He who cannot change the very fabric of his thoughts will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress.
– Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt (1970-1981) –
Egypt was one of the main players during the Arab Spring Uprising — the Arab Awakening — in January 2011, as protesters revolted against their former president, Hosni Mubarak’s, corrupt regime. It was a momentous revolution against police brutality, state of emergency laws, a lack of free elections and freedom of speech, corruption, high unemployment, food price inflation and low wages. In return, Egyptians wanted justice, a responsive non-military government and an active role in the management of their country’s resources.
Under pressure and in fear, Mubarak stepped down and turned all power over to the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Military Council). Sixteen months of political uncertainty followed and on 24 June 2012, the Egyptian State Election Commission announced that Islamist Mohammed Morsi — a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood — had won the presidential election.
For some, Mohammed Morsi’s presidency signalled the beginning of stability in the country, despite the Egyptian military establishment’s resistance to let go of their control over many aspects of State administration, leaving Egyptian society still smouldering in political polarization.
Every country and every city of the world smells different. Holland smells of pancakes and fried sausages and England smells of biscuits and strawberry jam. Egypt smells of dates and dust.
I arrived in Egypt on 28 February 2013, 34 days after the second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, which were marked by bloodshed as protesters clashed with security forces across the country. A mere two years after the Arab Awakening, frustrated with the current Islamist-dominated political scene, angry protesters attacked offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and called for the fall of the newly elected Morsi government.
A few days before my departure from London, a friend who recently visited Egypt asked me “to be kind to the locals”. He explained that the revolution, recent shark attacks in the Red Sea, a spate of unfortunate hot air balloon accidents (one happened a day before our departure and killed 19 people) and the continuous media reports about the political unrest, have left the country’s once thriving tourist industry crippled.
As we touched down at Luxor International Airport, my friend’s words hit home. There was only one other airplane — a military aircraft — on the landing strip and the airport terminal was empty apart from being guarded by uniformed men with machine guns. By all accounts, it was a frightening and unsettling welcome.
Once we left the terminal, a rabble of boys ambushed us, asking for bakshees — a tip. Some tried to sell papyrus sheets, bookmarks, trinkets and jewellery. Slightly bewildered, we made our way to our coach. Once inside, our tour guide explained that the locals meant no harm and were only trying to earn a bit of money. Ironically, the first thing the tour guide taught us to say was not “How are you?” but “No thank you — Laa Shukran”. “If they persist, you can also say ‘Imshee’. This means ‘go away.”
When we reached the banks of the Nile, the contrast between the luxurious cruise ship we were boarding and the street urchins covered in dust and grimy rags, begging by the docking bridge, were reminiscent of scenes from Oliver Twist.
Unprepared for this predatory bother for money — known as ‘The Hassle’ — I battled with clarity of conscious during my two-week vacation, and tried to reconcile the grandeur of an ancient civilisation who built the most breath taking and majestic temples and tombs, with the cacophony and muddle of a country barely edging away from the cliffs of political divide and economic poverty.
On the first evening, as I scouted the streets of Luxor, I met a young man called Adam, who told me that the people of Egypt are “happy”. “The revolution changed everything. Now we are free. Don’t believe what the television says. They only tell you one thing. You are safe here. We don’t fight. Muslim and Christians, everybody is happy. Don’t believe what you hear.”
However, Adam also confessed that they were all struggling. He explained that, in comparison to the good old days, the streets and markets were empty of tourists. I can vouch for this. The 264-capacity hotel I stayed at during the second week of my visit accommodated a mere 60 guests at best. Very few of the photographs I took of the temples and sites show unwanted heads bobbing into the frames.
Since 90 per cent of Egyptians earn a living from tourism, the sharp downturn in tourist numbers explains why The Hassle is so intense — the insistent persistence from shop vendors, calech (horse carriage) jockeys and market merchants for you to spend money. People didn’t seem to be able to meet their most basic social and economic needs. One man pleaded with me to buy a piece of silver jewellery from him so that he could feed his family… Their livelihoods are at stake.
