Michael Totten


GIZA, Egypt — I couldn’t go to Egypt without seeing the pyramids, especially since they are less than an hour from the center of Cairo. So I had a driver, Nabil, pick me up at the hotel in late morning.
Cruising from the center to the outskirts was depressing. The city is a true sprawling towering mess, largely bereft of beauty.
Cairo Tenements 1.jpg
It isn’t the ugliest or the poorest place I’ve ever seen, but it comes perilously close to the most boring. (Libya wins that dubious distinction.) Pictures just can’t capture the dreariness of the neighborhoods. There is precious little economic activity, and I saw nowhere at all that looked like an interesting or a pleasant place to hang out. From all outward appearances, Cairo is overwhelmingly a cultural void packed with people who spend all their energy struggling just getting by. I tried to imagine what it must be like to live in most of the neighborhoods, and thundering bore was what I came up with.
The quality of the apartment buildings was inversely proportional to their distance from downtown. The farther Nabil drove from the center, the worse everything looked. Soon the tenements were nothing more than red brick warehouses for humans. My God, I thought, where are the windows on these things?
Cairo Tenements 2.jpg
The slums on the outskirts were the worst. Streets weren’t paved. Each neighborhood had its own garbage dump in a residential area where children played barefoot. Lush agricultural land — tended by farmers with oxen, and adorned with what presumably were date palms — was checkerboarded throughout the slum blocks. The housing was horrid, but the landscape was verdant and sub-tropical, and it helped take the edge of the ugliness off.
I wanted to raise my camera to the window and take pictures, but I was worried it would embarrass Nabil. I imagined he wished every tourist who came through Egypt did not have to see what I was seeing. So I pretended I didn’t.
“So, Nabil,” I said. “What do you think of Hosni Mubarak?”
“He does many good things for people outside of Egypt,” he said. “For Americans, Europeans, and Israelis, he is a man of peace. I like that. But he does nothing for us. Look at these poor people.”
I will give Mubarak credit for one thing. He doesn’t plaster his picture up everywhere, at least not in Cairo. He’s an authoritarian ruler, but he’s not as horrifically bad as Moammar Ghaddafi, Bashar Assad, or Saddam Hussein. I think I only saw two of his portraits the entire time I was in Egypt.
One Egyptian, however, told me that outside of Cairo Mubarak’s portraits are more common and sinister. He looked like everyone’s dad in the pictures I saw. In Upper (Southern) Egypt — the stronghold of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood — he is supposedly decked out in sunglasses and an officer’s uniform like that ass of a general who ruled Paraguay during the Cold War.
“Do you have any children?” Nabil said.
“No,” I said. “I’m married, but I don’t have any children.”
“Good,” he said.
Good? No Arab had ever responded that way before. Everyone else either changes the subject or harangues me for not breeding.
“Why is it good?” I said.
“Raising children is a huge responsibility,” he said. “I have three and it is so hard. I have an electrician’s degree, but the government doesn’t pay enough money for us to live on.” Apparently, finding electrician’s work in the private sector isn’t much of an option. “So I drive car,” he said.
I had agreed to pay him twelve dollars — his asking price — to drive me out to Giza and wait for me for two hours while I looked at the pyramids and the Sphinx. Twelve dollars for a half-day’s work may be a lot in Egypt (I don’t know), but it seemed like nothing to me. So I quietly decided I would pay him twenty dollars instead if he didn’t actively try to extract any more from me.
“What do you do for a living?” he said.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“What?” he said, clearly not understanding.
“Sahafi, sahafi,” I said.
“Oh!” he said, delighted. “What do you write about Egypt? You write about pyramids?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m also interested in politics. Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
He screwed up his face in rage. Oops, I thought. I pushed one of his buttons. Did he belong to the Muslim Brotherhood? Maybe he was a Christian. Or a liberal. I had no idea.
“I not like them,” he said.
“Are you a Muslim?” I said. That’s a rude question in Lebanon, but I really wanted to know where he was coming from. I was also working on a gut-level assumption that people are less touchy about it in Egypt.
“Of course,” he said. “But I like women. And I like beer.”
“Beer and women are good,” I said. This grizzled sixty-year old man grinned and gave me a high-five.
We pulled off the freeway and turned onto a dirt road between the tenements. A cart drawn by a donkey got in our way. Nabil sighed. “Cairo traffic,” he said.
He stopped the car at the edge of the city of Giza. The silhouette of a pyramid towered above us in the haze. Two horses were tied to a post on the sidewalk right next to us.
“Do you want to ride camel or horse?” he said.
Actually, I wanted to walk. I didn’t feel like being a dorky tourist on a camel that day. I’d ride a camel on a trek into the desert, but we were in an urban environment. Busses and cars drove around the area.
“A horse,” I said, not wanting to be a pain in the ass by insisting on walking. I rode a camel in the Sahara once, and once was enough without a good reason. They’re fat, and riding them hurts after ten minutes. Their wide girth forces your knees about four feet apart.
Horses are more trustworthy, too. Camels are known to chase down their owners (while bellowing like Chewbacca) when they get disgruntled and are done taking orders. I admire that about them, but I didn’t need any drama from an animal that weighed hundreds of pounds more than me.
Nabil summoned the horse man, who introduced himself to me as Mohammad. I thought of the scene in that silly Ishtar movie where Charles Grodin’s character called out “Mohammad” at a North African camel market and every single last guy turned to him all at once and said “yes?”
Mohammad offered to help me mount the horse, but I didn’t need it. He mounted his own horse and we set out into the street alongside automobile traffic.
“Watch your legs!” he said as a bus roared past.
A driver rounded a corner too quickly and clipped my foot with his side view mirror.
“Watch your legs!” Mohammad said again.
After riding a few blocks we reached the entrance to the pyramids. I saw then why we needed horses. The area around the pyramids was huge, much larger than I thought it would be. And it was all sand. There was no road to drive on. It would not have been possible to walk around and see everything in under four hours, let alone two.
I paid my admission, and as we passed the gate a policeman carrying a horse whip and a gun walked up to us.
The officer screamed something at Mohammad in Arabic. Mohammad screamed something back at him. The policeman then cracked his horse whip on the sand and narrowed his eyes at Mohammad.
I pretended to be perfectly happy and oblivious like an idiot, hoping it might tone down the temperature by a degree or so.
Mohammad said something else nasty to him in Arabic and then led our horses away as the officer’s face flushed with hatred and rage.
“Asshole,” Mohammad said. I acted as though he hadn’t said that.
(To be continued tomorrow.)