It was 30 years for Jeannine (my wife) and 18 years for me since we saw Cairo for the last time. For my daughter, Sabrina, it was a trip she dreaded as she did not want to spend her Easter vacation with her parents alone and further more in a country that did not mean anything to her. All the Egyptian cooking of her mother, aunts and grand mothers did not count for much. She considered herself a real American with the French, Jewish and Middle Eastern culture being just a natural diversion in her way of life.
For the last 10 years, we were thinking about a trip to Egypt to show the kids our roots but our extended stay in Singapore having derailed it. Recently Egypt was back on the map as I was planning festivities for Jeannine's birthday (a big one) and found out that an old friend (Joe) booked his tickets for Cairo without us, we decided to do it too and planned to be there at the same time. Ultimately we never saw Joe in neither Cairo nor Sharm El Sheik but wandered around Cairo for a day with my brother in law who was there on a semi-official business.
After weeks of numerous attempts to find space on planes and accommodation in Cairo and Sharm El Sheik, we flew in on an early morning to Cairo International Airport, which is a copycat version of Charles de Gaulle in architectural style but not neatness. On the plane to Cairo, I gave Sabrina a quick lesson in Arabic words for her to fend off the pushy salesmen, Romeo and begging children. Jeannine picked up an Arabic newspaper (it was a Saudi one out of London) hoping to catch up with so many years of no practice.
After buying our visa and clearing immigration with our US passports (as former Egyptian citizens , the visa was not required as we found out in a subsequent trip.) and being asked by customs officers whether we had a video camera (they must have a entry tax on it), we were met by Rifaat, a driver referred by Joe's wife that we had asked to escort us around Cairo. We managed to fit in his Peugeot 504 (the same I had in New York in the early 70s with sun roof and collapsible head rests) and off we went to the Sheraton in Guézireh.
The road from the airport through Héliopolis was now all built with Army and Air Force clubs, few old mansions including the Lyçée Français and numerous high rise and commercial centers. Rifaat, as a good guide, kept mentioning the palaces of the various past and presents rulers of the Middle East, Baron Empain, King Feycal, Arafat, Nimeiri, Mubarak, etc. The traffic in Cairo was light thanks to all the elevated highways that make Cairo look like Tokyo in urban design. Poor Ramsés II at the main colonial railway train station is dwarfed by these freeways and the government has decided to move him elsewhere. Ghaamra was nearby but I did not venture in the narrow streets to check out my father's old Peerless factory.
Crossing the Kasr El Nil bridge with its guarding lions, we arrived on Guézireh island. We found that the Jardin Andalous was still there but the Exhibition center is now the New Opera House. The old Guézireh garden was a construction site and at its southern tip stood a round high-rise tower that is the Sheraton Guézireh. The rooms have a beautiful view of the Nile and ours was overlooking the Sémiramis, the Shepherd, the Méridien which was built on the site of the Fontana restaurant. The jet d'eau (water fountain) that was built in the Nile was still there but no water came out. The Geneva copycat was out of order.
Saturday morning, having received a note from my brother in law that he has already left for to the Temple Ismaalia with a group of religious ex-Egyptians, I hopped in a hotel limousine and for £10 pound was at the Great synagogue and completed the Minian. The service was conducted by the Rabbi of a Brooklyn synagogue but we had to do without the séfarims which were in the Ekhal under lock and key. The Jewish Community of Cairo, being afraid that they will be taken away, has put all books and religious items under lock. The active synagogue is now in Méadi. The synagogue was as I remember quite large and majestic but somehow, I did not find the central light fixture that came down from the main copula. May be, I could not remember if there was one. However the wood carving and the benches were as new as ever. The outside was not well preserved but well protected by a 24 hour police force.
For just a moment, I sat at the place I used at the Friday evening services. I looked at the ladies' gallery, now closed as the ladies sat with the men in the main floor, and remembered how girl friends also came and sat in the front row to be seen and to socialize in the courtyard after the service. That is where most of our Saturday evening dates and parties were planned.
In the middle of the service, a row broke out between the President of the Jewish community, her advisor and the Jewish delegation that was in Cairo to negotiate a possible emigration of some séfarims to the US. The request to use a séfer for the Saturday prayers was ultimately denied. However, an old lady opened an old book case for me and I managed to use two prayers books but not those translated from Hebrew to Arabic by my grandfather Hillel that I was really looking for. They probably remain somewhere in the library which was not open on weekends. My search will have to be continued on another trip.
