January 14, 2006

A Woman Traveling Alone

CAIRO – Egypt doesn’t do many things better than Lebanon, but it does do the Internet better. Free wi-fi is both fast and ubiquitous.

So I went to a cozy restaurant and pub, ordered a four-cheese pasta from the waiter, flipped open my laptop, and poked around the Web for contact information for the Muslim Brotherhood.

A twenty-something Western woman sat alone at the next table reading an English-language newspaper. We smiled hello to each other.

“Are you a student here?” she asked in an Australian accent. Everyone thinks I’m a student when they see my notebook and laptop.

“No,” I said. “I’m a writer. You?”

“Just traveling,” she said.

“By yourself?” I said.

“I’ve been traveling alone for four months. I started in India and I’m working my way to Spain.”

“Did you go through Iran?” I said. I want to go to Iran, but it doesn’t look possible with the current batshit “green aura” nutcase in charge of the place.

“I can’t go there,” she said.

“They’re blocking Australians, too, eh?”

“Well, not exactly. What I mean is I can’t go there.” I figured she must have been to Israel then. Of all the Middle East countries, only Egypt and Jordan (and maybe Iraq?) will let travelers in if they have an Israeli stamp in their passports.

She whispered: “I work for the Department of Defense.”

It’s a good idea to whisper that sort of thing in the Middle East. Conspiracy theories are out of control, especially in Egypt.

If she and I had some privacy I would have asked about her job. But I couldn’t expect her to tell me anything interesting where others could hear. Australia doesn’t have sinister designs on Egypt, but neither does the United States. That doesn’t stop Egyptians from thinking otherwise.

The waiter brought my pasta. It wasn’t fully cooked and was therefore barely edible. I should have sent it back, but I didn’t feel like being “difficult.” He, like many Egyptian waiters, was so embarassingly friendly and charming I didn’t have the heart to complain.

“What’s it like traveling by yourself in Egypt?” I asked her.

“Difficult,” she said. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Is is difficult because you’re a woman?”

“This is the absolute worst place for a woman to travel alone,” she said. Men harrass me constantly. They hiss, stare, and make kissy noises.”

“A Syrian friend told my wife if she ever goes there to carry a spare shoe in her purse. If any man gives her trouble and she whacks him with the bottom of the shoe, a mob will chase him down.”

She laughed. “Syria is wonderful, though. I mean, it’s much more oppressive than Egypt. But it’s also more modern. No man ever bothered me there. No men bothered me in Lebanon, either. I was surprised. Lebanese and Syrian men are more respectful even than European men.”

I had never heard that about Lebanese and Syrian men. But I also haven’t heard any complaints. No one hassled my wife or my mother when they visited me in Lebanon.

“The worst part,” the Australian woman said, “is that Egyptian men won’t back down when I tell them to leave me alone.”

I remembered Cairo’s subway, how the first car in the train was only for women. Women can and do ride in the other cars, too. It’s not that men and women can’t mix. The first car is for women who are sick and tired of strange men grabbing their asses.

“I’m having the time of my life, though,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll be in Spain. It will be fun to be a single woman in Spain.” She winked at me, gathered her things, and got ready to leave. “Happy travels,” she said, and then she was gone.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:18 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 12, 2006

NATO’s Internal Cold War

Here is the first of two articles I wrote about Cyprus when I visited a few months ago. This one is from the Greek side. The next one is from the Turkish side.

House on Atilla Line.jpg

I know Cyprus isn’t as exciting as Iraq, but I’m working on that. Cyprus still matters, though. It’s where two enemy NATO countries (how’s that for irony?) face each other down inside the European Union over a wide swath of devastation in the heart of a modern capital.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:20 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

Thank You

Thanks so much to everyone who hit the PayPal button to help me out with Iraq expenses. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

I hope to be heading over there in a couple of weeks. At this point it depends on how complicated the visa process turns out to be. So far the information I have is a bit contradictory.

If anyone has travel advice gained from personal experience in Northern Iraq, please feel free to leave it in the comments.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:13 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 10, 2006

Send Me to Iraq

It’s time for me to go to Iraq.

I am not going to embed with the military. While it sounds exciting (as well as terrifying), I’m only going to be there a few weeks. War correspondence isn’t something a person does for two weeks.

Instead I’m going to the part of Iraq most journalists ignore: the North. Erbil, Sulemaniya, Dohok, and Halabja – the city near the Iranian border where Saddam Hussein massacred thousands of people with chemical weapons.

Anyone who has been to Lebanon recently knows how the “if it bleeds, it leads” style of reporting badly skews the West’s idea of what a place is actually like. Just ask my mother. She recently visited me in Beirut and could hardly believe how much nicer the city is than news reports had led her to believe. Every report of a car bomb was true. But there’s a lot more to Beirut than the car bombs.

So I’m going to plug a media hole and write about Kurdistan, the part of Iraq that is stable and prosperous at least relative to the rest of the country.

