So, here I am, standing in front of an unknown marketplace in some random Egyptian town somewhere in between Aswan and Luxor. No one speaks English, I don’t speak Arabic and I have to figure out how to get to Luxor. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. This is Egypt so about ten different people offer to help me before I even ask. All I have to do is smile and say Luxor. They lead me into a car and I am driven about six blocks to a gathering of minibuses. I give the car driver ten pounds and he thanks me excessively as he points out which minibus I need for Luxor. The minibus will leave when it’s full and there are three spaces left. In less than a half hour, I am on my way.
The strange thing happens about an hour down the road. Apparently, it’s time for Friday prayers and the driver stops at a mosque. The driver and four other men get off the bus and go inside to pray. Myself, the women and several non-observant men wait outside. I get off the minibus to stretch my legs and walk around. Friday afternoon prayers are the big one for Muslims. That’s the time when the Imans make their speeches. No doubt there are a great many topics upon which the Imans express their ideas about Mohammed’s message. Sometimes they talk about love and peace and sometimes they express their anger. This particular Friday happens to be the second anniversary of the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the U..S. supported military strongman who ruled this country for many many years. Today’s sermon is broadcast on speakers outside the Mosque so that everybody in the vicinity can hear it. I don’t understand Arabic, but the Iman’s message is very loud and the tone is very angry. I hear the word “America” blare out several times amid the jumble of Arabic and I can only imagine what he must be talking about.
Muslims have a lot to be mad about when it comes to America these days. The U.S. has military bases all over the region protecting its various assets. Fairly regular drone strikes kill Muslims on a weekly basis in places throughout the Muslim world. How many Muslims have been killed in the active wars of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last ten years? And with all due respect to the Jews and the horrific persecution they have suffered historically, the nation of Israel was founded upon the eviction of 800,000 Muslim humans from their homes (and how many were killed?). To this day, those unfortunate humans and their families and descendants have been living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Sixty years is a long time to be refugees. It’s not surprising they are angry.
The voice of the Iman on the mosque loudspeaker rises to a fever pitch. He is literally screaming out words that I don’t understand. Thankfully, he doesn’t speak for very long. After he’s done, there are a few minutes of relative silence and then the prayer service is over. All of a sudden, a hundred or so Muslim men in full jellabas come streaming out of the mosque and head directly towards me. I’m the only white westerner within a hundred miles. Oh no! It’s a Muslim mob! What am I going to do?
Smile and say hello of course. I’m leaning up against the minibus which is parked by the exit to the road, that’s why they’re coming towards me. Most of them just smile and nod at me, several say “hello” or “welcome” and three of them stop to shake my hand and welcome me personally. The minibus driver is among them and he tells me it’s time to get back on the bus. We continue on down the road and two hours later I arrive in Luxor.
I check into the same cheap hotel I stayed in a week ago and they treat me like a long lost friend. I get another balcony room with a view of a busy street intersecting with the souk. I’m ringside for all the Luxor action. I take a long hot shower and a nap and then go out to my favorite tea shop in the souk. They too remember me from the week before because I sat here writing the pyramid story. Once again I am treated like an old friend. The shisha guy even remembers what table I like.
It’s in the back, against the wall. I sit there, drinking Turkish coffee, doodling in my notebook and watching the scene. I love Egyptian tea shops. They are so animated, so lively. Groups of men sit around tables drinking tea and smoking shishas (big tobacco water pipes) while having earnest and important conversations. I don’t understand their words but I can tell by their facial expressions and body movements that they are talking about very important things. This evening’s conversations seem particularly excited. Politics is in the air. I hear the names Mubarak and Morsi and Obama among the jumble of words. A few exchanges look rather heated but all the participants maintain basic civility. No one says anything to me except hello or welcome or do you want more coffee. But I wonder what everyone is so worked up about.
When I get back to my hotel, I find out. The television news is on in the restaurant and a couple of guys are gathered around watching it. There have been riots in Port Said on the coast. The riots are a reaction to a whole string of death sentences issued in response to a horrible tragedy at a soccer game. The multiple death sentences seem crazy to me and the riots those sentences spark are even crazier. A whole lot of people are killed all because of a game. Meanwhile, it’s the second anniversary of the fall of Mubarak so there are big rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir square as well as other parts of the country. The news footage makes it seem like the entire country has erupted into chaos.
“This will be bad for tourism,” says one of the guys in the restaurant as he calmly sips his tea.
“But is it dangerous,” I ask. “I want to travel on to Dahab soon. Will I be able to go there?”
“No problem,” he says, “the only real trouble is in Port Said, all the rest is just protests and demonstrations.”
