“What do you think you’re so special? You’re not American
okay, only Indian!” I hadn’t quite expected to hear those words from an angry
camel carriage driver ferrying a family of four, of which the wife and daughter
were shrouded in cowls and the husband was upset that I had refused to pose
with his son for a photograph. I had certainly not expected to hear them in the
foreground of the Great Pyramids of Giza.
I had been planning a trip to Egypt for ten years. Towards the end of 2015, I called up a friend in Cairo and said I was going to visit.
“What, seriously? Now?”
“Yes. I want to see the pyramids before the ISIS bombs the fuck out of them.”
“I think you have a while, but then people probably thought that about Palmyra.”
I booked myself on a tour that promised to be an eight-day assault on the senses, where takers would be whisked from landmark to landmark, with barely enough time for selfies. I did ask the operator to fly me in a few days before the tour began and book me out a few days after it ended.
The lead-up to my departure did not augur well. Two tours were cancelled because there were not enough takers. Apparently, the accidental killing of tourists by the government and the deliberate gunning down of a flight by militants can have that effect.
Eventually, the agency gathered a minority of souls who were willing to risk their brains being scattered among bits of falafel for the pleasure of walking on the sands of the Western Desert. And so, in January 2016, right around the time security was heightened for the five-year anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution, I found myself on a flight to Cairo.
Within sixteen hours of stepping foot on Egyptian soil, I was standing in the shadows of the world’s largest tombs, and in the glare of ten eyes, four through slits in cloth.
“Typical,” said an Egyptian friend, when I told her of the exchange, “We have no sense of personal space; and a baggage of self inflicted racism.”
I had often pitied tourists who were importuned for photographs by leering men on the prowl in India, and folded into eager side-hugs when they obliged. I thought my brown skin was a good enough photo-repellent, until I arrived in Egypt as both exotic and pedestrian—a cheap substitute for the white tourists whose countries had issued advisories against visiting this possible next outpost of the ISIS.
Egypt is a land in conflict. It is a land of conflicts.
Located in Africa, it has more in common with the Middle East. Yet its status as the leader of the Arab world in all things including its vehement opposition to Israel, was dealt a blow by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, when it led the Arab world in recognising the state it had once denied.
The number of women smokers could give a tourist the impression of a liberal society. But many non-veiled women, including blogger Nervana Mahmoud, say the prejudice against them is rapidly increasing. In 2014, a guest on a television show about women’s rights was coerced to wear a hijab in order to participate. On May 4, 2015, graffiti endorsing the veil, calling trousers “disobedience to Allah” and not hiding one’s hair “satanic”, appeared at various spots in the Cairo University metro station. Yet, many Egyptians say the hijab is considered bee’a, derisive slang for “working class”.
People are proud of the Tahrir Square revolution, but upset by what it did to the economy, which is largely dependent on tourism.
A 2015 World Travel and Tourism report estimated that the total contribution of travel and tourism to the Gross Domestic Product was $36 billion in 2014 (nearly 13 per cent of GDP) and projected that it would rise to $58.4 billion by 2025.
A compilation of data by Index Mundi showed that visitor numbers had fallen from their peak of more than 14 million in 2010 to between 9 and 11 million a year since the revolution. An industry which had generated $13.6 billion dollars in 2010 contributed only $7.9 billion in 2014.
It didn’t help when Egyptian forces fired at a group of tourists and their guides on September 13, 2015, mistaking the picnickers for militants.
On October 2015, the ISIS hammered the final nail into the coffin by shooting down a Russian passenger jet at Sharm El Sheikh in Sinai. Several countries suspended their flights to Egypt, leading to losses of $283 million a month according to the ministry’s statement. Egypt’s Federation of Tourism Chambers (EFTC) told the local media that occupancy rates in the resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada fell to as low as 10 and 15 per cent.
Tourism had generated nearly 3 million jobs in 2014, 11.6 per cent of the total employment, and the twelfth highest ratio in the world. But in 2015, many agencies went bankrupt and the manpower ministry said it had signed off on $4.2 million in subsidies to 46,000 workers who had stopped receiving their salaries.