My friend Andrew Apostolou at the Brookings Institute put me in touch with Bayan Rahman, director of the Kurdistan Development Corporation and daughter of former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan Sami Abdul Rahman who was assassinated last year by an Islamist suicide bomber. She is helping me with arrangements and logistics.

She was recently interviewed on CNN about her part of the country.

PHILLIPS: Why do you think you're having more success right now than what we're seeing in Baghdad, with regard to the insurgency?

RAHMAN: Well, the reason for that is, as I said, we've had the foundations of democracy laid in Kurdistan for well over a decade when the coalition of Britain and America established a safe haven in the Kurdistan region.

With that, we've had our own elections, and we've been able to govern our own region. As part of that Democraticatization process, the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan forces, have worked hand in hand with the Kurdish public to secure the region, and this is the sort of example, the model, that we think can work for the rest of Iraq, as well as the model for democracy and commerce that we believe Kurdistan can present for the rest of Iraq.

PHILLIPS: Well, and you're promoting this through a number of new ads in this campaign. Let's take a look at this one we that found really interesting with regard to travel.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you seen the other Iraq? It's spectacular. It's joyful. It has an experienced security force. Fewer than 200 coalition troops are stationed here. Arabs, Kurds and Westerners all vacation together. Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan. It's been practicing democracy for over a decade. It's not a dream. It's the other Iraq.


PHILLIPS: It's pretty slick. You look at that, you see these pictures and you do, you think, wow, when you see what's happening in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, Tikrit and Mosul, you don't realize there is this other side to the story.

RAHMAN: Well, exactly and that's why we've called the campaign "The Other Iraq." I think viewers in America may see just from their usual TV channels that everything in Iraq is very gloomy, that all we have are insurgents and terrorist attacks.

But, in fact, there are 18 provinces in Iraq and the fighting is only in four of them. It's very tragic that we have that in Iraq, and we are taking steps to remedy that. But the fact is, the vast majority of Iraq is more safe and particularly, Kurdistan region is very safe, very stable.

And as you saw in those pictures, our region even looks different from the rest of Iraq. We have mountains, we have greenery. We're proud of that, of course. And we want people to come to our region and to see for themselves and to understand that there is this other Iraq, which is thankful for being liberated. And I would like to thank the people of America for giving us the chance to get democracy and invite them to come see for themselves and as the campaign says, to share the dream.

Here’s what I want to know: does Iraqi Kurdistan live up to the hype? Is it actually a nice place? Or is Iraqi Kurdistan a backwater that is only pleasant compared to the rest of Iraq because it isn’t a war zone? Is it culturally liberal, moderate, or traditionally Islamic? How deeply has economic globalization penetrated the place? Do people there think of themselves as Kurdish first or Iraqi first? Does their pro-American viewpoint extend to Europe and Israel? What do Iraqi Kurds think of Arabs, not just Iraqi Arabs but Arabs in other Middle East countries? Is there any hint that the Kurds are using the Americans, or is the alliance a genuine and heartfelt one? How is the economy? Is it Third World or is it at least up to Lebanon’s level? Can Kurdish leaders be openly criticized in public without fear of retribution or punishment? How free and liberated are Kurdish Iraqi women? How much traction does Islamism have in Kurdistan among the conservatives? If it really is a wonderful place, what, specifically, makes it so great?

These things are rarely, if ever, written about, so I’m going there to find out and report back.

What I need from you in return is a little help paying for my expenses. Trips from Beirut to Egypt, Cyprus, Jordan, and Turkey are cheap – at least in the off-season. Flying to Iraq and staying in hotels with solid security is expensive.

Of course I’ll make some of my money back selling stories and ad space on the blog. But I don’t know if that will be enough to cover expenses. So I need to ask you to help me out. Please, if you like what I write, click the Pay Pal button and lend me a hand. I am not independently wealthy, and I can’t do this for free.

I’m going to write down everything I see and hear in my notebook and report back as much of it as I possibly can. A summary or an overview of that part of the world isn’t sufficient. Someone needs to do no-bullshit ground-level photography and documentation. It looks like that someone will be me.

Thanks so much in advance for your help and support.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:52 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 9, 2006

Old Cairo

Old Cairo Skyline.jpg

CAIRO – The Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak regime can only do so much damage to a thousand year-old city like Cairo without physically tearing it down. I wanted to see the oldest parts of the city, places where dreary human storage units didn’t make up the skyline. I also wanted to see Big Pharaoh again. So we met at my hotel and took the subway as near as we could to Khan Al-Khalili, the ancient souk turned tourist attraction, and also a nearby older market for locals inside the Fatimid walls of the old city.

We got off the subway a half-mile or so from our destination and walked through a concrete catastrophe of a neighborhood on the way. Most storefronts were either closed permanently or shut behind grimy metal gates that pulled down in front of the entrances like garage doors.

