By 7:30 pm on March 17, the day I hit Athens, I was back in
the air on a discount flight to Cairo. So far, so good spending
the first of many fitful evenings in the capital of Africas
most fabled nation hunkered down in a $9.50 room with a view
at The Hotel Greshem. It was a comfortable enough space, and
I felt satisfied with my progress till then. The balcony overlooked
a wide avenue of buildings similar to The Greshem: broken,
tall and unreal in the thick layer of dirt, grime and sand
covering everything I could see through the hazy street lights.
As if that dry layer was the only thing holding the city together.
latest venture had pushed me through Europe and into Egypt
on an inconvenient travel plan to enter the occupied Gaza
Strip. Then Gaza City itself. Never mind how easy or close
Tel Aviv is to the Strips largest population center.
My plan was a dash to Arab Cairo, Port Said or Alexandria,
cruise overland via the Sinai and enter the Strips west
edge at Rafah. I would not go through Israel proper ahead
of occupied Gaza. No, the Strip and occupied West bank are
not Israel and never will be not unless an Israeli
policy of mass deportation finally succeeds. Solidarity with
the Palestinians and a hard desire not to let my pitifully
few dollars benefit the Likud economy guided my purpose: to
report on the Intifada direct from Gaza City.
the cab from Cairos international airport we passed
several unsurprising pieces of Egyptian statuary, hawk-headed
deities and majestic pharaohs. But once we came to the central
streets what struck me was the number of rifle-toting police
forces lining those boulevards at the secondary intersections.
It looked as if the city were under siege. Later on I found
out that those automatic weapons and black uniforms belonged
to federal soldiers, not cops.
noon the next day I was off to the Strip by way of a $60 cab
ride. Missed the Sinai buses by an hour. All in all, I kept
reassuring myself, it had been a smooth run. But then the
real problems started. The taxi a new blue Peugeot
hatchback coughed and sputtered for most of the hot,
billboard-filled trek to the Suez ferry crossing. Luckily
the car crept forward, no matter how cantankerously. Then
the driver informed me in halting English with a sorry expression
that we may not make Rafah in time for the 5 pm border closing.
Nervous mannerisms began to take up where an English-only
tongue failed me. The journey was supposed to be four hours
under good conditions. A night under the desert sky was fast
becoming a possibility, and I wasnt banking on any nearby
hotels. One refueling, however, and the Peugeot roared back
to life, minus the shakes. In minutes we were cruising 130
km/h. Apparently the car had suffered only from a tank of
my elderly world-wise driver, and I took time out for food
and drink on the other side of the crossing. With the car
running well, I didnt mind the brief stop. And it didnt
seem like a good idea to unnecessarily push the driver who
had obviously been this way before. Ahkmed did get a bit impatient
when I didnt catch his English. After all, he was Mr.
Bi-Lingual, not me. Still, Ahkmed generously offered some
of his Cleopatra cigarettes early on. And he paid the tab
at the rest stop: It cost me eight pounds. For Americans,
they charge 20 pounds. We go!
the cab pulled away, a Tourism and Antiquities officer thumbed
for a ride, and I said, why not? A few miles into
the desert, our young cop dressed in blazing white replied,
67, yes, 67 war when I asked about
the rusting, sun-baked carcass of a tank. The ruin lay off
our roadway ominously marked FOREIGNERS PROHIBITED FROM LEAVING
THIS HIGHWAY. Then a train of camels ambled into sight, wandering
several hundred meters out in the sand. Bedouins, Bedouins
the constable loudly explained over the engine roar.
was my last land run ahead of the Gaza Strip. I was really
close. And appropriately, there in the North Sinai, I was
bluntly reminded of the conflicts endemic to this corner of
the world. It had been only weeks since the Gulf War was declared
over and won, yet I felt no pride whatsoever in the American-led
reaction to Saddam Husseins crimes. On December 1st
last year I marched with 10,000 other war protesters in downtown
Boston. During the Allied ground offensive, on the day a scud
missile hit an installation killing at least 20 US troops,
I walked the city streets wearing a Vietnam-era green military
field jacket. On the back in thick letters I had written FUCK
BUSH! STOP THE WAR.
