By David McKay Wilson
On our final night in Cairo, we floated up the Nile on a party boat, awaiting that night’s Sufi dancer to seemingly twirl forever, and a well-endowed belly-dancer to shake her thing to the insistent throb of a seven-piece band.
It was a quintessential Egypt, as we cruised south aboard the Nile Maxim, glimpsing the sparkle of high-rise hotels and pondering history’s parade up the Nile over the past 6,000 years. We’d spent a week in Cairo experiencing the very old and the very new. We immersed ourselves in the dazzle of Egyptian antiquities, marveling at what had been dug up in the desert to reveal the birth of civilization along the Nile thousands of years ago. We’d also found inspiration from activists we met from the January 25 revolution that freed Egypt from Hosni Mubarak’s iron-fisted rule. The glow of freedom still burned in their eyes.
Yet the sweetness of that victory was tinged with a sour aftertaste. For the Egyptian tourism industry, freedom’s just another word for no one’s here to sightsee.
That night on the Nile, our group was dining at the invitation of the Egypt Tourist Authority, just two days after the former tourism minister was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally issuing travel-agency licenses. Authority spokesman Ahamed Sobhi told us visits were off 46 percent since the uprising in January and February. A mob’s sacking of the Israeli embassy just a week before our arrival had complicated matters.
Sobhi said the Authority was still searching for a message to help revive the nation’s second largest industry during the transition to democracy.
“How can I say that it’s safe when something like that happens?” asked Sobhi, noting the attack on the Israeli embassy.
The Tourism Authority has felt the downturn, closing offices in Los Angeles and Chicago while keeping its New York office open. In Egypt, meanwhile, the paucity of tourists has proven beneficial for those who make the trip. With fewer tour groups in country, you have a better chance to have an armed guard from the Tourism Police to accompany your group to historic destinations, as occurred when we toured the Great Pyramid in Giza, and meandered through Cairo’s Khan El Khalili market one sultry evening.
We felt safe on our sojourn, walking the streets of Giza after dark to find the Flying Fish Restaurant in the Agousa district along the Nile, exploring the crowded streets of downtown Cairo, attending a concert at the Culture Wheel under a bridge, and touring the historic sites. Sidewalks in Cairo sometimes get too crowded, or simply disappear, so you end up walking in the street. Crossing four lanes of traffic to reach the Flying Fish tested our sprinting skills.
“You’ve earned your Cairo merit badge,” announced our tour guide, Andrew Simon after we’d safely crossed.
We arrived in mid-September as Academic Travel Abroad, a tour company that also runs excursions for National Geographic and the Smithsonian, kicked off its AuthentiCity program, which brings visitors to destinations around the world. ATA provides top guides to squire you about historic sites, and then introduces you to the players in the arts and politics who tell their personal stories about their countries. We toured the Citadel, the Great Pyramids, the tombs at Saqqara and the Egyptian Museum, where the gleaming antiquities from Tutankhamun’s Tomb are on display in Tahrir Square, a block from the burned out hulk of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters which went up in flames during the January revolution.
But along with the historic sites, we had coffee at the Kunst Café with young activists from Tahrir Square, including an aspiring member of Parliament who was jailed during the uprising. We met with a cultural attaché at the US Embassy, had an audience with the president of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, and toasted to the New Egypt with our tour guides, Jihan Hussein, and Mohamed Fouad, who also participated in the events of January and February.
We saw modern art as well. On the road to Saqqara, we stopped at the arts education complex built by the Fagnoon, the Egyptian painter and sculptor who invited us into his home to see his creations, and then provided a lunch of pancakes, topped with fermented cheese and molasses.
The Egyptian tourism destinations, meanwhile, were refreshingly uncrowded, as we traveled to the tombs at Saqqara, the Great Pyramid in Giza, and to Al-Azhar Park out by the university, where lovers strolled hand-in-hand as the mournful call to prayer echoed from nearby mosques. Here there wasn’t a hint of danger. Security was everywhere, including in the barricaded neighborhood that housed the Coptic Museum, and the place where Mary and Joseph brought Jesus during his infancy. With alcohol unpopular among Egyptians, there were no drunks on the street to contend with – only the vendors who would like to figure out away to let you part with some cash in your wallet.
Haggling with vendors is encouraged, and I did my share. To my chagrin, I’d usually end up with the vendor throwing in something extra after we’d agreed on a price, evidence that my bargaining skills needed sharpening.
We stayed at the Safir Hotel, in Giza, where rooms went for $100 a night, a plentiful buffet provided a filling breakfast, the lobby’s free Wi-Fi kept us connected back home, and the pharmacy across the street had an inexpensive over-the-counter remedy called Antinal which put my gastrointestinal track quickly back in order. We witnessed a slice of Egyptian life on three nights at the Safir as locals arrived for a wedding in the hotel’s banquet hall, and a raucous band welcomed the bride and her father as they came down the open staircase in the lobby.
We ate well too, dining one night at the Naguib Mahfouz Café in Khan El Kalili, then sampling the tasty lamb and chicken at Arabesque at 6 Kasr El-Nile in Cairo.
On the Nile Maxim, we dined on stuffed grape leaves, spicy sea bass and rice, which was stacked up to look like a pyramid. We listened to the Egyptian version of La Bamba. And the Egyptian tourism official told us patience was necessary during these transition times, with several stages of elections planned for November and into 2012.
“These are difficult times, and much of what happens will depend on the elections,” he told us. “But we have hope.”
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David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.