A local Mokhabarat policemen, the secret service quite feared during Nasser's period, suddenly appeared with the lawyer and was trying to get the names of those in the synagogue. My driver told him that I was just passing by and had nothing to do with the others. That day, he was considered a passing nuisance and was easily ignored. The poor man did not get much information anyway and did not earn his salary that day. The fear of his office no longer bothered us.
The rest of the day was spent on a long pilgrimage of old houses and places: my old apartment on Rue Sheik Barakat, renamed Kamal El Din Salah, the Lyçée Bab El Louk, the American University, Jeannine's apartment on Rue El Gamhouria, some friends who wanted a picture taken of their old place, wandering the streets of Cairo looking for Salon Vert, Groppi, Bamboo (now a shoe store) and other landmarks. They are all there under their old owner's names: Gattegno, Sednaoui, Cicurel, Orosdi Back, Léon Gani, Adés, Lappas, Tséppas, L'Américaine, the cinéma houses Métro, Miami, Rivoli, Radio, Cairo, Diana etc. All the cinemas were showing Arabic movies.
Cinéma Metro brought us memories of the Sunday morning Matinées Enfantines where we had an hour of American cartoons, a coke and a balloon (for 3 piasters). That children outing were quite difficult for Sabrina to imagine now that cartoons are delivered by TV on Saturday morning and by specialized channels all day.
On TV, in addition to the standard satellite fare (CNN, TNT, BBC and a lot of European channels), we watched modern Egyptian movies (for a few minutes before surfing), commercials, political discussions & news in formal Arabic, some old Arabic black and white MTV video clips of actors singing pre 70's songs. One singer, Abd El Halim Hafez, looked quite young, drove some convertible of the 60's and crooned to young girls with bouffant hairdos à la Jacqueline Kennedy. I wished I had time to see an old vaudeville or Rihani comedies on TV. No luck, we had a choice of US movies or sitcoms with Arabic subtitles.
Our lunch stop was at Felfela, an upscale foul médames & falafel restaurant now that the Midan Tahrir's Issaeivich landmark, which after a bomb exploded a few years ago killing many tourists and locals, was renamed and survived as a coffee shop only.
Midan Tahrir the main square has changed a lot. The center monument (without a statue) is gone, so is the gangway around it as well as the bus station and the streetcars. Under it, is the new Sadat underground station. The Mogamaa (Interior Ministry) is still there, Nowhere in sight were the old photographers with their tripod cameras and black hood under which the photographer checked the framing before using the a silver nitrate coated plate (a single frame film) that developed instantly the ID pictures required by the Egyptian administration.
The Nile Hilton added a shopping center and an extra wing with more rooms and lost its majestic appearance with its pharaonic mosaics. However its charm was intact as we passed the usual metal detectors (they kept beeping but we were asked to pass through anyway without any additional search) for a coffee and cake. Ignoring the main outdoor terrace where a minimum hourly charge was well displayed, we headed for an indoor cafe where we had a tea, "aasir lamoun" (lemonade) and a "millefeuille à la confiture d'abricôt" (Napoleon with apricot jam). After all these years in Europe, it did beat, at least for us, any French or Swiss ordinary millefeuille à la crème.
Our old apartment buildings and schools were all run down with many floors added surely without permits on their top floors creating unauthorized penthouses. Our large garden where, my father grew wheat and where we played hide and seek was now a small junk yard with abandoned taxis and rusting cars. The doorman recognized me and took us to the first floor. He introduced me to the current occupant and we were welcomed in. The apartment was freshly painted and we were led in our old dining room, now their living room. A middle aged lady and her husband told us, in fluent French, that they had lived there for 27 years and had taken over from their mother. Only recently did they redecorated the apartment, redid the old bathrooms and toilet and installed an new bathroom in the old "karar" (pantry & storage room). The kitchen was the same and their current maid was the wife of the old doorman who passed away. She remembered our family except me. A week later, having sent our hosts a box of Belgium chocolates, we were invited back for drinks and pastries and left with a box Egyptian dates stuffed with chocolates. For the small talk, the tenant confided that thanks to Nasser's rent controls, their rent is only £50 ($15) per month for an apartment probably worth a million of dollars. In 1949, when we moved in, my father paid £21 pounds a month or US$100 at that time.
