A Polish Son in Egypt

Leonard Kniffel, Carlon Walker.

Leonard Kniffel, Carlon Walker.

It’s a Saturday in May, 1996, and we are on our way to Cairo. Two smiling young guys are driving us into the city from the airport, Abdul the driver and Sharif who will be our guide. They point out modern buildings, hotels, and military facilities along the way, noting the French influence on the architecture of the turn of the 20th century. “Paris on the Nile,” the city was once called. The radio is playing salsa music, the singing in Spanish. When I ask for some Egyptian music, they are eager for us to hear “the Egyptian Michael Jackson.” “What is he singing about?” I ask. “About love. What else?” Sharif replies.

The hotel is a disappointment to Carl, my partner, who has agreed to this trip although he is growing increasingly wary of traveling anywhere in the Middle East. “Seedy,” he calls it and dangerous. I love seedy and dangerous. The lobby is small and worn and chipped everywhere, the room and halls charmless with no frills, no shampoo, the towels ragged, a gritty bar of old soap the only amenity. A small balcony overlooks the streets, which are busy with people fussing over this or that, trucks and trailers loaded with cloth bags full of grain.

Exhausted from the airplane ride, we shower and go to sleep. I think of my ailing mother and how I made her laugh by telling her that I was going to Egypt to see my mummy. During our nap the toilet leaks all over the bathroom floor, and the hotel staffer who comes to fix it seems more interested in leering at us than solving the problem. Back at the front desk, it seems that the all-male night staff has gathered to take a gander at this odd American couple and see if we are up for walking on the wild side–like an Egyptian. The next morning we relocate to the Sheraton.

Our two weeks in Egypt begins with guided tours of the pyramids and the Great Sphinx at Giza. In the Egyptian Museum we are shown treasures from King Tut’s tomb. The overwhelming reality of contemporary Egypt, its pace and traffic congestion, seems to disolve anything the imagination can conjure up about the pharoahs of thousands of years ago. Everything seems to belong to the living, to the day at hand, and it becomes possible to imagine how Napoleon’s soldiers could have used the Sphinx for target practice, easy to make the mistakes of the past again and again when the day one is living is the only day that will ever matter.

Our amiable docent seems the essence of modern Egypt–an educated young woman, elegant in a long gauze skirt and black top, gold-rimmed sun glasses and a cartouche necklace. She reads hieroglyphics and talks about the first woman to sit on the throne of ancient Egypt: “She wore the classic false beard of pharoahs and proclaimed herself a king.” But our docent looks nervous, as if she fears that a hijab will be forced on her head at any minute. Asked about the connection between Egypt as she knows it to the Egypt of the pharoahs, she robotically cites history books, proud of her years of study.

Belly Dancer planting a wet one on Leonard Kniffel.

Belly Dancer planting a wet one on Leonard Kniffel.

In the evening, Sharif, now limping with a twisted ankle, takes us to a tourist show aboard a Humphris cruise ship docked along the Nile. The voluptuous belly dancer is comical, the chorus boys seem totally gay, and Sharif is getting a kick out of us and a group of Japanese tourists who redden with embarrassment as the dancer plants a lipstick-laden kiss on my forehead.

Sharif loves American music and is unfailingly polite. He tells us about an Italian girl he met four years ago who didn’t want to stay in Egypt. “Come to Italy and see how we live,” she had told him, “if Allah is willing.” Apparently Allah was, as Sharif went to Milan four months ago, but he makes no mention of seeing her. “I want to try everything,” he asserts, and I wonder what that means to him.

The next day, Sharif calls to tell us his foot is broken, and it was unfortunate that he spent the night walking on it. Another young man, Alex, smiling, handsome, enthusiastic, and eager to speak English, scoops us off to the shabby train station for our transfer to Aswan. A filthy, sand-battered train with broken windows pulls in and dozens of soldiers climb aboard. Men jump off and run across the tracks instead of using the stairs. Alex informs us that 350 men are killed on the tracks every year, but “still it does not stop them.” We are getting a little nervous about boarding, when Alex assures us that this is not our train. He adds nonchalantly that what we thought would be a five hour ride from Cairo to Aswan will more likely take ten hours. Another train chugs into the station, cleaner and less crowded and Alex bids us board. “Bye bye,” he waves with a smile.

If we had known that the five-now-ten-hour ride would actually last for sixteen hours and that for the last four hours the train would barely move, we might have thought twice about boarding–without even a cracker in our bags. But board we did, smiling and waving back.

Our train compartment contains a few men speaking alarmingly loud Arabic. “English?” one of them asks me. “Nubian?” says another to Carl. They run some English by us and then want us to let them know how well they said whatever they said. “English very good,” I assure them, to hearty laughter. Three of the men spend most of the trip playing with their guns, showing them to one another. Other men from other cars come in to show their guns. None are in uniform. Sixteen hours later they parade past us. “Welcome to Aswan,” says one. We had ridden all day, all evening, into the night, arriving in Aswan at 1:00 a.m.