The traders are desperate for tourists; they’re angry that we’re not gullible white people. The locals are keen to post Facebook photographs with foreigners; they’re angry that we’re not blonde and grinning vaguely in incongruous headgear. Egyptians are proud of their ancient history—a history that was pushed into the past by the marauding invaders who were their own progenitors.
s the plane began its descent, I peered out of the window, hoping to spot the pyramids. Instead, there was sand everywhere—on the ground and in the air, infusing the landscape with a sleepy yellow. The airport itself was a study in kitsch, with pyramids and mummies and hieroglyphics and large-eyed mythical creatures popping out of walls and floors.
The first thing that struck me on the ride from the airport was how many hotels were called “Isis”. One, as a rather pathetic afterthought, had added “Osiris and” before the Isis, in a brighter shade of paint.
“Those hotels can’t be doing too well,” I said.
“Yeah, they have competition from the Zawahiri chain,” a friend grinned.
“Hello, and welcome to the ISIS Hotel,” said another, “My name is John. How may I help you?”
“Would you like to hear our specials today? We have infidel-three-ways—slow roasted, sautéed, and sous-vide. We can do cold cuts if you prefer.”
The two of them laughed. Perhaps dark humour is the only way to deal with rage.
As it happened, I would never find out for myself whether the hotels were named for one half of the legendary incestuous twins or in ode to the infamous holy warriors. I was put up at Movenpick, with a view of the pyramids from my windows. Even the guard dog had a Western name, Hogan. The hotel’s claim to fame was that it was the place where the Mexican tourists stayed before their unfortunate foray into the desert.
he tour group into which I had been slotted comprised only Indians. There was Posh Aunty, the kind who has her hair dyed in a salon and owns an independent house in South Bombay and tells you she and her daughter-in-law are BFFs. Mr. Posh Aunty had more joint problems than she did, but was obliged to heave her enormous suitcases this way and that, while his wife smiled supportively.
There was Bargaining Uncle, who would refuse to buy anything without first bringing it down to a quarter of the listed price, and then demand a ten percent discount on behalf of the group. He would also ask for tea every place we went, and offer to pay. Everyone turned down payment, saying, “This is Egyptian hospitality”. I wouldn’t have blamed them for spitting in it. Mr. and Mrs. Bargaining Uncle bought out several stores and downed several cups of Egyptian hospitality.
Bengali Family with an unrelated Tagalong Bachelor, two retired couples, and a UAE-based Indian couple who spent most of the tour claiming we were being looted and fooled completed the group.
bus ferried us to the pyramids that night, for the Sound and Light show. The only evidence that this was a land with worries was the presence of armed officers in black uniforms, wearing bulletproof vests.
The pyramids looked enormous, but we knew they were some distance away from how tiny the buses winding down the roads that led to them were. I counted thirty rows of sixty seats each. There were two tour groups—less than forty of us, half of whom were Chinese or Japanese and blocked everyone’s view by crouching over their cameras, and yapped all through the show, drowning out a recitation of how the Sphinx has guarded the Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure against all invasions for 5,000 years—until that of the South East Asian tourists, one presumes.
We travelled an hour and a half to find the Indian food promised in the tour bouquet. This gave the tour group’s members their first opportunity to whine about how much they missed the country they had left that morning.
“This does not even taste like Indian food,” said Mr. Retired Bank Employee.
“I’m sorry to say,” Bargaining Uncle said, shaking his head, “We don’t even give our servants this kind of rice.”
“And then, something like Tahrir Square happens, and business is like...phussss,” he said, indicating a downturn.
Our guide for the day insisted on being called “Simsim”, though that was not her given name. Simsim sounded less upbeat than her name as we drove towards the pyramids.
“Be very careful,” she said, “You have lots of cheats and robbers. Some are saying they work in tourism industry, they have accreditation, they show you badge. But anyone can get name badge made. They will tell you something is free, and then steal your money. Nothing is for free. Or they offer to take your photo, and don’t give you back phone till you give them sixty or seventy dollars. Or they take you behind a pyramid and have friends there to hold you and take your money. You will be stuck.”
