Story and Photographs by Susan Farewell
Editor's Note: Egypt Now, the story below, was written in October of 2010. The country has always been an important destination for anyone interested in world travel. As it grows now beyond the recent course of events, it is destined to become an even more meaningful place to visit, as a true democracy in the making.
I was recently in Egypt, visiting some of the country’s extraordinary attractions. As I stepped up to enter the Great Pyramid of Giza, a young Egyptian man called out to me.
“Obama,” he shouted.
As he said our president’s name, his expression was welcoming, but at the same time, somewhat tentative. It was as if he was extending his friendship, but was unsure how it would be received.
This happened over and over again during my trip whether I was wandering through the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Old Cairo or looking at King Tut’s mummy in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. I was greeted with a simple, “Obama,” along with that same look of uncertainty. Every time that happened, I felt myself choking up, even teary.
I had been to Egypt many years ago and was moved by the warmth of the Egyptians. I had been invited into private homes, welcomed into wedding celebrations and greeted with overwhelming friendship wherever I went.
I was nervous about going back. I couldn’t help wondering whether I had romanticized my previous experience, perhaps because I was young, and that the Egypt of today would bear little resemblance to the Egypt of my memories. It didn’t take long to realize that when it comes to the Egyptian’s warmth and friendship, little had changed. As before, wherever I went, I felt welcome and comfortable.
The only thing that had changed was their apparent uncertainty about how they in turn would be treated by their guests.
After 9-11, many of the Arab countries found themselves rejected by some of their former visitors. Most of them neither fostered terrorism against us nor harbored the terrorists determined to carry it out. And yet they had been tarred with the same evil brush. While tourism to Egypt from North America has since turned around and, in fact, is quite strong now, there are still many people who are resistant, not wanting to travel to the Middle East during sensitive times.
Visiting there made me realize what a disservice this black and white attitude has become, not only to the Egyptians, but to ourselves.
Over the last several years, many people have denied themselves of one of the most extraordinary destinations in the world. When you see the pyramids and sphinx, the excavated treasures of the tombs, the temples that date back nearly 4000 years, your whole perspective on life changes. And when you see the people, who in general, are kind and peace-loving, you realize how tragic it is to turn your back on a culture such as this.
A friend of mine said “Egypt forces you to open your eyes.”
We all need to open our eyes and start seeing that in this polarized and sometimes frightening world, we need to distinguish governments from people, enemies from friends, the myths and stereotypes from the real. The best way to do that of course is to travel, leaving our prejudices at home. When we come back, they may be gone.
Photos, from top of page to bottom--Temple of Luxor; man sitting at a cafe in the Khan El Khalili bazaar in Old Cairo; a whirling dervish performing; man near pyramids. These photos by Susan Farewell.