From the wretched food I bought from a rolling cart on the train–olives and feta cheese in watery brine, which I foolishly ate and Carl didn’t because he hates olives and feta cheese in watery brine–I developed Tut’s trots and spent the rest of the night and all the next day babying myself at the Isis Island Resort Hotel. Our train ride had destroyed our enthusiasm for what turned out to be a beautiful facility that I could barely lift my head long enough to see.

Five days have passed and it is time for us to cross the Nile from Isis Island on a motorized ferry taking us to the Queen Neffar Nile Cruiser. We are delighted by the sight of the ship, clean and rather glamorous looking–but unfortunately not our cruise ship. Ours is the smaller run-down number docked next to it.

Seated in the bar lounge, having roasted for less than half an hour on deck, I could see how maybe twenty years ago this little ship was glamorous. I can hear the echoes, see the fingerprints, and smell the merriment left behind by those who cruised on this beauty in its heyday. You wonder why the company doesn’t maintain it better, but you know it’s because they can’t afford to and they can’t afford to because people are not coming to Egypt as they once did. The lounge is empty but for a young Egyptian watching television. The little floating palace seems shabby and near the end of its days, its every surface dull and scratched and covered with some sort of residue.

Man carrying vegetables on the banks of the Nile.

Man carrying vegetables on the banks of the Nile.

Outside the window, a man in a jellabiya carrying a long walking stick ambles along the quay with a huge dirty rug piled on his head and shoulders. Most of the men along the banks–for it is mostly men one sees along the Nile and on the streets and paths–seem weary of the heat, their dark and dusty faces framed in white as the rest under trees or near the docks, waiting for another bag to carry.

Neffar Tours in Cairo is the company owner of the ship. We are told that the cruise ship was, in fact, built just seven years ago, and it contains fifty-four cabins, with life preservers under every bed. Who could have imagined a ship could look so worn after just seven years? The cruise leaves the dock at 5:00 a.m., and we are on our way to Kom Ombo to see the temple, then a five hour sail to Edfu and on to Esna. When evening comes, we are on our way to Luxor. On board, we are treated to a “Nubian Show” and in Luxor to an “Oriental Show,” all apparently calculated to fulfill the ridiculous wants of wanton tourists.

It’s hot, 100 degrees farenheit. In Aswan we meet Essam, another chatty guide eager to show off his university degree. He blames Osama Bin Ladin and his jihadist followers for terrorism that in 1996 resulted in diplomatic sanctions being imposed on Sudan by the United Nations. Essam is Christian, like twenty percent of the Egyptian population, he says, showing us a tattoo of a cross on his wrist that “will never leave my body.” There is not so much demand for English this season, he says, as he escorts a German entourage aboard. “I forget many words.”

Carl and a souvenir seller.

Carl and a souvenir seller.

At the Aswan Dam, we are “in luck,” according to another hustler–”my friend, my friend”–eager for “baksheesh” and willing to take us to the top of the dam and allow us to take pictures even though he says it is “military and forbidden.” Carl is not about to perch himself on the top of the high dam to have a photo taken. Were it not for his acrophobia, I no doubt would have run off with our new “friend.” In the Aswan bazaar, we are swarmed by sellers of Egyptian souvenirs, the all-alike goods of cotton and alabaster, the metal pyramids, pharoahs, and oblilisks. They all want to be our friends and come on to us in ways that seem strange to these Americans unfamiliar with this form of male camaraderie.

Back on the ship, we ask for a new television in our cabin, and five inept men show up to replace our one-channel model with a two-channel job. They seem to want to stay, to try speaking English, looking for some sign that we want to hear their secrets. They coax us below deck to the “Nubian Show” in progress.

"Nubian Show"

“Nubian Show”

We walk out of the show almost as soon as we walk in, when the one-woman, eight-man cabaret troop resorts to audience participation. I despise audience participation. We say “no” to the gold-toothed, wild-eyed woman waving her hands in our faces. Then some of their men convince two eager Italian women to get up and show off their bad taste in clothes. One of them in a tiny tight black dress does some sort of stick dance, the same tourist-pleasing stick dance we saw in Cairo but with no mention of its “Nubian” origins or its basis in anything Egyptian, that we could tell. For tourists, somehow Nubian = Black = African = Exotic, and when the tourists are from Rome, the Egyptian entertainers do as the Roman tourists imagine they do.

