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Egypt, a vibrant land of contrasts and contradictions
Understand that what I shall relate in this series are my own observations, experiences and what I was told by people I encountered.
Wednesday, June 6,2007 00:00
by Bev Conover, Online Journal
Understand that what I shall relate in this series are my own observations, experiences and what I was told by people I encountered. In no way is this a definitive treatise on Egypt or Egyptians.

Since this was my first air trip since 9-11, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luckily, my name isn’t on the “no-fly” list.

The first leg of my journey started from Gainesville Regional Airport in Florida, where I obtained all three of my boarding passes (Delta’s Atlantic Southeast Airways, Air France to Paris and a second Air France flight to Cairo) and checked my bag straight through to Cairo, crossing my fingers it would arrive with me.

Then clutching the ridiculous plastic quart bag with liquids and gels of 3.5 ounces or less each, depositing it, along with shoes, carry-on and camera bag on the X-ray conveyor, I started through security. I knew I was in for some additional “treatment” when the TSA agent marked my boarding pass with a red pen.

Sure enough. I was invited to “step over here,” asked if I had ever had “a pat-down” and did I want to go to a “private area.” I told the woman “no” and “no.” Hell, I wanted people to witness this and there was no way I was going to take my eyes off my stuff now sitting on the other end of the conveyor.

Gainesville is a small airport with only two gates and no overflow of passengers. Perhaps the TSA people get bored and have to frisk a few people each day to liven things up.

Little did I realize I that over the next 20-plus hours I would be climbing into and out of planes, from the Aerospatiale/Alenia ATR72 to Atlanta, the Boeing 747-400 to Paris and the Airbus A330 to Cairo.

I hadn’t been to Charles De Gaul airport in Paris since May 2000, when it was a comfortable, civilized place. So I had no knowledge of the construction project underway that caused us to disembark on the tarmac and board shuttle buses that seemed to be giving us a tour of the whole facility before depositing me at the terminal from which to make the connection to Cairo. Interestingly, while I had not left the secure area, I had to go through security again. No shoes off this time, but the silly little plastic bag had to be put through X-ray, along with my carry-on and camera bag.

My only complaint about Air France, aside from being crammed into coach like cattle, is the food it serves is a disgrace to French cuisine.

The flight from Paris to Cairo was uneventful. Clouds, unfortunately, obscured the ground but there was a break long enough for a peek at the Greek islands as we flew over them. My checked bag even made it and my hosts were waiting for me.

The trip back to the US turned into the journey from hell, but more about that in the final part of this series.

Cairo [Bev Conover photo]

Alexandria [Bev Conover photo]

Cairo, a city that never sleeps, is a sprawling metropolis with a population of more than 16 million, making it the largest city on the African continent and the seventh largest in the world. By contrast, Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, has a population of approximately 5 million.

Of the two cities, Cairo, on the Nile, is very cosmopolitan and Alexandria, on the Mediterranean, is more conservative.

While feluccas, barges and small fishing boats ply the Nile day and night, the river truly comes alive at night with boats decorated with colored lights, many blaring music, offering dinner cruises or just rides until the wee hours of the morning.

Time seems to have little meaning in either city. You breakfast at lunch time, lunch at dinnertime and dine anywhere from 8 p.m. to midnight or later. People phone and come to visit at all hours. A young lady in Alexandria came to call at 1 a.m. to show us the photos of her engagement party.

Driving in both cities is an adventure. In Cairo, more so. Streets and roadways marked for two or three lanes usually are congested with three or four lanes of vehicles. Vehicles are so crowded together that there is barely inches between them. Drivers only seem to pay attention to a few traffic lights. They inch their way into intersections until someone gives to them. Most drive at night with no headlights. No one seems to mind double-parking.

On the narrower streets, parked vehicles line both sides, barely leaving room for two cars to pass and sometimes one has to back up to let the other through. On the main thoroughfares, I was told, the curbs were built so high to keep vehicles from parking on the sidewalks.

Then there are the pedestrians, some who walk in the streets and others

A bicycle for two in Cairo. [Bev Conover photo]
who cross wherever by winding their way through moving vehicles. In addition, in the sections of the cities that few foreigners ever venture into, there are horse and donkey drawn wagons, laden with produce or other goods, street vendors and bicyclists who mix it up with motorized vehicles and pedestrians.

Air pollution is a double whammy, more so in Cairo that has more vehicles burning leaded fuel than Alexandria, and if you look toward the horizon, on most days, you can see the sand blowing in from the desert.

Interestingly, the British occupation of Egypt is still reflected in Cairo where the street and highway signs and many of the signs on shops are in both Arabic and English. In Alexandria, the street signs are all in Arabic as are many of the shop signs.

One thing is certain, if you’re handicapped, Egypt is not the place for you. Egyptians seem to have a love affair with stairs and steps, in addition to the high curbs. Also, the ground around the pyramids and Sphinx in Giza is uneven, contains holes and open excavations, and is strewn with sandstone rubble.

