MARCH 9: A Day in Egypt

9th April 2001 |

Dovecots on a roof, on the road to Luxor.

Dovecots on a roof, on the road to Luxor.

It began I suppose at 3 in the morning. I had gone to bed early, but the town of El Minya was still full of cars hooting for all the weddings that had been celebrated the day before, a special day in the Islamic calendar.

The horns beat out their tattoos into the night – da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da-da. There was shouting in the streets, and a neighbour had the TV on full blast with a show in which people shouted at each other non-stop.

Noise, I have come to realise, is regarded as an adornment rather than a pollutant in Egypt.
I slept some more, fitfully, lying under rough blankets on a hard pillow, and got up at seven.
It promised to be a hard day’s ride to Luxor, not so much because of the distance, but because either road conditions, or traffic, or police, or all three were bound to slow me down.

El Minya to Luxor is rather more than 300 miles by the route I hoped to take, my problem being that the road I wanted wasn’t on the map.

The bike was parked in in the street outside the hotel with some of my soft luggage lying losely on it, but I was unworried.
A policeman had been sitting there all night, specifically to guard it. And he was only one of a small force put at my disposal.
During the day, I was accompanied everywhere by an affable man in a large corduroy jacket that concealed his gun and his walkie-talkie.

In the evening , and early morning, a more reserved but handsome man, fashionably unshaven, in a headcloth and a galabeia with even deeper pockets, walked me everywhere.

I was not allowed out without them. Neither one could speak any English, so I profited very little from this forced liaison. Meanwhile an elderly, bewhiskered gent in the uniform of the Tourist & Antiquities Police, sat on a chair observing my dusty bike.

So far as I could tell I was perfectly free to go anwhere at any time, day or night, but one of them had to come along.
So at seven-thirty, on the morning of my departure, I went with the strong, silent one to a bakery, bought a quarter kilo of mixed fig and aprocot rolls for about 30 cents, ordered an Arabic coffee in a cafe, and sat down to breakfast.

My consort had milk coffee and smoked sheesha – that’s what we used to call a hubble bubble or hookah, a contraption of glass and shiny metal that’s used to draw aromatic
These gorgeous devices seem to be back in fashion, and I’ve seen them everywhere from Tunisia to here, although I hardly remember them on my past journey.
So we sat together for a while, bonding. There’s no point in reporting our conversation, which consisted of various grunts and groans, unintelligible to either party.

By 8.30 I was packed and ready to leave, and another detachment of police in a blue Toyota pick-up came to escort me out of town. It was a useful service, because I had certainly lost my way coming in.

Cops in the front, cops in the back, all armed to the teeth and smiling

Cops in the front, cops in the back, all armed to the teeth and smiling

The Toyota, with two grinning khaki-clad men in the back pointing their ouzis at me, took me out of the city, and then waved me on.
For twenty kilometers I was free of police, and my heart soared. All around me now was a broad, flat expanse of green wheat, beans and grasses, ornamented here and there by moving figures in white or brilliant colour.

The scene was made to seem all the more lush by the bright yellow sand dunes that hovered on the edge of it, temporarily beaten back, but always ready to rush in and reclaim it for the Western Desert.

Thick columns of water spurted from small portable pumps into irrigation ditches, and the sight of freely gushing water near such an arid waste lifted my heart to yet another level.

Water from the Nile turns everything green, but . . .

Water from the Nile turns everything green, but . . .

Most of all I like watching the donkeys. Egyptian donkeys are small and white. They trot along very briskly in a most un-donkey-like way, and I hate to think of what’s done to them to make them so willing.

Every village family seems to have at least one, and of course they do all the donkey work. The trick of riding them seems to involve swinging the legs out and in sideways. The silhouette of a tall Arab trotting on a donkey would be my hieroglyph for Egypt.

. . . only a few miles away, the dunes are waiting

. . . only a few miles away, the dunes are waiting

The weather was glorious. Not since I left northern Italy has a drop of water fallen on me, and in Egypt there have been cool breezes, blue skies, and comfortable warmth.

