Today's email from an old friend stirred-up some memories about my trip to Egypt.
I was there exactly four years ago. It was actually never my intention to go to Egypt. The trip was a course requirement for my doctoral program. Not only am I not particularly interested in Egypt, the trip was expensive----------a month-log jaunt of feluccas and hotel rooms along the Nile, beginning at Aswan in the South, then to Luxor, and finally Cairo. I completely detest the idea of travelling with a group. I also detest the idea of travelling "for fun" to places where the inhabitants are poor. I tried to wheedle my way out of this field trip but was very firmly rebuffed by administrative-minded types at the school. No matter what, they were hell-bent on having me go. Everyone else was going, so I had to go too. I was furious. The kind of furious where you get teary-eyed from helpless rage. I was busy. I had classes. I was in the middle of a research project. I was working on a dig in the Old City. I had a billion other things to do than waste my time on a superficial pleasure-jaunt to another country, particularly one where our guide for the duration of the trip (one of the priest-professors) was an idiot. It was stupid and small-minded of them to make me go.
Since I was being forced, I determined to go on my own terms. So I maneuvered. I had heard that an acquaintance of mine was in Egypt. This acquaintance---I'll call him F--is an architect and an archaeologist. He is very specialized when it comes to archaeology. His current job is to reconstruct ancient Egyptian temples and monuments at Karnak and Thebes. He has spent thirty years in the field, has published about a million books and article, speaks Arabic like a native, and is one of those handsome, easy-going, funny / charming gay types whose company is always a pleasure. My friend R, another archaeologist, has worked with F in the past and was planning on meeting up with him in Luxor a week or so later. I announced to F and R that I would be joining them. They both found this hysterical and agreed. So I informed the school of my plans. The school was in no position to object, since not only would I be going to Egypt, but my "chaperones" outranked the moron-guide they had selected to accompany the other students. And this is how I got to see Egypt in January 2011: accompanied by two archaeologists who actually lived / worked in Egypt, knew all the great non-tourist things to see and do, all the great places to eat, and spoke fluent Arabic.
I won't bore you (or myself) with long descriptions of all the tombs, monuments, and quarries we saw over the month of January. I also won't burden you with the logistics of mud-brick architecture (I am now an expert) or the bizarre graveyards of stone inscriptions we got to see. I will say that I cursed myself every day of that trip for stubbornly deciding to bring ALL my books with me in case I found some time to study (which I did). I will also mention that the sunset over the island of Elephantine is one of the most enchanting sights I have ever seen, and that the view of the Nile made hazy in the early morning light is breathtaking. Of course I was having a great time. But I didn't have time to have a great time. If that makes any sense.
Anyway, fast-forward to January 20th, and random texts started to come through, announcing a nation-wide protest planned for the 25th. We didn't think much of it at the time, except "good for them!" (Mubarak sucked). There had been similar rumblings in Syria, but we had no issues there. Fast forward to the 25th at our hotel in downtown Cairo, and suddenly a massive shift took place. A great change. You could literally feel the electricity in the air. A sudden deadly calm. And then pandemonium on a truly grand scale. Chaos in the streets. Chaos everywhere. And we were completely cut-off from the outside world: all cellular phone access blocked, all internet access blocked. Flaming government buildings, great rallying cries, screams, gunshots, vigilante justice in our neighborhood (complete with machetes), backlogs of traffic, a free-for-all. Danger. Excitement. Unease. I can't describe it. I have never experienced anything like it, and I probably won't ever again.
We made it to the airport three days later after waiting 7 hours in a queue of traffic.
The airport was jam-packed. Actually, it was a dangerous suffocating mob.
I saw pregnant women being pushed over. I saw elderly people being thrown onto the ground. Everyone was shouting and screaming and it all looked very much like wall street stock market during a financial crisis (multiplied by about 1000). It was desperation and fear and I saw the very worst in people. In terms of administration, the airport was completely deserted: no security guards, no operatives, not a one. There was no food, no water (we used the taps in the bathroom). The terminal was littered with garbage. R absentmindedly kicked at a plastic bag lying on the ground and it turned out to be full of BLOOD. At one point (after waiting in line for almost 20 hours) we just sat on the floor and smoked cigarettes and drank beer (I had packed beer in my suitcase along with toilet paper and all my books) in an airport in a Muslim country! No one was there to say anything about it.
We caught the very last flight out of Cairo. We were lucky. We only had to wait about 36 hours. We detoured to Paris. Then made the trip back to Jerusalem.
I hadn't washed or slept in about 5 days. I hadn't been able to contact my family (no phone or internet availability in Egypt during the revolution) and was worried that they would be frantic. So, upon returning to my room, I tried to shower (no hot water!). I then checked my email for a note from my parents. Nothing. Just an email from my sister complaining about the weather in Canada. I flashed back for a second to Auden's reflections on Bruegel, but mostly I was too tired to care. So I crawled filthily into bed and slept like the dead.