Even the Egyptian National Museum only has long flights of stairs. The new $225 million Alexandria Library only has elevators that stop before ground level, leaving you to use stairs between certain levels and the ground. You would think for that kind of money they could have installed escalators or a more friendly elevator system.

Worse, the new Alexandria Library, which fronts on the Mediterranean, is a modernistic building totally out of character with its surroundings. It’s so big that it was impossible to photograph it from the outside, so I settled for some postcards. From across the bay, it looks like a blue-gray slab. Inside it harbors not a scrap of the original Alexandria Library.

As a matter of fact, while Alexandria has a Greek community, just about all the ancient Greek architecture has disappeared from the surface. It now reposes under the sea, apparently as a consequence of earthquakes. The few ancient Greek artifacts now rest in the library’s Antiquities Room.

If it weren’t for the fact that the fabulous King Tut collection has been returned to Cairo, the Egyptian National Museum would have been a total disappointment. It’s not climate controlled and the markings on exhibits are either poor or non-existent.

The US influence is everywhere. From Pepsi Cola, made with sugar, Coca Cola, made with that awful high fructose corn sweetener, to Lipton teabags, Heinz ketchup, Friskies and Whiskas cat food, to you name it. For the less adventurous American eaters, who are afraid to indulge in scrumptious Arab food, there is the inescapable McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Papa John’s Pizza, Hardy’s, Chili’s, Appleby’s, ad infinitum. In addition, there are restaurants that specialize in just about every ethnic cuisine you can think of.

Egyptians also have a love affair with cell phones. But the ring tones and conversations are less intrusive than what we encounter in the US.

Shopping malls, hotels and apartment buildings are springing up like mushrooms. Both cities even have the French owned Carrefour Hypermarkets that put Wal-Mart Supercenters to shame in both size and range of products available -- and none of that Wal-Mart “what’s cheap this week” stuff.

Then there is the sprawling Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, Egypt’s most famous, founded by Emir Djaharks el-Khalili in 1382. You name it and one or more of the shops either side of the narrow, twisting labyrinth of streets has it. There are also restaurants and cafes. The best prices, according to the locals, are found in the even narrower streets of what they call the old Jewish section. The Jews, though, have long departed and today there are just a relative handful still residing in all of Egypt.

On the southeast side of Cairo, in the old city below the massive medieval Citadel that dates back to the 12th century, is Qarafa, commonly called the City of the Dead, where poor families have set up housekeeping in mausoleums due to a shortage of housing. I was told that some families have lived there for generations. The City of the Dead actually constitutes several cemeteries and I got to visit the Coptic Christian one, which, like the Muslims,’ has evolved into a self-contained, closely knit community complete with shops, eateries, church (actually, two) and even a playing field.

As odd as it seemed that people were living among the dead, residents sitting in the doorways of the tombs they call home greeted us with smiles and nods. Everything looked well kept and they even had electricity and water. Unlike Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, there are no shantytowns in either Cairo or Alexandria.

The priest seemed proud to show off his church and, for a small donation, even allowed me to take photos in the interior. He then took us to the older church that is undergoing renovations.

In Cairo, you see fewer women wearing hajibs (head scarves), abayas, or niqabs (veils) than you do in Alexandria, where the uncovered Muslim woman tends to stand out.

While Egypt is predominantly Sunni Muslim, of the two cities, Alexandria has become the more religiously conservative. Even at the beach it’s not uncommon to see Muslim women’s bodies and heads covered. It wasn’t always that way, according to an Egyptian gentleman who was born and raised in Alexandria. He said his late mother wore bikinis at the beach.

In Alexandria, particularly, you will notice Muslim men with small, roundish scars on their foreheads. I was told that these were a result of their fervency in striking their heads on their prayer rugs.

Five times a day, the imams’ calls to prayer ring out from the minarets: dawn, sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and night. One Friday night, while on a Nile dinner cruise, the difference between the Sunni imams’ and the Shi’a imams’ call to prayer was pointed out to me. The Sunni imams’ is more of a chant, while the Shi’a imams sing. There is a haunting, unforgettable beauty in both.

Egyptians are warm, hospitable people. They invite you into their homes, either kiss you on both cheeks or shake your hand and immediately offer you refreshments. Contrary to what we’re told in the US, Egyptians and people from many other Arab countries don’t hate or want to harm Americans; they abhor the Bush regime, in particular, and the Washington imperialists, in general.

Mention George W. Bush and every Egyptian I spoke with, from a millionaire businessman and his wife to a taxi driver and a maid, had the same reaction: They hate what Bush and his whole administration have done and are doing, especially the slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan and their support for the Israeli Zionists.

Given the thousands of years of Egyptian history and the foreign invaders who have occupied their land, Egyptians, unlike Americans, don’t deny the reality of conspiracies. And the most recent conspiracy in their eyes was the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which they see as an “inside job.”

The views of the Egyptians I spoke with about 9-11 match a 2002 Gallup poll and a 2005 Pew poll that showed most Muslims around the world don’t believe Arabs carried out the 9-11 attacks.