“Don’t eat anything from these guys,” Big Pharaoh said as he gestured to a man selling food spread out on a rickety outdoor table. “If you eat that, you’ll die.”

“I’ll die?” I said. “From what?”

“From a horrible disease.”

I’m sure he exaggerated, but I duly noted his warning.

“We’re coming up to the place where a bomb went off earlier this year,” he said. “Are you okay with that?”

“I live in Beirut,” I reminded him.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said and laughed. “It’s not going to explode again. Who planted it, anyway? Al Qaeda?”

“Some guy in an extremist organization. Don’t worry, everyone hates them.”

He complained about how squalid some parts of Cairo are now that once were beautiful, in particular one area where grubby derelict European-style architectural wonders were blanked out by an octopus of freeway on- and off-ramps. “May God damn Nasser in hell all over again!” he said.

“Plenty of countries built ugly crap like that after World War II,” I said. “It wasn’t just Nasser. I know what you mean, though. Even most Westerners have no idea how badly he ruined this place.”

“Some of them love charismatic dictators,” Big Pharaoh said. “Like Castro and Ghaddafi.”

“Ghaddafi is only charismatic if you’re outside Libya,” I said. “Inside he has all the charisma and charm of a serial killer.”

Nasser wasn’t as bad as the monster in Tripoli. No doubt about it: Egypt is in far better shape than Libya, at least culturally. Egypt has intellectuals. Egypt has art. Egypt has opera. Egypt has restaurants with menus. Egypt has people who can say what they want without being yanked from their beds in the night.

Here’s a suggestion for coffee mugs and tourist brochures: Egypt – Better than Libya!

We walked past an old mosque set fifteen feet below street level built by Sharf El-Din and his brother in 1317-1337 A.D. Just in front of the entrance was a de-facto courtyard of sorts created by the walls of the two buildings next to it on either side. The entrance was shut, and the lights set up to illuminate it were turned off. This mosque, unlike most, had no minarets.

Sharf El-Din.jpg

I walked down the stairs and tried to open the slender wooden doors just in case they were open. They weren’t. Just to the right of the entrance was a plaque identifying the mosque as Monument Number 176.

I had no idea there were so many. You can spend a hell of a lot of time gawking at extraordinarily well-preserved monuments if that’s what you’re looking for. Cairo suddenly seemed a better tourist attraction that I had so far given it credit for. The city as a whole is pretty shabby, but Beirut – which is in much better shape – is effectively only 150 years old. It lacks the sense of history and wonder that Cairo, dumpy as it is, can rightfully boast about.

Big Pharaoh and I continued walking toward the old market on a busted up sidewalk walled off from four lanes of traffic by a metal fence that looked like a five foot tall mile-long bicycle rack. Shuttered and boarded up storefronts eventually fell away and were replaced by brilliantly illuminated shops selling all manner of oriental art, jewelry, house wares, and textiles.

Egyptian Gold.jpg

On our left was an 800 year-old Shia mosque built by Al-Saleh Talai in 1160 A.D. (This one was Monument Number 116.) Marble Roman-style columns flanked the entrance below a classical Islamic arch. The doors of this mosque were made of tarnished hammered metal and looked original. It appeared to be in pristine condition, at least on the outside, for such an old building. I thought of an old saying about Europe and the United States, where Egypt can stand in for Europe. In Europe (and Egypt) 100 miles is a long way. In America 100 years is a long time.

Old Cairo Fatimid Mosque.jpg

“You see those men in white robes and white hats?” Big Pharaoh said and pointed with his eyes toward two traditionally dressed men crossing the street. “They are Shias from India who moved here with Sadat’s permission to live next to the Fatimid mosques and take care of them.”

The Fatimids founded Cairo and built the oldest remnants in the historic center. Some parts of the ancient city walls still remain, along with an enormous metal door – impenetrable by medieval armies – at one of the gates.

Old Cairo Door.jpg

“Khan Al-Khalili is just up ahead,” Big Pharaoh said. “You will love it. It is very exotic.”

“Is it exotic to you?” I said.

“No,” he said. “But it will be exotic to you.”

I’ve spent enough time in Arab countries now that the exoticism is wearing off. But it’s not completely gone yet and it is always a pleasure to immerse myself in the grand souks and bazaars.

Khan Al-Khalili is exactly, precisely, what I always imagined the Middle East would look like before I came out here. Shopping – or buying things, I should say – doesn’t interest me much. But getting lost in the twisting narrow streets while gawking at gold, silver, hookahs, spices, jewelry, antiques, and dramatically colored bolts of cloth reminds me that I’m far from home and that I should savor my time while I can.

Inside Khan Al Khalili.jpg

Some of the hustling shopkeepers could be endearing and entertaining when they weren’t annoying.

“Welcome to my country!”

“How can I take your money from you?”

“I don’t cheat as much as the others!”

