“Is Israel a good country?” asked the captain. I was the sole passenger on a fifty-seat tourist boat sailing the river Nile some miles north of Cairo.
In 1991, accompanied by my wife and children we visited my sister who lives in Israel. I had read that Egypt had opened a consulate in Tel Aviv and you could fly directly to Cairo from Tel Aviv. I had resided in Israel during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 so the idea of visiting Egypt (Israel’s’ greatest foe during that war) was intriguing. It took a few days to get a visa and then I headed out to Ben-Gurion airport. Security in Israel has always been tight but this was ridiculous. An hour after I had checked in, the security guard, for the third time, asked me “Where do you live? Where did you park your car? Why are you travelling to Egypt? Why is your wife not travelling with you?” He disappeared. Obviously he smelled something fishy. I was getting nervous as it was nearing boarding time. When he returned, I started to talk in Hebrew, My Hebrew stinks but I can get by. His attitude changed.
“Where did you learn Hebrew?” he asked. “In Scotland, for my Bar mitzvah” I said; I also added, “I lived here in the early seventies.” That smoothed the way and I was allowed to board the plane. I learned later from a friend who worked for Israeli Security that I probably had fit a particular profile; I had come to Israel with my family and was now travelling to Egypt alone.
Egypt Air was a disaster. The plane was packed and people had bags everywhere. They were stacked high in the aisle, on people’s laps and under the seats. I expected the stewardess to do something about the clutter but she didn’t seem to care and the plane took off. After we landed in Cairo about an hour later, the plane came to a full stop. Just when everyone was retrieving their bags, the plane started to move at high speed to another gate. We held on for dear life.
Traffic in Cairo is wondrous. I took a cab from the airport to my hotel and the driver never slowed down or stopped at any traffic lights. At one point we approached an intersection with a red light; there was a policeman standing in the middle of the road holding a stop sign. We whizzed past. The Corniche is a divided highway paralleling the Nile. My hotel overlooked it and the river. One morning my driver left the hotel and approached the Corniche. At the “No Left Turn” sign he suddenly turned left into three lanes of oncoming traffic, miraculously maneuvered to the center divider, crossed it then joined the flow on the other side. We survived. I suddenly realized why the Egyptians often say, “Inch’ Allah” (God willing).
Because of the recent gulf war, Cairo was empty of tourists. This made access to all the sights really easy. One morning I went to the Cairo Museum at 8a.m. there was no one there. Because of the low humidity, the exhibits are either free standing or behind simple glass cases. I visited the section dedicated to Tutankhamen (King Tut) In New York, many years ago I had seen the King Tut exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum. It was a whistle-stop tour with timed tickets and guards urging crowds to “move along please”. This time it was a delight. I was alone with the complete collection, and of course the famous golden death mask, for over an hour. There were rooms and rooms of Tutankhamen’s artifacts, many more than the smattering shown at the Met.
That afternoon I made the compulsory visit to the pyramids at Giza. I am somewhat claustrophobic and with great reluctance was about to enter The Great Pyramid, when my guide offered an alternative: horse back riding around the periphery; in those days you could ride right up to the structures and fairly close to the Sphinx. This seemed much more appealing and struck a romantic chord. Riding on the edge of the Sahara really was spectacular.
Later that day we visited Saqqara, which was an ancient burial ground. The pyramids there are much older and smaller than the ones at Giza. One of them was open. I approached the entrance, looked at the two-foot square entrance tunnel and immediately turned around. I then stopped and told myself that I would probably never come here again and not going inside was a mistake. I returned to the entrance. An older American couple was there and the man was nervous about going in. Showing bravado, I convinced him to enter with me. Little did he know I was using him as a crutch. Halfway down the tunnel there was a wide opening above us that allowed us to stand up. He and I needed some space to reduce the panic. After we calmed down, we continued. I never told him that high above that space dangled a massive stone block, probably the original seal of the corridor. The main chamber was airless and dimly lit. An empty stone sarcophagus sat in the center guarded by a tall man in a galabeya (traditional cotton robe). The insides of the pyramid were rather disappointing and made all that effort seem pointless. My friend turned to me and said, “Let’s go”. When we exited he couldn’t thank me enough for my help.
As Egypt was short of tourists at that time I managed to hire a driver for the princely sum of $35 per day. His name was Omar. One day he suggested a Nile cruise. We drove north along the river for about an hour. The boat was empty save for the captain and a 12-year-old boy, his mate. The captain’s English was good and we negotiated a price: $30 for 2 hours. He told me would see many famous residences where notables lived in the summer. At some point he started to play some very mournful music on his sound system. Umm Kulthum was Egypt’s most famous singer. Her style and vocal ability was renowned throughout the Arab world. As we sailed passed her house on the banks of the Nile, the Captain asked, “Is Israel a good country?” In the hope of having a meaty political discussion with someone local, I told him that I had come from Israel. I replied that it was a good country. He then continued,
“Do they have video stores in Israel?”
“Yes.” I replied.
“Do they have adult video stores?”
“Yes” I said again.
“How much jail time do you get in Israel for watching an adult video?” he asked.
I turned the question around, “How much jail time do you get in Egypt?”
“Six months minimum,” he said.
“In Israel you just go into the store, choose a video and take it home,” I countered.
His eyes widened, “Sounds like a good country.”