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A Tourism Backfire

Poffertjes in Amsterdam!

I’m writing this on a flight from Amsterdam to Cairo, where we spent the past week. We had a great week in Amsterdam, eating our way through the city. The boys tried all the Dutch specialties I grew up with. It was chilly and rainy—and we didn’t mind in the least, coming from always-warm Cairo. That’s a real change for me. I’m normally such a baby about cold weather.

The boys had a break from school because of the Eid al-Adha holiday, which marks the end of the annual Hajj to Mecca and commemorates Ibraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail to Allah. As in the Judeo-Christian telling, God stopped Ibrahim from killing his offspring, sending a lamb instead. In observance of the occasion, Egyptians slaughter an animal and donate a portion of the meat to the poor. Apparently the streets in parts of Cairo run red with blood on the day of the feast. I didn’t think we were quite ready for that.

I had needed a break. I had been on edge in the days before we left. There had been more to deal with of late. There was the RPG attack on the satellite dish in our neighborhood, and the 50 people killed in demonstrations on Armed Forces Day on October 6. And I didn’t make matters any better by deciding it was time for me to get the boys out of the cocoon of our neighborhood just as the self-described anti-coup alliance called for three days of protests. They’re still agitating against the overthrow of President Morsi.

I thought I had planned well. I knew the pyramids could be a dicey proposition because with the dearth of tourists the guides and hawkers there, starved for business, have grown very aggressive, but I also told myself we couldn’t live in Cairo for two years and never see the pyramids. And there is no guarantee that the situation here will get better. For all I know, now is as good as it is going to get.

I decided to play it safe. I booked a room in the Palace Wing of Mena House, the beautiful and storied historic hotel a stone’s throw from the pyramids. We’d go there, enjoy an afternoon by the pool, have a nice meal at the Indian restaurant—reputed to be the best in Cairo—and decide the next morning if we wanted to visit the monuments. I figured the tour guides at Mena House would know if it was safe to go.

The best-laid plans….

We got to within spitting distance of Mena House without incident (I wasn’t sure we’d be able to, as Giza, the area where they pyramids are, has seen its fair share of clashes recently) when things started to go wrong. The approach to Mena House is also the one used by many tourists heading to the pyramids and, before we realized what was happening, four men had rushed our car trying to get us to ride their horses or camels or god knows what. We signaled to them that we weren’t interested, but one of them—as it happened, the one with crooked eyes that made him look deranged and unhinged—jumped on to the back of the car.

The kids were terrified. The cab driver sped up, then stopped, then sped up again. We couldn’t shake him. The driver got out of the car and yelled at him, then got back in and sped off. The tenacious fellow held on for dear life. The kids were frozen with fear. Even I was shaken, and I knew what was going on, I knew he that he was acting out desperation and had no intention of hurting us; he just wanted us to hire him to do whatever it was he did.  All the while, the guards at Mena House stood idly by and watched it happen. It wasn’t the first time they witnessed that scene that day and it wouldn’t be the last.

When we got near enough to make eye contact I beckoned one of the uninterested Mena House guards over to the car, but by then the guy was leaving. Or maybe it was the approaching soldier that scared him off. I have no idea. All I know is that the boys were traumatized. Hours later, after we’d had a nice lunch by the pool and gone for a swim and were back in our lovely room, they told me there was “no way” they were going to the pyramids the next day. So the view from our window was as close as we got. I’ll try again in few months.

The View from our Room

I have yet to see any of my Egyptian relatives. One of my father’s cousins called a couple of weeks ago. He was going to travel for the holiday, as were we. He said we would get together after the break. I look forward to that. I noticed, though, that several of my cousins have unfriended me on Facebook. I have no idea why. I can only deduce that it’s because of my nationality (anti-American sentiment here as high as I’ve ever seen it).  Whatever the reason, I’m quite shocked by it, as family is generally paramount in Egypt. Still, I’m looking forward to finally seeing the family and introducing the boys to their cousins.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, but the negative feelings toward Americans are tied up with wild theories and beliefs about Obama that have widely been accepted as fact. Many of them are completely illogical, and the funny thing is each side thinks he’s in bed with their opponents. Thankfully, most of the Egyptians we have gotten to know tend to be of the rational and independent-thinking variety, but the mainstream of Egypt makes the Birthers and the Tea Partiers look almost reasonable these days. It’s all so ludicrous that it’s amusing.

I know I now have many of you wondering what I’m talking about, but I just can’t bring myself to propagate the nonsense. Take Pamela Geller and her extreme-right cronies, intensify what they say by a magnitude, remove any trace of logic, and you’ll be close. (And some of the links below will explain more).

I will say, though, that, aside from the cold shoulder I’m getting from my cousins on Facebook, the anti-Americanism is confined to ill feelings about Obama and his Administration. Egyptians are careful to make the distinction between government action and citizens, and the boys and I have never felt unwelcome because of our nationality, despite Obama’s deep unpopularity here.

Speaking of Americans, I have my first visitor coming, @pfro. Ever the intrepid traveler, she’s touring the country. I can’t wait to see her.

 

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Monique this was a great read. I am sure the boys are going to gain so much from their experiences in Cairo. I know I have. We miss you in NYC though…

    October 25, 2013
  2. Ellen DeWan #

    Hi there! I don’t know you but I think I came across your blog thru Huffington Post? anyway, just wanted you to know I check in every once in a while and really love reading your first hand account of life in Egypt. I really admire your adventurous spirit and I know your sons are getting such a great worldly education thru this experience. Keep up the good work and take care.

    October 28, 2013

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