4:30 we dropped off our cop in beautiful Al-Arish. Along the
highway, the resort-like beach houses of this town stood in
sharp contrast to the scrub villages and sun scorched shops
lining the way in. Ahkmed now laid it on hard and the Peugeot
flew the last kilometers to Rafah. There was a chance wed
make it. My driver wisely used those final minutes to squeeze
out another $20 for police checkpoint bribes and future gas
line repairs. I didnt put up much of a fight. Fifty
dollars (my remaining bankroll) is good money! Good money
in Israel! he assured me. Yeah, right. Its not
Israel, of course, but there wasnt much point talking
politics just then.
we got there at 4:55, the Egyptians immediately turned us
Ive got 5 minutes! I shouted from the front seat.
Memories of a similarly depressing close call at the Honduran-Nicaragua
border during another conflict a few years ago flooded back.
Without leaving the car, it became apparent that this was
going to be a repeat failed performance.
minutes? It will take a half hour to go through our side,
an English-speaking guard yelled back. Adding insult to injury,
three border cops jumped in for a ride to the crossroads a
few kilometers back, smiling all the way.
spent the evening a half hour from the Rafah crossing in a
seedy seaside motel barely worth the 8 Egyptian pound fare
(less than $3). Bugs and loaded ashtrays were not in short
supply. During my Central American outing, I had to make do
in a chilly customs building without lights, shutters, water
or bed. Other than the basics, The Moonlight Hotel had two
redeeming qualities: it was close to a pounding Mediterranean
surf and provided interesting conversation with the establishments
only other guest. When the subject came up, Ezz Ibrahim, a
30ish Egyptian sales rep for a clothing firm, insisted that
the whole national structure in the Middle East is a
sham, Mr. Lawrence, a sham! In short, Ezz claimed that
none of the area countries existed prior to WWL (true enough),
they being mere creations of former colonial powers like England
and France. Even the word Egypt is not indigenous or Arab,
he added, only what some English interloper thought he heard.
Later, on the authority of an American academic, I was informed
that Egypt is actually Greek in origin.
in trim, colorful athletic wear amid an unswept, butt-filled
reception room, this self-declared former No. 3 man in Egyptian
table tennis eventually came round to his bedrock theory of
nation-states. All governments have secret arrangements
among themselves to keep themselves in power. With Saddam,
why they not kill him, but destroy the people of Iraq?
I agreed, of course, that secret treaties exist but countered
Saddam probably wasnt a target for fear of creating
a new Arab martyr.
retrospect, my assessment was most likely too kind to the
American war planners. General Schwarzkopf himself has publicly
chided Pentagon intelligence.
we discuss the role of women in society. Mr. Lawrence,
women are good for two things: making love and raising the
family. Immediately I rose to my sisters defense,
informing Mr. Ibrahim about several modern-day trains of thought
on the issue cultural differences be damned. This graduate
of a Port Said university then attempted to undermine my position
by suggesting that the number of my admitted relationships
was far too few than the number required to develop an informed
opinion on the matter. Finally, Ezz let out with when
you are with a woman, dont you feel how she needs you
more than you need her? It was useless to carry on the
conversation, and I left the room after polite goodbyes.
morning I was at the Rafah checkpoint by 10:30 and into the
Israeli-controlled gateway within 15 minutes. Both sides surprised
me with their up-to-date border facilities, which stood in
glaring contrast to the aforementioned low-income countryside
to the immediate west. Unfortunately I then had to change
my last $10 bill to Egyptian currency in order to pay the
13 pound exit fee. This outlay left me with a grand total
of $40 and a few stray pounds an irresponsible sum
for a journalist on the make, but hitchhiking through Jerusalem,
Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Istanbul remained a distinct and
not unwelcome possibility.
as it sounded, that scenario never had a chance. For another
five pounds, I was directed to a bus, which held only three
other passengers two women and a baby. Our vehicle
traveled a few meters to the Israeli-controlled gateway. There,
we stopped and the doors opened to a young man in dark shades
and casual clothes. Stepping into the bus, he ordered me to
present my passport. His one sign of authority was an Uzi
held prominently on the left arm. After a quick, nervous glance
around, Mr. Border Patrol stepped down and waved on the driver.
