“You can’t still be going, what with all that stuff on the news lately.” Cue uncomfortable pause on the line.
“And isn’t Egypt kind of… ‘third world’? I mean, why do you keep picking places like that?”
Fast forward to the last afternoon of three November days in Cairo, with a quick morning trip to Alexandria squeezed in. We’ve zipped through all the touristy highlights at a downright disrespectful pace, but now I can breathe: we’ve slid into my favourite part of every trip.
I’m sitting, quiet-hearted, on a stone bench in the courtyard of the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square: people-watching. My thoughts circle, patient. They’re stalking something important but elusive. Something about Egypt and Egyptians and, odds are, about me. The answers to those tricky questions, maybe:
What are “places like that”?
And why do I keep picking them?
What made me sense, both before and after all the messy headlines broke, that I’d feel at ease in Egypt?
Why was that instinct correct?
Across the courtyard, our Egyptian guide, Saleh, sits on a low wall. Ambling over to him is one of the’s Museum half-dozen sweatered guards, a middle-aged and stereotypically swarthy fellow in beret-to-boots black, a gun the length of his torso slung over his shoulder. He’s bringing Saleh a pitcher of water, a fresh glass, and–apparently–a funny story; the guard talks as pours, chuckling the whole time. When he leans down to pass the glass, the long muzzle of his semi-automatic weapon swings between them. Neither of them acknowledge it; the guard tosses the rifle back over his hip, mid-sentence, as if it were nothing more than the pesky, poorly cut flap of an overcoat.
And I think that–right there–may be what continues to draw me to these “between world” countries, what slows my breathing, deepens my sleep. Something in the brisk, unconsidered quality of that motion makes me smile, and–perversely, I know–relax. I’ve seen that same patient nonchalance in Indians, and Sri Lankans. Omanis. The Lebanese. Individuals from other “places like that.” Inherent in their every action is a practical shrug. So what, the body language seems to say, if my country flails along, fishtailing through disaster and uncertainty and revolution. It has for generations now, and will for many more. What does that have to do with you and me?
There’s something very calming about being in the presence of anyone–man, woman, or child–who has made peace with chaos.
In some respects, if any country should make me nervous, it’s this one. I’m a so-called sitting duck here. Even if I covered my hair like a Muslim or a Coptic Christian, I’d have no chance of blending in here.
When you’re fair-skinned and blue-eyed, you quickly understand that traveling anywhere in this part of the world is an exercise in exposure. You have to decide how you’re going to handle it, both practically and mentally.
People will stare. People will touch.
People will spam their friends’ Facebook feeds with those coy selfies they managed to strategically snap with you in the background. It’s just part of the deal, like it or not.
Even so–if there’s an actual “Fascinated by Blonde Women and/or Children” spectrum out there, I’d put money on Egypt anchoring the extreme end of it. Nowhere else in the world have I been so photographed, so relentlessly followed. (The rural towns of the Azir mountain region in southwestern Saudi comes close, with little gangs of boys, ages five to twenty-five, trailing me through their cramped, hilly streets in packs, tittering behind me at a respectable distance, the thumbs-up cell phone selfies probably making their fingers cramp. My husband laughed, my pre-teen son was mortified, and once, straggling behind our tour group to snap away at the architecture, I decided I’d just ask them, very sweetly, if they wanted to take an actual picture with me–that would be fine, that would be better, I wouldn’t mind. So I turned around, but the second I talked, they gasped and scattered like cockroaches in the light. I waited, heard a little bit of confused back and forth in Arabic, but no one emerged. I carried on, and of course soon heard the tittering behind me.)
In Egypt, the stares came from everyone, but the following-at-a-distance folks were mostly tight teenaged gaggles of girls, or mixed student groups. Now and then, emboldened if they drew even a hint of a smile from me, they’d push some reluctant spokesgirl forward. Soon they’d be arced around me, jostling each other for position.
Mothers would–I kid you not–thrust babies in my arms. Once, this happened beneath an ancient church, at the entrance of a famous crypt. “Get ready,” my husband teased, “they’ll want you to bless them next.”
Yes; embarrassing and weird.
Yes; it delayed us. I had to start saying no, to wave them away, or to let our private guide, Saleh, do it for me. Which made me feel like a jerk, but any time we slowed for one, ten more materialized.
Truth is, the paparazzi are curiously shy. Having an actual conversation with any of them takes effort, and nearly impossible when they’re grouped. They stammer, embarrassed at their English. Most won’t meet your eye, if they’re not ducking their heads altogether, smiling into their collars. Curiosity may have won out over bashfulness, but just barely.
So Egypt may take the attention to a whole ‘nother level, but I haven’t felt menaced, or afraid. And, I realize, that’s held true in every “between world” country I’ve visited.
Also holding true? The presence of touts, in all shapes and sizes and locations.
In Beirut, it’s the dirty-faced six year-old banging on your window at a stoplight, slapping a faded pack of Chiclets against the glass, smiling as he twitches the fingers of his free hand together in the universal gesture for “just a little money, madam: a bargain, really.”
In India, it’s the woman trotting behind you with a hobo-sac grip on her carpet, who can drop it at your feet and lay out her full display of wooden beaded-bracelets in seconds, while her little gap-toothed girl chatters at your side, slipping samples up your wrists and running an admiring hand along them like a tiny brown-skinned Vanna White.
And in Sri Lanka, it’s the old woman who follows you for blocks and blocks and blocks, waving her handmade lace doilies in your face so obnoxiously that you get all tight-hearted and refuse to buy, until she finally fades away and you’re left with a regret so singular it will weave images of her gnarled knuckles into your future dreams.
In Egypt, it’s the guy who sees you standing up on the platform, already taking pictures of <statues>, and waves and calls and points until you oblige and take a few shots with him in them, only to face his open palm and innocent smile back down at the exit door. Wait, you shake your head and smile, did I just pay some random dude for the service of “providing human scale”? I think I did.
Once, as the sole tourists wandering around the site of a relatively obscure pyramid, we gained the attentions of the only tout working this beat, a short Egyptian as solid and dark as his donkey was thin and ghostly-white. His patience and charm amaze me still. He hung back, nodding demurely as my husband and I passed. Then, when we were sufficiently distracted by Saleh’s patter and our son was sufficiently bored, he wisely went for the kid. I watched from the corner of my eye, and couldn’t help but be impressed by the guy’s moves. In the space of a minute, my son was over his reluctance and up in the saddle, nothing but a grin visible beneath a tribal headscarf swathed about fifty times around his little head. The tout, seeing me smile, beckoned us over. He whipped off his own headscarf and popped my husband’s old college football cap on his own head for safe keeping, then set to wrapping. I laughed and snapped away. After his series of cheery-faced pantomimes failed to convince my husband to hop on the donkey behind our son, the tout shrugged, smiled, bent, and–before anyone could blink–HOISTED my 6’2″ husband into the saddle himself. The memory is funny, the picture is priceless, and that tout, needless to say, earned his generous tip. That’s first world salesmanship right there, baby!
In Egypt, if you’re not a tout and you’re not in the masses of the curiously shy, chances are you’re legit. A bonafide Masters-degreed Egyptologist, like Saleh, whose experience and smooth professionalism astounded. Or a driver, like the sleepy-eyed and soft-spoken Mahmoud, who may not have been able (or willing?) to speak a sentence of English, but could read the rearview squirmings of a ten-year old and navigate to the nearest toilet like a helicopter parent.