by Hank Leukart
March 17, 2011
Welcome to the New Egypt!
Backpacking through a revolution in the Land of the Pharaohs.
Demonstrators sell "The Day We Changed" T-shirts while protesters gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square. (view all Cairo, Egypt photos)
AIRO, Egypt — I’m sitting at a gate in the Casablanca airport for a flight to Cairo, and I start to feel nervous. Almost all of the passengers I see are wearing thawbs (long white robes) and keffiyehs (traditional Arab headdresses). I’m one of the few people wearing Western clothing, and I’m the only white guy at the gate. The conservatively-dressed passengers only increase my anxiety that my friend Quinn and I will stand out like yachts off the Somalian Coast while we travel in a country amidst revolution; after all, I am a blue-eyed, six-foot-tall guy, and Quinn is a girl with long, wavy blond hair and green eyes.
When I was offered a job in January requiring travel to Morocco, I thought to e-mail Quinn immediately. I had always wanted to visit Egypt, and since she was already working in Africa, I suspected that she might be willing to meet me in Cairo for a couple weeks before the start of my job.
But, as is well known by now, on January 25, 2011, millions of protestors, organizing themselves using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, began demonstrating against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, demanding governmental reform. Through mostly peaceful protests, citizens in Egypt (and throughout the Middle East) complained about a lack of free elections and freedom of speech, high unemployment problems, and governmental corruption. But when violent clashes between security forces and protesters escalated, especially in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the US began evacuating American ambassadors and citizens out of Egypt. Even after February 11, when Mubarak agreed to step down, the US State Department continued to instruct citizens to “defer non-essential travel” to Egypt. My dreams of a trip to Egypt were crushed.
A couple weeks later, however, the New York Times published an article suggesting that visiting the Land of the Pharaohs post-revolution is “like having a fast pass at Disney[land].” I phoned Quinn and directed her to the article, hinting that I might be interested in visiting Egypt despite the civil unrest. Quinn, an experienced traveler who has lived and worked in developing countries, is nothing if not adventurous. She agreed quickly to meet me in Cairo at the beginning of March.
A few days before my flight to Cairo via Casablanca, I began feeling anxious about the trip — feelings beyond my typical paralyzing angst over packing for a long trip across multiple climates and terrains. I sent an admission by e-mail to Quinn: “Full disclosure: I am a little nervous about going to Egypt.” But, I managed (barely) to pack two bags without slitting my wrists and slept for most of my flight to Morocco’s Mohammed V Airport. In Casablanca, I spent a couple days in a cheap hotel recovering from jet lag and wandering lost through the city’s busy streets, which, maddeningly, had almost no street signs.
Thankfully, I feel some of my fears subside when, after finally boarding my flight to Cairo, I realize that the passengers at my gate were readying to board a flight bound for a more conservative country in the Arabian Peninsula. I’m still the only white guy on my flight, but at least I’m one of many wearing jeans. When I land at the Cairo airport, I find Quinn waiting with a driver from our budget hotel.
“Is this your first trip to Egypt?” the driver asks. I tell him it is. “Welcome back,” he replies, nonsensically. Quinn tells me that, during my flight, a clash in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between camped-out protesters and Egyptian troops resulted in dozens of people injured. She also points out that a fight the previous day between Coptic Christians and Muslims in a Cairo suburb ended with 13 people dead. I add to the list a Tahrir Square demonstration the day before, in which a group of men attacked Egyptian women at an International Women’s Day rally.
“We really need to avoid all protests,” I tell her.
“But we might want to see one!” she says. I look at her uneasily.
“I don’t want to be killed here,” I say.
But, the next day, we walk from our hotel toward the Egyptian Museum, which, we discover, is adjacent to Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Revolution’s ground zero. We decide to take a quick walk through the Square, and we see a few hundred people milling about. Some people are holding protest signs; a few are selling T-shirts advertising the revolution; but most simply seem to be watching and waiting, as though they’re worried they might miss something exciting. Quinn and I, wearing typical Western dress, stand out in the crowd. A lot of people watch us as we take photos.
“Welcome to the New Egypt!” an Egyptian college student blurts out as he approaches us. He tells us that his name is Mohammed, and when we tell him that we’re Americans, he asks, “Aren’t you scared?”
“No — we’re just excited to be here!” I tell him, surprising myself. I realize that I’m getting a rush just from feeling like I’m somehow physically standing on a pivotal point in history.
“Welcome back!” he responds. Of course, by now, we’ve heard the phrase used incorrectly many times by Egyptians. But, there’s something about the way Mohammed says it that makes me feel that, yes, we’re returning to something familiar. He seems so excited about the prospect of a democracy in New Egypt that maybe it makes sense that he’s welcoming us “back” — back to the world of potential social equality that we take for granted.
On the way to the Egyptian Museum, Quinn and I pass by swarms of soldiers and Egyptian military tanks guarding the entrance, undoubtedly to prevent any more incidents of looting and vandalism like those that occurred during the revolution. There’s no line to buy tickets or enter the museum, and once we’re inside, we see very few other people. We feel like we’re the only tourists in Egypt.
