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Tag Archives Egypt

Remembering the honour of seeing an Egypt composed of kindness.

Egypt

Egypt: a land of many colours.

People were out in the streets selling fruit at 4am on New Year’s Day.

It took me by surprise.

As did how Christian families wore red and gave each other gifts in their celebration of the New Year, rather than waiting a few days for Christmas on the 7th. Despite the Christian population of Egypt being just 10%, Santa was everywhere.

People were selling Santa hats on the streets

It was Christmas eve that was the big deal. With everyone bustling into church for a late night mass.

I spent Christmas day in Cairo’s antiquities museum, wandering quietly amongst the mummies. These were people who had believed themselves gods – kings in life and death. They were people who had worshipped the sun and the river. Their anamorphic gods enjoyed simple every day pleasures like measuring fields and writing (Seshat and Thoth respectively).

And these kings and their devoted subjects wrote love poetry that was simple and sweet.

The Flower Song (Excerpt)
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

Translated by M.V. Fox

The ancient gods blended together over time

They amalgamated from ‘Amun’ and ‘Re’ to ‘Amun-Re’ as time passed and needs changed.

It was a religion that both stood still through time – with Cleopatra performing rituals and using imagery of the Pyramid builders who had lived thousands of years before – and changed as the society integrated with its neighbours.

Every society has rules to guide you towards a good life

The book of life (or the book of death as it’s more accurately translated) told you what you shouldn’t do. It was a guide to leading your life in harmony with others. Don’t sleep with someone else’s wife. Don’t kill. Leave your neighbour’s donkey well alone.

Don’t…

In the Catholic church, I was told off for crossing my legs

I cross my legs out of habit. But in today’s Egyptian culture, it’s seen as insubordinate. And being defiant in front of Jesus and God, is not seen as good manners. To not cross my legs, in front of everyone who was higher up in the hierarchy by age or status, was a constant challenge.

I know the rules of my own culture, but in Egypt I was often taken by surprise.

In Cairo, they’d built one Orthodox church on top of another Orthodox church

They were separate but for a shared foyer and simultaneous services. A young woman ushered me into the women’s part of the upper church, she had been given my hand mere moments before by a mutual, male friend. The rest of the family I was with had disappeared into the lower church.

“You have a phone?”

“Yes.”

“Be careful nobody steals it.”

They welcomed me in, and put me to use…

And when it came to communion I helped to clear the aisle of the extra chairs that had been brought out. We needed the chairs moved, because it was body against body in the great movement to be blessed. There might have been two churches, but the congregation could have filled four.  Amid it all, I held tight to my phone and tried to take chairs from beneath the bottoms of elderly ladies.

Persuading someone who has difficulty standing, to stand is difficult at the best of times. And I don’t speak Arabic.

All these memories flooded back to me today

Little things, like the way people knelt in the street when the song for prayer started echoing around the city. The generosity of almost everyone I met. The kindness of Christian and Muslim alike – the sharing of tea and chocolate.

It made me, who has no religion, open my eyes. And when individuals commit atrocities, it’s important to remember that fear is not all that lives in these ancient lands.

Articles on yesterday’s terrorist attacks:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39553079

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39548645

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How sometimes I choose to remain ‘too’ English (and why that matters)

Cairo, Egypt

It’s January, 2016, at some crazy hour in the morning when I should most definitely be in bed. Instead I’m standing in the entrance of a rather middle class club in Cairo feeling rather pissed off. Partly this is because I am not used to such late nights. Mostly though, I looked pissed off because I’m being asked to do something I will not do, and my insistence on sticking to my ‘English’ way of doing things is not being taken too well.

In the street outside a fight breaks out and the place is suddenly swarming with armed guards.

Unlike my companions, I limited myself to one drink that I’d finished probably five hours before. Not multiple, the last of which was finished five minutes before like my friend who was also feeling pissed off beside me.

Our argument wouldn’t have happened to me in England. Despite having many similarities and mutual interests, the two of us are influenced by the cultures we have grown up in. When you’re travelling, and being absorbed by different cultures with different norms and health and safety precautions you have to actively choose when you’re going to stick to your own internal code and when you’re going to accept you have to change. When in Rome getting from a to b is going to be impossible if you drive like an English girl.

