When Rick and I started telling people about our plans to visit Egypt, their first reaction was generally, “Wow, aren’t you scared?” followed by, “That’s on my Bucket List. I’d love to go there.” We’re on a scouting trip for two new TV shows that Rick will do on Egypt. While he’s been here twice before, I’m a first-timer and steep on the learning curve.
My hunch is that our recent perceptions about Egypt since their revolution has been skewed pretty egregiously by the media and others–perhaps not maliciously, but certainly with the credo that “if it bleeds it leads.” This isn’t to say that there haven’t been violent clashes, heated struggles, and misogyny and abuse in the streets of Cairo. But, we, as non-Egyptians, are not necessarily privy to the whole picture when we rely solely on what we see on TV or read in the papers for our understanding of what’s going on thousands of miles away. And that’s why we’re traveling here: to learn what Egyptian life is really like from the people who actually live here.
So far, the people we’ve met have been among the warmest I’ve ever encountered. They’re curious about us as much as we are about them, their history, their culture, and their contemporary realities. Many have a phenomenal command of the English language–particularly in the high traffic touristic areas, but in certain sectors, Arabic is exclusive and all that’s needed. We do our best with the polite expressions we know, and with generous smiles, they do their best with repeating phrases like “Hello!” “What your name?” “Where from?” “Beautiful!” and “Welcome in Cairo!”
Cairo certainly is an intense city–from it’s rule-less, crazy traffic to the hustle and bustle of workaday life in the local markets of the Muslim quarter, from the dishwasher-sized cement blocks that barricade the U.S. Embassy to the thousands of minarets echoing calls to prayer throughout the day, and the massing of humanity crammed into miles of shoulder-to-shoulder apartment buildings and spilling onto the colonial boulevards that starburst from Tahrir Square. It seems a challenge to find an oasis of tranquility in the city. The pulse of the city is so rapid, and rather than sit idly by as their country changes drastically in the post-Arab Spring era, the people here scramble to find new and any opportunities to earn a living. They take newfound liberties to bend all manner of rules that were rigidly abided by during Mubarak’s reign, and they seem to do it with an urgency that makes everything feel like it’s on hyper-speed. They may not yet be gaining the traction they hope for, but they’re not willing to give up.
We’ve been here less than 36 hours, and we’ve already seen and learned a lot–it’s just the tip of the sand dune. But sure as the sun will rise, I’m sure we’ve only picked up a grain of sand in a desert-ful of experiences that are yet to come.
Stayed tuned for this series on the insights we’re discovering about Egypt: the Land of the Pharaohs, the Land of Civilization.