As a result, their eager and urgent salesmanship appears superficial and deceptive as they charm bewildered tourists with smiles and winks. “For you, we make special price now. Much cheaper. This is the only shop in Egypt you find this price, because you are my friend.” And then there is the aggression and indignation when you hesitate to part with your Egyptian Pounds (E£).
In Aswan, which is a much larger city than Luxor, the atmosphere was more militant and aggressive. Here I witnessed political rallies in parks and on street corners. I sensed a discourse between the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and non-Islamists. On my way back from the souk late one evening, a pack of five boys solicited me for money.
When I resisted their pursuit, they pushed me into a back alley and tried to steal my camera and wallet. I managed to push my way back into the crowds and as I walked away from them, one screamed: “I am a good person. I have a good heart. Why you don’t give me money?”
In a country where Kings and Queens once likened themselves to gods, it’s difficult to understand how the Egyptians declined from such power and splendour to what appears to be a position of despair and hopelessness.
Egypt’s saving grace is its limpid beauty and enchanting mysticism: The River Nile, which has been a life force to millions of people for ten thousands of years, with its humble fisher men casting their nets in the water like a silent meditation, day-in and day-out; the simplicity of the farmers tending their sugarcane crops; the men and women who walk the streets like elegant scarecrows in their full-length pale blue, grey and white gallabiyyahs (dresses) and aemmes (headscarves); the peacefulness at dusk when the sun sets like a big fat silky apricot over the palm trees and minarets, while Muezzins cry their call to prayer in echoes across the valley. It’s holy and primal.
Once I returned to Luxor from my cruise on the Nile, I agreed to have dinner with Adam and his family at their home. Inside, the women were not allowed to sit on the same level as the men. Instead, they sat on the floor and didn’t make eye contact with me. With the little means they have, Adam’s mother went through great lengths to prepare a beautiful meal. And still, she wasn’t allowed to sit at the table with me, but ate her dinner in the kitchen with her two daughters and two granddaughters.
In fact, I never saw any couples walk hand-in-hand in public. Islam specifically discourages dating, as single men and women are not supposed to be alone together if they are not related, which explains why women and girls grouped together in the streets and when accompanied by a man or a husband, they’d follow a few steps behind.
However, my observation was that this gender division is not tied to any specific religion. Adam, who is a Christian, explained the role of women to me in very simple terms: “The women don’t go out to work. They don’t make money. The men, we work. The woman, her place is at home, to cook and clean and look after the man and his children.”
Sexuality in ancient Egypt was far more liberal, open and untainted by guilt. Sex was an important part of life — from birth to death and rebirth. The gods themselves were earthy enough to copulate. The ancient Egyptians even believed in sex in the afterlife. Sex was not a taboo and Egyptian religion was filled with tales of adultery, incest, homosexuality and masturbation. Masculinity and femininity itself were strongly linked with the ability to conceive and bear children.
Back then, they had strong and exceptional female figures. The ancient Queen Hatshepsut was the first wife and Queen of Thutmose II, and when he died, she declared herself Pharaoh (a title always and only reserved for a man), denying the old king’s son, her stepson, his inheritance. Her rise to power went against all conventions and today, Queen Hatshepsut is more famous for having the audacity to portray herself as a man, than her reign during the golden age of Egypt’s 18th dynasty.
She dressed herself as a king, even wearing a false beard so that the Egyptian people would accept her unprecedented behaviour. She had herself portrayed as a man with a male body, and a king’s headdress on all statues, and in paintings and carvings. Some writings even refer to her as a ‘him’ or ‘King Hatshepsut’. She ruled for 20 years and was a bold leader who brought peace and economic success to Egypt.
Very little is known about Queen Hatshepsut. Some speculate that she was a hermaphrodite, which might explain why she got away with her cunning disguise as a man. Ancient scriptures and early historical accounts refer to her as either a ‘beautiful prince’ or a ‘handsome princess’. However, Hatshepsut did have a daughter, Nefrure, and must be considered to have been a true woman. The dilemma for Hatshepsut was not having a son. Although she tried for many years to produce a son through Senenmut, her favourite courtier, and probably other male relatives including her own father, it was to no avail.
After Hatshepsut’s death, her stepson Thutmose III, removed her image from all temples, paintings and carvings as revenge for her shameless seizure of his royal sovereignty. However, as a final touché to gender roles and sexuality, and the royal lineage, this mysterious female cemented her place in Egyptian history by being the only female to be buried in The Valley Of The Kings.
