Michael Totten

Shaken Down by the Police

(This is the second half of a two-part narrative I started two days ago. You can read the first half here if you missed it.)
GIZA, Egypt — Mohammad led his horse and mine away from the abusive policeman and toward the City of the Dead at the base of the Pyramids of Giza. I had no idea what the policeman’s problem was, why he screamed and cracked his whip at us on the sand. But I would find out soon enough.
“Welcome to the beginning of the great Sahara Desert,” Mohammad said.
Pyramid 1.jpg
I have climbed to the top of the Mayan pyramids in the Petén Jungle of the Guatemalan Yucatan. Spectacular as they are, their life size is smaller than I had expected before I arrived. The pyramids at Giza are much bigger than I had imagined, impossibly large monuments that seemed the size of small moons. No doubt they’ll still be standing thousands of years after we all are gone. Egypt one day may no longer be Egypt, but the pyramids will remain as though they belong to eternity. They will weather as slowly as mountains.
You’d have to laughingly wish the Taliban best of luck if they or anyone like them decided to take down the pyramids with ack-ack guns as they did the Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The pharaoh’s tombs at Giza aren’t going anywhere unless someone detonates a nuclear weapon right at the base. Even then I wouldn’t count on them being destroyed. They would probably have to be nuked again.
“Are you a Yankee?” Mohammad said. “Or are you Southern?”
“I’m a Yank,” I said. “I’ve never even been to the South except through airports in Georgia and Texas.”
“Can you believe you are here?” he said.
I didn’t know what he meant, and he read that on my face.
“Every day people tell me they can’t believe they are here after flying thousands of miles.”
“I came here from Beirut,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. “Okay. You live in the Middle East. You know where you are then.”
We had quite a distance to go before we would actually reach the pyramids. So Mohammad kicked our horses into high gear.
“Hold my hand,” he said as we galloped next to each other at what seemed like full speed. “I won’t let you fall.” I trusted him and gripped his hand hard. Never before did I ride a horse at such speed. I bounced a good foot off my own horse’s back every couple of seconds. It took some time to figure out how to use my leg muscles to hold steady.
When we finally reached the first pyramid Mohammad slowed the horses down to a trot. Thank God I could relax again.
A man dressed in Bedouin garb ambled by selling warm bottles of Coke. I bought one for 50 cents and offered Mohammad a sip.
“Can we climb to the top?” I asked, not really sure I actually wanted to.
“No,” Mohammad said. “A tourist recently tried it. He fell and lost himself. It is no longer allowed.”
“Hop off,” he said. “You can climb partway up and I’ll take your picture.”
I handed him my camera and climbed maybe two percent of the way up the side. A fall from even that height would be treacherous. The stone blocks that make up the pyramids are enormous, each almost as tall as I am. (And I’m six feet tall.) I could easily see how climbing all the way up could get someone killed. The pyramids are as high as skyscrapers, and there was no ladder, stairway, or path I could see.
He snapped my picture and I carefully hopped down again.
Me on pyramid.jpg
I knew it would be a long time before I went back, if I ever went back, so I walked around the base for a bit, looking up and trying to memorize what it looked like before climbing back on the horse.
“Hi ho silver,” Mohammad said as he kicked our horses into full speed again.
“Slow down!” I said. “I’m a city boy!”
“You’re doing fine,” he said. “No one ever falls of a horse here.”
I wasn’t worried about falling so much as I was worried about smashing myself on the horse’s back. Holding still on a galloping horse is harder than it looks if no one has ever explained how to do it.
He led us to a lookout point where all three pyramids were visible in a line, the perfect place for a photo. I suddenly wished I had come in late afternoon when the light was better for pictures. The afternoon sun washed out the color and there weren’t any shadows for contrast.
Giza Pyramids.jpg
“You see those three small pyramids in the front?” Mohammad said. “They are for children. There are three more on the other side. They are Japanese.”
“Japanese?” I said.
“They are too small.”
Har har.
“Show me your teeth,” he said.
“You want to see my teeth?” I said.
“Please, show me your teeth.”
I showed him my teeth.
“What do you think I am,” he said. “A camel?”
All the Arab jokes I’ve heard so far are either not-funny one-liners like his, or long stories about humorous situations that don’t have any punch lines.
Mohammad was right. The pyramids really are the beginning of the great Sahara desert. The suburb of Giza was just barely visible in the haze on one side while sand stretched to the horizon in the other direction. Metropolitan Cairo had reached its absolute physical limit and could sprawl no more.
Two uniformed police officers on horseback rode up to where we were standing. They exchanged pleasantries with Mohammad as he handed them several Egyptian pounds. Then they left. The entire meeting took less than ten seconds.
“Why did you just do that?” I said, feeling defensive on his behalf as I narrowed my eyes at the officers’ backs.
“They are poor, and good people,” he said. “The state does not pay them. Look after the poor, and God will look after you.”
They did seem like nice enough gents in the nine seconds I saw them in action, as long as I didn’t think about the baksheesh he just gave them. But I wondered what would happen if Mohammad didn’t give them any money, and I remembered the shouting match he had earlier with the enraged policeman with the gun and the horse whip.
