Egypt, 1996

February 12th, 2011 § Comments Off on Egypt, 1996 § permalink

Other than mocking my husband for being a Republican, I like to avoid politics here. You don’t talk politics or religion, right?

But, of course, Egypt is on my mind, as it is on everyone’s mind, I suppose. In 1996, I took a trip to Egypt, and it’s stayed with me all these years. It comes up in my writing, and it almost changed my entire career path. In September 1996, I went to a kibbutz in Israel for a four to six week trip. I ended up staying on the kibbutz for six and a half months, and then traveling through Eastern Europe for a month and a half. While I was on the kibbutz, I traveled to both Egypt and Jordan. When I returned to Seattle in April 2007, I began taking classes as a non-matriculated student at the University of Washington’s Jackson Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. In the fall, I applied for their master’s program. That March, I received my acceptance letter. The very same week I got a job offer from that “little Internet bookstore” (as my friend put it, when she told me of the job openings). I already had two worthless degrees–a BFA in film and an MFA in creative writing–so I figured I’d work for a year and then go back for another worthless degree (in those pre-9/11 days, Middle Eastern degrees weren’t as desirable as they may be now). Of course, that “little Internet bookstore” took off and I couldn’t walk away from the Internet bubble.

I’m looking over my journals from that trip to Egypt. I was traveling with a group, and it’s clear that I really hated traveling with groups. I tended to go off a lot, either on my own or with my friend Amber. At one point I wrote “we go to get our train tickets–2nd class full. Must get 1st although of course others complain because of $$. I don’t care–they can take a 3rd class train & I’ll go w/out them.” Note, I wasn’t just being a privileged American, just prioritizing my finances, as I wrote elsewhere: “It seems ludicrous to spend all the money and effort to get here and then not see anything. Don’t buy the pot (15E£ each) or the cigarettes or the junk and see the sights!”

We entered Egypt at the Taba crossing from Eliat. We ended up having to spend an extra night in Eliat so I could get my visa to cross to Egypt. All of my travel companions were South African, so they didn’t need them. We took a taxi to Dahab where we spent a couple of nights, playing backgammon in the outdoor restaurants, drinking way too much Coke (I made a note in my journals that drugs were easy to come by, but not alcohol. It was [probably still is] illegal for Egyptians to get alcohol, but there are special shops where foreigners could purchase it. We were approached by an Egyptian who wanted us to buy alcohol for him, for his sister’s wedding. I felt bad that he wasn’t able to buy it on his own–what a contrast, the grown-ups asking the kids to buy alcohol for them–but I was too frightened of breaking the law in Egypt to do it for him).

Playing backgammon with Amber at the Green Valley Cafe in Dahab

From Dahab we took a taxi to Cairo, which I remember was a harrowing experience. The note in my journal reads, “Arab drivers make Israeli drivers look like wimps.” Note, Israeli drivers are terrifying. We had to stop at three different checkpoints, where soldiers came and inspected us in the car. It was nothing like the police escort our bus had on the way back to Israel, but it was a little creepy. Although when we had to stop and wait for a herd of goats to pass, I thought it was charming.

The Nile at sunset, in Cairo

I did all the standard things–saw King Tut, took a felucca down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor, visited the Valley of the Kings and the Temple at Karnak. I skipped the Aswan Dam–I’m terrified of heights and when I saw it, I refused to go.

The view from our hotel window in Aswan

The felucca had no toilet, so when we needed to pee, the boat pulled over. Amber and I brush our teeth in a field of buffalo.

Amber and I tried to do as much as we could, learning how to take the Egyptian city buses, finding the souk, of course visiting the Egyptian Museum.

Me, in a souk in Cairo

The rest of the folks I was traveling with were more interested in finding the sheesha pipes and shopping. I ended up going some places completely alone. I have a very clear memory of going into the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art. Not many people were there. When I walked in, the man at the counter said to me, “Ah, American.”

“Yes,” I told him.

“What do you think of your Bill Clinton?” he asked me.

“He’s all right,” I said, not interested in getting into a political conversation.

He looked me straight in the eyes and then asked, with a little smile, “And what do you think of Hosni Mubarak?”

I paused, really not sure what to say. So finally, I looked at him, trying to fake confidence, and said, “What do you think of Hosni Mubarak?”

He laughed at me and said, “Smart girl!” and let me go on into the museum.

Egypt was marvelous. I still dream of the food I ate there–the fatir and koushari and the ful–and the things I’ve seen. I am very happy for Egypt and I look forward to returning there some day, with my kids.

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