I spend the evening on the balcony of my room watching the action in the street. As it turns out, there is some kind of protest and demonstration march in Luxor that evening as well. “The angry Muslim mob” passes right beneath my balcony. Actually, they don’t seem particularly angry. They seem like active citizens freely expressing their grievances against the government. They are chanting slogans and waiving signs. I don’t understand the words, for all I know it could be a pro-revolution march or an anti-revolution march. It’s not the meaning of the words that is important but rather the free expression of the words. It’s a nonviolent event. In a way, it’s a perfect manifestation of the American First Amendment ideal. Yet this very thing, as seen through the lens of the international media, is scaring tourists away from Egypt.
The next day is surreal. I can’t get a ticket to Dahab until the following evening so I have two more days in Luxor. I spend the morning in the hotel restaurant reading stories and comments on the Internet about the troubles in Egypt. The news stories are bad enough. Egypt is in the midst of a significant political transformation. All such transformations necessarily involve a bit of social turmoil. But the news stories are laced with so many absurd stereotypes about crazy terrorist Muslims who want to take over the world and impose some bizarre distorted version of Shariah law, that they confuse the reality as to what is happening here. The comments are even worse. So many hateful stereotypes about Muslims and what should be done to Muslims. Quite frankly, it makes me sick in the heart that so many of my fellow citizens actually think this way.
After my dose of news media and Internet fantasy horror Muslims, I go out to the tea shops to sit among real Muslims. I cannot possibly express the complete incongruence between media image and the truth I experience. Every Muslim I meet is nice to me. The worst thing any Muslim ever does is try to sell me stuff I don’t want or need. But you can’t really blame a guy for that. I spend the day moving from tea shop to restaurant to tea shop. All day long, the unreality of the media image from the morning is in the back of my mind. But all day long, I continue to experience a truth that totally contradicts that image. Like I said, it’s a very strange day.
The next day is a good one. I awake at sunrise and go directly to the Karnak temple. I was there before and it was a little crowded. Arriving now at 7:00 am, there’s hardly anybody around. Even the pop up Mohammeds don’t bother me. I spend two hours there among those incredibly hieroglypherized columns contemplating their glory. When the tour groups show up about 9:30, I leave. I spend the rest of the day in the tea shops writing the Inspiration in Luxor story. About 4:30 pm, I smoke my last joint on the rooftop of my hotel and then head to the bus station to catch the overnite bus to Dahab.
The bus journey is interesting. There are 48 seats on the bus. 45 are occupied by Egyptian Muslim men. One is occupied by me. The other two are occupied by 2 very beautiful, super sexy, young Japanese women. If one was to believe the news media image of Muslim men, this could be viewed as a potentially very dangerous situation. But the reality is quite different.
One of the most difficult issues that faces every society is how to deal with the raging hormones and crazy sexual urges of young adult human males. There is no easy way to deal with it. The western world seems to operate on the notion that more sexual freedom gives an outlet to the urges and thus there are fewer problems. The extreme application of this notion would be a nudist colony where everybody has sex with everybody anytime whenever they feel like it. Of course that is not the reality but many Muslim men think the western world is like that. Islamic societies, on the other hand, attempt to deal with this generally difficult issue by application of Mohammed’s message of modesty. To listen to western media, you would think that Muslim women are all forced to wear burkas as a condition of their enslavement to men. But that image is about as realistic as the Muslim notion that all westerners are sex crazed maniacs. In reality, Muslim men wear the jellaba just as Muslim women wear their traditional clothes. The ideal of Muslim modesty applies to both sexes. But according to Mohammed’s message the ideal of modesty is a spiritual goal to strive for not a rule to be imposed on others. No doubt, there are some extremist Muslims out there who misinterpret Mohammed and try to force modesty on others. But there are confused extremists in every religion and there are also a few westerners who really are sex crazed nymphomaniacs. The overwhelming majority of Muslims might suggest to you to cover up and be more modest for your own spiritual well being, but they would never force you to do so.
The problems that arise when western notions of sexual liberation and provocative dress come into contact with the Muslim spiritual ideal of modesty are not surprising. If you are a healthy adult male and the only women you generally see are covered from head to toe and all of a sudden you see a sexy foreign woman in a short skirt and a tank top, it will bring forth some powerful natural urges in you. This truth becomes very real to me when I see the Japanese women on the bus. I’ve been traveling in Muslim countries for two months now. I haven’t seen Ms. B. since early December. The two Japanese women are not dressed in their “underwear” as some foreign tourists tend to do. But they are not wearing burkas or head coverings either. They are dressed relatively modestly in long skirts and tee shirts. But just the sight of their hair and bare arms and the outline of their breasts through the tee shirts is enough to give me heart palpitations. Wow! And I’m pretty darn sure the other 45 healthy adult males on the bus have a similar reaction.
