12 March 2011

Finally, a post about Egypt (and Israel): A photo essay

One of my favorite activities on a recent visit to my parents was going through my parents' and grandparents' old photo albums. I loved seeing the way certain themes echo through family photos: there's the "Kids Playing Piano" pictures, the "Kids Held Upside-down by Adult" pictures, the "Kids Reading" pictures. First of my father and his brother, then of me and my sister (weren't we cute?), and if you're reading this from facebook you've seen the same pictures of my nieces and nephews.

Then I got to the photo album Grandma Kack put together with pictures of the trip she and Granddaddy Joe took to Israel and Egypt, 25 years ago. There was the echo again, resounding in the pictures I took on a trip with my friend Sarah, in October 2010.

The pictures of Israel looked somewhat different from mine; I think the Old City in Jerusalem has had a little work done since the mid-eighties.

This view of the Mount of Olives from 2010 is much tidier
than the same view in Grandma's 1980's picture.
This archeological-site-that-looks-like-a-garden
looked like an archeological site 25 years ago.

Grandma took a picture of this view of the Garden of Gethsemane, too.
The olive trees, reputed to be 2,000 years old, had grown slightly between
the time she took hers and the time I took this one. Other than that--identical.

Grandma--who was there with her church, after all--
was way too polite to take a picture inside
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
where I snapped this photo of Golgotha while waiting in line.

I didn't go down into the chapel of the Sepulchre itself,
and this crowd they're calling a queue outside the door is why.

But Grandma's pictures of Egypt... those you could mix up in the photos Gino and I took and have a hard time telling which was which. The buildings look the same; the people are dressed the same. The major difference would be that the cars that were old when we saw them, were new then, and the buildings had fallen into twenty-five years' worth of disrepair.
Here we all are in Cairo!

I should have taken a picture of the traffic. Everyone who goes to Cairo talks about the traffic. Several of the pictures in Grandma's album are of the traffic, with labels such as "view of Cairo traffic from the bus" or "more traffic". (I'd show you one of Grandma's pictures--like I said, it looks pretty much exactly the same now as it did then--except that I foolishly didn't force the album into my suitcase when I left. I think Mom's sent it on to my cousin Carrie, the family archivist.) The Lonely Planet notes that "the crowds on a Cairo footpath make Manhattan look like a ghost town," and that's even more true of the roadways. I don't remember seeing a working traffic light the entire time I was there: the cars communicate with each other using a local language of honks and blinking lights, and pedestrians who want to cross the street just... go for it, through breaks in the traffic that wouldn't look like breaks in New York or London.

I don't think Gino intended this to be a picture of traffic,
but it gives you the idea.
Note especially the pedestrians nonchalantly wandering through it.

In fact, looking over my albums now, I realize now that I mostly took a lot of pictures of Important Famous Sights on this trip. Which is great, but it means I don't have pictures of the sights that actually made the biggest impressions on me. I could kick myself for not getting a picture of the cart selling live rabbits and chickens outside the Street of Tentmakers (though if you've watched the Pyramids episode of An Idiot Abroad--and if you haven't, you should, it's on Sky in the UK and the Science Channel in the US--you'll see Karl Pilkington remark on it, too). Thanks to a Cairo-based friend of Gino's, we had a private driver for our trip out to the pyramids, and as we drove through heavily-urban Giza we saw as many herds of sheep and goats as I usually see on a train ride through the English countryside. I didn't get pictures of that, either.

Gino took this picture of the Street of Tentmakers--mine came out blurry.

However, the poverty of Cairo is going to show up in your pictures no matter what else you were trying to capture. There's basically no view of the city that doesn't include crumbling buildings, glassless windows, twenty-year-old cars.

Actually, I guess that's not entirely true.
This view, from the balcony of the our hotel in Zamalek,
show a perfectly well-developed if slightly smoggy modern city.

This photo of the Citadel--which Gino took from the medieval Bab Zuweila--
gives a more close-up view of downtown Cairo,

as does this one, which I took from the same spot,
looking in the other direction.

We visited quite a few mosques while we were in Cairo, and I loved every one of them. I wrote in my journal while I was there that "just existing takes all my concentration." Everywhere we went there was something to watch out for: oncoming cars; aggressive vendors; friendly children. I was never more aware of the city's chaos than when I took off my shoes, entered the sky-roofed, gently-patterned square, and felt so much of the responsibility to pay attention slip away.

Al-Hakim Mosque. Ahhhhhhh.
The irony is, one of the most peaceful places I experienced in Cairo
is named after a despot whose rule was marked by his very creative
methods of torturing his enemies.

The Turkish-style Mosque of Mohammed Ali,
at the Citadel.

