cairo, we were confused when the bus suddenly pulled over on the shoulder of the road with the Capitol visible in the distance. Jason put two and two together: The sun was setting and the Egyptians hadn’t eaten all day. They were hungry!

During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, the faithful fast from dawn until sunset. They are supposed to refrain from smoking tobacco as well, and most do, at least in public. Foremost among the meanings of this custom is the teaching of self-discipline.

As we both wanted a cigarette badly, the delay suited us. We lit up and milled around the bus, watching the other passengers prepare their meals in the fading light. After a minute, a sharply dressed man in a tailored charcoal suit approached us.

“Deutsche?”

“Nein, American.”

“That’s too bad, my German is much better. My Russian, too! Forgive my asking – you did not smoke on the bus before?

“No.”

“But you smoke now? You are not Muslim. It is ok for you.”

“Yes, we know.”

“Then, why?”

“Out of respect.”

“Ah! I see…” He smiled broadly and shook our hands. “That is good.”

The man’s coattails billowed in the wind as he turned and walked a few paces from where most of the passengers were crouched eating. He stroked his chin with his thumb and forefinger and finished his cigarette as he watched the sun slip below the horizon.

You win some, you lose some, I guess.

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