Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Week 33 Aswan & Luxor

Sunset over the Nile reflects well our last week in Egypt: bright and colorful. As we now prepare to depart for the U.S., time can be taken to reflect upon some of the remarkable sights and people who have touched our lives during our traveling from Cairo to Aswan, to Luxor, and back to Cairo.

Sights have included temples and tombs from as early as 3,000BC, including locations like Abu Simbel, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and Luxor (known as Thebes, the capital used by many of the 320 pharaohs from 300 dynasties covering 3,000 years). While all of these are worthy of visitation by tourist and scholars alike, detailed descriptions would best be left to National Geographic. Abu Simbel, however, stands out in the memory as its colossal statues survived the rising waters of Lake Nasser after the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971. The Amun-Ra Temple of Karnak was also a must-see as the largest religious building ever constructed, so massive that it could encompass two St. Peters Basilicas (the largest church in the world)! None of us are likely to forget the Valley of the Kings, as summer temperatures on that day reached 50 C. (122 degrees Fahrenheit)!

Traveling to Abu Simbel required a 3:30am wake up call to a 4-hour journey in an over-full minibus. Between attempts to sleep we enjoyed conversations with a very international mix of people. The Core of this group would also return together as well as travel from Aswan to Luxor, and even talking late into the night at the Oasis Hotel (where I had booked accommodations for the four of us in Luxor). Jeremy (Britain) took the prize for most entertaining stories, as he had been traveling for several years and had eaten everything from camel to snake. Jamie and Heather (U.S.) were the best listeners, while John and Barbara (New Zealand) would complain the most about our cramped conditions – though they became progressively more amiable the more we visited with them (especially when the air conditioning was functional). Our 2 comrades from Australia added much humor to the mix, even when, on the trip to Luxor, they had to find other transportation due to bus overbooking. The setting of the full moon and a brilliant sunrise over the desert (only 20 miles from the Egyptian border with Sudan) were unexpectedly beautiful bonuses to a travel plan to beat the heat.

Returning from Abu Simbel, Jeremy, Jaime, Heather, and us transferred to a much smaller vehicle to visit the Aswan Dam and other sights. The Dam was quite massive (with more materials used in its construction than all of the great pyramids combined). While it had dramatically improved electrical production after 1971 and increased agricultural production by 30% in the country, I later learned that it had also displaced over 20,000 people (almost entirely Nubian small farmers) who received little to no compensation for their loss. As has been the case in India, dam projects become monuments to modern pharaohs and the already wealthy benefit while most costs are borne by the poor. Such dam construction and displacement was a contributing cause of the emergence of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (Hindus who were the first to use suicide bombing as a strategy), as well as the growth of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt (which would inspire angry Muslims who would organize Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al-Qaida). While working effectively to control Nile flooding, the Aswan Dam prevented the natural refertilization of the soil and so has made Egypt dependent upon chemical fertilizers (eagerly provided by multinational corporations).

In Aswan, three friendships developed through conversations with friendly local residents: Ahmad, Miro, and Mohamed. Ahmad is a Nubian (more African than Arabian) Muslim whose family was among those displaced by the Aswan High Dam. 39 years old, he is unmarried in part due to low income from underemployment. He lives with his also unmarried brothers on Elephantine Island, now largely a tourist attraction for foreigners visiting Aswan who want boat rides on the Nile. Having met Ahmad in an internet café, I was impressed by his mellow temperament and willingness to share of himself. We walked through the market together and talked about our lives. Later he arranged for Mira, Naomi, Kris, and I to take a motorboat cruise on the Nile for which he served as guide. Fair price, no hassles, and a patient pace that allowed time even for me to go swimming!

My wife and I met Miro near the Temple of Philae, when we were too hot and irritated by entrance fees (always $10-15/person to see) and yet had to wait 90 minutes anyway for the minibus to pick us up. Miro owned the only café (very small, only two meal options) in the area, where we filled our stomachs for about $2 each. His English skills were very good as his father and grandfather (who both died early in his life) had encouraged him to go to college. Unemployed thereafter, he joined the Egyptian Army and became a trained sniper. That career ended when his eyesight suffered from the stress of his duties and he was forced to be discharged. Miro came by the Memnon Hotel (where we were staying in Aswan city, with its amazing view of the Nile), and we talked late one evening about violence and nonviolence and how a soldier with either orientation can be praised for the qualities of discipline and self-sacrifice that are needed. I was not surprised that he had admiration for Gandhi, in part due to Gandhi`s very positive relationship with Muslim communities. A Muslim himself, he displays both curiosity and respect for others by maintaining long-distance communications with Jewish and Christian friends he has met over the years. Unmarried, I encouraged him to be open to a relationship in which his many fine qualities might bless another person`s life.

