by Hank Leukart
March 28, 2011
Leaving a revolution behind
Saying goodbye as Egyptian revolutionaries protest on the eve of an important referendum.
Protesters gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the day before a controversial countrywide vote, organized by a military council, on constitutional amendments.
AIRO, Egypt — At 6 AM on our last morning in Luxor, Quinn and I stand on the west bank of the Nile, watching as a group of Egyptian men inflate a large, colorful hot air balloon. We’re two of about fifteen tourists — the majority of the tourists currently in Luxor, I suspect — who have hired a company to float us above the temples and tombs of the Theban Necropolis.
Quinn and I can feel the heat from reddish-orange flames and hear the hissing sound of hot air being pumped into the balloon as we climb into the basket and the balloon begins lifting from the ground. The group emits a collective gasp as the balloon soars high enough for us to see the Nile River, cloaked in fog, flowing for hundreds of miles through the dry Egyptian landscape.
“Look,” Quinn whispers. She points at the dramatic shadow of our balloon, cast upon the rugged Theban Hills and the tomb entrances in the Valley of the Kings. I watch Quinn as we fly over the Ramesseum, and I see her eyes sparkle when she sees the Necropolis’s most dramatic megalith, the famous, 1000-ton, fallen colossus of Ramses II.
After about a half hour of imagining that I’m a flying Indiana Jones, our balloon lowers and glides over a woman wearing a chador, herding sheep near a field of sugar cane. We lightly touch down on the Nile’s west bank.
“Is it too late for us to become Egyptologists?” I ask Quinn. She smiles.
When Quinn and I return to Cairo, we take a taxi to visit the centuries-old Citadel, the most dramatic feature of the city’s skyline and the home of the impressive Mosque of Mohammed Ali. In the evening, we drop by the attractive Cairo Marriott, originally a guest palace built by Egyptian ruler Ismail the Magnificent. We have a drink together in the swish, outdoor cafe and then move to the hotel’s Egyptian restaurant to eat excellent mezze, a collection of small dishes including hummus, tahini, tabbouleh, and babaghanoush. We’re already overwhelmed by food when our waiter tops off our meal by bringing out fiteer with vanilla custard and molasses. We feel too full to eat more, but each of us still manages to take some bites. Finally, we have closure to the desperate search for excellent Egyptian pancakes that started on the second day of our trip.
In our taxi on the way back to our hotel, we see an Egyptian man in the street handing out fliers written in Arabic. The man hands one to our taxi driver, who speaks surprisingly good English and, unbelievably, is named Mohammed.
“What does it say?” I ask him.
“Tomorrow there will be a demonstration in the Square about Saturday’s vote,” he tells us. He explains that the Egyptian military has asked citizens to vote on a set of proposed amendments to the constitution, but the revolutionaries insist that the constitution should be completely thrown out. “A new constitution should be written after a successful revolution,” he adds. “We fear that keeping our old constitution risks the creation of another dictator.” The revolution continues, I think.
Early the next morning, on our last day in Cairo, Quinn and I stand next to the taxi that will take her to the airport for her early flight. Our taxi driver, astonishingly, tells us that his name is Mohammed as he loads her bags into the car. Quinn and I look at each other.
“Thank you for a wonderful Egyptian adventure,” Quinn says.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” I reply. “I’m glad I did it with you.” Then, for a moment, we forget that we’re standing in full view on the street in a country in which public displays of affection are taboo. We kiss.
Then, Quinn gets into the taxi, and, as if on cue, Mohammed says to me, “You a very lucky man.” I watch Quinn through the window as Mohammed begins driving toward the airport. Even as she smiles and waves at me, she somehow manages to look sad. I imagine that I look the same to her.
Not exactly sure what to do with myself in Cairo without Quinn while I wait for my afternoon flight, I take a quick stroll around the city’s scenic Al-Azhar Park. I watch kids playing on lawns and listen to midday prayers wafting over the city from mosques. Then, an hour before I need to leave for the airport, I decide to walk to Tahrir Square one last time. On the way, I stop to grab some beef shawarma and falafel from GAD, a hectic, fast food Egyptian restaurant that Quinn and I fell in love with during our time in Cairo. I already find myself missing her. I’m still munching on my Egyptian bread when I arrive in Tahrir and see thousands of demonstrators filling the Square. They’re holding banners written in Arabic, waving flags, and chanting. Vendors are selling revolution T-shirts, bumper stickers, and hats. Because of the lack of tourists, it’s clear that the vendors selling revolution-themed goods are doing so not for sightseers, but for the demonstrators. This revolution has a gift shop.
