Egypt: Before the Revolt

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By David Abel | Globe Staff  | 4/15/2011

CAIRO — In historical terms, it was eons before Tahrir Square became a symbol of liberty.

A month before a popular revolt here swept out decades of authoritarian rule, when the only sign of dissent we encountered was grumbling about a system impervious to change, a clean-shaven young man with a bright smile would not allow me to politely decline what seemed a kind offer.

“You are my brother,’’ he had said with affable persistence a few hours earlier over the phone, though he had never heard of me before that moment. “Get your bags together. You’re staying with me. I have a flat ready for you.’’

My wife, Jessica Leffler, and I had reached Ahmed Adel, a friend of a friend of a friend, shortly after our dawn arrival in the center of what was then a different kind of chaos, when the first tinny call to prayer rings from minaret to minaret, as if trying to muffle the less pious bleating of taxi horns and police whistles. We had agreed to meet at a cafe just off Tahrir Square — an otherwise obscure intersection in the middle of the city — where we had hoped he would help us arrange a tour of the pyramids.

The meeting would be our first lesson in the difficulty of deciphering intentions, calculating risks, and calibrating how to haggle during a 10-day trip through Egypt.

When we met Adel at the cafe and invited him to sit for a drink, he told us he had a car waiting and insisted we come to his house, where he said his mother was preparing dinner. More than an hour later, we arrived at his concrete building in a village with dirt roads, heaps of burning trash, and lots of stray animals — well south of Cairo.

“This is where you’re staying,’’ he insisted as he brought us a plate of fruit and rice-stuffed cabbage leaves in a spare, drafty room lighted by one fluorescent bulb.

As the evening wore on, Adel put me on the phone with his cousin to discuss our pyramid tour. The cousin had a package that went well beyond what we wanted — for nearly $1,000 a person. It was at that point — a moment similar to what we would experience repeatedly as we ventured across Egypt without the convenience of a package tour — that we insisted it was time to go.

Still, for nearly every encounter fraught with dubious motives, we experienced random acts of kindness, such as when we came back to our hotel that night and the owner, Mohamed El-Naggar, greeted us with a tray of cakes and candles for my birthday. “You are welcome,’’ he said, repeating a mantra we heard frequently.

At the least, as we parried touts hawking everything from spices to camel rides and police pushing illicit tours of ancient temples for a small payment, we honed our negotiating skills. That helped as we made our way from the traffic-choked maze of Cairo to the vast emptiness of the western deserts to the southern cataracts of the Nile River and ultimately to the Sinai Peninsula.

But first we had to learn how to cross the street in Cairo, where there are next to no stoplights and the traffic police hold little sway against the crush of diesel-chuffing vehicles. The key, we were told, was using the residents as human shields and following them as they waded through the traffic.

With that knowledge, we made it to the city’s important sites: the Egyptian Museum, which features mummies and relics of King Tut’s tomb; the towering mosques of the Islamic section; and the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, where we devoured our first tahini-drizzled falafel, downed fresh-squeezed juices, and browsed for baubles. We also visited less frequented sites, including the Art Nouveau-styled Chaar-Hachamaim synagogue, one of the few remaining Jewish temples in the Arab world, and Al-Azhar Park, a strangely pristine oasis of gardens and fountains that provided an especially peaceful perch at sunset, when the city’s pollution gilds the dusk in a fiery haze.

We devoted a day to exploring the pyramids of Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur, where with throngs we gawked in awe at the precise lines of the massive crypts, some of which have defied the harsh sun and pummeling winds for more than 4,000 years. We also marveled at their proximity to the city and the surrounding squalor.

Afterward, we took a six-hour bus ride to Bahariyya, a small town built around an oasis in the Sahara, where we joined an overnight jeep tour of the Black and White deserts. Our guide, Hamad Hamdy, drove more than 100 miles per hour down a desolate road, past black, volcano-shaped hills, to the Dalíesque spires of the White Desert. We spent the night sleeping on the cold sand beneath a canopy of stars and a full moon.

In the morning, as the large, glowing moon disappeared in a cloudless sunrise, we noticed a bushy-tailed fox prowling for crumbs from the chicken dinner Hamdy had cooked over an open fire. “They’re part of the tour,’’ Hamdy said after we noticed its footprints beside our sleeping bags. “We feed tourists to him, if we don’t like them.’’

When we returned to Cairo, we found our way through the crowded metro to the overnight train to Aswan, the most southern city in Egypt. We awoke the next morning in the balmier climes along the Nile and sought help from the nearby tourist office in arranging a two-day sail on a felucca, a traditional wooden sailboat.

We experienced the same problem as elsewhere. Hakeem Hussein, the director of the tourist office, said he would arrange a trip for us, but it would cost more than five times what our guidebook said we should pay. “Your book is out of date,’’ he insisted, pressing us to hurry.

We ended up paying half the price Hussein quoted, which was still nearly double what others on our boat had paid. It was another frustrating experience, but the anger dissolved once we set sail. A cool breeze swept over the old boat, propelling us past reed-covered cliffs and skinny cattle. Later, when we docked for the night, our hashish-smoking captain took us to his concrete house, where he offered us sugar-filled tea and his son sold us a wooden crocodile.

The felucca ride ended abruptly early the next morning. We floated across the river and the captain told us to carry our backpacks up a steep bank, where a minibus was waiting to take us three hours north to Luxor, the tourist haven often described as “the world’s greatest open-air museum.’’

We stopped along the way to see the towering temples in Kom Ombo and Edfu, both of which retain ornate hieroglyphics and towering columns. We passed multiple police checkpoints — the legacy of terrorist attacks over the past decade — until we came upon a large, menacing portrait of the recently deposed long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak in dark sunglasses, the welcome sign to Luxor.

When we arrived, the minibus driver asked for triple what we expected to pay. As we argued, a dapper man with designer glasses and a sleek suit appeared out of nowhere and insisted, despite our protests, that he would pay the difference. “You are welcome,’’ he said, refusing to take our money.

We spent two days combing through the vast array of temples and tombs. The size and grace of the temple complex of Karnak, which once employed some 80,000 people and until recently welcomed nearly as many tourists daily, was overwhelming.

When we finished exploring the antiquities, we caught a five-hour bus to Hurghada, an aging resort on the Red Sea, where we boarded a 30-minute flight across the bright blue water to Sharm el-Sheikh. From the city on the southern tip of the Sinai, we bargained with a hotel shuttle driver to take us to Dahab, a rocky outpost about an hour north on the rugged coast, where we finally had a few days to relax.

We spent the time lounging at pillow-filled restaurants along the water, where we negotiated prices for dinner; diving along untrammeled reefs and beside barracuda, where the only sharks were those wheedling us for more cash; and climbing to the top of Mount Sinai, where again we had to haggle at hovels along the way to stay warm.

At the end, exhausted yet enlightened, Jess and I rolled north along a mountainous road in a minibus, drifting between sleep and stress about the final challenge of negotiating how to cross the border into Israel.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.