Much of Egypt looks like it has suffered through a decade of civil war bookended by powerful earthquakes. It hasn’t either; that’s just Egypt, a country so in love with ruins it is always in the process of becoming one. It always eats and recycles itself. For thousands of years, pharaoh after pharaoh renovates a monument, erases the name of the original builder or a subsequent renovator and substitutes his own, to live in history as a great builder – until the next glory-seeking pharaoh comes along and repeats the whole process – the 20th century pharaoh Nasser did the same. In the medieval times and even much later, Egypt’s mummies are ground in powder and sold to superstitious Europeans who ascribe them astonishing medicinal powers. An ancient stone casing of a pyramid becomes a foundation stone of a Roman fortress, then a building block of an Arab trader’s mansion, and finally it too is ground into powder to go into a cement to build a new residential tenement, which already looks old before it’s even finished, partly because of a shoddy workmanship and partly because the ubiquitous desert sand and dust immediately give everything the same brown patina. Any colour here is a short-lived folly; the desert – 98 per cent of Egypt – will have its own. As your plane approaches the Cairo airport and descends over the outer suburbs of the constantly expanding 20-million megalopolis, the largest city in Africa and one of the largest in the world, the rows upon rows of apartment blocks don’t look as much as houses made by humans for humans as little sand structures stamped out with a sand form in infinitum by an obsessive-compulsive little boy on a beach. As it grows, Cairo swallows the desert, but the desert swallows Cairo in turn.
Cairo itself, for over five thousand years a city of note, moves and shifts restlessly, changing its name and location, its centre of gravity sometimes on the east and sometimes the west bank and up and down the Nile. It once used to be at the point where the Nile first forks out into its magnificent delta; nowadays that spot lies miles to the north. Sometimes the people of Cairo move around, often the Nile itself does, ever changing it meander to the Mediterranean, though not since the mighty Aswan Dam has been erected on the lower course of the river; the dam abolished the yearly inundations of the Nile, which have been its natural rhythm for millennia. On, Men-Nefer (Lasting and Beautiful) turned by the Greeks into Memphis, Heliopolis or City of the Sun, Roman Babylon, Arab Misr al-Fustat, Fatimid dynasty’s al-Qahira named after the planet Mars the Victorious and soon Latinised by Italian traders, Cairo is now all of them – because it is now so large – and none of them.
There are few cities of note in Egypt. There is Cairo, of course, and there is Alexandria, established by the Great one to bear his name and built by the Macedonian Ptolemies, the most cosmopolitan city in Egypt, as becomes a Mediterranean port. Others are tiny by comparison; Luxor roughly the size of Brisbane, then, even further down the list, Port Said, Aswan. By and large, Egypt is still a big village. Don’t be deceived by its ostensible size and its quadrilateral shape – putting aside a few oases and a few resorts along the Red Sea coast, the whole country looks like a big palm – or perhaps, because it is Egypt, after all, a lotus flower, with the strip of green a few kilometres wide on each side of the Nile being its long thin stem, and the Nile delta the blooming flower itself. In Egypt, desert is everything, but water means everything. Water is life, has been for millennia, and will be well into the future, because unlike the oil or gas-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt has no resources – and no reasons – to grow new cities out of the sand.
It is quite stunning, as you fly above and along the Nile, to follow that green ribbon squeezed on both sides by the beige expanse of the desert. On the ground, the boundary between life and sand is even starker. There is no intermediate zone; there is the nearest canal that gives sustenance to the palm trees and the crop fields around it, and then you take a few steps away from the river and there is only rock and sand, stretching seemingly forever. In fact, you could face the setting sun along most of the Nile’s length, then walk west for thousands of kilometres, and you would only see signs of life – vegetation, people – as you hit the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere in Mauretania perhaps.
If Egypt is largely a village, its values are also those of a village, because even among the Egyptians who live in the cities, most have come from villages or their parents have.
The veneer of modernity is very thin and very geospatially constrained. There are small parts of the cities, and really only in Cairo and Alexandria, which look and feel like their Western counterparts (or would but for the stifling heat, dust and the sheer chaos of traffic and the street life generally). You can get your KFC or brand-new Adidas sneakers, if that’s your definition of modernity, and trust me, there are worse ones. But if you see a woman without a hair cover, the best bet is that she is a Copt. Egyptian Christians are conservative too, perhaps in part so as not to needlessly antagonise the Muslim majority, but not as conservative as those who follow the Prophet, as interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries. There are some Muslim women who also go uncovered, true; they are the daughters of the tiny, somewhat Westernised elite, Egypt’s 1%, who study and regularly travel abroad and try to live as we do. They are foreigners in their own country. To some extent that can be said of most cosmopolitan elites, even those in the developed Western counties, but in Egypt this fact is particularly stark, thanks to the astonishing disparity of wealth between those connected to business or the top levels of government and the rest of the society (don’t talk to me about inequality unless you have visit a developing country) as well as the difference in mindset and values. The Cairo elite has much more in common with their counterparts in London, New York or Dubai than with the millions who live hard in the ugly Cairo sprawl, never mind the millions more who live in villages along the Nile, where life has changed very little over the past few millennia.