Jeannine's experience with her old apartment was quite similar. Locating the building was an issue as it was completely run down with stores selling fire fighting material and did not look the same. The doormen took us up, after banging on the elevator door requesting that the current passengers released it immediately. On the 8th floor, the doorman told a lady in one of the apartments about Jeannine being the old tenant and that we wanted to see it. She violently objected to Jeannine's trying to take it back after so many years... (she could keep it). Finally we knocked on the correct door and the current tenant led us in and Jeannine visited few rooms but had the impression that it was not exactly the same. The interior was quite clean and the people very friendly.
We also visited the apartment of the father of a friend now living in Switzerland. It was the only time we saw a building well maintained with immaculate lobby with plants, working intercom and elevators. It must have been a co-op or condo. Across the street, the Lyçée El Horreya looked empty and the furniture quite flimsy. Classes were conducted in French to very few girls by Moslem ladies with head scarves. The girl's yard was full of buses and we later found out that the real French Lyçée for expats was now in Méadi next to the old El Horeyya sport complex in Méadi where we played soccer and held our scout gatherings.
The American University in Cairo looked well maintained and kept, students had posters and announcements everywhere, the lawn was green and manicured. We were told not to take pictures but I did anyway.
Next we went on a shopping trip for jewelry and Egyptian goods. At the Sergani Jewelry shop, Sherif, having recognized me from the Lyçée, kept the store open past their afternoon closing time. The shop with few goods in the showcases had old French furniture that saw better days. We managed to buy a few rings and get my old Ramsés cuffs links (pre 1962) repaired.
A visit to Khan Kalil was next. Just before entering the covered market, we passed the main square coffee shops where their owners invited us for drinks and chichas (a water pipe). Many tourists were there sipping tea or coffee and smoking sweet smelling apple tobacco.
First stop: Muwardi, a jewelry shop whose owner, I found out later, shared with me a common friend (Moshé my Hungarian, Italian, Israeli jewelry manufacturer). We were stopped at every corner by salesmen offering, perfumes, silverware, leather, and reproductions of antiquities. Our Arabic replies cooled their enthusiasm and off we went to the Aatarin section (spices and perfumes).
At one Aatar ("a spice shop"), Jeannine stocked up on spices such as cardamom, vanilla, mastika (an ingredient for making chewing gum when mixed with bee wax or for flavoring ice cream), hibiscus leaves for the karkadeh drinks, erg halawa, a root whose powder is used in cooking but when boiled in water, and the water used to clean the floors, it would chase away bad luck from your house.
After the Ataarins, we entered the Mouski (still referred to as the Jewish textile center). In the Oouf store, we entered a 19th century textile emporium. Clerks behind counters brought down the cotton bed covers we were looking for. My brother in law impressed us all as he remembered the Arabic name for salmon color, "basaly" or onion color. Finally, we settled for a pink one. Having forgotten all my undershirts at home, I ordered a few asking for the Peerless brand (my father's). They had not heard of it and offered me instead a Jil brand made locally under a French license. The quality and suppleness of the Egyptian cotton made me regret not having bought more. Sabrina bought some Islamic design fabrics to cover her bedroom walls (the type used by tent makers).
The payment process is quite unusual. The clerk gives you an invoice to be paid at a central cashier. After verification by a supervisor of the cashier's cash intake, he looked like a boss, a slip is given back to pick up the merchandise at another counter near the door. Same procedure at Salon Vert (a government department store) where we bought more bed spreads for friends in Europe and New York who had asked for some. An old lady attended to our needs in fluent French. More bedspreads and table cloth to carry back.
Incidentally, I finally discovered why in these third world countries, the department stores do not look like Bloomingdale's or Galleries Lafayette. They do not have the elaborate packed cosmetic counters on the ground floor but an open space and airy look like those of a Mark and Spencer. Clothes on one side, and appliances on the others. Most other stores in Cairo were mainly offering clothes and shoes. I never saw such a concentration of shoes stores, as if the Egyptians had to catch up with centuries of walking barefoot. They seem reasonably priced with many Europeans brands made locally under license (including Bally of Switzerland).
