I have recently started working as an editor at Shermans Travel and when I was assigned an article on serene parks in chaotic cities, my mind went back to the last year and the calm I felt in Cairo’s Al-Azhar park while trying to adapt to the overwhelming city.
With the news that is coming out of Egypt over the past week or so, no-one is promoting Egypt travel and so I cut the Cairo section. But I am still thinking about Al-Azhar and hoping for Egypt.
With more than its fair share of traffic, overpopulation and pollution, Cairo can be an overwhelming and exhausting place to visit. The city has a shortage of open spaces so when Al-Azhar opened in 2005 it must have come as a huge relief for the city’s inhabitants and visitors.
The site of this 74-acre park was, incredibly, once a garbage dump. Its transformation was funded by His Highness Aga Khan IV who, after seeing piles of garbage from his hotel balcony, decided to intervene and offer the new park as a gift to the people of Cairo. 80,000 truckloads of garbage were removed from the site in the process.
The park is beautifully landscaped, featuring lawn areas, fountains, courtyards, restaurants, cafes, excellent views of the Citadel — especially scenic at sunset — and green, green grass, the likes of which you will struggle to find elsewhere in Cairo. A long stretch of the historic Ayyubid city wall was discovered during excavation and runs along the western end of the park.
Through taking the course and talking to young Egyptian activists, long-held understandings shifted. I started to realise things that should have been obvious. Authority, global order: these things are not rigid. Oppression draws power through our consent; we can withdraw that consent. Nonviolence does not mean inaction: it is often strategic.
In the ICNC course I learned a lot about strategy; about movements from West Papua to Burma and Chile; about different terms used for nonviolence (Satyagraha, People Power..) I learned about creative resistance (the Estonian Singing Revolution, Burmese clowns, Chilean cueca sola…)
As I moved through the year and from this place to the next I saw signs of dissent; civil resistance, and what Kircher Allen called the “common font of yearning for an alternative global order.” From Egypt to Mexico and the USA I saw people struggle for rights, recognition and to strategise a commitment to nonviolence.
There is some nuances I still debate. Such as the photograph below.
It is a stencil of Mubarak and (what I am told is) writing that says “when will he die?” I saw others (that I didn’t photograph) of his image in a noose. I believe that words can be violence so do those images have a place in a nonviolent movement?
What about the destruction of property? Below is a photograph of the burned-out NDP building in Cairo. My first glance at it inspired an initial feeling of horror, which lifted when a woman smiling and taking photos of it expressed to me how happy the sight made her.
A question posed in the ICNC course: If property destruction is violence then how should we think of the Danish Resistance blowing up Nazi railroad tracks?
I am learning and I am asking myself questions and I don’t understand much but I am trying. I still struggle with hopelessness and anger but I am trying to be an optimist. There is both optimism and despair in dissent but signs of nonviolent dissent give me hope. I think that is a good way to move into the new year.
The Nile flows northward and so when you travel down the Nile, you are in fact going North. This is why the south of Egypt is called “Upper Egypt,” and is one of the ways that you have to turn yourself around when travelling through the country.
There is certain gravity to sailing along the Nile. When I stepped onto the little sailboat, or “felucca,” in Aswan, I was beginning a journey similar to one taken by such weighty figures as Herodotus, Caesar, Churchill and Twain. When Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale both made the trip, though not together, in November 1849, it proved a turning point in their destinies: the Nile inspired and transformed them, the disappointed writer and conflicted nurse, into the people they were poised to become. Together their experiences along the Nile produced detailed letters, copious notes and, a few years later, Madame Bovary.
My own note taking had so far centered on criticisms of my travel companions.
I was in Egypt on a three-week trip sponsored by an adventure tour company. I reacted to the news that I had been selected for the all-expenses-paid trip first with delight then with trepidation that this was with a tour group. See, I had never willingly been part of a tour group in my life before (mandatory childhood vacations don’t count). Being fiercely independent and slightly anti-social, I had always elected to travel alone: from my first solo trip to Japan at 19, to crossing South America in my twenties and Eastern Europe at 30. The few times I tagged along with other travelers, whether also solo or in groups, it had often ended awkwardly – like the time when I was so tired of my Laos travel buddy that I quietly left our shared bungalow in Vang Vieng and headed back across the border to Thailand.
