Thursday, April 26, 2007

Known as the Bride of Upper Egypt based on its Nile Valley location, Minya (though technically in Middle Egypt) has been a difficult place to get to since Islamic militants launched terrorist attacks in the 1990s and were then systematically obliterated by the Egyptian government. Minya is located near the tombs of Beni Hassan, Deir al-Adhra (the Church of the Virgin, founded in 328 AD by Constantine’s mother), the ruins of Hermopolis, Tuna al-Gabel, the Frazer tombs, and Tell el-Amarna. We saw these sites, but there are many others.

Remember the Pharaoh Akenhaten and Queen Nefertiti? Tell el-Amarna was their realm. Akenhaten enforced the idea that there was one god instead of many, and, on the surface anyway, people pretty much went along with that until he died, after which the people returned to multiple gods and set about defacing every image they could find of Akenhaten and Nefertiti, including those in the tombs we visited, where you could see depictions of his body, but his head and any written form of his name had been completely rubbed out. The belief was that if you rubbed out every image and word about someone, you would erase that person from history forever. Worked out well, didn’t it? You should really research this and find out more, OK?

We (a bunch of AUC faculty) set out from Cairo in a huge charter bus. What should have been a 3-4 hour trip turned into 6 hours because the original plan to take the Western Desert Road was foiled by police who forbid the bus to go any further after dark. This police protection would become a pattern. The bus and the group were not allowed to go anywhere without a smiling police escort in a Nissan truck or a blue Peugeot leading the way. We had to stop every once in a while as they radioed ahead for replacement shifts and drank tea. Hello, tourists! Anyway, we were diverted through Fayoum, an oasis, and our route was much more interesting than the other (which is, as its name suggests, simply desert) since we went through many villages. Conspicuously, as it were. Everywhere we went in that ludicrous bus, people stared, emphatically waved, nodded, shouted, jokingly offered drags from sheesha pipes, narrowed their eyes. Hundreds of children waved wildly and chased the bus. Only a couple threw rocks.

In Minya, we stayed at the Aton Hotel, a series of bungalows on the Nile. It was beautiful. There were soap and towels in the bathroom, and I didn’t have to throw toilet paper in the trash basket, and someone came in and made the beds while we were gone! Oh, how standards have changed. Actually, it was quite nice – clean and beautiful and quiet. Right on the Nile, where I finally dipped my hands. Across the way was an island with a small hut, cows and goats wandering nearby. On the terrace that looked out over the river, we had Sakkara beer, served with a plate of chickpeas and fresh lime juice. Recommended!

To get to our first set of tombs on the first day, we had to take a ferry from a small village. As the unwieldy bus was maneuvered into a parking position, children gravitated toward us, holding baskets and necklaces woven from fresh palm fronds. The necklaces were a gift unless you got one with a small lime creatively woven in, in which case they were a pound. Both kinds of necklaces smelled great. Of course a pound makes the kids smile, and they were relentless about asking us our names and trying to sell us things. We had to wait a few minutes before the ferry came across the Nile to retrieve our group, and every time I looked over, J was surrounded by children and goats. Par for the course.

Ferry Crossing, Nile River

As the ferry floated away from the shore, two pick-up trucks pulled up, full of villagers who were singing and playing instruments and waving. Along with two boys in gallabeyas handling a donkey cart, and the ever-present police truck, we were crammed on the ferry with some of the kids who had snuck on to continue their sales pitches, ducking the swipes of scolding adults. (Honestly, the only time I have seen a kid dragged out of somewhere by the ear that wasn’t in a film has been in Egypt.)

When we crossed on the way back, we had the added pleasure of standing next to flimsy crates with an assortment of sickly, overheated ducks, rabbits, hens, roosters, and one fairly staid turkey who seemed all right lounging in the same crate with rabbits who had clearly lost the will to live. Anyway, as hay and feathers flew, yet another little boy sidled next to J and regarded the birds and then us, and I swear it seemed as if he were trying to imagine what it was we thought we were seeing. There was one particularly gorged crate of hens from which a small brown egg suddenly emerged, pressed against the side of the crate. I pointed at it, and J marveled. “Yes,” he said. “Those chickens have been in there so long that one of them has laid an egg.” That sweet boy took J’s interest to mean that J wanted the egg, so he set to work. Eventually, he broke one of the wooden bars (and I, watching him, imagined a great but ultimately futile escape), retrieved the egg, and immediately brought it over to J, who found a graceful way to deny it and give the boy “filoos” (money) anyway. I’m pretty sure that J’s rejection was bird flu-based, since he had said, “Hey, bird flu!” the moment we found ourselves staring into the wounded eyes of the poultry.