Later that evening, we had dinner at the Kebabgi, a modern hati (barbecue) restaurant in the Sheraton. It was reviewed in a recent travel section of the New York Times and the food was excellent. The bread is baked on the premises; two ladies knead the dough and put the bread in a small clay oven (a small pyramid) near the entrance of the restaurant. The Turkish coffee is also made nearby in a sand pit. We found the same arrangement at Andrea's, the grilled chicken restaurant near the Pyramids. The chicken was good but overdone. At Andrea, the captain must have been Greek as he spoke French to the hordes of French tourists that arrived by the busload.
Another dinning experience was at Arabesque, near the Kasr El Nil cinema. Catherine, a cousin who resettled in Cairo 10 years earlier, invited us to that nice restaurant. Her other guest was George Moustaki, the well known singer who was in Cairo for a private concert. George who is Greek and Jewish left Alexandria in 1952. His trip was the one after in so many years. We compared notes on how Egypt had changed but how pleasant it was to be back among friendly people.
By the end of our trip in Egypt, we had our share of mezzé (appetizers) before real food was served, feuilles de vignes, pigeons, chicken and naturally shish kebab and koftas (hamburgers), foul médamés for breakfast, fried eggs with feta cheese. We even managed to have some American fast food (KFC) just to get to the Museum on time. Rifaat also got us some eich méfaa (Arabic puffed bread) with hot taamia (falafel) from a sidewalk stall. It was real peasant food at its best. What we did not managed to eat were: fétira (fluffy pancakes), Koshari (rice and macaroni), the sémit (the Egyptian pretzel) with either the salt or Greek cheese. The sugar cane and fresh mango juices were also left out on this trip. Well next time! Bottled water was everywhere including a Perrier approved Baraka brand and the new Stella Export has been reworked by Carlsberg and did taste decent. The Pharaoh's revenge was ready to strike but spared us.
We also managed to buy before leaving for Geneva some Eich Saraya (literally royal bread) without the cream and some basboussa (a sugary wheat cake) and other oriental pastries (konafa & baklava) from Tséppas' new store in Giza. These pastries taste really different from those purchased in either Brooklyn, Paris or Ferney (near Geneva). The "samna" (clarified butter) must be the reason for that special taste. We forgot the cholesterol for a while. We also bought some "Doma", the brown very hard fruit that were a treat for the Pharaohs, as they were also found in the tombs. I remember sinking my teeth in them as a teenager, but today they went to our collection of fake fruits on the coffee table.
Just before leaving Cairo for Geneva, Rifaat offered us some "leb" (seeds), the dark yellow variety. Sabrina has found that eating them while preparing these pages made look like a bird. It is not easy to do while typing if I had to do away with the old tradition of spitting the shells. Eating them at the cinéma which was the equivalent of the popcorn in the US, did not require any special attention as to where the shells went on the floor and other spectators.
For our travel to Sharm El Sheik, we did our best to get to the airport an hour earlier. Unfortunately we got there at 5 am and found out that they were already boarding the plane. We had misread the timetable. While dreading the thought of rescheduling the flight for the next day or taking the road for the 500 km trip, we were told to wait for the next flight, an hour and half later. That flight was nowhere on the billboard. Finally, a packet of Lucky Strike, bought at Schippol as backsheesh currency, managed to get us the good graces of the counter attendant and we were on the plane. One guide told me that he had not seen neither one of these packets nor the Hollywood brands in ages and would be happy to show if off. To him it was worth more than the £5 cost at the local tobacco stores.
Sharm El Sheik at the tip of the Sinai desert, was an hour flight away from Cairo. The landing gave us a good view of the Sinai's red mountains that gave the sea its name. At the Sofitel, a hotel not yet completed, we were given two rooms with great views of the bay and the sunset and facing the open air theater, where every night Italian GOs (à la Club Med) entertained the mostly Italian crowd with amateurish gigs. The best show was one performed by a professional troupe of Egyptian dancers. Beside the antics of a comedian (speaking in Arabic) and having members of the audience participating, the best act was the one of a swirling dervish, who stripped down as he twirled for 30 minutes continuously without skipping a beat. He twirled and tossed layers after layer of clothes (skirts, scarves, shirts) down to his swimming trunks. The man was a spinning top with his clothes creating a kaleidoscope of colors. What a show! I regretted not having a video camera. Their final act was the usual belly dancer. Nice too but for other features....