We got back on our horses and rode toward the Sphinx, more leisurely this time, probably because I had asked him earlier to slow down. Mohammad rode silently, but he seemed to be in a pleasant enough mood.
“What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood?” I said. Who knew if he would actually give me his real opinion?
“Those are bad words, my friend,” he said. Okay, I thought. That was probably his real opinion.
“Bad words?” I said. “Why, exactly?”
“They are bad people who know nothing,” he said. “I have no school. But I know war is terrible and that we should take care of our country.” I hadn’t said anything about war, but it was the first thing he thought of when I mentioned Islamists. He wore a somber look on his face now.
He was a simple man and probably charged too much money to lead me around on a horse. But he seemed a genuinely decent fellow who wasn’t jerking me around and telling me only what I wanted to hear. Some Middle Easterners in the tourism business say “I love America!” in a rather unconvincing tone of voice. I can tell when they do it just for form’s sake. Mohammad did not seem the type to pull that with me.
“What do you think about Hosni Mubarak, then?” I said.
“He is a good man,” he said.
“Hmm,” I said.
“What?” he said, aware that I didn’t agree. “What do you want to say? Tell me what is in your heart.”
“He’s a dictator,” I said. And an asshole, I wanted to add.
“I understand what you mean,” he said and nodded. “In America you change presidents without fighting. Here if we change presidents we could have a war.”
“Maybe,” I said. “And maybe not. It’s awfully convenient for him if you think that.”
“Listen, my friend” he said. “If we have a president who is not from the army, we will have another war. Only the officers know how to keep us at peace.” I presumed he meant only the officers know better than to humiliate Egypt by picking another losing battle with Israel. Perhaps he’s right, but that’s setting the bar awfully low on what makes Hosni Mubarak a good man or something else. Even Syria’s Bashar Assad knows better than to go full tilt against Ariel Sharon.
The pyramids were much bigger than I had imagined, but the Sphinx was a great deal smaller. It looked especially tiny with the gargantuan pyramids as a backdrop. Only in close-up photos does it take on any size.
As we got near the Sphinx, the angry policeman returned on foot. He cracked his horse whip on the sand again and stared holes through Mohammad and me with his black eyes. He didn’t look like a starving policeman to me. He was fat, as a matter of fact, and his rosy cheeks made him look like a boozer.
“This man will guide you to the Sphinx,” Mohammad said.
Oh, for God’s sake, I thought. The Sphinx was right there. Only a blind man would need a guide. Mohammad didn’t want to pay this jerk off, so now I had to do it? I suddenly like him less now that he dumped me off to go with this cretin, but it was hard to say how much pressure he was actually under. I myself witnessed part of it, and it was a lot. There is practically no legal recourse at all when you’re abused by the police in Egypt.
The menacing officer stared at me with undisguised hatred as I dismounted my horse. I smiled at him as though I were the perfect American idiot utterly clueless about what was happening. What I really wanted to do was break his face with my fist.
“Do you speak English” I said in the most genial voice I could muster as we walked together toward the Sphinx.
He actually smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. Playing nice was paying off. What else could I do? I still hated the bastard even though he decided to cool it. He didn’t care at all about making a civilized impression on foreigners. I despised him for that on Egypt’s behalf as well as my own. The code of Arab hospitality was completely lost on this man.
It only took two minutes or so to reach the Sphinx. Other tourists were there snapping shutters on their digital cameras. I took several pictures and ignored the policeman completely, refusing to look at him or acknowledge he even existed.
I walked around to look at the Sphinx from several different vantage points and stayed much longer than I would have if the bastard weren’t on my case. You want baksheesh? I thought. Then you’re gonna wait for it, pal.
I kept the policeman waiting for as long as I could stand, then started walking back toward Mohammad and our horses without looking back at him. Clandestinely I pulled one Egyptian pound (that’s less than 20 cents) out of my pocket for the baksheesh he “earned” in no way whatsoever. I didn’t want him to ask for money and see me pull a big wad of cash out of my pocket and demand I give him one of my larger bills.
“Hello again, Mohammad,” I said as I approached.
“Hello, Mr. Michael,” he said. “How was the Sphinx?”
“Grand,” I said.
The policeman walked just behind me and to my right as I fantasized about cracking him in the nose with the back of my elbow. I mounted my horse and let the bastard wonder if I was actually going to give him baksheesh or not. Then, not wanting to start yet another furious incident, I handed him the Egyptian equivalent of 17 cents.
“Shukran,” I said in the iciest tone I could manage.
No, fuck you, you sonofabitch, is what I was thinking. Would you treat my mother this way if she were here instead of me? Even tourists at the pyramids, of all places, get a taste of the petty humiliations people have to put up with every day in Third World police states. Imagine living in a country so messed up that it could be your job to roam around all day with a whip and a gun angrily extorting money from everyone you come across. No wonder Mohammad was fed up with this man and had the nerve to defiantly scream at him earlier.
This is what you have to put up with thanks to your pal Mubarak, I wanted to say to Mohammad as we rode away. But I didn’t. He was a nice enough man, and he knew that already. He was shaken down by the police every morning when he went to work.