Posted on November 5, 2019
Five Days in Egypt
The Civilization the World Obsessed Over | September 2019
I recently traveled to Egypt which marks my first time in the Middle East in about 10 years and first time on the African continent in my life. As one might expect, Egypt shares more qualities in common with its Southwest Asian neighbors (Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.) than it does with nearby Sudan or Ethiopia so I get to check the continent off on a technicality though it doesn’t feel like the most solid of check marks. I think my general consensus on the visit was I’m glad I went and I had a great time but I don’t need to go back for a variety of reasons which I’ll get into later in this article but for the time being, see below for a picture of the Sphinx and pyramids because, let’s be honest, that’s the real show here.
It’s nothing short of mind-blowing to look at these monuments, mostly tombs given Egypt’s historical obsession with the afterlife, and try to compute in your mind that these are some of the oldest things on earth and quite literally some of the oldest man-made structures still standing. Western cultures throughout history have garnered a penchant for Egyptomania beginning famously with Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and filtering into Greek, Russian, British, and American cultures, hailing worship from societal visual vocabulary. Just look at our Washington Monument or the reverse of our dollar bill for the Eye of Providence floating above a pyramid. These symbols, adopted by some of the greatest civilizations to ever spend time under our sun, are still standing and readily available for you to visit. I think my father said it best when standing in front of the Sphinx. “Well…there it is.”
Let me give you some context on this trip. Every once in a while I take a trip with my Dad. He travels internationally for work and frequently to some strange or rarely frequented places by Western travelers. This is appealing to me for a variety of reasons so whenever he extends an invite to come along, I drop everything to go. Just two white dudes traveling in a country where we don’t look like we belong.
I flew out of LAX, through Chicago and Amman before arriving in Cairo. In Amman, I ran into a former work acquaintance from Philly about a decade ago purely by chance in the Royal Jordanian airline lounge as he was sipping Arabic coffee. He asked if I’d ever been to the Middle East before and I said I had, though it had been quite a while. “Be careful,” he said. “You’re really going to…stand out.” I excused myself to the restroom and when I came back he was gone. Arabic coffee was offered on the RJ flight leaving Chicago as well as Amman. I obliged for the Chicago portion but there was a soapy taste to it so I skipped it on the second leg, also realizing I would need to sleep within a few hours of my arrival. I landed in Cairo at sunset and arrived at an airport that looked like it had just woken up from a winter’s hibernation. We had hired a fixer for this portion of the trip as, from what we had heard, getting through immigration could be tricky. The fixer met me just before immigration where there were massive queue stands in place but no one in line, no one working, and not a soul in sight. A man abruptly stood up from the floor behind one of the immigration desks as he heard us approach, looking very much like he had just woken up from a deep sleep, and waved us over. The fixer said, “give me your passport, your immigration papers, and let me talk”. A brief conversation in Arabic ensued, money was exchanged, and we were through. My guy stepped around the vacant x-ray scanners at the security checkpoint, ushering me to follow him which I did and we were out at the street. A van pulled up and the rear door slid open. “Have a nice time.” The fixer shook my hand and walked away and I never saw him again. Click here to read the full article.
The ride into Cairo was in complete darkness. There’s something about the Middle East that even when there’s a bit of a glow still on the horizon at sunset, it is extraordinarily dark on the streets. I’ll chalk it up to poor urban planning of streetlight placement and/or electrical problems but something about the falling darkness in the desert just sucks the remaining light away. We were passing by what looked to be burned out shells of wallless windowless buildings, many of which had camps of people huddled around campfires inside. I asked the driver what these were and he said “Housing development. New construction.” This is a fascinating point of this trip that I’ll touch on later but it was clear to me that these were not buildings that were started recently nor would complete any time soon.
I met my Dad at the hotel well after dark, a beautiful place in the inarguably pretty, by Middle Eastern standards, neighborhood of Maadi which is just south of the city center. The streets are lined with trees and massive current and former mansions, some of which have been converted into apartments for the large expatriate community, the enormous embassy working contingent, and a few nation’s actual embassies. I think if you closed your eyes from the airport until you got to Maadi and never left the neighborhood, you probably wouldn’t have the context that this is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the nation. Given the plenty of context I received on the way from the airport, it’s clear that this neighborhood is funded almost entirely by foreign money. I had a few hours to myself one of the days to wander the streets alone, which is my preferred method of shooting a foreign place, and couldn’t help but think back to my acquaintance in the Amman airport. “You’re really going to…stand out.” I am a very white man and I have been to many places that are not accustomed to Westerners wandering their streets alone but never have I been to one where locals nearly break their necks watching me walk past. This makes blending in and getting the shots I want incredibly difficult. After a while I just said fuck it and with dozens of eyes on me went ahead and took the photos I wanted.
