Friday, February 4, 2011

In honor of Egyptian Democracy: a repost

This is a little bit of writing for writing's sake. Based on a trip to Egypt in 2005. I am so excited to see what's happening there right now. What can I say, I get thrilled when people exercise democracy. I think the most interesting part is the way twitter and facebook have played a role. As they did in the recent Iranian elections. Very. Cool. 

Wake up Mohammed

We nearly die getting here. Mohammed is supposed to come to Cairo, sleep all day, and then drive us to Dahab. Soon after he picks us up it's clear he hung out with his family all day. Awake. He comes to El Maadi in the middle of the night. He is supposed to be well-rested but he isn’t. He keeps falling asleep on the drive. 

For hours we careen through the darkness, through the Mars-like landscape of red rocks that never feels like a road. We stop every few hours, halted by men with automatic weapons at checkpoints, gathering our passports and papers each time for examination. Eugenia says that it’s not as scary as it looks, that they probably don’t even have bullets for the guns. But does it matter, really, if they have bullets? The fear is the same. They know exactly what those guns will mean when people see them. No one is immune to their cold power. 

I watch Mohammed, watch him but try to act like I’m not staring. I’m southern, after all, we have manners. God forbid you embarrass the person who’s about to kill you by driving recklessly. Gentility above all. So I pretend to not watch him, but I do. Whenever I see that chicken-bob start, that motion that only means someone is falling asleep , I shout his name: MOHAMMED! Wake up Mohammed!

We worry that we won’t make it, but we do. With every nodding motion we yell, scared that he will kill us all. Manners be damned. By now the sun is rising.
When we step out of the SUV we feel like explorers, off a boat from another culture, another land, another world. Desperate for solid ground and comfort.

Check in is just telling the guy who runs the place, Jimmy, that you want to stay. It’s not a formal process. Nothing is signed, no rates are posted. The cost is different for every single room. A quick calculation by the astute Jimmy, who takes in, in a millisecond, the clothes you are wearing, your country of origin, and your general demeanor. With these factors he can create a perfect price, what economists call one’s willingness to pay. He maximizes profit in a heartbeat, all the while giving you the impression that you’ve made a great deal. He’s quite good at his job, with a loyal following.

Our room is a rounded thing. With stucco-ed interior walls and tiled floors. Our shower only sprays saltwater. When you hear that at check-in you think: no big deal. Sounds refreshing, right? By day three, salt stuck in your hair, layering your skin, burning your eyes—you think differently. You’re desperate for sweet water. 

Every afternoon we take our journals and our books to the ledge in front of the hotel. This place is no natural settlement. It exists only because we are here: asking for a hotel, an opportunity to dive, a meal, and some trinkets. The ledge is a tiled embankment hovering over the reef. Touching the reef. Built right to the edge. No protective policy in place. On the ledge an unending supply of food and drink can be brought to you. Lots of seafood. Who knows where it came from, who fished it, what their lives are like. We sit on the ledge, among large pillows and ottomans, lounging in what must seem a gluttonous life to the staff. 

I sit for a while, writing. Two young girls, maybe 11, maybe 10, walk by selling bracelets. What I would call friendship bracelets. Embroidery thread knotted into patterns and curves. Eugenia says you have to haggle, but every time I try it makes me sick. I can’t argue with someone who has nothing, about an amount that means little to me. A man making 12$ a month, and I’m supposed to try to make him come down in price by 10 cents before letting him sell me a scarf. I’d rather give him all of it. I’d rather throw up. 

The girls bring their bracelets over because I can never resist making eye contact with kids. I’ve always done it. I can get kids at a playground involved in an educational and constructive group activity in ten minutes flat. Seven if we speak the same language. They bring their bracelets over and we invite them to sit with us. They are very shy, and can say almost nothing in English—only enough to say the price. An infinitesimal amount. Literal pennies. I ask to buy two. They sell them to me, and then sit to play checkers. We ask to take their photograph, and they whip out head scarves in an instant, covering themselves before we snap the photo. I worry they will somehow get into trouble for allowing us to take their picture. I’m just not sure, and I don’t want them to be in a weird position. They smile and laugh, finish the checkers game, and then walk on down the embankment—to sell their wares to other tourists.

 I wonder what the world, what life, will be like for those girls.


  1. You have a gorgeous writing style, gorgeous mind, gorgeous memories! Here's a moment of dead seriousness: your writing shines in these snippets more than I could ever, ever, ever comprehend. I started this thinking that it could never out do the turtle story, but it is just as magnificent in its own way.

    Absolutely beautiful.

  2. Thank you Glenna. It means a lot coming from you.


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