It’s been well over a month since my return from three weeks in Egypt. My procrastination to tell the tale of my adventures reveals my mixed thoughts and feelings.
Ecstatic, yet painful. Magnificent, magical monuments, spectacular sunsets, views along the Nile, whilst watching women in thrall, men in bondage to patriarchy and bad government. ‘We Westerners’ dressed inappropriately, crowding the aisles of ancient processional ways, cameras clicking, following guides who deliver misinformation in multiple tongues. Served by modern slaves to tourism in the Name of the God Baksheesh. What a price to pay, one’s ethical integrity, to visit the land of Cleopatra and Nefertiti, not to mention Isis Herself. As per pharaohs, Ramses II seems to come out of it well enough, along with Seti I, Om Seti (nee Dorothy Eady) having memorialized him with her life’s work as a more-than-average-amateur archaeologist.
The prep-reading came in handy: the biography of Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon (1821–1869) A Passage to Egypt by Katherine Frank, then a unique novel by Canadian author Kate Pullinger from the point of view of Lucy’s maid (Lucy comes out badly), Mistress of Nothing, thus leading me away from Lucy’s own works to other adventurous ‘western’ women travellers’ accounts: Amelia Edwards’ A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. who travelled to Egypt in autumn 1873, to escape the rain on a walking holiday in France, followed by a real find upon my delivery to Luxor, Florence Nightingale’s stunning Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850, edited with an introduction by the maverick but fascinating Anthony Sattin (see his Pharoah’s Shadow). There’s others to follow up on of course, including, as I am advised by my Egyptophile poet pal Penn Kemp, Stacy Schiff’s recent Cleopatra. And a worthy read indeed is A Travellers History of Egypt by Harry Ades.
My near daily account of our adventure (of the three of us, all devotees of Isis) may serve me in the future for some sort of more serious literary response to Egypt, although the phenomenal number and variety of such literary responses dissuades one. It was an ambitious program for a three week stay, thanks to our intrepid Arabic-speaking (Brit-born) hostess. As we travelled the main length of The Ancient Black Land, deeply breathing in Luxor/Old Thebes and especially the West Bank where our hostess lives in a true Isis Temple of her Own Making, down the Nile by boat to Aswan/Philae (Temple of Isis, literally moved from the rising waters of the Nile because of the new dam), stopping off at Edfu (The House of Horus) and Kom Ombo (Crocodile God’s Temple), back home to Thebes, up to Cairo(Giza to be exact)and Alexandria, and back home to base, ensuring we visited Hatshepsut’s Temple, remembering the slain tourists (sacrifices to fundamentalist Islam), the Valley of the Kings (3 tombs allowed per visit), a side trip to Abydos (Om Seti’s beloved Temple of Osiris) and on the last day, Medinet Habu, mortuary temple of Ramses III.
In Giza we stayed at the Sphynx Hotel facing/abutting the Sphinx/Pyramid site, thus enabled to see and hear close up from the balcony (without paying) three night versions (in multiple tongues) of The Sound & Light Extravaganza. Being the guests of the inimitable, generous and hospitable Gouda Fayed of Fayed-family fame. His forebears were granted land and rights around the pyramids with the British takeover. It is an experience not to be missed.
Apart from the amazing tales travellers always have to tell of their Egyptian adventures (and we were no different), what stays with me is a deep melancholy for what Egyptians are experiencing in their daily lives on all levels. Having read some of their history, one might venture to say, it’s more of the same, continuing poverty, political unfairness, gender and job inequality, etcetera, on and on–not so different and yet of course different, from so many other countries. A great number of police of many sorts are ubiquitous; their presence, supposed to engender a sense of security, engenders the opposite. Like the multiple site-guards, they too worship Baksheesh. No one seems free of this plague upon the people. Although the people appear miserable and afraid (all classes), they invariably tell you how much they love Egypt. A good majority of them smoke; one taxi driver told me (when I noted this) that they smoke to stop feeling bad, so they can cope.
This brings me back to some old reading I did years ago, reading that both prepared me for Egypt in the deepest sense and put me off, nearly permanently. And that is the extraordinary writings and life of Dr. Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931). Nawal’s brave exploration of women’s life under Islam is both frightening and inspiring. Long may she live–she has been threatened enough times by governments in power and intolerant extremism, imprisoned for her work (1988), having to go into exile in the USA for a period but at present back in Egypt. Nawal ‘says’ better than I ever could what the life of a woman in Egypt is like–except to say, it’s not any easier with the continuing rise of fundamentalist Islam. They do well what they intend: harass, intimidate, bomb and kill.
A more recent Arabian language (translated into English) best-seller backs up and further explores this sad and depressing picture of life in Egypt: Alaa Al Aswany’s The Jacoubian Building.
It has been this depressing aspect, the truth of the matter in Egypt, that has driven my procrastination to tell my own Egyptian tale. But as the weeks pass, it lifts slightly, and I feel I must try to stand alongside Nawal and Aswany and so many others in Egypt and out, who want a better life, a better way. And it’s not simple, by half.
So more, anon.