It sounded like a minefield—the guys who rode camels, the carriage-riders, the sellers of knickknacks were going to hoover our money. Simsim knew some people who would charge reasonable fees, so we could ask her for help. While the rest of my geriatric company decided to ride camels, I took advantage of the time to commune with the pyramids. Not for long, as it happened.
Fatih the Hawker came up to me, grinning. I thought I’d told him, along with everyone else who accosted us with tacky souvenirs, that I had no plans of buying anything.
“La, shukran,” I said, as Simsim had taught us on the bus.
“Look, no hassle in looking,” he said. “No hassle” was a popular refrain in the souvenir shops. One even declared, with a board, “BELIEVE IT no hassle.”
I shook my head. “I don’t even have my purse.”
“Oh, it’s you...sorry, I thought it was someone else,” he said, and stood nearby. I glanced at him, and began to take photographs. “You look like my sister,” he added, “Here, let me give you a gift.” He began to unwrap a headdress from its cheap plastic covering.
“Our culture is to not say no for gift,” he said, fixing it on my head.
“Let me take a photograph of you,” I said.
“You want I take a photo?” he asked, breaking into a warm smile as he reached for my phone.
“No, no, I’d like to take a photo of you, since you gave me this gift.” I clicked, and he looked uncomfortable.
“You go back to bus, not safe for you here,” he said, fidgeting, “Lots of tricky people here. People here saying they work for tourism, but actually, they may be thief. I have a badge, I work for tourism.” He pointed. “See?”
I began to walk back towards the bus. He fell in step.
“I come to protect you,” he said. I quickened my pace. A few silent moments later, he said, “I have two children. You give them some Indian money as a gift?”
“You ask for gifts?”
“I give you gift, you give another gift. That’s Egyptian tradition.”
“I can return your gift.”
“No, no, keep it.”
We were nearly at the bus by now, and he seemed rather deflated. “Are you sure you don’t want my gift?” he asked, as I was about to board. I nodded, and handed it to him.
The geriatrics were returning. Bargaining Uncle wore a headdress identical to the one Fatih had “gifted” me.
“Did the guy who gave you this say you looked like his brother?” I asked.
“No. He said I looked like his father.”
“Did he ask you for a return gift?”
“Yes,” said Bargaining Uncle, “I said the greatest gift you can give is a heartfelt thanks. So that’s what I’m giving him. That and a handshake.”
fter my annoyance at the camera-wielding tourists the day before, it was oddly comforting to see the Sphinx sitting firmly on the same bedrock from which she had been carved, the pyramids rising out of the same ground on which they had been assembled, block by block. I was standing where pharaohs had once stood, watching as soldiers whipped slaves and blocks of stone crushed bones, as stoneworkers cased limestone, as artists painted the inner walls. These pieces of the past had endured from a time where no one imagined that one could communicate through wires and towers and airwaves to a time when cameras could disintegrate the distance between the shooter and the object, lenses packed into a communication device smaller than one’s palm. Surely, they would endure the soldiers of a heartless god?
But the swelling of my heart at the sight of ancient history not just surviving in the twenty-first century, but driving the economy millennia after their time, was to subside at our next stop.
We went to the Egyptian Museum, which stood on Tahrir Square.
A guard at the museum was thrilled when I asked about the events of January-February 2011.
“Here, here, it was here. People were there, here, standing on that. Tahrir Square is all around you,” he said, pointing out the lamppost from which a young man had waved the Egyptian flag, the line where the security forces had stood, the area where prayer mats had been set up, the buildings from which the enormous flags had been passed on Victory Friday.
I asked him where I could get koshari, popularly known as the food which had fuelled the 25-day protests. He laughed, and said something excitedly to a colleague. Soon, several locals—including the driver of our tour bus—had gathered around, wanting to know how the Arab Spring had been perceived outside Egypt.
“Why is this place famous?” Tagalong Bachelor asked.