This section of the Egyptian trip was described in the itinerary as “extremely relaxing.” After two weeks of a relentless grind of tour buses, desert convoys, pre-dawn wake-up calls, merciless touts and street harassers, I felt that I deserved some extreme relaxation; but I worried about the confinement and forced intimacy necessitated by the felucca.
Our living area was essentially a large mattress where we all slept toe-to-toe in sleeping bags and under a protective layer of bug spray. With nowhere to go, time was marked only by meals: the eating and preparation of. We would barely be finished hunching over our breakfast bowls when the cook, a Nubian calling himself “King of the Nile,” would begin lazily chopping up vegetables in preparation for lunch.
On the first afternoon, within hours of setting sail, a familiar noise started up: the ringing drone of street harassment, except this time it was coming from the riverbank. I looked up from my book and felt at once annoyed and impressed at the young men’s capacity for sexual harassment even at the distance of a river’s width. A boy who couldn’t have been more than 10, yet apparently already fluent in the language of harassment, accompanied them. Our felucca bobbed painstakingly slowly along. Our tour guide, Ahmed, who kept talking about “group dynamics,” tried to distract us with a game of cards. I pulled the sleeping sheet over my head but the noise was replaced by the nasally sound of the Australian woman’s voice. She talked incessantly and in generalisations about the many countries she had visited, and summed each one up with a simple and shallow line: Kenya is like this; India is like that. Scribbling down my irritations were all I could do to keep them from showing.
By the next morning our group dynamics looked set to coming crashing down like a house of cards. The older Englishman was the first to get up; he had been woken at dawn by the call to prayer and had spent the last few hours getting worked up about religious doctrine. Ahmed made the reasonable argument that he might have expected this in a Muslim country, so he moved on to complaining about the design and efficiency of our boat.
“There’s not even anywhere to stand up and walk around,” he began. “If it were up to me, I’d take out this part, make this part lower and use that part as a baggage storage area. That way we’d have more room.”
He also had concerns about not making it to Edfu on schedule.
“It’s going to be like this all day.” He tutted, looking out at the river. “Just tacking into the wind”.
He had a point, the spot where we set sail yesterday afternoon was still in sight, but it sounded like a small child’s nagging, “are we there yet?” In truth there is no “there,” on a felucca, the journey is the destination.
Despite the availability of more modern, efficient alternatives, the felucca remains the primary means of transportation along the Nile. Mostly, however, they are used to ferry tourists on trips that range from a few hours to a few days. Our felucca sail was ostensibly a means of getting from Aswan to Edfu, but the journey, rather than the temple town of Edfu, was really supposed to be the destination.
By the afternoon our guide had started disappearing into the boat’s one tiny cabin and pulling a curtain across the entryway. His patience had been commendable for almost our entire trip. Only once did he slip: a couple of days earlier when, after we had been sitting at a police checkpoint for close to an hour, he chastised us for complaining. “You should have expected this,” he said, voice cracking with what I imagined to be disappointment that he really had to go through this with yet another group of tourists. “Being in Egypt at a time like this, you should have expected these things.”
On the third afternoon I saw my chance: a visit to Kom Ombo Temple. Ahmed recited the required historical details then slinked off to the side for a cigarette and phone call, leaving us to wander freely around the area. The temple was deserted thanks to an ongoing political uncertainty and threat of unrest that had resulted in a tourism industry that was functioning, at best, at fifty percent of the norm. We had the place to ourselves.
I made my way to the back of the complex, out of sight of the rest of the group, and began to walk. I walked and walked, smiling as the muscles in my legs began to loosen and the knot in my back untangle. Finally, I could relax.
I felt the light weight on my shoulders first, a scarf thrust onto me and pulled around my neck. The man holding the scarf was trying to sell it to me apparently through strangulation. He kept talking and pulling one end of the scarf as I tried to pull the other in the opposite direction. He was apparantley trying to sell me the scarf through strangulation but, rather than wearing the usual tout’s grin, he looked angry. I had learned the requisite Arabic phrases for deterring touts, harassers and general annoyances but when my throat, now free of the scarf’s grip, produced words they were incomprehensible even to myself.
For the first time on the trip I wished for the presence of someone else. At that point that I heard a noise from behind, it was the Australian girl yelling at the tout. In my confusion and didn’t catch what she said or did, but within seconds the man had gone. I was left feeling gratitude and a sting of shame.