Not far from the souk is the Al-Azhar mosque and university, an enormous castle-like institution that is the largest and most prestigious Sunni Islamic university in the world.

“The blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the one who planned the first terrorist attack against the World Trade Center in New York, was a teacher here at this school,” he said.

Huge Cairo Mosque.jpg

Behind the mosque were 500-year old houses. Many have been renovated and are now tourist attractions.

One house, built by the famous eye doctor Abdel Rahman Al-Harawi, has since been turned into a venue where musicians and poets often go to perform.

Big Pharaoh and I peaked inside the windows, but the lights were out and we couldn’t see anything. A security guard rounded a corner and asked what we were doing.

“Just looking,” I said. “It’s a beautiful old house.”

“Would you like to see inside?” the guard said. “I can turn the lights on and show you around.”

I looked at Big Pharaoh.

“Do you want to see?” he said. “I’ve never been in there.”

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s have a look.”

The guard opened the front door with a key on a ring and flipped the master switch on a panel in the wall. Dr. Harawi had obviously done very well for himself.

Beautifully carved wooden cabinets and storage chambers were built into the walls. Carpets were laid over gray stone. The hand-crafted wooden ceiling was raised so high you’d break your ass and get shipped to the hospital if you somehow managed to fall to the floor from all the way up there.

Old Cairo Doctor House.jpg

A long dining room table reflected the walls like a mirror pool.

Old Cairo Doctor House Reflective Table.jpg

The harem was possibly more beautiful than the salon. Windows were thickly screened with hand carved wooden lace. From there Dr. Harawi’s many wives could look down into the courtyard when he entertained his male guests.

“The doctor was one lucky bastard,” Big Pharaoh said. “Look at this house! And he had beautiful women from all over the world.”

Old Cairo Doctor House 2.jpg

“I’ll never live in a house this grand, that’s for sure,” I said.

The guard showed us the bedroom. “This room saw a lot of sex from Dr. Harawi,” Big Pharaoh said.

A secret door behind one of the wooden cabinets took us up to the roof. Many of the mosques and houses visible from up there were older than the house. That meant the view from the roof isn’t much different now than it was in Dr. Harawi’s day. It looked otherworldly to my eyes, and I imagined it must to many Cairenes as well. The center of the city is so dramatically different from most of the purely functional and aesthetically brutal urban sprawl that characterizes most of Cairo today.

Old Cairo Skyline.jpg

This is the real Cairo,” Big Pharaoh said. “It is my favorite place in the city. I love reading about history, especially Islamic history. And this is the place where it all comes alive.”

We left Dr. Harawi’s house and set out looking for food. I saw small birds the size of my fist being roasted by a grizzled old man at a food cart.

“Do you know what those are?” Big Pharaoh said. They looked like tiny chickens.

“Nope,” I said.

“They’re pigeons,” he said.

Mmm. Winged rats.

“They are stuffed. The cooks stuff rice,” he said, and broke off laughing. “They stuff rice up its ass.”

“Do you want a kebab?” the cart owner asked. “A pigeon kebab?”

“No, thank you,” I said and walked on.

“We don’t waste food in Egypt,” Big Pharaoh said. “We eat every part of the cow here.” That seems to be the case almost everywhere in the world except in the U.S. and Canada. “We eat the brains, the testicles, and even the eyeballs. But I have never eaten an eyeball.” Every man has his limits. “And I never will.” He didn’t mention testicles one way or the other.

“The brains are delicious,” he said. “You would love it!”

Perhaps. But neither of us particularly wanted bovine noodle for dinner that night. So he took me instead to a restaurant called Egyptian Pancake near the entrance to Khan Al-Khalili.

Old Cairo Restaurants.jpg

“This is the best pancake place in all of Egypt,” he said. I can’t vouch for that, but I will say the neighborhood was among the more bustling and vibrant places I had yet seen in the city.

Egyptian pancakes are more like big slabs of thick pita bread than the maple syrup breakfast fare you’ll find at Denny’s in the United States. I ordered mine stuffed with white cheese and tomatoes. Big Pharaoh ordered his stuff with beef. We ate at an outdoor table and talked about travel.

“I went to the Greek side of Cyprus when I was five,” he said.

“I didn’t like the Greek side of Cyprus,” I said. “The Turkish side is more interesting. The Greek side has no identity. It’s like a gigantic outdoor frat house for drunk British louts on a budget. It could be anywhere. If I flew all the way across the world just to go there I would be pissed.”

“I got lost on the beach,” he said. “I was five years old. I remember screaming for my mother, and of course I was screaming in Arabic. I went up to all these Greeks asking if they had seen my mother, tears streaming down my face, and none of them understood me. I remember thinking, well, I am going to spend the rest of my life here in Cyprus.”

“Obviously they found you,” I said.

“My father found me and I ran up to him and hugged him like crazy.”