“It’s where the revolution began,” I said.
“Take a photo, na?” Posh Aunty called to her husband, who looked helplessly at the backpack, handbag and three shopping bags he was carrying, “This is where Nasser’s revolution happened, it seems.”
The Cairo Museum claims to house “over 100,000 antiquities from every period of ancient Egyptian history”. These bits and pieces looked forlorn, displaced from the spaces and times they had once inhabited. Most heartbreaking was the gallery featuring the treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb, stripped of their significance, removed from the positions into which they had been carefully arranged three and a half millennia ago, and sealed off behind glass cases with identical labels.
The various layers of Tutankhamun’s tomb—the sarcophagus, the wooden coffin, the stone coffin, the golden coffin, the lacquered casing—were on display, along with the various things with which he had been buried, which included a throne, a chair, his personal items ranging from slippers to headdresses, and jewellery. The British archaeologist Howard Carter and his associates, who had discovered his nearly-intact tomb during an excavation at the Valley of the Kings, had drilled through each layer of the elaborate tomb, carefully cutting the coffins and casings so that they could be broken apart and pieced together in the impersonal setting of a modern museum.
Even before I had seen the mummy of Tutankhamen, in its now-bare tomb bearing the identifier KV62 in the Valley of Kings, naked and half-decomposed into its constituent bones, having undergone the final humiliation of being removed from its sarcophagus and transferred to a temperature-controlled glass box for tourists to ogle in 2007, I felt violated on behalf of the boy king, who died so long before his elaborate tomb could be completed that he had to be hurriedly buried in a tomb meant for someone of far lesser stature, and who was not even granted the dignity of lying in this improvised resting place for posterity. Excavations are ongoing even today at the Valley of Kings.
When I got back to the bus, the driver smiled and handed me a packet containing something warm.
“What’s this?” I asked.
He would not take any money for it.
ur next stop was the Khan El Khalili Bazaar, a “mediaeval” shopping centre, whose occupants’ idea of trade between India and Egypt appeared to be rather different from ours.
“Amitabh Bachchan shopped here!” called one of the shopkeepers.
“Mahatma Gandhi shopped here!” called a rival, “Come this way!”
“Shah Rukh Khan is my Facebook friend,” grinned one.
“He is a big liar,” said a man sitting next to him, “You’re from India? How are you? How is Hemamalini?”
“You look Egyptian. You like Egyptian husband?”
One held out a belly dancing costume to Posh Aunty. “You look very nice in this, yes?” She giggled.
Another jangled a noisy pair of anklets at Mrs. Bargaining Uncle.
“Is the price reasonable?” I asked Simsim.
She looked around furtively. “Ssh. They’re already angry because they think we tell tourists not to buy from them.”
he next day, we set off down an eight-lane highway, on a journey to Alexandria. The Bride of the Mediterranean was heralded by a Coca Cola factory. In a city where cars from the Eighties, donkey-driven carts carrying vegetables, merry-go-rounds, and go-karting arenas jostled for space on the roads and pavements, a plethora of cultures stood testimony to its history.
Named for the Macedonian conqueror who had built it in 331 BCE, it is most famous for Pompeii’s Pillar, constructed in honour of the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 4th century CE, and a citadel built by Sultan Qa’it Bay, who was once purchased as a Circassian slave and went on to command an army. The citadel was built in 1480 using the last remaining stones from the ruins of the Lighthouse of Alexandria—one of the ancient wonders of the world constructed in the Ptolemaic Kingdom—pushing all memories of the lighthouse into history while ensuring its constituent parts survived for posterity.
It is most famous, though, for the ultramodern architecture of its vast library, which houses some of the oldest extant manuscripts in a room with dim lighting and the steady hum of machines that maintain an optimum temperature and atmospheric conditioning.
As we were taking photos at Pompeii’s Pillar, I saw a man talking animatedly to a tourist, who then dropped a note into something.
“Is that a wishing well?” I asked.