At the Sofitel, there is no need to take part in the exercise classes. The architecture of the hotel makes you go up and down 4 to 5 flights of steps all days. From your room to the restaurant, back to the pool or beach and so on. You are left breathless but the view that comes with it is breathtaking. The rooms were nicely decorated in arabesque style and chorabiyat (wooden screens to see but not to be seen). The bath room had the usual bidet and toilet hand shower and the usual modern hotel amenities. However the walls were quite thin as we were entertained to some man next door clearing his throat and other vents quite frequently.
A short bicycle ride down a pedestrian walkway near the water, takes you to downtown Naama Bay with all the hotels are next to each other. Each one with its own strip of beach and row upon row of parasols (umbrellas) and pool chairs. Unfortunately for Sabrina that is were the young crowd was and the Sofitel with its private beach was too quiet for her.
The three beaches in front of the Sofitel offered the best snorkeling in Naama Bay. For diving, we tried to book space on boat to Ras Mohammed reputed for the best dives around. Many dive shops refused to take us either because they catered only to groups booking for a week of diving or unless we had another dive elsewhere to check us out. We found that saying that our last dive was less than 6 month old was the trick to skip that extra dive.
Fortunately, we found Tania of the Hilton dive shop (more Russian or American than Egyptian) who rescheduled all her diving boats to accommodate us. After surrendering our passports to the captain, to pay for the proper entrance fee to the Ras El Mohammed National Park and make sure that we were not Israelis as the area is closed to them without a special permit, we boarded the diving yacht. On that day, Sabrina and I were fitted with all the gear but not with enough weights. Given the higher salinity of the Red Sea, we could not sink. With extra weight in our pockets we finally did sink but I ran out of air after 20 minutes and had to come up alone. I was convinced their equipment had a leak. Unable to find my boat, I was picked up by another one. Unable to remember the name of my boat, the captain radioed all the boats in the area to find out which one I belonged to. That one came an hour later to pick me up and I physically jumped ships. By that time, I was sea sick and spent the rest of the day flat on my stomach in the lower bunk until we were back at the dock. Our captain cooked a hot meal and Sabrina managed to eat some spaghetti. We both skipped the afternoon dive. The diving was nice but since we had being spoiled by other diving spots in Hawaii, Asia and Australia, we remembered the rough high seas more than the corals, the large schools of colored fish and underwater walls.
From Sharm El Sheik, an excursion to the Monastery of Saint Catherine and the Colored Canyon was suggested as well as a dinner with Bedouins. We skipped the dinner but choose a swim with dolphins in Nuweiba. We also turned down an offer to climb Mount Moussa and watch the sunrise from the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The excursion desk of the hotel booked us on a tour with an early rise and ordered breakfast boxes that were never delivered. "Maalesh" was their apology. The Egyptian customs of not taking hard life seriously helped us survived. Maalesh was also their response when the travel desk failed to reconfirm our reservations for our flight to Cairo.
We found ourselves with a French guy and an English women sharing the space in the four wheel drive Jeep. The Jeep that came had one passenger seat and two benches along the side in the back. It was quite uncomfortable for both sitting and dozing. Our guide was a young fellow named Ossama, a former school teacher from Port Said who preferred the excitement and pay in Sharm El Sheik. He taught French and did not speak English so the unlucky lady from England, who thought she had booked an English speaking tour, had to do with our translation.
St. Catherine monastery was an hour & half ride away. A lot of military checkpoints and even a lone guard who exercised his authority by claiming the need for a copy of our passports and an affidavit from the Tour Operator. After a long argument with the driver and Ossama, he let us pass without a backsheesh (tip or bribe). After, two worthless stops to see the tomb of an Israeli soldier and few Bedouins selling tea and fossilized stones, we managed a rest stop at a restaurant near the entrance of St. Catherine, for outrageously expensive breakfast of cheese, halawa (honey & sesame sweet), jam and boiled eggs.