The View from Deir al-Adhra

Later: Tuna el-Gabel. We stopped at a resthouse for lunch before heading to another couple of tombs, an ancient waterwheel, and the mummy of Isadora, a young woman drowned in the Nile. This was one of the only mummies around, it seems, most having been carted to museums. I’ve found I’m not a big fan of mummies. In general, I think it’s gross to stare at somebody’s corpse. And then to dig it up and put it on display? Hm. But let me tell you, the mummy of Isadora was pretty gross compared to all others I’ve seen. Of course, the mummies in Egypt have been in very un-British Museum-like conditions. (No, we haven’t been to the Antiquities Museum yet!). We saw the “Golden Mummies” in Bawiti, in a dank room with cracked glass cases, and I’ll never forget the head of one of them, cracked open and spilling dust from the back, and the feet covered over with thick new cotton “because of the smell,” according to our fairly uninformed guide. And Isadora, whose condition I won’t describe. I had to leave almost as soon as I saw poor Isadora – I was totally creeped out and people were making weird uncomfortable jokes. Things got better, though. We entered the catacombs where baboons and ibises, considered sacred, were mummified. Mummified animals? Fascinating! There weren’t really any left, though. A slippery stairway led us to a room with a shrine of a baboon skeleton that may as well have leapt off a Grateful Dead T-shirt. The rest of the place was a series of corridors that for some reason we were left to wander with no guidance and almost no lights. There were all these dark alcoves. In one we saw a pile of discarded ibis mummies thrown in with sand and pottery. Would Arnold Vosloo show up? Sadly, no.

Near the Tombs of Beni Hassan
Sugar factory pollution

Regarding Minya, the tombs and all that were nice, but for me the real pleasure was in the lush farmland, the people at work, the multitude of goats, cows, camels. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have stupidly quaint visions of squatting in a field all day in the blazing heat, pulling onions, or scolding my donkey, or grinding my own corn. Don’t forget that I grew up on a farm, even though I was spared the hard work and there was machinery. I can be sentimental, but not in that way. As you can see from some of the pictures, though, the only things really spoiling the beauty were the haze created from a single sugar factory and our enormous charter bus.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A year ago at this time, I was considering the offer to come to Cairo. I did so from the vantage point of my temp job at the University of Minnesota, where I had been persona non grata since the previous September. I came to enjoy the advantages of my position. The job was so easy that I could do a day’s work in only a few hours, and because nobody there really cared about me so long as I did the work, I was almost never disturbed by anyone for any reason.

I was sitting in that lonely cubicle one morning when I learned about the Passover bombing in Dahab. On CNN’s home page, a detailed map of Egypt. Here was Cairo; over there, on the Sinai, several hundred kilometers away, was Dahab, written in large bold lettering. A part of me thought: Okay, that’s over there, in the Sinai. The Sinai is a whole different thing. It’s hundreds of kilometers away! I can just never go there! We’ll certainly not visit Dahab! People get blown up there!

But really, isn’t it always that we’re cool so long as the bombings take place “over there,” whether it be New York City (so says the Midwesterner), the Middle East (so says the American), or the Sinai (so says the Cairene). I think this need for a buffer is the driving force behind politics and war, at least in part, and it’s an idea I have difficulty accepting. My wimpiness nagged at me even after I moved here, since part of the reason I wanted to come was to see the Middle East for myself. It seemed like I was already setting up boundaries and buffer zones. Why bother coming?

Of course, as you all know by now, we did visit the Sinai. It is basically a vast, deserted demilitarized zone. Every so often you pass police checkpoints, where the poor boys are still being forced to wear their black wool “winter” uniforms despite the rising temperatures (update: they switched back to their summer whites this week). Michael told us that the US keeps a minor military presence there—350 soldiers—to help enforce the peace brokered between Egypt and Israel. We passed one of their little outposts, complete with Ford SUVs, about ten million satellites, and a sand volleyball court. “Amrika,” our crazy-ass driver Hossam told us as we whizzed past at 100 or so mph, weaving from one side of the road to the other. Then, he offered to become my personal hash connection, but that is another story.

It’s funny how much less concerned I have become about terrorism since arriving here. It’s strange that the anxiety strikes so much at the heart of Americans, given our natural geographical advantage of being really far away from everybody, and our status as HUGE WORLD POWER. Why do we feel so damned insecure?

