Unintended Egypt

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 Africa’s 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.

My 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 Strip’s largest population center. My plan was a dash to Arab Cairo, Port Said or Alexandria, cruise overland via the Sinai and enter the Strip’s 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.

In the cab from Cairo’s 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.

By 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 wasn’t 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 cheap gasoline.

Ahkmed, 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 didn’t mind the brief stop. And it didn’t 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 didn’t 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!”

As 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.

This 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 Hussein’s 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.

At 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 we’d make it. My driver wisely used those final minutes to squeeze out another $20 for police checkpoint bribes and future gas line repairs. I didn’t put up much of a fight. “Fifty dollars (my remaining bankroll) is good money! Good money in Israel!” he assured me. Yeah, right. It’s not Israel, of course, but there wasn’t much point talking politics just then.

When we got there at 4:55, the Egyptians immediately turned us away.

“But I’ve 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.

“Five 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.

I 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 establishment’s 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.

Dressed 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 wasn’t a target for fear of creating a new Arab martyr.

In retrospect, my assessment was most likely too kind to the American war planners. General Schwarzkopf himself has publicly chided Pentagon intelligence.

Then 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, don’t 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.

Next 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.

Exciting 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.

“$40?! Only $40! You must have at least $80 a day in Israel (it’s not Israel, pal, I said in my head). It’s our law!”

Then 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, I’ll 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 dollars.”

Gaza story — dead and buried.

Of 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 there’ll-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 d’etre for the past few weeks.

As 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 wouldn’t 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.

During the final go round, the lady offered, “Don’t look so disappointed.”

“I am. Very disappointed.”

“What happened?”

“I’m just trying to get to Gaza City. To do some stories. I’m a journalist. They said I didn’t have enough money.”

“Gaza City? But I think you have to be in the military to go there.”

“Yeah, well, I’d have found a way in somehow,” I replied with a face of now useless confidence.

“Yes, but legally…”Her face and tone simultaneously read “Maybe” and “Hey, you can’t 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.

Back 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 I’d 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.

For 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 didn’t 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 didn’t say a word. Whoever it was gave up quickly and I fell back on the bed, not really caring what happened next.

There was nothing else to do but trudge my sorry ass into the US Embassy and beg for some assistance. The embassy’s 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 didn’t make up for my severely depressed state of mind. Here I was in Cairo, one of the world’s 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.

Each 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: “You’ve 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t sleeping, or eating at the hotel’s 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 15×20-foot room, and you begin to get the picture.

At 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 in June.

The 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.

“Can you do me a favor?” a hotel employee inquired one evening.

“Sure, if I can,” I answered to the portly gentleman working the front desk. With my passport, he explained, we’d 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. I’ve worked in the profession for 25 years.”

“What have you worked on lately? The war?”

“No, the economy. It’s getting very bad in Cairo.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about the price rise for bread. That’s a big problem.”

“For gasoline, too. It’s very expensive and getting worse.”

When I told my new-found colleague about the Gaza story, he showed no sympathy for me or the Palestinians. “They don’t 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 didn’t. Do you know how many Palestinian millionaires are in Cairo?”

I 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 pop.

Other 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 don’t want to fight the Israelis. We welcome anyone.” No one I talked with had any pointed vindictiveness toward Israel.

My own self-inflicted hardships finally did come to an end. On June 6, the patient folks at the embassy came through with news we’d 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!

God, I had gone so far as to threaten to wire my Congressman in Massachusetts to speed things up. Not a smart move. The vice consul’s staff nevertheless was very professional and attentive through it all. Handing me the plane ticket for the next day’s flight, one of the staffers said with the greatest of understatement, “Lawrence, don’t ever do this again.”

The $1,200 loan for hotel, plane and expenses didn’t 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.

On 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.

Our discussion touched a lot of bases. We agreed, mostly. He even offered that PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat’s time had passed. “He was a good man for all those years. But since the war, it’s time for new leaders.” I ended by saying, “Well, it looks like nothing’s going to get solved anytime soon. Probably not in our lifetime.” His forceful reply: “I don’t want to wait for years on a solution. They should settle this now. Why should I have to wait until I’m an old man? Why?”

That 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!”

I didn’t sleep at all. Packing and readying myself to leave that place after the hard time I’d 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 wasn’t 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.

Suddenly 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 didn’t keep walking. I ran.

Boston, August 1991.
Photo by Derek Szabo.

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