Since the entrance of St. Catherine is forbidden for people wearing shorts, we were given blue galabiehs (peasant's dress) and we looked like school children to all the others tourists. The only places you could see in the Monastery were the church with its icons and sample of translated bibles, the burning bush (moved from its original place to the built the chapel, the water well where Moses met his wife and the Ossary where all the monks who ever lived at St. Catherine are kept. Their skulls neatly stored for viewing and their bones piled up (2 meters high). Only a Saint Eustache was kept whole and in full garb in a display case. Gregory, our French-Armenian companion, met at the Ossary's door an Armenian-Lebanese monk who allowed him to light a candle and say a special prayer. We did not visit their living quarters or library which is well known for its precious books.
Next stop was the Colored Canyon. The ride in the 4 wheel drive to and from the Canyon took us via sandy dunes, valley streams, oasis and deserts with few goats and camels. where the Jews wandered for 40 years in similar area. The ride was rough but enjoyable as we were jerked around. Even though Sabrina missed a lot of the conversations done in Arabic with the locals drivers, guides and others, Sabrina's view of the whole trip and excursion changed. The Canyon is a 50 meter deep rock formation with traces of different minerals that colored the rocks yellow, green, and red. One section was covered with white powder. At time, the width of the canyon is less than 1 meters wide and we had to snake ourselves under rocks trapped between the walls to go through. It was impressive but small trash and graffiti left by others was disturbing. The whole trek took an hour including the descent and climb back. At the edge, under a tent, Bedouins served tea and refreshments to exhausted trekers.
After all that trekking, lunch was served at a Nuweiba beach resort made of straw huts. Unlike the straw houses of Ras El Bar, these were just the size of one room for one or two persons. The common bathroom was nearby with its doors made of multicolored strands of material woven by hand. The restaurant was set right in the sand by the sea. The grilled chicken and fish was served with Bedouin bread cooked on a hot stone. Next to us few carpets were laid on the sand where a western man rested after the meal drinking coffee and smoking a chicha.
The next stop was a fisherman house where two dolphins swam near the shore. You could see them 10 meters away from the water edge. After Sabrina and I went snorkeling for a while near the mother and its baby dolphins, the fisherman came asking for his £10 pound fee per person. The small children were given biscuits instead of backsheesh.
Before heading back to Sharm El Sheik, we stopped in a real small village with lawyers and butchers, named Dahab (an old Israeli camping site) with a nice beach, hotels, restaurant and many novelty shops. The salesman of one them asked Ossama to steer us toward his. An embarrassed Ossama quietly told him that we were Egyptians and understood what he was saying.
After a few days on the beach, we went back to Cairo for few more sightseeing and our return trip to Geneva.
On our first visit to the Pyramids, we drove towards them on what used to be a desert road with few night clubs. Today there were cars everywhere, hotels and city life. The city had caught up with the Pharaoh's tombs. The Pyramids were majestic as ever standing high on the cliff behind a blue sky. Since I suggested on renting horses from the M stables that I patronized 30 years earlier, we wandered around the Sphinx area looking for M. By the time we got to the stables, a sand storm blew up and the Pyramids could not be seen anymore. The sky was yellow with fine sand everywhere including our noses, eyes and throats. Jeannine & Sabrina who were not too exited about the horseback ridding were saved by the bell. So off we went to the relative safety of the Pharaonic Village, a recreation of Pharaonic life on a man-made island in the Nile.
We managed to get on an English speaking boat for 8 people, Arabic speaking boats seat 50. The boat took us around real papyrus swamps, near reproduced pharaonic statues and scenes of ancient Egypt with actors dressed in pharaonic clothes. This Egyptian Disneyland reproduced dwelling, farm house, temples and the Tomb of Tutankhamon as it was discovered by Carver in 1922. We skipped the amusement park for the Egyptian Museum, were we saw the real items displayed in the mock tomb. Walking first through the tomb should be required for all visitors prior to seeing the Museum.
The Museum has lost most of the gardens to civilization but the halls were still filled with the same artifacts that I remembered years ago. We saw the usual statues with the best section being the Tutankhamon jewelry and gold content of his tomb. The special section with the mummified pharaohs or queens was quite impressive on how these corpses survived intact 5000 years. But we kept wondering how small the old Egyptians were. The size of their bed was proof they their skeletons did not just shrink but that there were really small people. Some were real midgets probably as a result of intermarriage and genetic defects.