When you’re in a country like Egypt, the differences are going to be even more profound.

In the club in Cairo, I found myself to be the most modestly dressed woman. After walking through the streets conscious that my hair, neck and hands were visible, being surrounded by young women in short, sleeveless dresses and four inch heels had taken me by surprise. When I’d set out on the evening’s adventure I’d had very little idea of what I was getting myself into. I certainly hadn’t imagined I would have half the dance floor teaching me how to belly dance and the various guys, who were somehow related to our group, passing me between them as each attempted to teach me a new move, twirling me around, almost echoing back to some sort of 1950’s dance hall.

Apart from a couple of the guys getting a little rough with each other about how close one of them had been standing to the other one’s girlfriend, the night went smoothly and I was having a really good time. That was until I’d collected my coat from the cloak room, wrapped my scarf around my neck and my friend told me that his friend would give us a lift home.

I said no; I’d seen him having a couple of drinks earlier on.

The friend told me that it was only a couple of drinks. The friend told me we lived only a five minutes’ drive away and nothing would happen. The friend told me to stop being so English.

I said no and insisted on ordering a car.

The friend told me his friend was waiting outside for us. The friend told me it would be of great embarrassment to decline the offer of a lift. The friend told me his friend would not understand and be insulted by us not going with him.

I said no, and ordered a car.

What would you have done?’

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How to be courageous, follow your heart and stay alive

sed festival luxor temple

“Still alive?”

My Egyptian guide looks at me tapping away at my phone, frantically sending messages back to England which prove not only that I have not yet died, but that I’m healthy, happy and safe.

Photos travel by email, Snapchat and various forms of instant messenger. Hopefully their recipient looks, sees a picture of something I’m clearly fascinated with, or a picture of my beaming face drinking yet another cup of hibiscus tea, and feels reassured that I am, truly, still alive.

I grin back at my guide. He approves of me having regular communication with the folks back home. He thinks I’m too reckless.

This practice of reassurance lacks certainty, but in the circumstances it’s the best I’ve got to offer. I can’t promise that terrorists won’t attack my hotel, that nobody’s going to hurt me, steal my sketchbook from my handbag or start a violent political protest beside me, but I can do my best to keep the up-dates flowing. Even if it’s out of character for me.

It’s all worth it, because I love Egypt.

Although I’m not entirely sure why.

How I ended up in Egypt

In the summer of 2011 I went out of my comfort zone in a manner I wasn’t aware was possible, and for the weeks following my inhibitions took a backseat. It was a first taste of freedom. In the months prior I hadn’t really been excelling at being happy. Too many things were unknown or falling apart. But the taste of achieving the impossible gave me a zap of energy.

I met a young Egyptian man who told me some interesting facts about his country. Interesting facts, like it had once been part of the British Empire. My ignorance astounded him. The conversation began a whole series of Skype calls between us. Typically, each includes my friend being astounded by my lack of awareness of his world. He sends me books and links and tries not to despair.

That summer, I knew I’d fallen into a rut. I knew this needed to change how I was thinking about the world. I needed something to sink my teeth into and Egypt piqued my curiosity. My university offered a series of evening classes, so I spent all of three hours thinking about it before picking the first on the list – Ancient Egypt.

What followed was a crazy obsession.

Books and seminars weren’t enough.

Yet, going to Egypt isn’t something that I could just do. Firstly, everything I knew about it was at least 2000 years out of date. Secondly, traveling anywhere new is scary, and the more different it is, and the further away, the scarier it becomes. Third, just a few security concerns. Planes dropping out of the sky, people being stabbed or shot. Things that you really don’t want to happen to you.

The courage to just go for it

Not unexpectedly, nobody showed any interest in accompanying me. My Egyptian friend invited me to visit, but still, the idea of going terrified me. I put it off. I went to Eastern Europe with my sister. I went to Italy and Iceland. I visited Ireland and counted the days of my holiday allowance, recounted and then counted them again.

And then my Egyptian friend asked again. Did I want to visit? Did I want to see what life was like in a real Egyptian household. Did I want to see his country? Did I want to spend time getting to know him better?