We climbed to the rooftop for the cooler night air, where there is an odd mix of music all around us–drums from below, car horns as if from a wedding, the bug zapper on the cruiser docked next door. The air is warm and lovely and we are in Egypt, still marveling at our declasse good fortune. We sit on the deck for nearly an hour. Nobody tries to sell us so much as a soda pop. In the bazaars, when we want nothing, we are swarmed: “Where you from, English?” To Carl, “Nubian?” “No charge looking.” “You want carriage ride?” There are at least ninety carriages waiting and no one to ride them to the bazaar. The taxis honk at you from behind and the drivers yell “TAXI” out the window, as if you were too stupid to recognize a taxi when you see one.

The next morning, at the water’s edge, some of Kom Ombo seems to have fallen in, but the shore has been fortified, and a group of Australian girls step gingerly along the shore, looking for “Cleopatra’s bath,” defying local customs in their skimpy attire. On a carriage ride to Edfu, the gold-toothed driver whips the horse through the dusty town, children call to us, begging, barefoot, their hair and faces veiled in dust. The temple is huge and from the Greek period. All is revealed by our enthusiastic and vocal guide, who is apparently accustomed to larger crowds or is competing for airwaves. “THIS WAY,” he shouts.

A Polish Son in Egypt 1996 Jellabiya

The Egyptian shopkeepers to the tourist trade are flirtatious and cloying, seemingly hungry for contact with Westerners. Carl is immediately treated as a “Nubian” comrade, I as an exotic Englishman. I find it hard to be exotic or English, but I don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Tonight the tour guides want us to don jellabiyas and dance around the ship like fools. We and the Belgians are spoilsports. Carl wants no part of it, but in the privacy of our cabin, I have to try on one of these flowing white gowns, so perfectly suited to the heat and sun. I step out the door, and the guys cheer. Below deck, the Italians and Germans join forces and frolic into the night.

During a morning of touring tombs, the most impressive of which was that of Nefertari, in the Valley of the Queens, our chatty guide Marcus talks and talks until we were ready to tip him to stop. I make up silly puns in my head to block him out: “I got plenty Akhenaten, Aknahten’s plenty for me.” He is especially eager to point out statues of Min, the ancient god of reproduction, whose private parts “were hacked off by the Christians,” and he directs our eyes across the sand toward archeologists from Poland who are excavating in the Valley of the Kings.

We lounge aboard the ship for a while and then walk to the Luxor Museum and St. Mary’s Church, which turns out to be our guide’s church. We were greeted by a man whom I insult by asking, “And who are you?” “I am the priest,” he replies, “and this is my church.” He is so unpriestlike and the church so run down and dirty. I suppose I was comparing his dusty sanctuary to the cathedrals of Europe, and instead of Renaissance and Medieval art and statuary we get dusty, insipid 20th-century paintings of Christian scenes and images of a prettified white Jesus. “The church is 100 years old,” says the priest, “Coptic Christians are about ten percent of the Egyptian population, and have coexisted for hundreds of years,” indeed, “by 300 AD, Alexandria had become one of the great Christian centers of the world.”

Later, over beers in a secluded lounge, our guide tells us about his life as a Christian in Luxor. The Coptic couple who went with us on our day tour concurred with him. “It is not difficult to be Christian in Egypt,” they agreed. “We have friends,” she said. “We coexist,” he said.

The next day, we finish another morning of tours in Luxor and Karnak, where we are shown a rare unvandalized Min statue, his phallus rubbed shiny by tourist fingers. We sun for a while on the ship’s deck and then walk through Luxor on our own. Hawkers and shopkeepers are on high alert, ready to bargain. We appear to be the only game in town. In one shop, to be devilish, I ask for statues of Min. “It’s forbidden to display them,” one shopkeeper says, winking and pullling out a small statue that is fifty percent phallus. We laugh as they play their sneaky naughty-boy roles; there is a conspiratorial look in their eyes–and something bordering on fear. “Shukran,” I thank him as he squirrels the forbidden fruit away.

We arrange for a plane to take us back to Cairo. We take a last look at the Valley of the Kings, and I wonder how it is possible that a people whose culture thrived for thousands of years before Jesus Christ or Mohammed walked the earth can be so thoroughly gone. The ancient Egyptians, their ideas, their buildings, even their bodies are curiosities now, to the guides and tourists alike, and to the merchants along the Nile. They are gone as all of us too shall be, all the young and all their longing. The mountains, sandy and brittle looking, jut up into the blue-gray sky and below them a stripe of green with palm trees and cars scooting down the roadway. Near the banks of the Nile, clumps of lotus plants float inland, their blossoms oblivious to the poison beneath. A little tugboat goes by, filthy, its cargo of black trash bags full of plastic bottles and broken chicken cages being tossed about by three young men in rags. Then, another passes and another.

