Magazine Summer 2008 The Enemy of Time

20 May 2008, 17:43
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The Enemy of Time

I negotiated a ride with a taxi driver for fifty (local) pounds. I had to return to the hotel from Cairo International Airport. A night in Cairo glimpsed through the window: the Nile with its five star-liners and small motor-boats, palms illuminated by street lights, mosques, a half-moon hanging high above the Nile, silver horns up. And finding myself without a ticket at the airport!

Sheraton road
It all started in the little town of Hurghada. A favorite spot of tourists from former Soviet countries – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland – it is a resort recently built on the shore of the Red Sea (by the way, the second saltiest after the Dead Sea). It is a town with more tourists than native Egyptians and more starred hotels (of various levels) than residential houses or apartments. Hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes – all the necessities for a tourist – can be found on Sheraton Road.
The four-star hotel I stayed at turned out to be much better than the Tsakhkadzor sanatoriums in Armenia. All the usual pluses and minuses – but then, the Red Sea is nearby! Here you get pleasant spring weather (in the 22-24 degree centigrade range) at the end of November, but it is much less sunny after 3 p.m. and there is nothing to do at the beach by that time. I met a Coptic Christian, David, in the hotel souvenir shop. “You really look like an Egyptian,” were his first words to me. He offered me a hookah while telling me how difficult it was to live in Egypt. The population is large (70 million), but jobs are very few. “I will probably move to the United States soon,” he confessed, “I have nothing to do here”. In the evening I decided to take a stroll around town, although there is really not much see in Hurghada. But socializing with the people is interesting, especially with the merchants who own the numerous stores and shops. Virtually every conversation I had with them followed the same pattern:
– The merchant: “Where are you from?”
– Me: Armenia.
– The merchant: Oh, a great country! Speak Russian?
– Me: Da (yes in Russian).
– The merchant: (in Russian) Take everything you want, my friend, I will give you a bargain, just for you, I have the lowest prices…
I went through this again and again… by the way the first advice guides give tourists is to bargain when shopping. You can get a merchant to cut the price of an Anubis bronze statue by as much as two-thirds. Late in the evening, I met the tour guide, who turned out to be a Georgian named Irakli. He became very excited when he found out I was from Armenia – I was almost a fellow countrymen. He then remembered the System of a Down band… He highly recommended a visit to an ancient Egyptian capital, Luxor, among other excursions.

A little about ancient Egypt
I was on the bus by 5 AM. It was going to be a long trip – almost four hours – so I stocked up with provisions. A friendly Egyptian named Yael was the guide. He began every sentence addressed to us with the phrase, “my habibi” (my dear). “My habibi, in an hour we will stop at the cafeteria, where all the buses gather and we will continue the trip together. Habibi, there will be about 70 tourist buses today and I must tell you, that is not much. Usually, about 120 tourist buses travel to Luxor every morning. My Habibi, we will be escorted by an armed convoy...”
This was some convoy! There was good reason for it – in 1997 an unpleasant incident took place in Luxor. Terrorists fired on a bus filled with tourists from Germany. Now foreign guests are escorted by “people in black.” By the way, it was after this incident that German tourism almost came to a standstill; a flow of Russian tourists replaced it.
We arrived at the cafeteria. The desert surrounded us. There stood a small building surrounded by tourists trying to get breakfast and coffee. Many had themselves photographed next to camels. At first, the camels’ owners smiled and posed with the tourists before cameras, but then vigorously demanded their “baksheesh” (the reward) almost the moment after the click of the cameras. If you didn’t pay up, they cursed the daylight out of you.
By the way, there is another “shish” popular in Egypt, according to Yael – “hashish”. It is actively grown and sold by local Bedouins on the Sinai Peninsula. They are the richest people in the country. They also deal in arms left over from the war with Israel. It is widely believed that the police are no obstacle to them – it gets its own share of the profits. The peasants of southern Egypt, however, are in bad shape. Living and working in fertile Nile lands, they still use the same methods, under the same conditions, as 3000 years ago.
“Habibi, southern Egyptians are very conservative,” the guide said, gesturing towards the window of the bus. “The whole family lives under the same roof. If a girl has sex before marriage she can even be killed. The wife stays home with the kids. My habibi, you probably noticed portraits of President Mubarak. I’ve got to tell you, he is the eighth wonder of the world – Egypt has been under his rule since 1985 and he is not planning to resign any time soon. Elections we have, democracy we do not.”
“Not too original!” I thought. “It’s an interesting question – did Akhenaton imagine what his kingdom would be like in 3,000 years?”

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