Nevertheless, the women have nothing to worry about from me and they probably have nothing to worry about from the 45 Muslim men on the bus either. The English would call it being a gentleman, I would call it just being nice, but really it’s the same thing as Mohammed’s message of modesty. Modesty is not a jellaba or a burka. Modesty is a way of dealing with other humans. And that way involves making whatever person you are dealing with feel as comfortable and as unthreatened as possible. Granted, my experience is limited. I’ve only traveled to nine Muslim countries and I’ve only met a few thousand Muslims personally. But the overwhelming majority of Muslims I’ve encountered really do apply the principle. They go out of their way to make you feel at ease and unthreatened. They genuinely welcome you.
Statistically speaking, there are probably a few sex crazed ruffian young men on the bus. And I would be seriously concerned for the young ladies if they were on the bus with only 7 or 8 young Muslim men. I would be similarly concerned if they were alone on a bus with a drunk college sports team in America. The reality is, they are on a public bus, with a large group of men from a range of age groups. The overwhelming majority of men on the bus just as the overwhelming majority of men in Egypt generally, are good Muslim men who will deal with them modestly showing respect and deference and trying to put them at ease. If any of the young ruffians attempted to harass the women, the good Muslims would never allow it. Mistreating women is not consistent with Mohammed’s message. Accordingly, the young beautiful women ride the overnite bus to Dahab and they are not bothered at all.
I, however, am not quite so lucky. It’s about 3:00 am when I awake from a slumber to find out we are stopped at a military checkpoint. Everybody has to get off the bus, retrieve their luggage from underneath and stand with it until a military police guy checks us out. It’s no big deal for most people. They check identification and do a cursory inspection of luggage and then tell the passenger to get back on the bus. When the military dude gets to me, however, there is an issue. I’m not sure if its my U.S. passport or my scraggly long hair hippie like appearance, but the young whippersnapper with a uniform and a gun decides that I need to take my luggage inside the building to a separate private room for a special interrogation. Is it perhaps time to experience the Egyptian shakedown? Thankfully, I have no contraband.
It’s really quite hysterical. The kid can’t be more than 19 years old. He’s about as big as my pinky and toothpick thin. Yet, because he has a gun and a uniform, he thinks he’s a badass. He unzips my big backpack, pulls everything out and rifles through it on a table. He can’t find what he’s looking for so he gets mad. He looks at me and says, “where’s the drink. The alcohol?”
“The only thing I have to drink is my water, it’s in here.” I hand my daypack to him and smile.
He unzips the pack excitedly and pulls out the water bottle. He opens the top and sniffs it. “This not alcohol,” he says, “where’s the drink? The whiskey, the rum, the gin?”
I smile again and say calmly, “I don’t drink alcohol.”
This clearly confuses him. I am an unruly looking westerner, how can I not drink alcohol?
Next he turns to my medicine bag. He dumps it on the table and starts randomly looking at stuff. He sniffs the Benadryl and is fascinated by the hydrocortisone cream. I’m a little afraid he’s going to freak out over the epi-pin but he doesn’t notice it at all. He gives up on the medicine bag and he turns to me. I have to stand spread eagle while he thoroughly pats me down. I empty my pockets and show him everything inside. He is very frustrated that he hasn’t found anything. “Where is the smoke? ” he says, “where is the hashish.”
Part of me wants to tell him I smoked the last of it in the hotel and laugh in his face but that’s probably not a good idea. Another part of me wants to tell him that his behavior towards me is very immodest and not very Muslim like but that probably wouldn’t be a good idea either. Instead, I just smile calmly and say, “I don’t smoke.”
It’s interesting really. He seems to get the point about his behavior even though I don’t say anything. All of a sudden he starts apologizing profusely. He helps me put my stuff back in my bags and leads me back to the bus.
It’s a 16 hour bus journey and we arrive in Dahab around noon. I go immediately to a cheap hotel recommended by my cheap hotel in Luxor. It’s my kind of place. A friendly young man named Mohammed shows me a room with a small balcony and a view of the Red Sea. As I’m dropping my bags on the bed and claiming my new temporary home, Mohammed says, “and by the way, if you are a smoker, I’m going to pick up some hashish right now and I can get you some if you want.”
My brain flashes back to the funny little man with his uniform, big gun and attitude and I have a nice little laugh. “Thank you,” I say, “I would love a little hashish.”
“No problem,” says Mohammed, “welcome to Egypt.”