In this other, “real” Egypt, women at least cover their hair, but burqa and niqab are very popular options. Majority of Egyptian women still undergo the Female Genital Mutilation as girls, despite there being no Koranic injunction for the process. The current government, in particular, has done a good job suppressing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the terrorist organisations its ideology spawns with regularity, but don’t for a moment think that the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence of the general sentiment as well as of the needs and longings that the Brotherhood and other similar movements have responded to so successfully in the past. There is a good reason why Egypt could be considered one of Al Qaeda’s parents (the other one being Saudi Arabia), even if – thankfully – we have not seen much of that side of Egypt in recent years.
In fact, there is a considerable schizophrenia in the official and unofficial Egypt, partly – but not wholly – borne out of the “elite-the rest” divide. Egypt, after all, is one of the very few majority Muslim countries which has diplomatic relations with Israel, while the overwhelming majority of the population (including elites) remain deeply and instinctively anti-Semitic. You can catch a direct flight from Cairo to Tel Aviv, but the plane is unmarked and taxies from the most remote part of the airport. Egyptian security forces have a good working relationship with the Israeli ones, sharing for example the concerns about the Brotherhood-inspired Palestinian Hamas movement in the semi-autonomous Gaza Strip. The security concerns extend to Al Qaeda and ISIS, both of which are trying to gain a foothold among the wild and ungovernable Bedouins of the northern Sinai Peninsula. Egypt in fact supplies Israel with natural gas through pipelines that run through Sinai, which is one of the reason that Islamist terrorists are active in that neck of the woods (or the neck of the desert to be more precise). Egypt would also dearly love to cooperate with Israel on the giant Goliath gas field in the Mediterranean but for the thorny – and still unresolved – problem that part of that field would belong to Palestine, if and when it becomes an independent state. Egypt badly wants and needs Goliath’s gas but it doesn’t want to be seen by the fellow Arabs as stealing from the Palestinians, particularly while in cahoots with the Jews.
The man in charge, General Sisi, the leader of the semi-democratic coup that a few years ago removed the democratically elected, post-Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood government, is said by the ubiquitous Middle Eastern rumour-cum-conspiracy theory to have had a Jewish grandmother (making him a Jew according to the Mosaic law). It’s extremely unlikely, but it works well, part as one of the worst insults you can throw at someone in an Arab society and part as an explanation for his hostility to the Brotherhood and Islamism in general, his relative friendliness to the Copts, and his supposed closeness to the United States and Israel (in Middle Eastern politics it is all relative, not absolute). Sisi is not exactly a committed liberal democrat, but he is much better than any alternatives, which has always been a common enough conundrum throughout the region since the Second World War. Sadly, this is the best we can hope for in Egypt for a very long time to come, which is largely a reflection of the general social, economic and cultural condition of the population.
Egypt is both exhilarating and depressing, charming and frustrating, hauntingly beautiful in some parts and hauntingly ugly in others. Egyptian babushkas, dressed head-to-toe in black with only faces and hands sticking out bare, try to sell packets of tissues to cars at intersections. Cars don’t respect any traffic rules you would recognise but they have their own, which seem to work well enough, on the strength of a powerful horn and skill that has vehicles passing each other within inches more or less the whole time they are on the road. The city never sleeps; noise, movement, people are your constant companions. There is a lot of activity – and inactivity; you never know what a large number of people, often in groups, are doing, or not doing. Maybe they don’t know themselves; purposeful inactivity. The state employs many more than are needed, but the overstaffing does not make their work any more efficient; too many cooks not cooking, and all that. If you are unused to it, you are likely to be woken up well before sunrise by a muezzin’s call to prayer – or two or three or more different muezzins, not just in stereo but in quadrophony. The driver tells you he will pick you up tomorrow morning at 9, “inshallah” – unless he is a Copt, in which case he will just pick you up at 9.
You get the impression this would be a really pleasant place if everyone did not try to make money off you all the time. But who can really blame them? If you are not going to make money off tourists – and that doesn’t just mean the Westerners but an increasing number of Asians, particularly the Chinese – than who are you going to make it off? I have not said “no” so many times since finishing a Christian Brothers high school. You can’t help everyone; you can’t even help most people, unless you’re prepared to go bankrupt very quickly. The need outstrips the help here, as in many other places around the world. You don’t have to feel guilty about it – though if you do, do something practical about it, and prepare to be frustrated – but it is good to realise just how lucky you have been in a crazy lottery of life. Travel opens your eyes, for better or worse. It is one of the most expensive forms of education, but also the most pleasant.
I’ll blog for you next from Poland. Inshallah, or as some older Poles say, “jak Bog pozwoli”, which means the same thing.