Egyptian Peeps

Part 8 of the Egypt report. Part 7 here

When I travel, I don’t usual stay in one place for very long – usually I’m moving around and have a hotel for just one or two nights. This makes it difficult to forge any bonds with people, of course. Generally, that works for me! This trip, we stayed in only two hotels – one in Cairo for 3 nights, and the other in Luxor, on the West Bank, for an entire week – and we managed to make some friends. I feel like this was special to Egypt.

In Cairo, Katya put us in touch with her artist friend Bassem, who, it turns out, lives near our hotel. The smokey hotel bar, in fact, was one of his haunts – a meeting place for bohemians. We took him to dinner and he took us to a party and we walked around the neighborhood. It was great to have a local contact, and it was comforting to have the phone number of a responsible person in this country where we knew no-one and didn’t speak or read the language, just in case of emergency. Also, we liked him quite a bit! It was great to see the artist side of life in the city. He knew every young person we saw.

I wish we had talked to the old white lady at our hotel before we were on our way out the door. I assumed she was married to the owner because she was always sitting in the office. It turned out was Scottish, probably in her late 70s, and she had been living at the hotel for 25 years! She left Scotland to escape the damp chill. She told us how she had missed a visit to Egypt coming back from Australia as a young girl, and had always wanted to return. She was a hoot, of course.

We arrived Luxor by train on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve (my birthday). We took in a few nearby sights, and then there was a party at the hotel that started off kind of awkwardly (I’m not very good at parties), but wound up being a great night. The dinner was buffet, with family-style seating. We sat with an artist family from the UK – the mother, Fay, who is Scottish, in her 60s, probably, had been coming to the hotel several times a year for 22 years, using the ruins for inspiration for her printmaking. She was going to be staying the whole week we were there, and offered to answer all our questions, which was great. I really liked her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, too, but they weren’t staying.

After dinner, there were drinks in the courtyard and fireworks and dancing. Most of the guests were Europeans, but once the party moved outside, some Egyptians showed up, and the staff were having a good time too. We met Fay’s friend Hasan, an Egyptian who was sporting the traditional jellabiya (pin-striped!), which is a surprisingly good-looking garment, a turban, and a blanket-shawl. He made me dance with him, and I did even though he told me his favorite song is Hotel California! Fortunately for him, unfortunately for me, some old deadheads were manning the music, and played it for him.

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The hippies played some Egyptian music too, which the Egyptians didn’t like because it was traditional mourning music, not exactly the stuff of parties. At some point they found something acceptable. The staff brought out fire pits to keep us from freezing to death (40s!). Slava had had the good sense to buy a bottle of bubbly at the duty free back in Germany, so we had some decent champagne for my birthday/new year’s. I managed to not drink too much of it, which is always a trick. We went to bed shortly after midnight, feeling good about the hotel and the week ahead.

Next day, we went to some sights including the famed and nearby Colossi of Memnon. A man came across the street to ask us to join him for tea at the café. Slava was in NO mode, having been hassled by a bunch of people already, but I thought it was a good idea. I decided I wanted to say YES more on this trip, so we crossed the street to the cafe, which was made of sticks. Part of it is mud brick and has a roof, but it was too dark so we sat in the open part.

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inside the cafe

We taught Slava dominos, drank tea, and talked. Our host, Tayeb, spoke some English and was super nice. He wanted us to come back the next day, but we didn’t make it until the day after. He wasn’t there, but his nephew, who works on the Red Sea, ‘phoned him, and entertained us while we waited. Tayeb turned up shortly on his motorcycle, and we made plans to go out with him the next day. He offered to take us to some sights and have us over his house for lunch. His nephew took us on a walk through the farmland behind the cafe at sunset. It was a beautiful evening.

Tayeb met us at our hotel and took us around on his motorcycle and took us to his house in the village near the temple of Medinet Habu for lunch with his family. We ate Egyptian style, on the floor, and I played with his daughter because, pro-tip, if you don’t speak the language, it’s easier to communicate with kids since they don’t want to talk to you anyway. After lunch, we walked back and Tayeb brought us to the old house he grew up in, where his brother still lives. There is a view of the temple from the roof of this cool old mud brick, two story house. The family loves the house for the usual nostalgic reasons, but also because it keeps cool in summer and warm in winter. The walls are cracking and it needs a lot of repair. Tayeb’s brother was watching satellite TV when we arrived – first a Bollywood film and then an Arabic-subtitled version of DEEP RISING, which looks pretty entertaining.

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After Fay’s family went back to England, we hung out with her quite a bit. She’ was a good source of information, and a generous one. She suggested visiting the excellent (but expensive!) tomb of Seti I, which we did. I was so glad we went with her, because she made us go slowly and examine the place in a way we wouldn’t have done on our own. We had several meals at Mohamad’s restaurant with Fay, and when she went to visit the ladies on the hill and I asked if we could tag along, she was a good sport and took us with her. She took us shopping for tchotchkes, gave us recommendations and warnings, some of which we heeded, and was generally a fun friend to make. I was really glad we had been seated together at New Year’s because our trip would have been different and not as fun without her.

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Fay and Mohamad

Mohamad’s Restaurant was great, and we ate there a lot. Mohamad was really funny and cryptic, and his son was a peach. American jazz was always playing and the food was delish. Fay recommended it, and we didn’t even try any other places, because when you’ve found the perfect spot, why fuck up your meal by eating someplace else? We quickly became regulars. Mohamad gave us necklaces every day, and a special gift on our last day. I gave him a present on our last night as well.

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Hasan I have written about on some other pages. I think Slava’s fave Egyptian was Tayeb, and Hasan was mine, although we both adored Mohamad and son. But Hasan, with his crooked teeth, goofy sense of humor, and serious philosophies, was impossible not to like. He made friends with us at the party (I credit my blonde, blonde hair), and we ended up hanging out with him a few times because we hired him to take us to Dendera.

You know, when you hear about Egypt, you hear good things about the antiquities and the weather, but sometimes all you hear about the people is that they will constantly hassle you for your money. While that may be true, it is not the only thing to know about them. Sure, they want your money. This is an Egyptian/tourist relationship that is centuries old. However, they also are extremely generous and friendly, and quick with a laugh. I found the Egyptian sense of humor to be wonderfully unexpected and sometimes surreal. Times are getting very tough there and I really hope this doesn’t affect the national attitude too much or at least not permanently.

It’s hard to know how our choices will affect our lives, but it’s nice to look back at the roads taken, and see positive results. If we had said no to Tayeb’s invitation to tea, if we hadn’t hired Hasan, if we hadn’t sat with Fay, if we hadn’t eaten at Mohamad’s, how would our visit to Luxor have turned out? It’s difficult to imagine our trip without these characters; they really made it special. I wouldn’t feel so strongly about going back if it weren’t for them. As it is, Egypt is definitely on my list of places to visit again.

 

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