‘Where else have you been?” I said.

“Bulgaria,” he said.

“I would love to visit Bulgaria,” I said.

“I went there when it was Communist,” he said and laughed. “Communist Bulgaria! It was bad. My father didn’t make as much money then as he does now. So when we wanted to go on vacation, all we could afford was a Communist country.”

We both thought that was funny. But, hey, I’d go to a Communist country. Why not? I went to Libya, for God’s sake, when I could have gone to Prague.

“Bulgaria is beautiful, though,” he said. “The mountains, the forests, amazing. We went to a place called Butterfly Island. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. In the Spring the entire island is covered in butterflies." He made sweeping gestures with both his arms. "I had not even heard of it until my family went there.”

I had not heard of it until he told me about it.

“What’s the best trip abroad you ever took?” I said.

“My best trip ever was to Los Angeles. I was in heaven! When my family came home and the plane touched down in Egypt, my sister wept.” He drew lines down his cheeks with his fingers. “She wept.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:34 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 6, 2006

Shaken Down by the Police

(This is the second half of a two-part narrative I started two days ago. You can read the first half here if you missed it.)

GIZA, Egypt – Mohammad led his horse and mine away from the abusive policeman and toward the City of the Dead at the base of the Pyramids of Giza. I had no idea what the policeman’s problem was, why he screamed and cracked his whip at us on the sand. But I would find out soon enough.

“Welcome to the beginning of the great Sahara Desert,” Mohammad said.

Pyramid 1.jpg

I have climbed to the top of the Mayan pyramids in the Petén Jungle of the Guatemalan Yucatan. Spectacular as they are, their life size is smaller than I had expected before I arrived. The pyramids at Giza are much bigger than I had imagined, impossibly large monuments that seemed the size of small moons. No doubt they’ll still be standing thousands of years after we all are gone. Egypt one day may no longer be Egypt, but the pyramids will remain as though they belong to eternity. They will weather as slowly as mountains.

You’d have to laughingly wish the Taliban best of luck if they or anyone like them decided to take down the pyramids with ack-ack guns as they did the Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The pharaoh’s tombs at Giza aren’t going anywhere unless someone detonates a nuclear weapon right at the base. Even then I wouldn’t count on them being destroyed. They would probably have to be nuked again.

“Are you a Yankee?” Mohammad said. “Or are you Southern?”

“I’m a Yank,” I said. “I’ve never even been to the South except through airports in Georgia and Texas.”

“Can you believe you are here?” he said.

I didn’t know what he meant, and he read that on my face.

“Every day people tell me they can’t believe they are here after flying thousands of miles.”

“I came here from Beirut,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “Okay. You live in the Middle East. You know where you are then.”

We had quite a distance to go before we would actually reach the pyramids. So Mohammad kicked our horses into high gear.

“Hold my hand,” he said as we galloped next to each other at what seemed like full speed. “I won’t let you fall.” I trusted him and gripped his hand hard. Never before did I ride a horse at such speed. I bounced a good foot off my own horse’s back every couple of seconds. It took some time to figure out how to use my leg muscles to hold steady.

When we finally reached the first pyramid Mohammad slowed the horses down to a trot. Thank God I could relax again.

A man dressed in Bedouin garb ambled by selling warm bottles of Coke. I bought one for 50 cents and offered Mohammad a sip.

“Can we climb to the top?” I asked, not really sure I actually wanted to.

“No,” Mohammad said. “A tourist recently tried it. He fell and lost himself. It is no longer allowed.”

“Hop off,” he said. “You can climb partway up and I’ll take your picture.”

I handed him my camera and climbed maybe two percent of the way up the side. A fall from even that height would be treacherous. The stone blocks that make up the pyramids are enormous, each almost as tall as I am. (And I’m six feet tall.) I could easily see how climbing all the way up could get someone killed. The pyramids are as high as skyscrapers, and there was no ladder, stairway, or path I could see.

He snapped my picture and I carefully hopped down again.

Me on pyramid.jpg

I knew it would be a long time before I went back, if I ever went back, so I walked around the base for a bit, looking up and trying to memorize what it looked like before climbing back on the horse.

“Hi ho silver,” Mohammad said as he kicked our horses into full speed again.

“Slow down!” I said. “I’m a city boy!”

“You’re doing fine,” he said. “No one ever falls of a horse here.”

I wasn’t worried about falling so much as I was worried about smashing myself on the horse’s back. Holding still on a galloping horse is harder than it looks if no one has ever explained how to do it.

He led us to a lookout point where all three pyramids were visible in a line, the perfect place for a photo. I suddenly wished I had come in late afternoon when the light was better for pictures. The afternoon sun washed out the color and there weren’t any shadows for contrast.

Giza Pyramids.jpg

“You see those three small pyramids in the front?” Mohammad said. “They are for children. There are three more on the other side. They are Japanese.”

“Japanese?” I said.