The bus went a few more meters before stopping at the border
facility itself. One cursory check outside and I was directed
to the customs people within. A clerk asked me a lot of questions:
destination, purpose, contacts, expected length of stay, money
on hand, etc. Having recently crossed a half dozen frontiers
with minimal questions and no hassles, I was taken back by
all this and put on the defensive. And I answered everything.
Only $40! You must have at least $80 a day in Israel (its
not Israel, pal, I said in my head). Its our law!
he called over the station manager, a 40ish woman who looked
totally anal with no sense of humanity about her. Forced to
explain my story Look, Ill be no burden
to anyone. I simply want to enter Gaza City for some stories.
I saw a look of sheer contempt as she acidly replied,
eyes down, Going through occupied territories with FORTY
story dead and buried.
course it was my fault. Not only for an empty wallet but,
more importantly, for not anticipating the money questions.
Had I done so, I would have lied big time and probably succeeded.
Not long ago I crossed the English Channel to Dover in my
sharpest cloths and absolutely no cash or plastic. At that
time, the Thatcherite realm was in no mood for destitute travelers,
well attired or otherwise. Knowing this beforehand, I slipped
through customs with a large lie, steady voice and my old
reliable blue passport. Exhibiting no such foresight in Rafah,
I could only look on helplessly as my initial interrogator,
with a therell-be-no-more-discussion arm wave, slammed
ENTERY (sic) DENIED! in my passport. The extra red stamp was
decidedly exotic, but it hardly compensated for the sudden,
fatal crimp in my momentum and entire raison detre for
the past few weeks.
I waited under an outside pavilion for the border bus to dump
me back in Egypt, I saw a security woman stroll over. Not
saying a word, she deftly opened and glanced at the contents
of at least three nearby trash bins. Bomb check. She went
through this methodical ritual three times in ten minutes.
It wouldnt have been so annoying or downright weird
except that I was the lone terrorist in sight. Lawrence J.
Maushard security threat? This place had serious problems.
the final go round, the lady offered, Dont look
am. Very disappointed.
just trying to get to Gaza City. To do some stories. Im
a journalist. They said I didnt have enough money.
City? But I think you have to be in the military to go there.
well, Id have found a way in somehow, I replied
with a face of now useless confidence.
Her face and tone simultaneously read
Maybe and Hey, you cant argue with
me about that. Who are you? No need for her to end the
sentence. The bus rolled up and without delay I was driven
back past manned guard towers, barbed wire stands, probable
mine and machine gun fields, and the menacing, endless tear
of a tank-trap backhoe ditch. Not sure who owned what, but
the fortifications made it clear that these neighbors were
not what you might call friendly or trusting.
in Egypt proper, everything fell into a desperate and brutal
eclipse. Actually, I lucked out for a time at the inner-city
Cairo flat of a trusting professor from Ain-Chams University.
A specialist in geomorphology and resource development, Dr.
Mostafa Mohammed and I met on the return cab ride we shared
with two other passengers. Spent one night at his place in
the crowded, wondrously bustling El Woily district. For the
first time I was in a section of Cairo that was true to what
Id imagined dense crowds of people moving through
timeless and colorful shop-lined streets. Thick smoke poured
from shish-ka-bob grill covers over vendor stands of fruits
and vegetables as white-robed men pulled earnestly on four-foot
tall hookahs inside ceramic decorative tile-walled cafes.
Window browsing women covered in elegant veils talked excitedly
among themselves. Children scurried everywhere. At irregular
intervals a stray cab or private car honked its way down the
rutted, unpaved roads momentary irritants in a space
completely dominated by Egyptians of limited means.
a few days I stumbled in and out of decrepit establishments
and boarding rooms the Everest Hotel and the Abu Simbal
among them until the money ran out. The Abu Simbal
was incredible. It looked like the kind of place where the
desperate poor arranged to have their organs sold to the wealthy.