Walking through the neighborhood is really very lovely though there are a few things to note that I found curious. There are what appear to be security shacks everywhere, open front fiberglass structures weathered by the inhospitable conditions of the region typically either empty or with a fat, sleeping security guard inside clad in a bulletproof vest and an assault rifle dangling around his neck. The ones that were awake did not want to be photographed. There was an interesting outpost of sorts down the street from us that was very heavily guarded 24/7 with men in full battle gear behind sheets of metal with heavy machine guns loaded with belts full of ammunition. These are things you definitely want photos of but definitely know better than trying to get them. I walked past on my morning alone and a surprisingly fit Egyptian battle guard with a shaved head and thick mustache spit out a fat wad of tobacco juice at my feet as I walked by. As one does when not wanting to have their ass kicked or thrown in prison, I avoided eye contact and kept walking.
I also came across another “housing development/new construction” site that looked thoroughly abandoned. I set out with my camera that morning specifically to take pictures of this site because I liked that there were individual bricks hanging from the second floor. As I was photographing the empty site, an older man walked past me and opened a makeshift wire fence to the lot and let himself in. He walked onto the first floor’s concrete shell and shouted something in Arabic, receiving a chorus of replies from unseen voices behind piles of rubble. Suddenly this was an active construction site. On which the workers were living. Behind piles of rubble. I’m starting to understand the method by which Egyptian construction is completed in the modern era which may not be too far off from how it was done 4,000 years ago when the pyramids were constructed in Giza. Keep your labor close you waste less time.
Speaking of pyramids, let’s talk about them. We had a guide for three of our days and while she did a great job, we learned very quickly to take her opinions with a grain of salt, but more on that later. We went to the pyramids on day one and as I had prepared my mind to accept, these are major tourist traps being that, from what I can find, the largest industrial and economic driver in this country is a well organized pile of limestone dating two thousand years prior to modern day year zero and, given that they’re not making new pyramids these days, is just about all they have to go on. Looking past the makeshift shacks lining the roads leading to the pyramids and the grifters trying to steal you from your guide or sell you trinkets of plastic golden Pharaoh figurines, you have these massive stone structures lying in the Sahara desert just about right where the green meets the yellow. That is where the plantable, farmable soil meets the thousands of miles of sand as far as you can see.
I did not know we were able to go inside of one of the pyramids. That was very cool. Not that there was anything particularly interesting inside other than a long tunnel up a cattle chute you needed to crouch down and climb up a 45 degree gang plank for a few hundred feet to get to the top (the center burial chamber of the pyramid), but just being inside felt like being invited onto an alien space ship only to find that those who brought you aboard were so advanced that they didn’t need controls or windows or anything at all. Just millions of tons of rock entombing you with the former burial site of a man who was famous for dying thousands of years ago.
We rode camels behind the pyramids, which our guide arranged. That was touristy and I liked it anyway because when else are you honestly going to be able to ride a camel in the Sahara? Riding a camel is not like riding a horse. Horses have saddles which cradle the shape of a human without much resistance. Camels are ungraceful, hip-swinging animals and have platforms on their humps with ill shaped saddles that effectively spank you with every step it takes. Doing this while carrying a camera kit and trying to take photos is a futile act but I made the most of it.
We visited the Egyptian Museum which is absolutely worth a visit and definitely worth hiring someone to take you there. The collection is absolutely overwhelming and there’s no real way to understand historical significance for anything at all. It’s best described as being Indiana Jones’ back catalog that never quite got organized. Everything is in antique wood and glass cabinets if not just out in the open on wooden palettes with signs that say do not touch, though we saw plenty an Indonesian tourist group touching pretty much anything that wasn’t covered in glass. To note, there is no air conditioning in the museum, nor are there many electrical lights. It’s a massive space primarily lit by natural light from faded painted glass ceilings and cooled by rotating tabletop fans that have been bolted 20 feet up on a wall. The highlights here are inarguably Ramses II’s unwrapped mummy (no photos allowed) and the Tutankhamen burial treasure (no photos allowed), both of which are very impressive. We had the mummy chamber to ourselves which was kind of insane. About a dozen 4000 year old bodies just lying there. And mostly unwrapped. 10 year old me would have been scared shitless. 30 year old me was super into looking at which mummy looked older when they died or how their skin held up over time.
We visited Alexandria, Egypt’s shining gem on the Mediterranean Sea which is a beautiful city, albeit still with a thick layer of Egyptian crustiness to it. It reminded me very much of Havana, Cuba (as previously covered on this blog), just add burqas, mosques, massive foreign investment and some privatized money. A town full of European architecture slowly crumbling into the sea or, in more common cases, into itself under the salt spray of the Mediterranean. The ride up from Cairo is an interesting one. It’s a few hours drive lined with some fascinating sights along the way, albeit ones that may not be of interest to the general populous who might visit the region. Your first hour driving out of Cairo goes from dense urban sprawl to abandoned “new construction” to abandoned bombed out old construction (Giza) to modern architecture new construction that’s largely abandoned or not-yet-occupied (Giza outskirts) to farmland to desert. We passed dozens of middle American-looking suburbs way the hell out in the middle of nowhere with McMansions in the style of the American dotcom bubble with black socketed eyes for glassless windows, clearly having never been occupied. We’re talking hundreds, if not thousands, of homes standing totally vacant in the middle of nowhere. Consider if Levittown, NY. had failed as a housing initiative and what you had instead was meticulously planned communities being reclaimed bit by bit by the cruel mistress that mother nature can be. I asked our guide and driver what the significance of these places were. Our driver said “housing developments and new construction” (where have I heard that before?) and our guide said (paraphrased) that the construction workers were taking a break and coming back to finish their work soon. I looked over at my Dad and whispered, “They’re never coming back.” He nodded, “No shit.”
