Tales from Egypt

When the Arab Spring reached Egypt in 2011, Egyptians thronged the streets in protest against the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak. The Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo was the focal point of this Egyptian Revolution, which succeeded in ending Mubarak’s 30 year reign, the longest in Egypt’s history. What happened in those 18 days of revolting was perhaps the culmination of the nation-wide hatred for Mubarak’s stifling autocratic rule, which had long outlasted its shelf-life. This disapproval of the then President and his government, was even evident when I visited Egypt in 2008.

What originally started out as a tennis trip soon became much more than just that. We (my parents and I) landed early morning in Cairo before taking a cab for Ain Al Sokhna, the site of the first tournament. A little more than an hour outside of the capital, this picturesque beach resort lay on the western shore of the Red Sea’s Gulf of Suez. We realized we were headed for some place fancy when the taxi driver insisted we get our water stock from Cairo. With its white sandy beaches, cool sea breeze at night time and unspoiled clear water, Ain Al Sokhna was a perfect weekend getaway for Cairene families. The idea of holding an international tennis event in this luxurious holiday resort had more of a tourism motive than anything else.

After a week or so of lavish buffet meals and sun bathing at the beach, we made our way to Cairo. There are probably very few places in the world more historically rich than Cairo. From the reign of Pharaohs in ancient Egypt, the Hellenic rule of Cleopatra, the Ottoman Empire to the British colonization, each has left its mark on this city. I distinctly relived my history lessons from school, when mummies and pyramids were just a mere figment of my imagination.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all my various travels around the globe, it’s that always refrain from making your tourist identity too obvious. Chances are the opportunist local salesman or tour guide will exploit and rip you off. Nowhere else did we find a better example of this than at the Pyramids of Giza. The normal thing to do would’ve been to purchase an entry ticket and explore the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx on our own. But we made the rookie’s mistake of hiring the services of a guide. Now this wasn’t just any other guide. He was the most cunning, money minting guide we could possibly muster.

Taking us round the back, through a shady little alley, with a random detour into a perfume shop, this curly haired, loud mouthed Egyptian forcefully hopped us onto two camels and a pony. I think we spent a good hour riding in the Sahara desert sun to the sound of our guide’s continuous storytelling, before the actual Pyramids became visible. Once we finally reached our destination, we quickly got off our rides for a few pictures before handing out a big chunk of cash.  Apart from the countless historical lessons learnt that day, here was another one for the books; the “only too willing to help”  man on the streets of Cairo can easily take you for a ride!

Traffic was a serious issue in Cairo. I thought the Karachi traffic was a menace, but the bumper to bumper, hour long traffic jams in Downtown Cairo topped that. For the duration of our stay in Cairo, the tournament organizer had arranged for a taxi driver to take us around the city. This fifty-something, heavy Egyptian was an interesting man. He would openly voice his opinion about absolutely anything, be it politics, the state of affairs in Egypt or the traffic. His frantic gestures and loud cries of “Yallah” (“hurry up” in Arabic) every time we got stuck in traffic and his disdainful remarks when we would pass the President’s statue kept us entertained. He insisted that if we refrained from talking, we could easily pass ourselves off as locals with our curly hair and features.

Our visit to the Egyptian Museum failed to meet my lofty expectations. With no photography allowed inside, to preserve the antiquities, this dusty, double storey museum was kept unusually dark. With bold Pharaonic tombs and mummies dominating the collection, there wasn’t any Ottoman Empire representation. Moreover, many artifacts had either been removed or relocated by the British.

Cairo is also home to the world renowned Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest surviving universities in the world. Associated with the Al-Azhar mosque, this centre of Islamic learning is the only one to survive as a modern university including secular subjects in the curriculum. As we scanned this historic university, we noticed how different Islamic eras were represented through variations in the architecture and embellishments. The expansive, marble paved interior courtyard was a contribution of the Fatimid period, while the minarets were built by the Mamluks. The university aesthetically blends the different influences of Egyptian history.

Towards the end of our trip, we took the famous Nile cruise at night. Slowly gliding through the water, while indulging in Egyptian gourmet food with Arab music played in the background and a belly dancer on deck, this was truly an Egyptian experience.  Of the many souks found in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili also known as the Turkish Bazaar during the Ottoman Empire, is a major tourist attraction. Filled with unique and exotic items from spices and perfumes to jewelry and souvenirs, our bargaining skills were tested to the fullest in this busy and colorful open-air bazaar.

Watching Egypt literally become a war zone, three years after our return, only reminded us of the dismal state of affairs back then. However, the scenes on T.V were a far cry from how we saw Cairo. And irrespective of what the future holds for Egypt and its people, one thing is for certain no dictator can erase its wealth of history.

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