Not only have I visited Dahab, but also the Khan el Kalili bazaar, a popular tourist spot and thusly a target for terrorists—who have indeed bombed it in the recent past. It’s not to say that I am flippant or unconcerned. But then we arrived in Dahab and saw that it was nothing more than a village, not yet overdeveloped despite its popularity (but getting there), and that everybody was so friendly and laid back, to the extent that shorts are normal and women wear bathing suits. This is a big deal because of its contrast to Cairo, where the conservative backlash is in full effect. Dahab maintains a very small, intimate, unworried atmosphere, and it’s infectious. Our hotel, the Bishbishi, was wonderfully comfortable, and the owner Jimmy—quite the businessman—helped us arrange trips to snorkel in the Blue Hole, which is a coral reef complete with tropical fish and harmless jellyfish, and, of course, to Mt. Sinai, where we suffered a la Charlton Heston and listened to a bunch of Nigerians sing Bible music.

The front shoreline of Dahab has been completely overrun with a bunch of expensive restaurants that imitate Bedouin-style seating, in which you sit on the floor, surrounded by pillows and low tables. Some very friendly Egyptian men stand outside these restaurants and try—aggressively—to woo you into their establishment. I fear that these restaurants and clubs, which have hogged all the shoreline, are pushing out the less-cushy establishments on the frontage road, including this small, delightful Italian-style restaurant where I gorged on delicious garlic pasta and pizza late at night, and where Michael ate a sausage pizza about three hours before ascending Mt. Sinai. Ouch!

Still, our boy Jimmy walked us across the frontage road, where Bishbishi is located, to a restaurant called the Funny Mummy, with a great view of the unspoiled waters of the Gulf of Aqaba and, 20 miles across, the mountains of Saudi Arabia. It’s impressive. As you can see from the pictures, it’s difficult to imagine a more tranquil setting. I drank a Stella beer and soaked up the crisp air, the bright sun, the carefree atmosphere.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Gebel Musa
(Mt. Moses)

When I was first rationalizing a move to Egypt, one of the things I would say was, “It’s not like we’re going to Sinai or anything.” I started saying this because we were making the decision about moving in April 2006, about the time a town called Dahab was bombed. Well, I just fell in love with Egypt a little bit more this week, and it was because we were in Dahab. J will write more about this beautiful, friendly town on the southeastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, but, obviously, my perspective on this region has changed, which would take more than a blog entry to explain.

Before a climb up Mt. Sinai, at the Bishbishi Garden Village, our hotel:

On our first full day in Dahab, we went snorkeling, rested a few hours, then set out for an evening climb of Mt. Sinai. At around 11:30pm, we were herded into a minibus with nine other people – five Swedes, a few Chinese women, a couple of British isles chaps, and three Americans – J, me, and J’s visiting friend Mike. We slept for most of the two-hour drive from Dahab to Mt. Sinai until we pulled up to the first checkpoint outside of St. Catherine’s Monastery, where all of us relinquished our passports for inspection by a stern man in a Cosby sweater. There were a few more checkpoints before we arrived at the monastery, which sits at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Now, I’ve never climbed a mountain before, and I have no idea what constitutes a high mountain, but I found myself inspecting mountains along the way and thinking, Yeah, I could handle that one, or No, if Mt. Sinai is that big, I’m not doing it – no way, no how.

Mt. Sinai is about 2,300 meters high, or about 7,500 feet. If you’ve climbed a mountain before (I’m talking to you, Sari and Marge), you’ll probably just laugh at the rest of this entry, because it seems that for some people (again, you know who you are) this would be cake.

When we pulled up to the monastery in the wee hours, I still couldn’t tell which one was the infamous mountain from which Charlton Heston descended with stone tablets. After paying 5 pounds for the use of the abnormally clean bathroom, we set off through a metal detector, where two soldiers gave a cursory glance through our backpacks, the luggage we would grow to despise the higher we climbed. It was here that we met our guide, an intrepid young Bedouin who climbs this mountain seven days a week and would be climbing it twice in the next 48 hours. He named our group “Ramses” and insisted that each time he called out this name we all respond so he could make sure that we hadn’t fallen down the mountain. He didn’t actually say the part about falling down the mountain. This kid was texting on his mobile the whole way, and he literally bounded from rock to rock in between smoking cigarettes. I remember at one point when I was lagging a bit, he came swooping down, grabbed my hand, and got me going like he was a personal trainer. Then he moved on to the next few people who were lagging behind.