I met Mohamed as he is the night employee at the Memnon Hotel in Aswan. Always awake (and usually praying to Allah) when I came to the lobby early to use our computer, he and I were able to talk at length about his life and dreams. A citizen of Sudan, Mohamed has a 9-year old daughter who lives with his former wife who is Egyptian. He works two jobs to support them both and dreams of educating his daughter and returning with her to Sudan (the only country that grants her citizenship). Educational opportunities are better in Egypt, though they cost LE 800 per year for non-citizens (a fortune for him at $120). So it is that he normally works 16 hours each day and sleeps 3-4 hours, asking for Allah to give him strength to fulfill his duties. Of the $160 his daughter needs to continue her schooling in September, he has been able to save only $60. For what was spent by the four of us to go to Abu Simbel on one day, he could be assured of another year of education for his daughter. Let this be food for thought as we (who are so privileged in this world) often take more care to fulfill our wants while the best efforts of others may fall short of satisfying their most basic needs…. It is my hope that Mohamed and I will maintain contact in the years to come and be supportive of one another as friends should be.

In Luxor Kris, Mira, Naomi, and I stayed only one night at the Oasis Hotel, where extreme heat had overwhelmed their air-conditioners and power outages (our first since living in India) made climbing the stairs to our room (without an elevator) an endurance contest. Hussan, the manager at the Oasis was very understanding when we shifted to the 3-star Gaddis Hotel – and even offered to drive us to the new accommodations free of charge! This was especially impressive as competition for the tourist trade is so fierce that I was able to negotiate with the Gaddis to pay them only half price (just a little more than the $10/night per person in two rooms which had drawn us originally to the Oasis). July and August are when few tourists arrive by any means other than luxury cruise boats, as these months can reach temperatures as high as 140 degrees. At the Gaddis we had cool rooms with refrigerators, cable TV, a private bathroom with tub, and a view of the pool…. So we had luxury in Luxor for our last hotel stay in Egypt!

Taxi drivers helped introduce us to life`s realities in Luxor. Ali and his brother took us to all of the tourist sites we desired to see while showing us where their family had been evicted from their traditional home near the Valley of the Kings (as part of an effort by the one-party state to make that are more visually appealing to tourists). The low compensation was presented as ``take it and leave the property``, leaving the family entirely dependent upon tourist income (from their taxis and alabaster factories). How precarious this is can be seen in how disappointed Ali was that I employed another taxi to take Mira, Naomi, and I to go visit a center for rehabilitating abused animals – with that taxi driver having had only our short ride as income for four days. The many horses, donkeys, Mules, and occasional camel that ACE (Animal Care in Egypt) treated for free would never have received treatment because the owners are too poor. The taxi driver that day had no air conditioning and functioned with a battery that struggled to start, since charging a battery costs too much when one`s income is near zero.

Mohamed, a felucca (traditional sail boat) owner, who I met during an afternoon walk, is in a similar situation. Ours was the only business he had had for a week, even though is boat is moored very near the five-star Sheraton Hotel in Luxor. A remarkably amiable person, Mohamed thanks Allah for every blessing and seeks to avoid bitterness through prayer. Most tourists from the Sheraton book boat rides through the hotel (which gives business only to those owners who agree to kick back money to the hotel). Mohamed does not play that game, partly because the Nile waterfront land upon which the hotel is built was previously owned by his family for generations (yes, you guessed it: until the Egyptian government forced them to sell it for $600 or be removed by the military). Now he works hard to support his family on a net income of about LE 10,000 ($200)/year that could have been much more except for the taxes and fees he pays (for mooring his boat on what remains of his own land), as well as the bribes that must be paid to local police and government officials to allow him to continue operations….

So the sun sets on our two weeks in Egypt. It is as bright and colorful as many of the people we have met here. Yet the beauty of this land remains more to be realized in the future than in its past or present. Modern Pharaohs benefit the already wealthy (as has always been true) while cutting deals with multinational corporations that promise little relief for the poor (beyond tourism). The two overnight sleeper trains (from Cairo to Aswan and Luxor back to Cairo) cost us each $60/night – more than many hard working Egyptians take home to their families in a month. Officially, day trains are off-limits to foreigners, so even we had few transportation options (except hot and undependable buses and more expensive plane flights or a hired car). At least our complaints (which were expressed) run little risk of resulting in arrest or torture (a common reality here which does nothing to reduce U.S. support for the regime).

As we now return to the United States, let us consider how we may modify our lives and influence policies in ways that can benefit the many wonderful people who struggle to just survive in places like India, the West Bank, and Egypt. For them a new political day must dawn and economic policies to benefit the poor must be fashioned in order for future sunsets to be fully appreciated by all. As Gandhi once said: God comes to the poor in the form of bread. Sunsets do not deliver food to the table. Through our collective efforts, we can create a world where all in the human family may have basic needs met. On that road to build global justice, peace can be ours.

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