“They are too small.”

Har har.

“Show me your teeth,” he said.

“You want to see my teeth?” I said.

“Please, show me your teeth.”

I showed him my teeth.

“What do you think I am,” he said. “A camel?”

All the Arab jokes I’ve heard so far are either not-funny one-liners like his, or long stories about humorous situations that don’t have any punch lines.

Mohammad was right. The pyramids really are the beginning of the great Sahara desert. The suburb of Giza was just barely visible in the haze on one side while sand stretched to the horizon in the other direction. Metropolitan Cairo had reached its absolute physical limit and could sprawl no more.

Two uniformed police officers on horseback rode up to where we were standing. They exchanged pleasantries with Mohammad as he handed them several Egyptian pounds. Then they left. The entire meeting took less than ten seconds.

“Why did you just do that?” I said, feeling defensive on his behalf as I narrowed my eyes at the officers’ backs.

“They are poor, and good people,” he said. “The state does not pay them. Look after the poor, and God will look after you.”

They did seem like nice enough gents in the nine seconds I saw them in action, as long as I didn’t think about the baksheesh he just gave them. But I wondered what would happen if Mohammad didn’t give them any money, and I remembered the shouting match he had earlier with the enraged policeman with the gun and the horse whip.

We got back on our horses and rode toward the Sphinx, more leisurely this time, probably because I had asked him earlier to slow down. Mohammad rode silently, but he seemed to be in a pleasant enough mood.

“What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood?” I said. Who knew if he would actually give me his real opinion?

“Those are bad words, my friend,” he said. Okay, I thought. That was probably his real opinion.

“Bad words?” I said. “Why, exactly?”

“They are bad people who know nothing,” he said. “I have no school. But I know war is terrible and that we should take care of our country.” I hadn’t said anything about war, but it was the first thing he thought of when I mentioned Islamists. He wore a somber look on his face now.

He was a simple man and probably charged too much money to lead me around on a horse. But he seemed a genuinely decent fellow who wasn’t jerking me around and telling me only what I wanted to hear. Some Middle Easterners in the tourism business say “I love America!” in a rather unconvincing tone of voice. I can tell when they do it just for form’s sake. Mohammad did not seem the type to pull that with me.

“What do you think about Hosni Mubarak, then?” I said.

“He is a good man,” he said.

“Hmm,” I said.

“What?” he said, aware that I didn’t agree. “What do you want to say? Tell me what is in your heart.”

“He’s a dictator,” I said. And an asshole, I wanted to add.

“I understand what you mean,” he said and nodded. “In America you change presidents without fighting. Here if we change presidents we could have a war.”

“Maybe,” I said. “And maybe not. It’s awfully convenient for him if you think that.”

“Listen, my friend” he said. “If we have a president who is not from the army, we will have another war. Only the officers know how to keep us at peace.” I presumed he meant only the officers know better than to humiliate Egypt by picking another losing battle with Israel. Perhaps he’s right, but that’s setting the bar awfully low on what makes Hosni Mubarak a good man or something else. Even Syria’s Bashar Assad knows better than to go full tilt against Ariel Sharon.

The pyramids were much bigger than I had imagined, but the Sphinx was a great deal smaller. It looked especially tiny with the gargantuan pyramids as a backdrop. Only in close-up photos does it take on any size.

As we got near the Sphinx, the angry policeman returned on foot. He cracked his horse whip on the sand again and stared holes through Mohammad and me with his black eyes. He didn’t look like a starving policeman to me. He was fat, as a matter of fact, and his rosy cheeks made him look like a boozer.

“This man will guide you to the Sphinx,” Mohammad said.

Oh, for God’s sake, I thought. The Sphinx was right there. Only a blind man would need a guide. Mohammad didn’t want to pay this jerk off, so now I had to do it? I suddenly like him less now that he dumped me off to go with this cretin, but it was hard to say how much pressure he was actually under. I myself witnessed part of it, and it was a lot. There is practically no legal recourse at all when you’re abused by the police in Egypt.

The menacing officer stared at me with undisguised hatred as I dismounted my horse. I smiled at him as though I were the perfect American idiot utterly clueless about what was happening. What I really wanted to do was break his face with my fist.

“Do you speak English” I said in the most genial voice I could muster as we walked together toward the Sphinx.

He actually smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. Playing nice was paying off. What else could I do? I still hated the bastard even though he decided to cool it. He didn’t care at all about making a civilized impression on foreigners. I despised him for that on Egypt’s behalf as well as my own. The code of Arab hospitality was completely lost on this man.

It only took two minutes or so to reach the Sphinx. Other tourists were there snapping shutters on their digital cameras. I took several pictures and ignored the policeman completely, refusing to look at him or acknowledge he even existed.


I walked around to look at the Sphinx from several different vantage points and stayed much longer than I would have if the bastard weren’t on my case. You want baksheesh? I thought. Then you’re gonna wait for it, pal.

