The Egyptians We Met

When I told my friends and extended family last fall that I was going to Egypt for three weeks with my dad, they all said, "Wow! What a wonderful opportunity! Are you sure it's safe?" After I came back from my trip to Egypt, the same people said to me, "Welcome Back! I want to hear all about your trip. Did you feel safe?"

Well, perhaps, I am a little naive, but it never crossed my mind that I would not be safe. I had plenty of other friends, European, American, Arab who frequented Egypt often, some lived and worked there and they loved it. I was eager to see what they described.
My trip to Egypt started and ended in one of the great metropolises of the world - Cairo. It is undoubtedly one of the most intense cities I have ever visited. (Keep in mind I grew up in Hong Kong and Tokyo). During the three weeks, we went as north as Alexandria (which is located right on the Mediterranean) and as far south as Abu Simbel (close to the Sudanese border). That is a lot of distance to cover in three weeks, but a country like Egypt that has over 5100 years of history is crammed with sites, architecture, stories, people and artifacts and we wanted to see as much of it as possible. Even then, I know, we barely scratched the surface.
Now that I am back in Los Angeles and I have had time to ponder my trip and upload my 1000 digital images, whilst I remain in complete awe of the sites I saw, my fondest memories of this trip (aside from the precious time I spent with my father) were my exchanges with the people of Egypt. We met wonderful people.

That is not to say however, we weren't harassed by shopkeepers, felucca owners, horse carriage drivers and any other poor Egyptian desperate for foreign currency, we were. But you can't go to Egypt without noticing the poverty and once you realize that many of these people are just trying to survive, the occasional barrage becomes a little less exhausting. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to practice my Arabic. But the people I am talking about are the ones who so generously shared their lives, their time, their culture, their country with us, random strangers, expecting nothing in return. We loved their sense of humor. So many of the Egyptians we met simply loved to laugh and as much as they would tease, they were equally self deprecating. And while on occasion, there were language barriers, laughter is always universal.
Now, I ask that you indulge me my trip down memory lane, as I reminisce about some of the people we met:

There was Mohamed, an attorney by training, a incurable romantic, who thought he might be able to travel the world if he bypassed law and worked in the tourism industry. Months later, disillusioned and over-worked having only seen only the inside of the airport and every other hotel in Cairo, his dream was now only to save up US$10,000 and build a farm.
There was Yasser, who seemed much more happy-go-lucky, always with smile and a story rich with drama to share; who bragged about his girlfriend from China who was visiting him shortly. His face lit up when I told him I lived in Los Angeles, as if he could experience the city by my mere presence.

Mena was soft spoken and gentle, with curly black hair and glasses. He was proud to show his city of Aswan and so concerned about my and my father's ability to navigate the streets of Aswan that he almost got in his car to search for us, when we had not returned to our hotel room at 7:30PM one day.

Then there were the two men who worked on the boat we sailed down the Nile. I never got their names. Responsible for cleaning our cabins, they left towels folded in the shape of animals on our beds, hanging off the vents. And every day when I returned to my cabin, they rushed to my room, just to see my reaction. Content that I was pleased, they would leave and continue their 14 hour work day. When they realized that I was trying to learn Arabic, they started teaching me new words each day.
The Maitre D' at the Lotus Restaurant in Aswan, who repeatedly gave me and my dad freshly brewed cups of Egyptian coffee for free for no other reason than he knew we enjoyed them. (Egyptian coffee tasted to me like a hybrid of masala tea and an espresso).

There was the simple driver who was responsible for taking us to Aswan Airport. Upon learning that my dad is from Pakistan, he took down from his rear view mirror his prized rosary beads that he had acquired during his pilgrimage to Mecca and presented them to my father as a token of friendship.

Ahmed took a day off work to take us around Cairo. We were complete strangers, and yet he took the time to thoughtfully plan a day of unusual sites and experiences for us. He was so humble about his incredible depth of knowledge. I learned so much from him - not only about the 19th and 20th century architecture of Cairo, but he openheartedly shared his thoughts and frustrations about the state of Egypt and thus gave us insights we would not have had otherwise. And he also introduced us to Saleh.
Saleh is a 70 year old man who is the sole resident in an extraordinarily breathtaking jewel of a building. There are intricate centuries-old carvings on the facade of the building and beautiful stained glass windows, skylights and chandeliers on the interior. The first two stories of the building have been demolished by the owner of the building. Saleh lives on the fourth floor, alone, trying to save the building. Our visit was unannounced, but he welcomed us into his home like we were old friends. He offered us tea and peeled us oranges, insistent on demonstrating on the best of Arab hospitality. While he said his prayers, he opened his home to us, two complete strangers to wander around, to snoop, to photograph. So proud and generous he was to share his home, his life, his culture.
And lastly there was tiny combustible Dina, no more than 5 ft tall, yet bursting with energy and enthusiasm. She shared her life, her work, her knowledge, her neighborhood and her frustrations and hopes for Egypt. And when I came home, she emailed me to check if I was safe from the fires that swept through the Malibu.

While I have a exquisite copper lantern that hangs in my living room that I purchased from a young multi-lingual shopkeeper in Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, the memories of these people ultimately are my best souvenirs.

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