“The drain become wishing well when you can come at night and take the money, because people are so stupid.”
he Nile cruise is a must-do for tourists. The shortest cruise is three days long, between Aswan and Luxor, with connecting flights to Cairo. Before boarding the cruise ship, we went to the High Dam of Aswan, which marks what was once the boundary between Egypt and Nubia.
We were the only ones at the dam, and could walk across the bridge to view both sides.
“Usually,” our guide said, “There are at least five tour groups at any time. You have to fight for a spot to take photographs.” He sighed. “Everything has changed since Tahrir Square.”
It was the first time I had heard “Tahrir Square” used as a euphemism.
The guide went off the itinerary and carted us to an Egyptian cotton shop, “because we know Indians love Egyptian cotton” and “this cotton is genuine”. Everything was marked at twice the price of a similar “genuine” shop we had visited in Cairo. The guide slipped into conversation with the proprietor, in low tones. From my extremely limited understanding of Arabic, it appeared they were related and the owner was telling him how terrible business had been.
There was more evidence of the flagging tourist industry as we walked to the cruise. Several ships were lined up parallel to each other. To get to a ship, one had to walk through all the others between that one and the shore. They were of different grades, ranging from 3-star to luxury. The first one we crossed had beautiful upholstery and crystal chandeliers. The stewards and receptionists wore crisp linen uniforms, and the carpeting was opulent. There were intricate light fittings across the ship, but most lights were off, perhaps to conserve electricity. No customer appeared to be on board. This was the case with most of the luxury yachts, whose primary clientele were those who earned in dollars, euros, and pounds.
n a country like Egypt, which relies on Western tourism, everything is tailored to meet the expectations of the average rich white person looking for an exotic holiday—the desert tours, the themed parties on board the cruise, the belly-dancing, the tanoura performance, the music.
Nowadays, most of the tourists are brown. Many are Arabic speakers from the Middle East.
When the voluptuous belly dancer appeared in her itsy-bitsy costume, she found her audience largely comprised clapping middle-aged women and their embarrassed husbands. After shimmying for a couple of minutes, she seemed to decide either that this audience was not worth her curves, or that it wouldn’t approve of them, and pulled in tourists to dance with her.
And so a Lebanese grandfather hopped around with the belly dancer for a while, before switching to his wife. Posh Aunty and Mrs. Bargaining Uncle bumped chests and hips with the somewhat startled belly dancer after ordering their husbands to take videos of their exploits. Two young women in hijab jiggled their shoulders and gyrated to the music, before getting into some sort of square dance routine with the belly dancer and their grandmother.
There would be three more days of this—three days during which I would meet an Egyptologist who spoke with some erudition about Hatshepsut and her decision to go bare-chested and have herself represented with a beard so that she would be a pharaoh like all pharaohs, and wonder what this man with the purple zebibah on his forehead approved; three days during which I would see floating markets on the Nile, where traders tossed shawls on to the top deck, fifty feet above the water, and trusted us to put the money we had settled on inside the pouch and throw it back; three days during which I would flip through the unsold magazines at the souvenir shop, in English, Spanish, French, and German; three days through which the European-looking man at the reception stopped smiling at people whom he had no hope would tip him.
n the cruise, we were to visit Abu Simbel, with its two enormous temples, of Ramses II and his queen Nefertari. Their history provides more evidence of this land in conflict—this time between preservation and development.
The guide told us with great triumph that when the Aswan Dam was being built, the temples were under threat of being submerged. The original temples had been constructed over a 20-year period, carved out of the rock on the mountainside. They were broken up and dismantled, and their pieces ferried to the top of the same hill from which they had once been fashioned. These statues had survived 3232 years, for a chunk of which they had been buried under the desert sand, only to be broken up in 1968, and celebrated as testimony to a skilled salvage operation.
As I walked through the halls of the temple, ensconced behind the majestic statues of Ramses II, I thought of what remained of his body—a shrunken figure lying in the desolate Royal Mummies Room in a museum. I preferred the sculpture that rose 70 feet into the air, the King of Kings and Shelley’s Ozymandias.