They see 9-11 as a Bush scheme to provide the necessary excuse to attack Afghanistan and launch and illegal war against Iraq. There also is speculation that Bush will strike Iran just ahead of the 2008 US elections, using that as an excuse to suspend the elections and hold on to power. And that was before the National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive Bush signed on May 9, giving himself the power to do precisely that, received much publicity.

While Egypt has been officially at peace with Israel, since former President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Peace Accords in 1978, the people aren’t. They still haven’t forgiven Israel for its preemptive strike that launched the 1967 war in which Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, gained control of eastern Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Though Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt upon signing the Camp David Accords, Egyptians told me they believe Israel still has designs on it and they feel Israel also has designs on Lebanon. In addition, they expressed outage over Israel’s determination to annihilate the Palestinians

Though Egypt is a republic, it is hardly a democracy, therefore, I agreed not to use names.

On the one hand, Egyptians with whom I spoke view President Hosni Mubarak as a “dictator” and a handmaiden of Washington and, on the other hand, admit that Mubarak is the only thing standing between them and an Islamic takeover.

There is even the feeling that Mubarak, who was Anwar Sadat’s vice president, was behind Sadat’s assassination. “That is why,” one told me, “Mubarak has never appointed a vice president.”

If Mubarak is a dictator, how does he manage to hold on to power or are the elections fixed?

Mubarak, I was told, has allies among business owners who benefit from his regime and “they bribe their workers with various incentives to vote for him.”

Egyptians believe Mubarak, who turned 79 on May 4, is grooming his son, Gamal, 43, to succeed him. While Gamal and his bride, Khadiga al-Gamal, were celebrating at their second wedding reception in Sharm el-Sheik on his father’s birthday, protestors gathered in Cairo’s main square to chant, “Gamal can marry Khadiga, but he can’t marry Egypt.”

Yet, one Egyptian who is no fan of Hosni confided that he thought Gamal, who, he claimed, was smarter and more personable than his father, would make an excellent president.

Among the Egyptians I met, Gamal Nasser is blamed for many of today’s problems. One even called Nasser a “communist.”

For example, Nasser instituted a housing policy that gave tenants life rights to their apartments and froze their rental payments. As a consequence, landlords lacked the money to maintain their buildings, so they fell into disrepair, and there was a reluctance to build new housing for Egypt’s burgeoning population. Though Mubarak has reversed that policy, pre-Mubarak tenants still have life rights at the frozen rental payments. That leaves a building owner with the option of either buying them out or selling the building to a developer with the provision when it’s demolished for the construction of a new apartment building that the life rights tenants will be given an apartment.

Yet, there seem to be no people sleeping in the streets of Cairo or Alexandria.

Success in Egypt, I was told, requires two things: money and wasta (connections).

The wasta part requires no money. It’s an “I’ll do something for you in return for you doing something for me in the future.”

While the US government bribes (a.k.a. foreign aid) and coerces foreign governments into do its bidding, it hypocritically frowns upon and even has made it illegal for American businesses to grease the skids with money (bakeesh) to close a deal in a foreign country. But bakeesh is a way of life in Egypt, as it is in many other parts of the world. It’s remarkable what pressing a few Egyptian pounds into the hand of a bureaucrat, a business holdout or an underpaid worker can accomplish.

Much legitimate business seems to be conducted at night and there is a ritual to it. First, you have some refreshments -- non-alcoholic if your host is a devout Muslim -- then some discussion takes place, usually of a social nature, then you eat -- and I am talking about enormous spreads of food -- and, finally, business is discussed.

Craftsmen still abound in Egypt. In an old section of Alexandria, there are shops where men make exquisitely carved furniture and magnificent chandeliers.

Despite the abundance of consumer products available to those who can afford them, Egypt has not yet joined the “throwaway society” of the West. The call of rag and bone men is heard daily in Alexandria. Repairmen will even come to your home to fix anything that is broken.

Physicians still make house calls for about 170 Egyptian pounds ($30US). A lawyer will travel from Alexandria to Cairo and spend the day with you for about $60US, plus train fare, meals and a hotel room. Need a plumber, an electrician, painters without waiting days or weeks for them to show up? No problem.

While even these prices are out of the reach of poor Egyptians who less than $30US a month each, the more affluent and wealthy Egyptians live well. There are maids who will come in five days a week for about $60US a month, plus carfare and lunch. A driver costs under $600 US a month.

Middle class Egyptians earn between $600US and $1,800US a month. Some of the poor, supplement their income with tips for running errand.

Poor Egyptians, I was told, receive government food subsidies. The government also runs free hospitals for the poor, but the quality of care is low. The Muslim Brotherhood has built grassroots support through its social programs.

Overall, Egypt is a fascinating country. Yes, it has problems but so does every other country.

Final part: The return journey from hell

Part 1: Getting there

Part 2: Cairo and Alexandria

Egypt Photo Gallery

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