Conversations with a few people in Egypt
MOHAMMAD THE GUIDE
The often mentioned Mohammed was our guide for the twelve days we toured in northern Egypt. He is a very religious man with the stain on his forehead, the result of banging his head either on a stone, if the story can be believed, but certainly on the ground during his time of prayer. The stain is still a bruise and had not yet become a callous, but he is still young. As an observant Moslem, he does not question the rules. He obeys, he submits to the will of Allah and does not drink whiskey or beer. He understands he is excused from prayer when he is working but will not miss the all important Friday prayer. More than once we were left sitting on the side of the road while he grabbed his prayer rug out of the glove compartment and rushed to take part in a service held in a roadside mosque. Mohammad is also an educated man. He graduated from college, became an Egyptologist, and can read hieroglyphs. He values the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. He lived and worked in England in the tour business for five years before returning to Egypt to become a free lance tour guide. Like the other Egyptian men we spoke with, he likes Obama, hates the Israelis, also hates the Palestinians, knows his country is corrupt, knows the elections are managed, and welcomes Mubarak’s son to take over from the father as a way to maintain stability.
What I did find remarkable was his thoughts about Naquib Mahfouz. Mahfouz, the winner of the 1988 Noble Prize for Literature, is Egypt’s most important author and probably the best author in the Middle East. At first, influenced by Western writers, he soon found his Arabic voice. He wrote about ordinary Egyptian people, using universal themes describing their struggles, hopes, and failures. The people living in the alleyways were often his subject matter. However, according to Mohammad, in his books, Mahfouz defamed his country, his people, and his religion and for these reasons, Mahfouz has to be killed. Mohammad fervently proclaimed to us that he was prepared to kill him if they should ever met. Mahfouz had been the target of a knife attack in 1994 and the fact that he died in 2006 did not seem to faze Mohammad. I pointed out to him that as an educated man, who has lived outside his country, he should be able to separate fact from fiction and that Mahfouz was writing fiction. Mohammad was unwilling to change his point of view and because Mahfouz’s characters did bad things, Mahfouz, the author, had to die. I asked him if he did not think he was being irrational. By this time, he was yelling his responses and told us he knew if he had the opportunity to do this, he would become a different person. He was prepared to become a martyr, not Mohammad the educated guide. As a believer, it was his obligation to protect his religion from abuse. He was more than ready to accept the consequences for killing someone. Keep in mind, this is the opinion of a young educated Egyptian.
THE GUIDE NUMBER 3
When our time with Mohammad was over, he told us he had never encountered people like us. No one had ever asked him about politics, no one had ever made him go the camel market or stop alongside the road to pick dates off a tree. I had told him I was a history major, had turned art history into a hobby and had been reading about Egypt for the past eight months. Like a client profile, all of this information must have been passed along to our second guide, Aiyman. Ayman was responsible for us in the areas around Aswan and Luxor. He might not have had Mohammad’s polish and breadth of knowledge, but unlike, Mohammed, Aiyman at least had a sense of humor. He told us about the Egyptian name game. If you forgot someone’s name just call him Mohammed or Ahmed or Mahmud, derivatives of Mohammed, and 90% of the time you would be correct. He did well in Aswan and Luxor but when it came time to visit the temples at Abydos and Denderah, Aiyman played it safe and called in an expert.
When I met him in the lobby, he told me to call him John and yes, he was an expert on these two sites, as per his own recommendation. John was wearing faded jeans and a hoody. He told me there were ten children in his family and even though his mother had died, his father made sure that all of his children went to college. I did not get the details on how this was possible but he told me he graduated from the American University in Cairo. After that he was one of 14,000 applicants for a scholarship to study in the United States and was one of the 650 who succeeded. To make it a small world story, he told they sent him to a college in Atlanta, Georgia , where he received a master’s degree in English literature. I had never heard of his college and even though he had not heard about U.T. football, I found no reason to doubt him.
We did the touring and yes, he was good. On the way back to the hotel, not to miss an opportunity, I asked him what he thought about Mubarak’s son succeeding his father. In a manner similar to the others, he wanted this because it would assure stability. Even though this is not the exact comparison, I kept thinking of the Germans in the late 1930’s who thought the same about voting from Hitler. Being a literature major, he did not want to kill Mahfouz even though he was critical of Egyptian society. As per Mohammad, he hated both the Israelis and the Palestinians and knew the government was corrupt. Unlike Mohammad, he was skeptical of Obama and said so far Obama was more words than action. Before I could ask him more questions, he brought up the war in Afghanistan. He was confident in his knowledge that the American army fighting there was made up from mercenaries recruited from Central America. He told me that America would not send its best young men into such a conflict. I told him that was just not true. What I have found most interesting with all the men we spoke with, when the Egyptian makes up his mind, regardless of the facts, he is staying with his opinions. I am not sure where this information came from because he told me that he did not believe anything he read in the Egyptian newspapers and would only believe that which he saw with his own eyes. A statement that verbally contradicts what he said before. I asked him if he read English language Western newspapers on the internet. He told me he was not interested in that news. I asked him when he became disinterested in the world around him. He replied this happened when he become an Egyptologist. Maybe trying to regain the upper hand, he looked at me and said I have criticisms about your democracy. He then refused to explain what he meant. Now these are the statements from one of their brightest who spent time living and studying in the United States and remains firmly convinced we have a mercenary army in Afghanistan.
TAXI DRIVER’S LAMENT
Donald and I often stood on a corner and flagged down taxi drivers, especially in the evening as we were going out to dinner. The taxi, usually painted black and white, is small and similar to the Ambassador car in India, it is stripped down to the bare necessities without any thought for passenger comfort. Depending who you ask, the car is either made in Russia or Italy. The dash board is usually draped in fake animal pellets and prayer cards dangle from the rear view mirror and suction cups attached to the roof. The back seat is the repository for the dust and sand blown in from the nearby desert.
One night in Alexandria, we were picked up by a young man. When he found out we were from the United States, he promptly told us 9/11 happened because we treat the Muslims very badly. He was repeating the “party line” and apparently not willing to change his mind, we felt no need to respond to his statement. Then he told us he lived in the United States and liked it very much. Everyone was very nice to him. He drove a taxi and we think he owned a car. He lived in Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania, and married a woman he called Becky. He is angry with the U.S. because he was deported. Apparently, he did not have a green card. The details of his story do not mesh but I found it interesting that even though he learned to repeat the mantra that we treat Muslims poorly, he still wants to return to the United States and remains upset we threw him out.