Our primary purpose of the visit was to see the Alexandria Library which is meant to be a modern day incarnation of the world’s very first library from thousands of years ago. It’s a gorgeous example of modern institutional architecture and inarguably the cleanest air we breathed the entire trip. When you visit the library, you have to take a guided tour to gain access to the space which we wanted to do for photo purposes so we took an English language tour with a very nice German guide who was studying at the University of Alexandria across the street. My Dad asked why this building was so different than other buildings in Egypt built in a similar timeframe (the past decade). The woman laughed and said it’s because the Finnish government paid for the construction and shipped the builders in to complete the project, otherwise it never would have been finished. I couldn’t help but think, damn this lady gets it.
That night we had dinner with my father’s client (an American) and his board chair (Egyptian but spent years living in Los Angeles) which was an enlightening experience. They have both drank the kool-aid, so to speak, on Egypt as a world power. I need to be very clear right now and say that Egypt, as of 2017 which is the most current data I can find, is the 5th largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States having received nearly $1.5 Billion in combined economic and military assistance. The figure I was quoted locally was they are actually the second largest recipient behind Israel which doesn’t seem like a selling point to me but who am I to argue. It seems that the local opinion between the group we had dinner with, our drivers, and our guide is that Egypt is on the cusp of becoming a major player on the world economic stage and any day now their invite to a permanent seat on the G20 will arrive in the mail. My opinion, fortified by news stories of bombings and arrests of thousands of protestors in front of the Egyptian Museum mere days after I left and witnessing firsthand the construction of “modern” buildings in this nation’s capital is that Egypt is one minor natural disaster away from a major humanitarian crisis, putting 20 million+ people on the streets if not crushing them to death under unstable infrastructure, both literally (building safety) and figuratively (government economic support). I am a tourist, not an expert in developing nations, and I can assure you that the writing is so blatantly on the wall here that it raises my concern further for many dozens of other nations around the world who are in just as dire, if not worse, straits as the land of the Pharaoh kings.
Our entire trip we were drawing parallels to Ramallah, a small Palestinian city on the outskirts of Jerusalem in the West Bank, that we visited a decade ago where days before an Israeli tank had rolled down our hotel’s street and blown up a private residence in retaliation for outspoken protesting, killing many, and where I was met with the business end of an Israeli army assault rifle at a checkpoint walking into Jerusalem. I think a major difference of our interaction with the locals between the West Bank and Egypt is that the Palestinians know they’re in deep shit and the Egyptians are either too brainwashed or too scared to say anything other than glowing praise of their nation. If you ask someone in the West Bank how they feel about the current situation, likely the response will be something like “*shrug* at least we didn’t get bombed this week”. In Egypt, the response would be closer to “we’re going to be the next major world power in six months to a year”.
Finally we visited the Muhammad Ali Mosque (not the boxer) which was very interesting. High above Cairo built in the original citadel of the ancient Roman times, this mosque has been maintained to a somewhat modern standard with an unfathomably massive electrical light installation inside. The exterior clad in alabaster, a white soapstone also referred too as “Egyptian marble”. Most of the building is caked in centuries of city grime and desert dust but the parts that they can reach with a power washer were white and very pretty. The photos mostly speak for themselves.
I loved the trip, I loved visiting Egypt, and I don’t need to go back in the near future. I think in the age of Instagram where people are constantly striving for the best and prettiest vacations to outdo their friends and put on a happy face, it’s okay to admit that sometimes places you visit aren’t worth your time unless you know what you’re getting into. It’s important to gain perspective on the way the rest of the world operates outside of our bubble and if this trip did nothing else for me, it certainly gave me that. The Middle East is an incredibly complex region and individual perceptions of specific countries vary wildly depending on who you’re talking to. My opinions are my own and you are certainly entitled to disagree with me about anything I’ve said above. I am omitting a great many details from this trip in the interest of brevity, many very ugly and many very beautiful.
I took the same route back to Los Angeles as I had to arrive in Cairo. My flight left very early in the morning and a driver picked me up some time in the vicinity of 3am. My father was staying for a few more days to work but he got up and walked me out through the hotel courtyard into the street. I loaded my bags, we hugged, and I climbed into the back of the van. The streets are narrow and the hotel is at a dead end so the driver began backing up slowly. My Dad waved one last time and disappeared into the dark. After transferring flights in Amman, the stewardess came around with a silver pot and little cups. “Arabic coffee?” she asked. I said yes please but she had run out of clean cups. She disappeared into the back to get more but never returned. The doors closed, the lights dimmed, and our plane rocketed off to the Western world.∗