Saying yes was significant step in this current bout of change I’m inflicting on my life (and everyone in it). Before I quit my job, I’d already decided I was going. I didn’t want to live in one little house repeating the same journey every morning. I want to see the world. I wanted Egypt through an Egyptian’s eyes.

I’d been reading about it for four and a half years.

And so I did it.

I kept expecting to reach a point where I was too afraid. Where I didn’t have the courage. I know what this feeling is like. I know the paralysis, the procrastination, the physical distress of not being able to do something because you’re too afraid. I could almost touch it, I dipped my toe in it, but it always it stayed a step ahead.

But like physically pushing yourself, running, cycling or whatever and breaking though the mental barrier that keeps you from going faster and further, once I’d got past the decision to go, I found I had a power I hadn’t known existed.

The hardest step was booking the flight.

Photo: Luxor Temple. The scene from a Sed festival – a celebration held after thirty year’s of a pharaoh’s reign to rejuvenate his (or her) strength to continue ruling. The king really is shown running and the three marks behind his bum represent the boundary stones that he was expected to run between.

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Flying to Cairo

Ancient Egyptian Model Boat Cairo Antiquities Museum

Boarding the plane

Despite being the fifth flight I’ve now done on my own, crossing the Mediterranean to come to Egypt has to be the one that has been the most intimidating. Of course, when you tell friends and family that you’re going off to Egypt just as a Russian plane ‘crashes’ into the Sinai desert, there’s a few raised eyebrows. When you clarify that whilst you’re meeting a friend once you’re there, you’re getting there alone, there’s a small amount of agitation.

But this wasn’t what got to me. It’s silly really, but when I looked across the bus that was taking us to the plane I realised I was truly alone.  Not looking like the people you are travelling with is something totally new to me. This is what happens if you never travel very far. I think of ‘people like me’ as being the ones who sound like me and can name Henry VIII’s wives in order. Looking around a crowded bus and seeing headscarves and black beards had an unexpected effect.

I felt different.

An uneventful, but entertaining flight

So, when I sat down on the plane (windows seat – yey) who should sit beside me but a Scottish lady. Her Egyptian granddaughter sat with her parents in the central seats apparently pleased to be returning to somewhere that wasn’t so cold. As the 5 hour flight progressed the same Scottish lady entertained me with stories of her absent children and grandchildren, amazingly distributed across three continents and dotted across the wide spectrum of nationalities. This was a multicultural family who clearly embraced difference.

She reminded me of my own grandmother, who like the Scottish lady comes across as knowledgeable of the world.

The flight itself was uneventful. There was a little turbulence and a few negotiations with air traffic control about when exactly we were landing – explained to me by the knowledgeable Scottish lady who’s an expert on planes – and then we were down.

The chaos of Cairo International Airport – Terminal 1

The time was just past midnight, New Year’s Eve. We took a bus to the terminal and then stampeded through to passport control and the place to get your visas.

However, inconveniently, I didn’t know that’s where I was.

I was much too busy looking completely lost, confounded, rabbit in the headlights, overwhelmed, to actually process any of what was going on around me.

And yes, before you ask, I had done my research and had read the bit about getting your visa from the ‘bank’. I just didn’t really recognise the ‘bank’ when I was standing in front of it.

I was feeling a little frazzled, probably because I’d seen the chaos in the next room. The series of desks, each with an extensive queue sprawling out behind it, felt deceptively like shopping on Christmas Eve.

And the queues didn’t appear to be moving.

I didn’t have a clue whether there was a ‘right’ queue where English girls were meant to be. And to make matters worse, apart from an advert about re-energising the tourism industry in Egypt, everything was in Arabic so I had no idea how I was going to find out.

Luckily, I was too perplexed to panic.

Now, I like to believe that given time I would have worked the system out, but I am super grateful for the Scottish lady and her family who stepped in to rescued me. They explained how I was to get my ‘paid for a visa sticker’, what to do with it and invited me to queue with them.

It always pays to be nice to the person sitting next to you on the plane. You never know when you’re going to need a friend.

Then I was through.

The queue had taken ages, but thankfully my form was correct. I stepped through and my bag was waiting for me. Following my instructions, I avoided all the men offering a taxi ride, strode through the crowd (looking terrified apparently), and was swooped into a huge hug with my dear friend M.

 

Photo: A model boat from the Cairo Museum

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