While Sarah was staying with expat friends Valentine and Eric in Maadi and being admirably Cairene, Gino and I had more of a touristy experience. We used the massive number of points Gino had built up during his business travel last year to stay for free at the Cairo Marriott, where, as you can guess from the picture of the pool, we did not want for comfort. (Sarah stayed with me there the night before Gino arrived, and our first morning in Cairo was the most luxurious of our trip, involving breakfast in deck chairs next to the pool before the day got seriously hot.) The Cairo Marriott is sort of Cairo-lite: they have a restaurant serving exceptionally tasty Egyptian food, but they have something like eleven other restaurants serving everything from standard Italian to "Midwestern Cuisine." They also have a shopping arcade with tiny branches of most of the stores mentioned in the Lonely Planet, including a bookstore whose main branch is right around the corner from the hotel, anyway.

Our little westernized oasis.

But, as Valentine pointed out, Westerners rarely visit Cairo as independent tourists: most of the other guests in our hotel were there the way my grandparents were, as part of tour groups: with an inclusive breakfast and a coach waiting to pick them up for the day's adventures every morning. They probably didn't spend a lot of time wandering the neighborhood of the hotel. Even in ritzy Zamalek, as soon as you step beyond the security gates of your hotel, you are no longer in tourist-land but have ventured into actual Cairo, with the insane traffic and the crowded, narrow sidewalks and the general sensory overload.

I am not, by the way, knocking the tour-group method of travel. Cairo is huge and busy and not built for tourists. Cab drivers don't necessarily speak English, have meters in their cabs, or carry change. Violent crime is low, but scams and cons are such a significant part of the local economy that they rate mentions in every section (Shopping, Eating, Sleeping) of the Lonely Planet. Everywhere you go, people want to talk to you, to sell you something, to show you a special, secret feature of the monument you're visiting (in exchange for a tip, of course). It is beyond overwhelming. We were accompanied by friends who spoke Arabic and had lived in Cairo for a few years, which kept the stress level bearable--I honestly can't imagine visiting without some sort of guide smoothing things out.

Gino's and my big tourist adventure was to take the Marriott's dinner cruise down the Nile, because I had taken six weeks' worth of belly dancing classes at my gym, and I wanted to see a real belly dancer do it.

The real belly dancer.
You can see her in An Idiot Abroad, too.

The one thing I knew I wanted to do on the trip to Egypt was ride a camel around the Pyramids. I'd read the section of the guidebook that said riding a camel was a good idea, told me where to rent camels, and how much to pay. I thought I was all set. Then, on our last day in Cairo, we actually got there.

These people would like to give you a camel ride.
Or sell you a set of postcards.
Or give you a headscarf.
Or take your picture with the Pyramids.
Or let you take their picture with the Pyramids.
Or take a picture of you riding on their camel, in front of the Pyramids.

Sarah, Gino, and I went more-or-less on our own: we hired a driver who was recommended by a friend of Gino's, but the driver spoke no English. (The Sphinx is not called the Sphinx by Egyptians. We thought we could pronounce Abu al-Hol well enough to make ourselves understood by an Arabic speaker. We were wrong. We got Ahmed to take us to see it by pointing to the picture on the guidebook.)

The Lonely Planet section on the Pyramids includes an entire sub-heading titled "The Hassle." It reminds you that "the Pyramids have been attracting tourists since they were built, and a local was probably there offering them a ride on a donkey"--which I actually found helpful to remind myself when we got inside the complex and the young men fell on us with their postcards, their scarab beads, their headscarves, their models of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The constant attention, the constant negotiations, made it really hard to concentrate on the archeological Wonder of the World right next to us. It made negotiating for a camel ride around that wonder too intimidating to even attempt.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World.
I think Grandma got a shot like this too, come to think of it.
Gino took this one, as I managed to break my camera before we got this far.

Gino also took this picture of the Sphinx,
or Abu al-Hol ("Father of Terror," according to Lonely Planet)

On the way back to our hotel, Ahmed demonstrated the very best style of Egyptian driving by pulling up alongside a vegetable truck. The men inside greeted him warmly and handed him a cucumber with one end cut off, which he offered to Gino, Sarah, and I--a nice change from the sticky, too-sweet Cokes that had been all we could find at the Pyramids. We had time for lunch and another luxurious swim in our oasis of a pool before Sarah and I took the hotel car to the train station for the night train down to Luxor, and the next part of our adventure.

(Of which, sadly, I have no pictures, on account of my camera getting broken at the Pyramids. Oh, well.)

When Sarah e-mailed me back in August to ask if I wanted to go to Cairo, and maybe Luxor, and possibly Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with her, I gave it about twenty-four hours' thought and said, "that sounds like pretty much the definition of a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and of course I'm coming." At the time, we had no idea how once-in-a-lifetime it was, but we're both extremely pleased to have made the journey before the Modern History sections of our guidebooks went completely out of date. Our friends in Cairo are fine--you can read Eric's account of pre- and post-revolutionary Cairo here--and excited about the future.

Me, I'm just excited to go back someday.

Next time I am totally riding a camel.


  1. Ooh - I'm in your blog! I'm famous! :) So glad you linked to Eric's blog.

  2. Yep, you are a hero to me and my 25 readers! I really enjoyed that essay of Eric's, btw. I hope lots of people click over.

  3. I owe you Luxor pictures! I'll figure out how to get them to you.