It was only a couple pounds a night and the clerk led me up
to a top floor room that had a bed, a side table and not much
else. Outside the window was a large glowing neon sign with
the name in English and Arabic. You know the place was crawling
with bugs but I didnt see anything, even after turning
over the mattress, so I tried to put it all out of my mind.
In the middle of the night, someone started banging on my
locked door and shouted loudly. I could see the hallway light
under the doorsill but didnt say a word. Whoever it
was gave up quickly and I fell back on the bed, not really
caring what happened next.
was nothing else to do but trudge my sorry ass into the US
Embassy and beg for some assistance. The embassys Citizens
Services staff set me up in the modest Garden City House Hotel
with a forty pound loan to boot. For two weeks I waited
there for money or authorization on a loan for a plane ticket
home. I was beyond any immediate danger or discomfort, but
that didnt make up for my severely depressed state of
mind. Here I was in Cairo, one of the worlds more fascinating
cities and all I could think of was how to get the hell out.
The Giza pyramids were twenty minutes away, the national museum
around the corner and awe-inspiring mosques on nearly every
main thoroughfare. But I wanted no part of Cairo. My Gaza
article had flopped and nothing else mattered.
day turned into a new adventure in frustration, psychologically
and/or physically. No, the money had not arrived at the embassy
and, no, my plane ticket loan had not been approved. Called
my flatmate in Boston. More often than not I reached our machine:
Youve reached 2-5-4-blah-blah-blah-blah.
Dammit, Tim, pick up the phone! Then I got the runs and went
through my toilet paper stash post haste. Until that cleared,
I didnt dare wander far from the hotel. Mosquitoes became
a problem at night, chomping my face until I became a walking
ad for Clearasil. And when I wasnt sleeping, or eating
at the hotels dining room, my reading was limited to
two books, one of which I wrote. The 4-star hotel next door
sold a variety of English-language newspapers and magazines,
but I was restricted to about one Herald-Tribune every
three days due to a routine of eat, read, nap, read and sleep.
Throw in massive doses of self-doubt and pity, all within
the confines of a 15x20-foot room, and you begin to get the
least Room 9 had a great view of the colonial-era white colonnade
mansion housing the Egyptian Foreign Ministry offices. That
view and a cool springtime air made Cairo bearable. At night,
especially, breezes coming off the Nile a block away flowed
magnificently through the wide hallway windows. Later during
my stay, the temperature rose to what one expects of Egypt
diarrhea finally cleared when I stopped drinking water of
unbottled origins. Then with a little prodding from a fellow
hotel guest, I got back in the streets. White uniformed police,
dust filled air, perfume shops, battered taxis, aggressive
merchants, hookah smokers, women wrapped in black, men strolling
hand-in-hand, unrefrigerated butcher shops, continuously honking
cars and trucks, rotting and tumble-down buildings, runners
with trays of tea glasses, stone cutters, auto parts, riders
jumping on and off crowded moving buses, papyrus artworks,
indescribable odors, mournful calls to prayer, Cleopatra cigarettes,
helpful friendly people, unending trash heaps, young soldiers
in truck transports, and destitute women and children living
in the street.
you do me a favor? a hotel employee inquired one evening.
if I can, I answered to the portly gentleman working
the front desk. With my passport, he explained, wed
be able to purchase duty-free liquor at the airport. Never
one to stand in the way of a man and his drug of choice, I
agreed and off we went. During our 15-minute drive I discovered
my companion also was in the j-business. I am an assistant
camera man, on call 24 hours a day for a Japanese television
station. Ive worked in the profession for 25 years.
have you worked on lately? The war?
the economy. Its getting very bad in Cairo.
Ive heard about the price rise for bread. Thats
a big problem.
gasoline, too. Its very expensive and getting worse.
I told my new-found colleague about the Gaza story, he showed
no sympathy for me or the Palestinians. They dont
want a settlement. Then they would get no more money (this
said prior to widespread reports of aid cutoffs from oil-rich
Arab nations for the PLOs backing of Iraq in the Gulf War).
No one would be willing to give as much money to the PLO if
peace came. They had chances before to make peace, but they
didnt. Do you know how many Palestinian millionaires
are in Cairo?
argued that whatever the PLO and expatriate Palestinians had
or had not done, the workaday people living in the occupied
territories were living under brutal oppression by the Israelis.