I kept the policeman waiting for as long as I could stand, then started walking back toward Mohammad and our horses without looking back at him. Clandestinely I pulled one Egyptian pound (that’s less than 20 cents) out of my pocket for the baksheesh he “earned” in no way whatsoever. I didn’t want him to ask for money and see me pull a big wad of cash out of my pocket and demand I give him one of my larger bills.

“Hello again, Mohammad,” I said as I approached.

“Hello, Mr. Michael,” he said. “How was the Sphinx?”

“Grand,” I said.

The policeman walked just behind me and to my right as I fantasized about cracking him in the nose with the back of my elbow. I mounted my horse and let the bastard wonder if I was actually going to give him baksheesh or not. Then, not wanting to start yet another furious incident, I handed him the Egyptian equivalent of 17 cents.

“Shukran,” I said in the iciest tone I could manage.

No, fuck you, you sonofabitch, is what I was thinking. Would you treat my mother this way if she were here instead of me? Even tourists at the pyramids, of all places, get a taste of the petty humiliations people have to put up with every day in Third World police states. Imagine living in a country so messed up that it could be your job to roam around all day with a whip and a gun angrily extorting money from everyone you come across. No wonder Mohammad was fed up with this man and had the nerve to defiantly scream at him earlier.

This is what you have to put up with thanks to your pal Mubarak, I wanted to say to Mohammad as we rode away. But I didn’t. He was a nice enough man, and he knew that already. He was shaken down by the police every morning when he went to work.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:39 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 5, 2006

The Slow Rot of Hosni Mubarak

I still intend to finish the pyramids story I started yesterday, but first I need to send you over to my new piece at TCS: The Slow Rot of Hosni Mubarak. I never liked the guy in the first place, and now that I've seen what he has done to his country I truly can't stand him. And neither should you.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:59 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 4, 2006


GIZA, Egypt – I couldn’t go to Egypt without seeing the pyramids, especially since they are less than an hour from the center of Cairo. So I had a driver, Nabil, pick me up at the hotel in late morning.

Cruising from the center to the outskirts was depressing. The city is a true sprawling towering mess, largely bereft of beauty.

Cairo Tenements 1.jpg

It isn’t the ugliest or the poorest place I’ve ever seen, but it comes perilously close to the most boring. (Libya wins that dubious distinction.) Pictures just can’t capture the dreariness of the neighborhoods. There is precious little economic activity, and I saw nowhere at all that looked like an interesting or a pleasant place to hang out. From all outward appearances, Cairo is overwhelmingly a cultural void packed with people who spend all their energy struggling just getting by. I tried to imagine what it must be like to live in most of the neighborhoods, and thundering bore was what I came up with.

The quality of the apartment buildings was inversely proportional to their distance from downtown. The farther Nabil drove from the center, the worse everything looked. Soon the tenements were nothing more than red brick warehouses for humans. My God, I thought, where are the windows on these things?

Cairo Tenements 2.jpg

The slums on the outskirts were the worst. Streets weren’t paved. Each neighborhood had its own garbage dump in a residential area where children played barefoot. Lush agricultural land – tended by farmers with oxen, and adorned with what presumably were date palms – was checkerboarded throughout the slum blocks. The housing was horrid, but the landscape was verdant and sub-tropical, and it helped take the edge of the ugliness off.

I wanted to raise my camera to the window and take pictures, but I was worried it would embarrass Nabil. I imagined he wished every tourist who came through Egypt did not have to see what I was seeing. So I pretended I didn’t.

“So, Nabil,” I said. “What do you think of Hosni Mubarak?”

“He does many good things for people outside of Egypt,” he said. “For Americans, Europeans, and Israelis, he is a man of peace. I like that. But he does nothing for us. Look at these poor people.”

I will give Mubarak credit for one thing. He doesn’t plaster his picture up everywhere, at least not in Cairo. He’s an authoritarian ruler, but he’s not as horrifically bad as Moammar Ghaddafi, Bashar Assad, or Saddam Hussein. I think I only saw two of his portraits the entire time I was in Egypt.

One Egyptian, however, told me that outside of Cairo Mubarak’s portraits are more common and sinister. He looked like everyone’s dad in the pictures I saw. In Upper (Southern) Egypt – the stronghold of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood – he is supposedly decked out in sunglasses and an officer’s uniform like that ass of a general who ruled Paraguay during the Cold War.

“Do you have any children?” Nabil said.

“No,” I said. “I’m married, but I don’t have any children.”

“Good,” he said.

Good? No Arab had ever responded that way before. Everyone else either changes the subject or harangues me for not breeding.

“Why is it good?” I said.

“Raising children is a huge responsibility,” he said. “I have three and it is so hard. I have an electrician’s degree, but the government doesn’t pay enough money for us to live on.” Apparently, finding electrician’s work in the private sector isn’t much of an option. “So I drive car,” he said.