I’m halucinating, high on the sight of all that tourist-generated garbage. I have a sudden image of one of those small transport boats capsizing and someone throwing shabby, cracked lifesavers to the drowning. I see my mother among them, frightened, wanting to live, nothing more than live, but I cannot save her. Suddenly I wonder what I am doing in Egypt, not knowing that in six months my mother will be dead, and I will not be able to save her.

It seems odd to be near so beautiful and legendary a body of water as the Nile and not be able touch it. You cannot drink it, cannot dip into it. You can only watch the herons wading near the faluccas.

Our favorite shop owner is alone today and turns the last-minute purchase of a few souvenirs into an ordeal. First we must sit and drink some Pepsi. Then come cigarettes. He carries on with minimal English about the value of his merchandise, which is pretty much identical to the stuff in every other souvenir stand—alabaster vases, stone obelisks, plaster tablets. “I have a gift, special for you,” he coaxes, with a buy-two-get-one-free offer. I offer him 20 pounds. “Ah, for 20 pounds you can have anything you like. For 20 pounds you can take me home,” he says with a leer, hands in the air.

In the next shop I offer 20 pounds to the proprietor. “My gift to you, and maybe you will give me a gift? What will you give me?” “For 20 pounds I give you me,” he says with a laugh, waving me away, “but not at the Sheraton because security there is so tight.”

Back on the cruise ship, three young attendants arrive at our cabin door to help us with our two suitcases. They eyeball the room curiously, so I offer them some magazines I was about to leave behind. “No sex?” he says as he tosses aside issues of The New Yorker and Travel & Leisure, hungrily looking for Playboy or Hustler or a glimpse of flesh, all of which would be illegal.

What will you remember about Egypt? I ask Carl. “The trip home,” he snaps, “and that damn train ride.” The cruise was relaxing, he admits, but “the falucca ride, I didn’t care for.” He repeats the story of his falucca excursion, taken while I nursed myself with immodium, and of the boatman scooping water out of the Nile and drinking it, after we had been warned not to stick so much as a toe in the water for fear of parasites. “Beggars, beggars, beggars,” Carl says, “sorry, but from the poorest to the rich, who must be making money off the beggars and hawkers.” He also expresses his skepticism about the shopkeeper who wrote our names in hyroglyphics, and his displeasure over the claustrophobia-inducing tight squeeze to get into one of the burial chambers in the pyramids: “I’d never tell anyone to go up in there!”

“Your memory will no doubt be that foolish camel ride at Giza,” Carl scolds. “I turn my back on you for one minute and there you are riding off on a camel!” I suppose it was pretty stupid, I admit, especially since I practically fell off and then got ripped off by the barker who overcharged me and made the camel speed around the pyramid until I said uncle.

No, my most vivid memories will not be of camels or mummies, they will be of the men who descended on me, flattering me, wanting to take my money, of the charming guides with their perfect English and burning desire to make Egypt appear to be a free and modern country where Christians and Muslims happily coexist. They will be of Sharif on the docked cruise ship, goading the voluptuous belly dancer to plant her red lips on my forehead. My memory will be of how these men liked to embarrass me, to tease me with their hidden erotic statuary, how they called Carl “Nubian” and seemed to look at him as an African coconspirator.

Five years after my first trip to Egypt, the world learned about the arrest and trial of the “Cairo 52,” men enjoying a party aboard a floating nightclub called the Queen Boat, moored on the Nile in Cairo. I cannot be sure, but it might have been the very boat where we enjoyed Cairo nightlife with Sharif. The “Cairo 52″ were tried for breaking “prostitution and debauchery” laws, as well violating a “public order and public morality” code. The trials were condemned by international human rights organizations and by the United Nations. However, the men had no organized internal support. Of the 52 men arrested, 50 were charged with “habitual debauchery” and “obscene behaviour.” All 52 men pleaded innocent but were subjected to beatings and forensic examinations to “prove their homosexuality.” The trials of the “Cairo 52″ lasted five months and the defendants were vilified in the Egyptian media and branded as agents against the State. Lawyers for the defense argued that the cases should be dismissed on the grounds of false arrest, improper arrest procedures, falsified evidence, and police intimidation, but 21 of the men were convicted of the “habitual practice of debauchery,” one man of “contempt for religion,” and another, accused of being the “ringleader,” was convicted of both charges and received the heaviest sentence, five years’ hard labour. One of the men was just a teenager and was tried in juvenile court and sentenced to the maximum penalty of three years in prison, to be followed by three years of probation. In 2002 the men were retried; 21 were handed three-year jail sentences and 29 were acquitted. It was during this time that Human Rights Watch published a report on the laws used by the Egyptian government to criminalize homosexuality, the history of the laws and the use of torture against gay and bisexual men by the police, and how such laws violate international human rights standards.

Thinking back on our 1996 trip to Egypt, I wonder if any of the men we met might have been among the “Cairo 52.” I do not know if Sharif was among them. I will probably never know.
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