As expected, we were exhausted after an hour of wandering around, the same small benches I used as a teenager were there for us to rest. I was amazed that the descriptions and explanations of all the displays were still written in French, Arabic and English. Many of them were the same ones that existed when the Museum opened a century ago. The French influence (from Maspéro et al) was still there.
We also decided to visit Memphis and the Sakkara Pyramid. I had never seen it before. We took the Tarik Ziraeee to the Sayeed (agricultural road to Upper Egypt). An hour later, we turned right to Memphis where a statue of Ramsés remain lying on his back on the ground. An old guard explained to me that during its carving, an earthquake broke his foot and he was left there unfinished. A roof was built to protect the site. Few other statues were added near by to make it a tourist stop.
The Memphis area claims to have many Carpet Schools. Many stores with few kids weaving the same sample carpet forever. Having seen before so many "local industries traps" we did not fall for it and moved on to Sakkara.
The Sakkara Pyramid desert site was next to green fields being just separated by a canal of water. The pyramid was small compared to those of Giza. We quickly visited the site as sand started to blow. The Dendour pyramid (a treasure of hieroglyph inscriptions) was a few kilometers to the south but we did not venture.
I was surprised to see the whole Plateau of Giza cordoned off and converted to a national park with an entrance fee demanded for each person and car. I remember the old Chausson buses arriving at the foot of the Pyramids near the Ména House or the taxi taking you all the way up there, where you roamed around the Chéops pyramid undecided whether to climb few rocks or tackle the steps to the entrance leading to the chamber. Remembering the dark tunnel leading to an empty room and sarcophagi, we skipped it.
We were driven to a remote site where we could see the 3 pyramids from behind, the recently dug out Pharaonic boat and the Sphinx. Just across it were the Son & Lumière seats and the city streets with the papyrus & perfumes stores, stables and modern civilization. Gone were the vast expanses of desert around it Giza. Even old stables next to the Ména House have been transformed into a Golf Club.
We also managed to get to the Mokattam and visit the Mohamed Ali mosque and tomb. As everywhere else in Cairo, the outside was crumbling and decaying and the indoors were a beautiful collection of mosaics, lamps, carpets and artifacts.
Just a passing note on the Egyptian currency and local prices. The notes are quite crumbled and old. The smaller paper note is 50 piasters and is now the standard tip as is £1 pound. Only in Cairo, were we given coins as change. The 25 piasters coin has the shape of the old 1/2 piaster (5 cents or Taarifa), a coin with a whole in the middle. I kept it with a 10 piasters coin as souvenir. I looked everywhere in the Khan Kalil or Sharm El Sheik for a hexagonal 2 piaster coin but could not see one just few coins with the King Farouk profile, but they were completely worn off.
As in most countries tourists and locals do not pay the same amount for the same services and goods. Hotels have a different rate for tourists. For example, a $200 room is given to an Egyptian for $95. Some hotel clerks were amazed to see my expired passport which still reads United Arab Republic from the days when Nasser tried to unite Egypt and Syria into a single country.
The differential at tourist sites is even wider. The entrance fee to any archeological site sets back a foreigner £20, plus another £20 for his camera and £100 for his video. For Egyptians, the entrance fee is just £1. For the cameras, we managed to tell the inquisitive guard "Maleesh" (never mind) and passed through. In just two instances, I had to leave one of our cameras at a checkout counter.
Naturally, prices in store came down if the question was asked in Arabic. Jewelry stores in the Khan Kalil market did not accept the usual bargain that we knew. We either lost our knack for bargaining price or did not care enough when priced in US $.
The Egyptian welcomed us (as Egyptian returnees or expats) in their home and hearts and really opened up when we spoke to them. Their friendliness was quite an experience. As I wanted just a morning coffee, the cashier at one hotel elaborate breakfast room offered it "magana" (free or complimentary) as I did not have their standard fare of either Continental or American buffet. In another one, when we inquired why we were billed two buffet dinners instead of three, we were told that the young girl did not eat much. It happened several nights in a row.
One Egyptian guide astonished to hear me speak Arabic, questioned if I was Syrian either because of my accent or white skin, and said that even if I had lost my command of some words, spoke real Egyptian. My Arabic came back slowly but I am sure would remain one of a Khawaga (foreigner).