I had agreed to pay him twelve dollars – his asking price – to drive me out to Giza and wait for me for two hours while I looked at the pyramids and the Sphinx. Twelve dollars for a half-day’s work may be a lot in Egypt (I don’t know), but it seemed like nothing to me. So I quietly decided I would pay him twenty dollars instead if he didn’t actively try to extract any more from me.

“What do you do for a living?” he said.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“What?” he said, clearly not understanding.

“Sahafi, sahafi,” I said.

“Oh!” he said, delighted. “What do you write about Egypt? You write about pyramids?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m also interested in politics. Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He screwed up his face in rage. Oops, I thought. I pushed one of his buttons. Did he belong to the Muslim Brotherhood? Maybe he was a Christian. Or a liberal. I had no idea.

“I not like them,” he said.

“Are you a Muslim?” I said. That’s a rude question in Lebanon, but I really wanted to know where he was coming from. I was also working on a gut-level assumption that people are less touchy about it in Egypt.

“Of course,” he said. “But I like women. And I like beer.”

“Beer and women are good,” I said. This grizzled sixty-year old man grinned and gave me a high-five.

We pulled off the freeway and turned onto a dirt road between the tenements. A cart drawn by a donkey got in our way. Nabil sighed. “Cairo traffic,” he said.

He stopped the car at the edge of the city of Giza. The silhouette of a pyramid towered above us in the haze. Two horses were tied to a post on the sidewalk right next to us.

“Do you want to ride camel or horse?” he said.

Actually, I wanted to walk. I didn’t feel like being a dorky tourist on a camel that day. I’d ride a camel on a trek into the desert, but we were in an urban environment. Busses and cars drove around the area.

“A horse,” I said, not wanting to be a pain in the ass by insisting on walking. I rode a camel in the Sahara once, and once was enough without a good reason. They’re fat, and riding them hurts after ten minutes. Their wide girth forces your knees about four feet apart.

Horses are more trustworthy, too. Camels are known to chase down their owners (while bellowing like Chewbacca) when they get disgruntled and are done taking orders. I admire that about them, but I didn’t need any drama from an animal that weighed hundreds of pounds more than me.

Nabil summoned the horse man, who introduced himself to me as Mohammad. I thought of the scene in that silly Ishtar movie where Charles Grodin’s character called out “Mohammad” at a North African camel market and every single last guy turned to him all at once and said “yes?”

Mohammad offered to help me mount the horse, but I didn’t need it. He mounted his own horse and we set out into the street alongside automobile traffic.

“Watch your legs!” he said as a bus roared past.

A driver rounded a corner too quickly and clipped my foot with his side view mirror.

“Watch your legs!” Mohammad said again.

After riding a few blocks we reached the entrance to the pyramids. I saw then why we needed horses. The area around the pyramids was huge, much larger than I thought it would be. And it was all sand. There was no road to drive on. It would not have been possible to walk around and see everything in under four hours, let alone two.

I paid my admission, and as we passed the gate a policeman carrying a horse whip and a gun walked up to us.

The officer screamed something at Mohammad in Arabic. Mohammad screamed something back at him. The policeman then cracked his horse whip on the sand and narrowed his eyes at Mohammad.

I pretended to be perfectly happy and oblivious like an idiot, hoping it might tone down the temperature by a degree or so.

Mohammad said something else nasty to him in Arabic and then led our horses away as the officer’s face flushed with hatred and rage.

“Asshole,” Mohammad said. I acted as though he hadn’t said that.

(To be continued tomorrow.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:02 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 2, 2006

Iraq is Not the First Arab Democracy

I have a new piece in the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal where I make the case that Lebanon is now what we hope Iraq someday will be: Lebanon the Model.

BEIRUT, Lebanon--Of all the rationales for demolishing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the most compelling was the Middle East's desperate need for at least one free Arab democracy to act as a model and an inspiration for oppressed and demoralized citizens in the others. So far it is not working out, despite the recent successful elections. Most talk of Iraq on the Middle Eastern street revolves around occupation, terrorism and war. Iraq is not yet a model for anything. It looms, instead, as a warning. Hardly any Arab wants his country to become another Iraq. In time that may change, but right now that's just how it is.

Lebanon, though, is an inspiration already--despite the assassinations and the car bombs that have shaken the country since February. I have an apartment in Beirut, and I recently traveled to Cairo. Arriving back here was like returning to the U.S. from Mexico. Almost everyone I met in Egypt--from taxi drivers all the way up to the elite--was profoundly envious when I said I live in Beirut. "It is a free and open city," I told them, but they knew that already. Many Americans and Europeans still think of Beirut as a hollowed-out, mortar-shattered necropolis where visitors are well-advised to bring a flak jacket. Egyptians, though--at least the ones I talked to during my stay--know the truth.

Please go read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:33 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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