We found out we would be going on the camel path, a lengthier but less steep route to the top – it was supposed to take 2-3 hours. It turns out that ascending the other path – 3,000 Steps of Repentance carved out by a self-flagellating monk – was not an option at night. We would see why in the morning. I can only say that I was elated to not be able to see the extent of what we were about to climb. And I fear I would have been cursing rather than repenting, anyway, if I had taken those 3,000 Steps.

The first part of the climb involved weaving through a camp of Bedouins and their camels. “Camel? Camel? Camel? Very long way. Camel?” Most of the camels were sacked out and masticating and, I imagine, thinking grumpily about how this was the day they would feign an itch and “accidentally” shake a tourist from their backs. I would have thought them adorable if I didn’t already know better. Later, one of the women in our group would try to pet a seated camel as we passed, and it would try to bite her. Don’t mess with camels. The ones in the camp seemed docile in the light of the full moon, though, and the Bedouins were adept at making a camel ride seem like a good idea. In fact, as we climbed throughout the night, we would periodically pass other small groups of camels, and the Bedouins’ suggestions about getting a camel ride were more and more seductive: “Camel? You look very tired. Camel? Camel make it easy.”

Now commenced the real climb. There was a strange logic to each group member’s approach that reminded me of when we had to run the mile in gym class. (Here comes my flashback of Miss Randall’s disappointment in my finish time.) A couple of people in the group were steady and quick the whole way. Others tried to make out like “men” and started off too fast, eventually pooping out. I took the slow and steady approach, and one of the Chinese women joined me. She is taking a year off from teaching social studies in Taiwan to travel the world by herself. J took the steady approach as well but was much quicker. However, all of us made it to the top, and no one fell off or sustained any major injuries.

For me, this first leg of the ascent was hardest because my brain was at its most practical. I was doing things like singing little inspirational ditties in my head with lyrics like, “Come on! You’re only 29!” Once my sense of logic crumbled to fundamental instincts, I was golden. I lost all sense of time and only cared about watching out for camels and keeping my eyes to the uneven ground.

The Bedouins have a beautiful system, though. Along the way are pit stops, where you can go into a hut, sit for a few minutes, and buy drinks or snacks. The higher you go, the more expensive the food and drink. About halfway up, sweating through our clothes, we realized that water alone wouldn’t cure the inevitable dehydration that was coming, and we bought a couple of Sprites for ten pounds apiece (normally you can get a can of Sprite for a few pounds), which had amazing, immediate results. Our guide had a wonderful way of making it seem like the next pit stop was right around the corner.

There came a point when I realized how far up we were and stupidly glanced over to see the sheerness of the mountainside. The camels we passed hugged the edge of the path, and I couldn’t imagine being up on one of those unwieldy humps, swaying toward the side of the mountain. We then decided it was time to turn on the flashlight we had bought, an enormous lamp that thereafter became the envy of all Bedouin guides. This was a fun reversal because I was asked numerous times if I would give such-and-such guide this flashlight, and I always responded with an exorbitant price.

Finally, we reached the spot where the camels will go no farther. The camel path meets up with the Steps of Repentance for a final 750 steps to the summit. On this last leg, some people literally crawled. We met a group of three ancient women coming down these steps on their canes in the dark – no guide, no flashlights. I shone my flashlight down the stairs for them until they went out of sight, but I think this just annoyed them.

There was one last spot before a final 50 steps. Because our group had become several individuals, each going at his/her own pace, our guide instructed us to meet him at “Coffeeshop #5.” J and I were proud to make it up there just after the Swedes, who proved to be the fittest people in the group. We waited a while and rented a ratty, never-been-washed blanket for ten pounds, because it was getting windy and cold. It was around 4:30am. The sun would rise at 5:50, we were told.

Finally, a last tiresome bit before the summit of Mt. Sinai. Our guide secured a spot for us which involved climbing up a “ladder” that was actually part of a fence tipped on its side. It was, indeed, lovely to watch the sun rise out of the haze and become apparent little by little.

As this happened, Nigerian groups on a different part of the summit began to sing quite beautifully. Something about this (probably the repetition of hearing this singing every day) irritated our guide, who remarked: “See? We are a good group. No Nigerians!” It was at this point that I recognized a bit of irony in the dependency of so many Christians and Jews on the Muslims who will get them up this mountain. As we left the summit, pushed by our guide to hurry, we watched people praying, preaching, photographing.

We were deliriously fatigued at this point, but we were halfway through. Theoretically, going down should have been easier. For this lady, it was the most excruciating part of the trip. Let me put it this way – my kneecaps? I lost them somewhere on the crazy monk’s steps. And today I've developed bruise stripes on the backs of my calves. The 3,000 Steps of Repentance are a jagged, steep, zigzagging path of uneven rocks, and the distance between some steps can be a few meters.