Then I left the green fields behind, and made my way to the desert road. A huge black armoured troop transport stood there waiting for me. My heart sank again, thinking I would have to follow this monster, but two smiling policeman sprang out and indicated that they would follow me.

I rode off and soon left them far behind. Then came another junction, where another of these thirty-foot monsters pointed it’s wedge-shaped snout at me.

Would the police chastise me for fleeing my escort? Would they send me back to square one? With police, you never know. But they smiled, waved me on, and lumbered onto the road behind me.

Once more it happened and then, after another 20 miles, my 70 mph free ride came to an end. The desert road stopped at Asyut, and I was back on the Nile banks again, being shuttled from one Toyota to another.

By now you may be wondering what kind of emergency has turned Egypt into a police state. Well, if a country that seems to have a policeman for every ten citizens is a police state, this is one. Nowhere have I ever seen such a profusion of armed uniformed men as in Cairo and Alexandria, and they are only more visible there because they wear black, as opposed to the khaki uniforms of Upper Egypt.
They are brought out on to the streets in big armoured buses, and deposited there for the duration. Most of them are obviously conscripts in coarse, ungainly clothing, with the vacant expressions of country boys drafted suddenly into big cities.

They carry pistols, rifles and ouzis (though whether they carry ammunition is a matter for debate), but I must say that from my perspective I have also never known such an unthreatening force of men. They laugh, smile, and wave, and not since I left Libya have I been asked for my papers.

No doubt it was the assassination of Sadat that brought them out in the first place, but it was the massacre of tourists in Luxor that keeps them there today, and made them take such good care of me. After that tragedy the tourist simply stopped coming, and tourists are like wheat, sugar and oil to the Egyptian economy.

So I was passed like a relay baton from post to post, and in retrospect I am glad I was forced back to the Nile. The road is raised quite high, presumably because of the flooding that preceded the Aswan High Dam, and the life of the villages goes on below in the swales on either side.
It is a world of brick, a Legoland of dusty, bare, red brown brick, some baked, some mud, piled up in the most fantastic labyrinths, on several levels, but seeming to fall as it rises, everything unfinished, with ragged outlines and only gaps for windows and doors.
People and animals swirled around in it. Sometimes a large area was covered by a layer of interwoven twigs and brush raised a few feet above the ground on posts, and beneath it lay herds of cows or buffalo.

The density and complexity of it all is hard to convey. I felt I was peering down on an utterly strange world, with dimensions I could never understand.

I cursed the Toyotas for dragging me through it too fast. Though I stopped twice to take out my cameras, for the most part it was an endless stream of missed opportunities.
Finally, after hours of wonder and frustration, I was dumped at Dandera to join a convoy of tourists, and after a tedious wait we straggled into Luxor just after dark.

Still this day was far from over. Thinking of Luxor only as a destination, I had simply forgotten that it was the site of one of the most staggering of ancient buildings, and I came upon the illuminated Temple of Luxor quite by surprise.

The massive size of its columns took my breath away. Whatever tiredness or irritation I had been feeling simply vanished before this awe-inspiring sight. And it was right there, on the street, to be looked at any time, as long as I liked, without permits, or tickets, or restrictions of any kind.

I found a hotel for $13. The lift worked, there was hot water, and breakfast was included. I manoeuvered the bike up two steps onto a little patch of marble forecourt, nervously, because it’s always in these situations that I’m most likely to drop it, and least fit to deal with the consequences.

Then, showered and changed into slightly less dirty clothes, I walked back to the Nile and found a restaurant on a terrace that overlooked the temple.

There, with a cold beer in front of me, I thought this view of both the Nile and one of Egypt’s most famous ancient monuments would be just about perfect, if it weren’t for the fact that immediately below me they were tearing up the road with hydraulic drills so loud that I could barely hear myself think.

And so this day in Egypt, so unusual in most respects, ended as it began, typically, with noise.