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.