January 04, 2006

Giza

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 January 4, 2006 11:02 AM
Comments

Great story, love the versimilitude. Can't wait to read the rest.

Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: TallDave at January 4, 2006 12:29 PM

I think that's the first time in 20 years I've heard someone make a reference to a scene in poor, maligned Ishtar...

Posted by: Barry at January 4, 2006 12:42 PM

I just finished book 4 of the Song of Fire and Ice -- A Feast for Crows.
I'm waiting for book 5 (A Dance of Dragons?) due in summer; expecting 7 big (600+ pages each) books.

I'm waiting for Harry Potter 7 (though I haven't read HP 6 in Slovak yet; just got it).

I didn't expect to have to wait for YOU ... after such a great start. [spoiled American "I want it now"]
Thanks, so far.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at January 4, 2006 02:55 PM

Did your taxi driver take you to the 'unofficial' camel and horse stables to the left of the entrance? It's a well known trick they play.. perhaps why the policeman was shouting...

Posted by: Neil at January 4, 2006 03:27 PM

My wife and I did the Egypt tour in 1990. Your story brought back many memories of our trip. We stayed at the Oberoi Mena house near the Pyramids. The traffic on the freeway out to Giza was heavy and fast. There were crowds of people on either side and we wondered how they might cross since there were no bridges or subways. We saw one man try to cross in front of us. He darted out into the traffic just like the Jif Ramsey character in Bowfinger. The Egyptian drivers were poorer stunt drivers than their LA equivalent. Our taxi driver missed him, but the car behind us hit him and he flew up in the air like a rag doll. Nobody stopped. Welcome to Egypt.

We visited the pyramids the next evening and my wife and I hired a pair of horses from Mohammed. He sent us out with a couple of guides. Instead of going towards the pyramids they led us down into the slums. We stopped at a perfume shop and they tried to convince us to buy perfume. So, that's why we detoured. While we were arguing with them, a man rode up to the corner on this huge white horse. He looked like an Arab Lone Ranger mounted on Trigger. He proceeded to do a bunch of tricks with Trigger rearing up and walking on just his hind legs, swivelling, prancing and snorting. Then they just trotted off. We got up onto the desert area behind the pyramids and the horses displayed their Arabian heritage. They were small but spirited and we were soon galloping across the desert with the pyramids and the sphinx as a backdrop. Very romantic.

The next day we visited the pyramids. As we walked in we noticed a sign advising tourists of the rental rates for horses. Mohammed had ripped us off by a factor of five. So we rounded up one of the local police and entered the horse yard in search of Mohammed. The cop asked "where's Mohammed?", and someone pointed to a stable. We walked over, and our Mohammed popped out. We got our money back but we were in fear for our lives because Mohammed was none too happy about being forced to cough up.

We were allowed to go inside the pyramid of Cheops and climbed down this narrow passage to the chamber at the heart of the pyramid. There really wasn't much to see down there. We had expected something like the glories of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. We climbed out through the descending corridor b. It was steep and about 4 foot high. It was a tough, sweaty climb out. They closed the interior to tourist not long after our visit. The highlight for us was not the pyramids but the Solar Boat. This was found in pieces in a pit near the pyramid in 1954 and reassembled.

Posted by: pat at January 4, 2006 06:37 PM

Michael the pyramids are quite a spectacle, but theres plenty more to see whilst in Egypt.

There is "the citadel" in what they called "old cairo" and there are a few historic mosques as well, I think the mosque of Mohammed Ali was one of the good ones. The absolute highlight of Cairo is the Khan-al-khalil bazaar. At night, after sunset, you can see a Sufi dancer (the whirling dervish) for free, its a spectacular show.

Posted by: Jono at January 4, 2006 07:06 PM

"I like women. I like beer". Nice quote.

Posted by: Drydock at January 4, 2006 09:29 PM

Read this at work and laughed my ass off, especially the bit about camels.

Posted by: Shawn at January 4, 2006 09:50 PM

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

Heh. Reminds me of Central Asia, though he seems a lot more comfortable with himself by his answer. Much more honest than, "Well, we lived with the Russians for 100 years." (As if there was not copious wine consumption before that...)

Posted by: Nathan at January 5, 2006 12:26 AM

The thing that surprised me most about Egypt (after the jazz-restaurant playing nonstop Louis Armstrong) was the sheer endless amount of 'unfinished' houses all around Cairo. I think you can see one of them in the last picture, with all the concrete wires sticking out. Apparently the Egyption tax code allows for houses to be tax exempt until finished, so nearly every house and apartment block has an imaginary upper floor which will never be built.

Posted by: Hagelslag at January 5, 2006 05:10 PM

I want more!!! Where's the rest. This spoiled and impatient American wants the rest of the story. :-)

Fascinating!

Posted by: megs at January 5, 2006 06:16 PM

Actually there are lots of posters and billboards with Mubarak's image all over Cairo. Of course, there were lots more during the Presidential election. Back then, my 6-year-old liked to say, "Who will the cows vote for?"

The answer of course, is "Moooooooobarak!"

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Essays

Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn