Monday, June 21, 2010


There's a good reason we haven't been posting as often over the last few weeks: our brains have been literally fried by the heat here. In southern Jordan and Egypt, you can feel cerebral matter melting out of your ears. Sorry to say, I haven't been keeping up with my journal. All my photos look bleached and whited out in the sunshine. Thinking back over these last months, I have moments of amnesia associated with blunt head trauma; it's just that hot here.

Last night I had a good conversation with a German student living in Cairo, and she helped me to put into context some of the feelings I'd been having about Egypt since arriving from Israel. The Holy Land itself was a difficult place, buzzing with tension, mistrust, religious zealotry, jittery and arrogant military, and occasional bigotry. It became a regular and uncomfortable routine to bump into a local who would tell you how much they despised Arabs, or would speak somewhat gleefully about how the Palestinian people could never come back to this land. One shopkeeper at a passport photo shop harangued us out the door, ranting about how my president ("Barack HUSSEIN!!!") was a Muslim, how all Muslims rejoiced in the September 11th attacks, and how by visiting Egypt and the Muslim world, we were supporting terrorists. Other times, we'd wind up in heated and circular arguments with other travelers about the legitimacy of the Israeli state, the rights of Palestinians, and the future of the region. Each day would shed light on an angle we hadn't considered before, but the picture as a whole emerged as one people scrambling to climb over the backs of another, while their neighbors did the same. Yeah, the sights were fascinating, but I couldn't wait to leave. The longer I spent here, the more I wanted to completely disassociate from it.

But Egypt wasn't much better. We crossed the border from Eilat to the Sinai, and in Dahab and Upper Egypt the temperature shot up to 50 Celsius, about 120 Fahrenheit. We were followed in this heat by hotel touts, restaurant touts, shopkeepers, greasy cops who'd corner you for baksheesh, and overtly sexual and harassing men in their 20's. Walking the streets, muscle-bound guys would zero in on my wife and sneer "Beauuuutiful. You're one lucky guy," in this breathy voice that made me want to punch the men give the whole city the finger. Last night, after giving us directions to an intersection, a man invited us to his perfume shop. He said he could sell us a fragrance that would make sex feel like an earthquake, that would make us feel something like we'd never felt before. People just do not say such things in the Middle East, but they seem to happen here.

I know I'm painting a broad and hyper-negative picture of Egypt, but this is how I'd been feeling after a week of travel here. We'd meet good people in Egypt, too, but it was impossible to let our guard down after dealing with the pestering and harassment. I wondered how they navigated this extraordinarily stressful society.

"People live such difficult lives here, that the immediate benefit takes priority," our friend told us. Financially, they were really struggling, and they did what they could to keep their heads above water without much consideration for strangers. That's why the touts would follow you for blocks or clutch your arm and guide you to a shop or restaurant. Among the people at the bottom, it means every transaction is followed by the question "Are you happy?" and the hope of charming a tourist into tipping 40 of 60 cents. Police pull you aside and give extensive directions around a neighborhood, then ask you for a dollar. It's hard-scrabble living and everything feels on edge.

But there's an allure to the challenges that come with living here; a little bit of language opens doors for you, and people who invest the time in living here have experiences they could have nowhere else. For some, the sheer weirdness keeps people going: our new friend Astrid told us how in a one week period, she had one cab driver fall asleep on her, another read a newspaper while driving in traffic, and a third propose marriage. And quietly hiding among the loudest and rudest of the crowd are the polite. It takes some work to find them, but they are here: practice a few sentences of Arabic with a shopkeeper, and you can be drawn into an excited, seven-hour conversation that only ends when you insist you have to go. Seeking out a small restaurant on our last night, we were invited to ditch our plans and have dinner with a local family. I think it's this allure that keeps drawing some people back here, like Astrid, who's now made her 5th extended trip in 18 months. And though the rest of the Arab world rags on Egypt as well, everyone is consumed by their music, art, and cinema--one of the world's largest entertainment industries outside of Hollywood and Mumbai.

No doubt, this is one of the world's more difficult places to travel. You can make a two week trip of it and see nothing but the ruins of a civilization that ended with the Roman Empire, but exploring the living culture takes more time and effort than we have at the moment.


Mark and Juliah


  1. We've broken triple digits here in Boston today so it's feeling very Cairo-like here (minus the erotic perfumes). Hope you guys are doing well. Happy belated Independence Day!

  2. Egypt is a lot of conflicting things, and is hard to fully describe. On different days, I have a completely different opinion. Hanem told me she thinks you are coming back in the winter, but I told her I did not think so.