From the point when I learned to appreciate my travel companions, I started to think about them less. My notebook from the last day on the felucca journey onwards is filled with details, thoughts, sketches: Egypt. As it should have been from the beginning.
Our trip begins in Cairo on a Sunday, which for most of the Islamic world (including Egypt) is the equivalent of the Western world’s Monday: start of the work week.
We are woken around dawn, given a breakfast box and bundled into a landcruiser driven by a man given the name Teddy Bear. The roads are thick with traffic and Teddy Bear, a Bedouin from a small desert oasis, moves with caution and at times alarm through nose-to-tail traffic and a chorus of horns.
“He is from the desert. He hates Cairo!” Our tour leader laughs.
Still strangers to one another (our small group only met yesterday) we have long stretches of driving time to talk. I find myself curious, irritated and warmed as I slowly get to know my new travelling companions.
We make two stops for thick Turkish coffee, once in Bahariya and once at a remote roadside cafeteria, then head into the Western Desert, a vast and isolated expanse that covers around two-thirds of the country.
We stop first in the Black Desert. Black rocks, stones and dust remind me of a volcanic landscape, like that of Hawai’i.
As we continue on our way, the landscape slowly lightens.
…until we enter the White Desert. A lunar landscape of wind-eroded limestone formations, it is where we set up camp for the night.
We wake up freezing and in bad humor. After warming up with cups of coffee and digging through the piles of the pita bread and boiled eggs that will become our staple for the rest of our time in Egypt, we shuffle into our clothes and back into the landcruisers to explore the nearby dunes.
Yelping and clutching the seats, we barrel up and down the dunes. When we stop, we take turns sliding down them on an old piece of plastic. Some are reluctant; others insist on taking another go.
Bob, one of our Bedouin guides, makes lunch.
We spent the night at a Bedouin camp in Dakhla Oasis, home of our guides. The Bedouin code of hospitality says that Bedouin people must treat visitors well and not ask for payment; the increasing numbers of visitors to the oasis was putting a strain on the locals and so this rustic camp, which charges very modest prices, was set up.
The next morning we swim in another hot springs then return to the camp to let the heat pass. Late in the afternoon we head out on camels through the desert to the base of a great escarpment where we spend the night. Our tour leader says that he hates the camel ride, and makes a point to show his disdain by lighting up a cigarette and making calls on his mobile while atop his camel.
The next day we drive on to Al Kharga oasis town where a bored guide leads us around the 7th century Christian burial ground at Al Bagawat in sweltering heat.
Our police escort finally shows up and we reach Baris Oasis, where we spend our final night in the desert.
“Everything is becoming really hard.” Badr Abd El Moghny is apologizing for raising the modest entry fee to his mud and sandstone, fairytale-like home and art gallery. Since the revolution and in the midst of uncertainty, he tells us, prices have risen and he has to pay more for the postcards of his work and brochures that detail his biography.
Badr Abd El Moghny is a self-taught artist who was born, and continues to live in, the Farafra Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert. He describes the house that he built in the Oasis as his “dream” and embraces his self-appointed moniker “An Artist with a Dream.”
Surrealist paintings and sculptures fill the house, and it is easy to see why he cites Dali and Picasso as inspiration. El Moghny has exhibited in England, Germany and Cairo and says he has opportunities to travel more with his work but prefers to stay at home. That way he doesn’t get homesick.
It is just after 5 a.m. and our tour group is being herded onto a boat for the second morning in a row. We had made the same trip across to the Nile’s western bank yesterday, but a fierce wind had prevented us from boarding our waiting hot air balloons and making our planned flight over Ancient Thebes.
So we woke with our alarms at the same time this morning and stumbled down to the hotel’s reception, grabbing two packs of inadequate Nescafe to stir into our cups of boiling water. There was a mild panic before one of our group, the American, appeared at the last second, complaining that the hotel had neglected to provide him with a wake-up call. The Australian girl and I rolled our eyes in his direction; he’s 53 years old and apparently ever in need of supervision. Later on today he will put his faith in a stranger he meets at the Post Office and jump on the back of his motorbike to be taken to his home for lunch and to, inevitably, be sold something. “Would you do that in America?” Our tour leader asks him and he quickly shakes his head. “Well then why do it here?”
A warm red starts to color the sky as workers rush around rigging up baskets and examining the rising balloons, which soon dwarf them. Drafts of flames flare up, warming the chilly morning, and the first balloon rises skyward, aided by the tugging of a small group of men bundled up as if this were the Arctic.