All my Egyptian partner wanted to talk about, though, was
his own declining standard of living. At the airport, he bought
four, count em four, fifths of Johnny Walker, $14 a
people I talked with also complained much more about the daily
struggles to get by than any preoccupation with the Gulf War
or the Arab-Israeli conflict. One shopkeeper said he thought
the recent Arab-Israeli wars were products of governments,
not people. We dont want to fight the Israelis.
We welcome anyone. No one I talked with had any pointed
vindictiveness toward Israel.
own self-inflicted hardships finally did come to an end. On
June 6, the patient folks at the embassy came through with
news wed been waiting for my plane ticket loan
approval. It had been such a drawn-out process, Memorial Day
landing in the middle of things, that everyone at the Citizens
Services desk knew me on a first name basis. In fact, when
the final cable arrived, the staff, including Vice Consul
Kathleen A. Riley, erupted in cheers. Get him outta here!
I had gone so far as to threaten to wire my Congressman in
Massachusetts to speed things up. Not a smart move. The vice
consuls staff nevertheless was very professional and
attentive through it all. Handing me the plane ticket for
the next days flight, one of the staffers said with
the greatest of understatement, Lawrence, dont
ever do this again.
$1,200 loan for hotel, plane and expenses didnt come
without strings. For the second time on this ill-fated trip
my passport received an unexpected addition a sticker
with the warning: This passport is limited for travel
only to the U.S.A. on or before 5 June 1992. Once I
was back, I was barred from leaving the country for a year.
A very small price to pay.
that last day in Cairo, I finally talked with a Palestinian
a tall, dark man then living in the Chicago burbs.
We met in the embassy while he waited for a duplicate American
passport. Traveling to see his family in Amman, Jordan, he
unfortunately flew into Tel Aviv were the authorities had
naturally stamped his passport. Problem was, Jordan denied
entrance to anyone with Israeli travel stamps.
discussion touched a lot of bases. We agreed, mostly. He even
offered that PLO Chairman Yasir Arafats time had passed.
He was a good man for all those years. But since the
war, its time for new leaders. I ended by saying,
Well, it looks like nothings going to get solved
anytime soon. Probably not in our lifetime. His forceful
reply: I dont want to wait for years on a solution.
They should settle this now. Why should I have to wait until
Im an old man? Why?
final evening, I walked to a secluded bank of the Nile. My
goal was to christen a few souvenirs at midnight. It seemed
like the thing to do. On the way back to the hotel with my
task completed, I was confronted by a ragged peddler selling
cheap papyrus sheets adorned with sphinxes and pyramids. Only
five pounds (less than $2), please! Business must have
been bad that day, judging from the heavy packet he still
had. When I had had cash, I gave it to folks who asked. But
I had nothing in my pockets and said so. I walked off fast.
Behind me I heard two or three quick steps before he gave
up. In desperation he cried out, Helllpp mee!
didnt sleep at all. Packing and readying myself to leave
that place after the hard time Id put in were too much.
Sleep I could get on the plane. The aftermath of my riverside
ritual had put me in touch with a discomforting lesson in
Middle East politics. Or rather, a result of them. And class
wasnt over. Near dawn I realized one of my trinkets
was left at the Nile. Cursing my luck, I walked back to the
same spot along that dirty lifeline. The bugs were thick just
then along the steadily moving water itself thick with floating
mats of vegetation. Finding nothing, I started back for the
hotel one last time at a quick trot. With the sun fully risen,
what hit me was all the trash strewn along this central city
boulevard that had earlier been concealed by the night.
a barefoot boy, probably nine or ten, came up alongside me.
Matching me stride for stride and without saying a word, he
repeatedly jabbed his soiled fingers in and out of a dirty
mouth with the most pained look I hope to never see again.
No mistaking what he wanted. Look at the pictures of any desperate
children in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and
so many other wretched places. If they have the strength,
they always make the same gesture to the camera. The very
same gesture. This time I didnt keep walking. I ran.
Photo by Derek Szabo.