On our last night in Cairo, we managed to get caught in a monstrous traffic jam caused by President Moubarak going to the Opera, so instead of dinning out we ended up the Kababgi at the Sheraton for one more time. Staying there till closing time, we checked out at 2 am for a trip to the airport. Luckily the return flight was a real pleasure as after being seated in carefully selected bulk head seats in economy, the airline upgraded us to Business class. In spite of the early morning hours, Sabrina spend her night watching all the movies on her personal video screen.
The trip to Egypt was quite pleasant after all. The disappointment that we were warned about did not materialize. We were sad to leave after a good vacation and had a hypothetical thought about what would have happened if we were not all forced out of Egypt and stayed there. I am sure our emigration to the West was a better trade-off.
Cairo being just 4 to 5 hours away from Europe, it is a real vacation spot to consider for sea and sun as well as for another trip to Upper Egypt or a cruise on the Nile. With the discount granted to former Egyptians, an Egyptian birth certificate is acceptable, it is also a bargain for accommodations. We will definitely plan to take our son there at the next opportunity or may be organize a trip of all former Cairenes or Alexandrines who may want to join in and reminisce together on a special occasion as New Year 1999.
Back to the Nile!
PS. We did manage a second trip in December 1998 to Cairo, a cruise on the Nile and the Upper Egypt (see below).
Note: Unfortunately, we did skip the Millennium celebration in our country of birth and spend it in our country of adoption.
Another Trip up the Nile. (December 1998)
We are back from a great cruise on the Nile with few extra pounds around the waist and in the suitcases (mostly goodies to eat such as pain arabe, eich saray konafa et autres, leb, dates seches).
The children liked it very much and are ready to go back but not so soon. For my daughter, it was on her second trip there, for my son, his first. They even picked up a little of Arabic to fool the guards at the tourist sites as they were always checking the foreign vs local identity of the visitors. Egyptians pay 1 vs 20 pounds for the tourists. For a family and after a week, it adds up to a small budget even in US$. The people were very friendly and the security was tight but not obtrusive or obvious. The latest 1998 Gulf war flare up was not even felt.
The trip was a little rushed as Ramadan closed all the museums and sites at 2:30 or 3pm. We did not visit the Cairo Museum this time but we saw a lot of temples and statues in Louxor, Abu Simbel and Aswan. The high point was the cruise, very relaxing watching life on the banks of the Nile. Life has not changed for them except for the electricity and TV antenna on every roof. They still use the jar for fresh water in many villages in the Said.
I had visited the upper Egypt on a school trip in 1961 by train and remember taking my first color pictures. It was more unspoiled then, no big tour & business racket. Nevertheless, the cruise was great except that they served local food once and even then it was Europeanized. However, since we made a request for it in advance, they obliged and gave us Molokia.
The Egyptians were as always very friendly. As returnees (Egyptian with US passports) they waived the visa fees and welcomed us back with a palm stretched at very corner. A few pounds as tip is now the standard for parking, porter etc. Ca ne finit jamais (it never stop).
One evening, we were out to the Pyramids to see Son & Lumière. The same speech from the 60s to which they added a laser tracing on the pyramids. Nice as usual.
In Luxor & Aswan we visited temples and tombs with a guide that became the mockery of the kids for her lack of depth and repetitive description of the hieroglyphs. Between visits, we ate and spend time on the boat playing back gammon like in Jamaica.
Abu Simbel was a great sight but the trip by plane (300 kms from Aswan) took forever as the planes cam and left late. We also saw the Grand Barrage, nothing to speak of except of its consequences: political and ecological on Egypt.
In Cairo, we managed to go through Héliopolis and the cinema Roxy area. I could not remember the house where my grandfather lived, except that it was off the main road. I saw the house of my cousins from which balcony we were watching the movies across the street.
The night before our return we went to Souk el Tawfikie to buy sweet lemons and were probably charged Egyptian returnees price for all. Even when ordering the fruits in Arabic, we were charged 10 pounds for what a local gets at 1. Maalesh & Cappara...
C'est à refaire ( we should do it again) with more time to stay in Aswan and Cairo. Next time, we should include Alexandria and a stay on the red sea or Marsa Matrouh.
Hope that all this will give you a motive to visit Egypt again. We are ready to go back any time.
Back to the Nile