Though I’ve heard from others than the Egyptian Museum’s collection is unmatched, I’m still surprised by the place. Walking around the building feels more like we’re touring a clearance sale at Egyptian Relics Discount Warehouse than like we’re visiting a museum: the lighting is dim, items rarely have any accompanying written explanation, and each room is so crowded with fantastic artifacts that there’s barely room to move. Each relic is so exceptional that any given one seems like it could be any other museum’s most prized possession. We spend a couple hours marveling at rooms stacked to the ceiling with mummies, sarcophagi, and treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
The next day, we hire an Egyptian guide named Salma to take us to see the famous pyramids in Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur.
“You are my first clients since 25 January,” she tells us. We realize that she hasn’t had work in almost two months. “We hope the tourists return to Egypt soon,” she says. When we ask her about the revolution, she tells us that she hopes that a new government will improve the country, though she admits that there’s a lot of uncertainty about the constitution and the future in general.
When we arrive at the Great Pyramid of Giza, we’re the only tourists there, except for a single group tour. The magnificent golden Pyramid’s tip touches the heavens, towering 450 feet above our heads. But, with so few people around to enjoy it, it looks lonely.
Salma teaches us about some Egyptian history and then takes us to a ridge dotted with camels and their drivers, with a fantastic view of all of the Pyramids of Giza. One camel driver, wearing a thawb and a white turban, tells us that his name is Mohammed, and I begin to wonder whether every man in Egypt is named Mohammed or if it’s just that Egyptian men have an elaborate joke they play on tourists. He complains to us that the revolution has destroyed his business and begs us to take a ride at a rock-bottom price. As Quinn and I get ready to mount the camel, the driver looks at the two of us.
“Married?” he asks. We tell him that we are, because we’ve agreed in advance to tell all Egyptians this, partly at our guidebook’s suggestion. In an exceptionally conservative, Islamic culture like Egypt’s, it’s the easiest way to make sure others accept our traveling together.
“You a very lucky man,” he says, looking at Quinn’s blond hair. “I give you one million camels for her.”
Quinn chuckles as I pretend to consider the proposal, but his comment makes me realize that New Egypt isn’t totally new. It’s clear that antiquated conceptions about relationships and women are still deeply embedded in the culture, despite the revolution.
As Quinn and I ride our camel toward the Pyramids and Cairo skyline, it also occurs to me that there’s no way that I could get that many camels on a plane back to Los Angeles.
Read the second essay in this series about backpacking in post-revolution Egypt, in which Quinn and I visit some of the world’s most stunning ancient Egyptian temples in Luxor while people yell, “Shakira!” at us.
Men on camels ride near the Queen's, Mycerinus, Chephren, and Cheops Pyramids outside Cairo. (view all Egyptian Pyramids photos)
A man renting a horse waits for tourists in front of the Sphinx, the Chephren Pyramid, and the Mycerinus Pyramid.
How to Visit Tahrir Square and the New, Post-Revolution Egypt
- OVERVIEW: Though previous Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, demonstrations continue (usually on Fridays) throughout Egypt and the US State Department continues to urge citizens to defer non-essential travel to the country. With that in mind, it’s mostly business as usual in Egypt now — except that travelers can get great deals on hotels and tourist services due to the current lack of demand. Also, you won’t find yourself standing in line for anything.
- LOGISTICS: Fly to Cairo International Airport and take a taxi into the city (£E60/US$10). (Most hotels — even budget ones — will pick you up from the airport for a fee when asked, if you wish to avoid haggling with taxi drivers.) Cairo has a wide range of hotels. The Cairo Marriot (originally a guest palace built by Egyptian ruler Ismail the Magnificent, it has a swish outdoor cafe and tasty Egyptian restaurant), Conrad Cairo, and Four Seasons are all excellent luxury options. We stayed near Tahrir Square in the more budget-conscious, historic Hotel Windsor; after we haggled a bit, they gave us 50% off their listed rates due to slow business. The hotel’s antique elevator and vintage decor give it a classic (albeit dated) feel. The staff pushes hard to convince guests to buy tour packages, but they gave us a good price and decent English-speaking guide for our day tour of the Pyramids. The Lialy Hostel, Lotus Hotel, Hotel Osiris are even cheaper options.
- VISITING TAHRIR SQUARE: Any taxi driver can take you to Tahrir Square, though many hotels in Cairo are within walking distance of the Square (and the Egyptian Museum). To be extra careful, you may want to avoid visiting Tahrir on Fridays, which is when demonstrations continue to occur.
- VISITING THE PYRAMIDS: Any hotel will happily arrange for a driver and an English-speaking guide (US$30 per person) to tour the pyramids at Giza (£E60/US$10 for the entrance ticket and an additional £E100/US$17 to go inside Cheops), Saqqara (£E60/US$10), and Dahshur (£E30/US$5). Those wishing to skip the guide can simply hire a taxi for the day (£E200/US$34). Fewer people visit the Pyramids at Dahshur, though we saw no other tourists at Saqqara and Darshur when we visited and very few people even at Giza.