Something else struck me at the time that would be reinforced during our visit to the Temple of Edfu the next morning, the Temple of Luxor a day later, and the Valley of Kings soon after. In these edifices dedicated to Horus and Isis and gods and pharaohs who were no longer divine—which reminded me so much of temples back home—people stomped through corridors that were once anointed, posed against carved pillars whose creators had died thousands of years ago, took selfies in shrines which no one but the high priest was once allowed to enter, and bribed security personnel so that they could take forbidden photographs of 5,000-year-old paintings, whose original colours were in danger of fading from exposure to the camera flash. Do gods lose their powers when the civilisations that worship them are vanquished? I wondered, as I heard a Spanish-speaking tourist yell, “Hijo de puta, cabrón!” (“Son a whore, cuckold!”) at a guard who tried to stop him from using flash.
Could this happen in India? If a temple at which a Pandya king once worshipped no longer serves the same purpose, is it consigned to architectural significance and nothing else? Was this what happened at the Konark temple, at Khajuraho?
In Egypt, temples where even the pharaoh had to abase himself and kneel before the shrines now bowed to new gods—tourists who paid for their upkeep.
Perhaps most miserable of all were the Colossi of Memnon, mind-bogglingly large statues that once guarded the entrance of a mortuary temple that no longer exists, of Amenophis III. How enormous, how grand, how awe-inspiring must this temple have been, if an afterthought added to it could be so magnificent?
No one knows how the temple was destroyed. Perhaps it was an earthquake. Perhaps it was the Nile in spate. Perhaps it was the arrival of Christians and Muslims who condemned idolatry.
“Do you think this could happen in India, a few thousand years down the line?” I wondered aloud.
“It would have happened a few hundred years back,” said Mr. Posh Aunty, uttering the first assertive words I had heard from him, “This is why we don’t allow non-Hindus in our temples. All these foreigners would turn our temples into tourist sites.”
“You are hundred percent correct, sir,” said Retired Bank Uncle.
But how much does religion have to do with it? Islam could not possibly sanction the defilement of graves. If the excavations in Egypt had been conducted by local archaeologists and paleoanthropologists rather than Westerners, would they have been less cavalier in raising the ancient dead? Or would human remains unearthed from heathen graves have become subjects of scientific study and the objects buried with them turned into exhibits anyway?
I thought of the bronze statues and stone sculptures in museums back home that might well have decorated temples that had been erased from existence.
The once-splendid structures now had an air of pathos. The
pharaoh who considered himself god on earth, the queen who would be king, the
most powerful beings in Egypt who had commissioned feats of architectural
wonder, who had supervised the construction of their legacy even as they had
watched over the decoration of the tombs in which they would lie, were now
analysed in laboratories across the world, dissected for the components of
mummification, displayed for tourists.
The fight for survival was no longer theirs. A new struggle for existence was on, for the calligraphers at the Papyrus Institute, who offered to write our names in hieroglyphics for ten Egyptian pounds, the sculptors at the alabaster factory who had been trained to chorus one-liners and make music with chisels in time to the owner’s exposition, the perfumers who waxed poetic about aphrodisiacs in the hope that 60-year-olds may want to spice up their sex lives—artists who had turned themselves into performing monkeys for tourism.
ur last day in Luxor was spent in a resort with a French name. I found two white women lounging in bikinis by the side of a swimming pool in a quiet zone. “No children” read a signboard, also carrying a rather ominous picture of three tubby hand-holding figures with a large red ‘X’ painted across them for good measure.
There were several infinity pools in this property spread over tens of acres, with thatched beach umbrellas and palms rising out of the sea that lapped against its outer reaches. It was hard to believe we were in the same country we had toured for a week.
A burst of noisy chatter in Arabic preceded a muddle of children in swimming costumes, who ran screaming towards the infinity pool, followed more sedately by a group of laughing women of varying ages, in burkhas and colourful headscarves.
“I hope you enjoyed your trip?” my friend said, as I was leaving.
“I did, but I feel like I know a lot more about Egypt of 300 BC than 2016,” I said.
“Egypt 2016 is depressing. That’s all you need to know.”