Homosexuality on the other hand is still an ambiguous topic in Egypt today, despite the fact that they acknowledge men ‘like that’. Everywhere in the streets and markets, you see men holding hands and walking arm in arm. These are simply displays of affections. After dinner, Adam invited me to an Egyptian wedding where he pointed out a European man. “That is big fat man from French. He stays in Luxor many times. He is friend of everybody and has lots of money. He is a gay, but we don’t say nothing.” I looked at ‘big fat man from French’ where he sat surrounded by young boys and wondered if his friendship came at a cost?
Apart from ‘big fat man from French’, I saw no other references to being gay, not in the media, not in secret glances or innocent flirtations on the streets, no clubs or bars and most certainly not on television. In fact, I felt less closeted in my younger years before I came out, than what I did during my visit to Egypt. It was stifling and clastorphobic. I cannot imagine what life must be like for a gay Egyptian man.
When the bride finally arrived at her own wedding celebration, she looked horrified. Since this was clearly not a wedding of the affluent and rich, the families probably negotiated the marriage based on the dowry the groom was prepared to pay. I wonder what was her father’s price?
Only once the bride showed up were the women allowed to emerge from behind a carpet-screen that kept them separate from the men. The atmosphere among the crowd intensified with cheers and the firing of machine guns into the air — a display of being happy and feeling festive. This was my cue to return to the safety of my hotel.
I spent the last four days of my visit confounded to the grounds of the hotel. Egypt had overwhelmed me. I missed the freedom to walk around without being harassed for money. The face of poverty saddened me and I grew tired of saying “Laa Shukran.” The sound of the call to prayer became duplicitous because I realised that it harboured a darker side and an empty promise — something oppressive and confusing.
As I packed my bags to return to England, I looked at the spices that I sympathetically paid far too much for and the delicate perfume glass bottles I bargained down until I got a good price. I remembered the man in Aswan who chased me away and told me that I am not welcome with my camera and the street graffiti promising 74 virgins to martyrs who’d die for the Islamist Cause. I thought about the military convoy that escorted us through the Sahara and the grotesque and imposing temples at Abu Simbel; the presence of armed guards and soldiers everywhere and how the entire country came to a standstill during a fuel shortage. And my heart broke for Malikah — Adam’s three-year-old niece who I met at his house.
Adam boasted that Malikah (meaning “queen”) was the clever one in the family. “She will go far”, he said. But with a culture of keeping women at home and on the floor, the fact that Egyptian children only get a third of the schooling they need, I regrettably have serious doubts about beautiful Malikah reaching her full potential. I wanted to ask Adam for their address, to send Malikah books and clothes and money… a bit of charity to buy away my Western guilt.
Would my donations and gifts reach her? Or would it be sold off and confiscated to satisfy the needs of brothers, uncles and fathers? Do I give and turn a blind eye? Or do I pretend to be ignorant and do nothing? Is it really charity if I want to decide how my contribution must be used?
I left Egypt with many questions. Sadly, my fondest memories of the land of Pharaohs and Sphinxes are also the ones that still leave me aching. I don’t claim to understand the complexity of the problems and challenges the Egyptians are facing. Their lives are changing at a tremendous rate and in the aftermath of the revolution, it’s a wild and lawless place. The collapse of its economy is in my view the most dangerous, more so than religious division and political rifts. The most important test for those in power is to get Egyptians back to work, to enable them to earn enough and secure their daily bread and livelihood.
Egypt is like an old man. One who can teach us many things, but one that is also set in his ways. Liberation can happen overnight, but effective and lasting change will take time. As long as they teach their children to continue to beg, borrow and steal, the freedoms they fought for will stay far beyond their grasp. I cannot help but to think that if they invest all their time and effort in educating their young, they might see the dawn of a new Egypt sooner than they think. Perhaps some of their former splendour might even return.
My comments may be rudimentary but are by no means unsympathetic. This much I’ve learned during my trip: Past glory is no insurance for future victory.
Images – Property of Little Red Shoes,.
Text: FR Lubbe