I had originally dismissed the idea of a hot air balloon ride as a bit tacky. I was feeling more inclined to break from my tour group than to undertake yet another of those arranged ‘activities’ that we were methodically expected to join and of which I was tiring; the camel ride, the donkeys, the horse-and-carriage… I had no wish for another tourist activity – though, of course, every move I made in Egypt was unavoidably a tourist activity. Learning that it was archaeologists mapping the area that had first thought of it lent the balloon ride enough credibility to get over my creeping indignation and sign up for the trip.
An eighty-six year-old Australian man has to be lifted into the basket; the rest of us hop up and over, balanced on the shoulder of our pilot Mohammad. As some of the other balloons start to rise we are given our safety talk; it consists of telling us to crouch down in the basket. I’m the slowest to move and discover that there will not be enough room for all of us to take the emergency landing position. While I am half-standing, half-crouching, squeezed between two trip mates, a couple in our group starts to talk about a ballooning disaster in New Zealand. It doesn’t even cause me to flinch; death hosts this trip, it hangs in the sky as much as the tear-shaped balloons.
Our own balloon ascends, rising with the dawn sun. It drifts gently and peacefully across the lifeless desert. Viewing the area from above, I understand something of why this vast, empty space should have been chosen as the site to create a whole city of death. Beneath us lies the Theban Necropolis, testament to an ancient obsession with death and resurrection. It is strange, unusually beautiful and very peaceful. From tombs, to mummies, to pyramids and mortuary temples, the entire trip has been preoccupied with death and it brings a strange sense of peace to just yield to it.
Like a ghost ship we sail past waking villages and great monuments. We float over the Colossi of Memnon – two massive statues that have stood in place for 3400 years and once guarded the mortuary temple of Amenophis III – and the Ramesseum – mortuary temple of Ramses II. Other balloons in the distance drift in front of the morning sun, casting a heavenly glow across the sky. Mohammad keeps pointing out the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Tombs of the Nobles, and I sense that we are not really moving anywhere; just hanging suspended and lost someplace between land and sky; life and death, past and present. In near silence we float for close to an hour like this before making an effortless landing in a sugar cane field tended by an unmoved farmer.
The ground crew rushes towards us and gets to work while the farmer casually smokes a cigarette. Most likely, he’s seen this ritual before and will see it again the next day and then the next. Insha’Allah. Snapping my thoughts back into the present, the engine of our waiting van starts up; the crew yell at each other in that indecipherable Egyptian way that could be either an expression of love or of anger; commemorative certificates are dispersed, someone tries to sell us a DVD, and a hat comes out for baksheesh for everybody. The stuttering wheel of the Egyptian tourism industry grinds on.
Here was something I was completely unprepared for: the police escort. It was bad enough, in my mind, that I was confined to a tour group itinerary, a tour guide and the company of the same people; a police escort made it all sound even more stifling.
Egypt relies heavily, depressingly heavily, on tourism, and some extremist groups have exploited this by targeting tourists in several bloody attacks including the Luxor Massacre at Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, and the bombings in Sharm el Sheik and Dahab. Nevertheless, the police escort strategy has been in effect since before these attacks and, although I question their effectiveness, they did provide some comic relief at times:
–Somewhere in the desert: The men in the police car (Chinese import vehicle that I had never heard of) calling out at us in our land cruiser. I thought we were being told off for driving too fast but, no, there was no speed limit; they were just asking us to keep slower than 80km/h because their car couldn’t reach that speed.
–Our last night in the desert: We were apparently supposed to have a police escort stay with us every night that we camped out in the desert. One only showed up on the last night. He creeped me out (see previous post) and spent the evening singing loudly and very badly along with his mp3 player – interrupting the music of our Bedouin friends, who all fell around laughing.
–The tourist convoy to Abu Simbel: Nothing noteworthy to say about it, just to grumble that, as only one was allowed per day, it required a 3:30am wake-up call. And really, “tourist convoy,” what an ugly couple of words.
–Crossing into the Sinai region: We waited at the checkpoint for an hour so that the police could decide amongst themselves who would travel with us while a couple of young soldiers engaged in some dramatic play fighting in an attempt to impress us. In the end a bunch of them piled into a truck and drove ahead of us…for 10 minutes then disappeared. This was the first time I had seen our tour guide get pissed off about anything.