As I’m leaving, I strike up a conversation with an Egyptian woman, Shahd, who tells me that she was in Cairo from the revolution’s beginning. She says that though she was scared for the first two days, the revolution’s tone eventually became upbeat.
“People sold popcorn, candy, and souvenirs, and it felt like a party,” she says. “Now, I am hopeful for the future, but I’m afraid that creating a new, democratic government will be difficult.” When I ask her what she thinks about the next day’s vote on constitutional amendments, she tells me that she thinks it’s essential that Egyptians vote against the amendments and stay committed to writing a completely new constitution. She says that she is terrified that the Muslim Brotherhood — a conservative Islamic political group that is the country’s most well-organized political party and has been linked to the Egyptian military — will garner enough votes to gain power and create an Islamic government. She says that it’s important for the revolutionaries to learn how to organize themselves better, in order to ensure progress for Egyptian women and for the country as a whole.
On the day after the referendum, while sitting in a hotel in Casablanca, Morocco, I read a New York Times article, which reports that 77 percent of Egyptian voters (with a 41 percent turnout) approved eight constitutional amendments, all designed to lay the groundwork for rapid elections. As Shahd predicted, the country’s revolutionaries were pushed aside by the well-organized supporters of the referendum: The National Democratic Party (the remnants of previous President Hosni Mubarak’s supporters) and the Muslim Brotherhood.
I think of the people I met in Egypt: Shahd, the woman I met as I was leaving; the taxi driver who grabbed a protest flier while taking Quinn and me to our hotel; Salma, our tour guide; and Mohammed, the young student in Tahrir Square who welcomed me to the “New Egypt” when I arrived. I worry that their worst fears — and those of millions of other young Egypt revolutionaries — are coming true. I worry that the “New Egypt” won’t be novel for long.
Tourists enjoy a hot air balloon ride above the Theban Necropolis near Luxor, Egypt.
Teenagers wave a flag above Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the day before a countrywide vote on constitutional amendments.
Protesters hold banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the day before a countrywide vote on constitutional amendments.
Hank visits Cairo's Tahrir Square and watches a demonstration on the eve of the referendum.
How to Fly in a Hot Air Balloon Over the Theban Necropolis near Luxor, 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 directly to Luxor International Airport from Cairo or most major Western European cities. Or, take a taxi to the Cairo’s Ramses Train Station and take the 10-hour train ride to Luxor. Overnight one-way tickets in a sleeping compartment cost US $60, but standard express train service costs significantly less. Ticket vendors tell tourists that they can’t take the day trains to steer them toward the more expensive sleeper train, but a hotel (or even the tourist police at the station, we heard) will buy tickets for you if you ask. Another useful strategy is to board the train and buy a ticket directly from the conductor when he asks for your ticket, paying a miniscule penalty fee. Luxor is a major tourist destination, so it has a broad selection of hotels. The beautiful Sofitel Winter Place is a great luxury choice. We stayed in the budget-conscious Princess Hotel, which gave us our own bathroom and hot shower for only US $10 per night. The desk staff isn’t pushy but is happy to help you organize tours and willing to negotiate good deals.
- FLYING OVER THE THEBAN NECROPOLIS: Any hotel will happily help you arrange for a hot air balloon flight over the Necropolis, but be sure to shop around and haggle a bit with whoever quotes you a price. There are plenty of tourist agencies selling balloon rides on the road along the Nile near the Sofitel Winter Palace. For our trip, we paid about $70 per person, which our hotel arranged for us after some bargaining. It’s worth waking up early to take the flight at sunrise. The hot air balloon company should arrange a driver to take you to the edge of the Nile and then across the river on a boat. On the other side, you’ll be driven to a balloon staging area where you’ll jump in the basket and take the flight.