Despite my fight with the hobbling, quivering things I call my legs, I found the descent to be absolutely gorgeous. We finally got to see the thing we had been battling all night. And about three-fourths of the way down, we spotted the monastery. As soon as he could get a signal, J called his father, who was the only one we knew to be awake in the States, on our borrowed mobile. You wouldn't believe the signals you can get in the desert.

The Descent:

The view of Mt. Sinai from Elijah's Hollow, a spot about 3/4 of the way up:

St. Catherine's Monastery:

At the bottom, we discovered that the monastery was closed that day. Do you think I cared? I had been looking forward to seeing the Burning Bush, but as we walked down an endless road to the parking lot where we would be picked up, and a police truck approached us, and I said to J, “He’s just going to have to run me over” because I no longer had the capacity to veer to the right, and I watched a woman try to leap onto a ledge for a photo and fail because her body literally crumpled beneath her, I thought, monastery schmonastery. I fell into the minibus and slept the whole way back.

There were probably lots of revelations on the summit of Mt. Sinai – some imagined, some real. I didn’t have one until that next day. I was grimacing at my sore calves and sipping a lemon juice in a cafĂ© called The Funny Mummy that looks out over the Red Sea. Then one of the waiters said something to me about how Egyptians understand that the American people are different from their government. For a moment, I had that relief I have always had in hearing that comment – that people can understand that citizens don’t necessarily bear the responsibility for their government’s actions. Later, though, I realized that it is extremely generous for people to go so far as to say they understand that American citizens are not to blame. Just because I didn’t vote for So-and-So doesn’t mean I don’t bear some of the responsibility for the things I wish our government wouldn’t do. Complacency can be a considerable fault. But Marx says all of this better. It's just that I started to feel like my relief at the comment I've been hearing since I've gotten to Egypt is actually part of the problem. I'm not sure what this has to do with Mt. Sinai.

In conclusion, if you visit me, I will be glad to take you to Dahab. And I'll gladly steer you toward Mt. Sinai and see you when you come back down in the morning.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Step Off

Sorry for not posting sooner. Last week was midterm evaluation at the AUC and this brought with it a flurry of activity. I've been half-writing an entry on the sandstorms that have blown into Cairo over the past few weeks, but that entry hasn't caught fire or held my attention like I hoped it would.

Now I'm falling behind: tomorrow we depart with our friend Michael for the Sinai Penninsula, where 3,000 Steps of Repentance await us on Mt. Sinai. (There will also be a beach, and snorkeling in the pristine waters of the Gulf of Aqaba.) This trip will warrant at least one post, maybe more. And yesterday, Michael and I traveled south of Cairo to the ancient pyamids at Sakkara and Dashur. We drove through small agricultural villages, so green and irrigated, and then as we approached the Sakkara complex, the green simply ceased, and sandy desert began.

Sakkara is best known for the Step Pyramid, which as you can see is mightily impressive. It predates the Giza pyramids by several thousand years. But the area is actually an enormous funerary complex--aside from the ruins bunched near the Step Pyramid, it seems at first as if there is very little to see. But the longer you stay, the more the eye discerns: off in the desert, you see huts that protect the entryways to ancient graves dating back several centuries. It's not surprising to me that archaelogists are still finding tombs here. Also, the vendors are much less aggressive here than at Giza--though one guy did manage to dress Michael in decidedly non-Egyptian, Obi Wan Kenobi-like garb while I had my head turned.

Dashur is best known for the Bent Pyramid, so named because it rises at a very steep angle for a time before literally bending--the pyramid's angle of incline was adjusted and the structure was brought to completion. It's a mystery why the Bent Pyramid is, in fact, bent. There are a lot of theories. Also, this pyramid had more armed guards than tourists. There were only a few of us out there. Really great. The desert is a quiet place.

Dashur also has the Red Pyramid, which more closely resembles the ones at Giza. This one you can climb into. First you climb a hundred uneven steps to get to the entrance, then you bend over and lower yourself about a hundred feet into the center of the pyramid, which smells like sweat, urine and ammonia. Then you have to come out the way you entered, and your legs feel like they are being stabbed with a thousand little knives, and the next day your ass is extremely sore. Or so I've been told.

More on all this soon. In the meantime...


Sunday, April 01, 2007

This photo is from our trip to the Citadel. We were in a courtyard and were about to enter the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. You can see the French influence in the eave of a gazebo-type building on the right.