Thank you Dr. B M Saraf for this piece of writing, and have dared to share this without your permission, do forgive me for this. This wonderful piece of travel writing needs a good audience.
The Egyptian holiday was many things to many people. For me, it was the culmination of the adolescent dream triad of travel to Greece, Italy and Egypt. For my husband it was a “spousal duty to discharge his responsibility to the wife” . For my mother who is all and more a Bengali mother, it was the beginning of a nightmare (as it is each time her progeny travel), except that this time it could have been one.
The rumbling of warnings and notes of caution were struck ever since the explosion outside the Coptic church in Cairo, and then Tunisia. These coincided with our planning of the “family holiday”, itself a wondrous and rare event at the best of times, a seven-day package tour of Egypt with a Nile cruise from 24 to 30 January. As state subjects of J&K and living in this country through decades of trouble, we were undeterred and flew out of Delhi as scheduled, reading Amitav Ghosh’s masterpiece on Egypt, In an Antique Land. By the time we landed we wanted to visit Coptic Cairo, Ben Ezra’s synagogue and the Fustat, all of which were not part of the programme.
The tour programme was hectic but full of promise anyway. We had had it tailored for us and it had Alexandria thrown in on request. By the time the tour operator appeared we were ready to extend it to other parts of Cairo. He was very helpful. He wanted us to go to Alexandria before doing Cairo, as the former was a three hour journey by car and a one day visit. Driving to the Hotel from Cairo airpot we did our round of friendly questions and being Indians who cannot steer clear of politics, also asked if there was a Tunisia effect in Egypt. He smiled saying there were some small sporadic outburst in some areas of Alexandria and Cairo, because people wanted change. There was unemployment, poverty and the usual problems that plague a third world country. Nothing to worry. We would set out for Alexandria the next morning at 7. At 6am I received a message from by brother in Delhi : Hi! Read in the papers about turmoil in Egypt. Pls SMS that all is well. Shala! Gopal Gelo Bonge Kopal Gelo Shange. As usual the media are exaggerating, I thought as I sent a All Is Well message back.
The drive from Cairo to Alexandria was remarkable for the singularly unremarkable landscape around, except for an abundance of birdhouse scarecrows in the scattered fields. Alexandria itself was spectacular. We spent a beautiful morning at Pompey’s Pillar. On the way to the next stop, the Roman theatre, passing through the streets of the city, the first sign of unrest was discernible. There were closed black vans full of riot police huddled inside dressed in black, lining the streets. I pushed away the discomfort with two cruel daughters pooh-poohing my disaster imagination and concentrated on the trip. We spent a dream day in Alexandria returning to Cairo in the evening. The next morning Alexandria had erupted, as we were to learn later.
Cairo itself was a tourist’s dream. 26th January passed of peacefully with a visit to the Giza pyramids and we only wondered what happened to the BJP flag hoisting plans. We were hailed everywhere as Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachan, Kareena Kapoor, Rani Mukher gee (the last syllable as in geese) and even Amjad Khan! We felt very loved and wanted. The Fustat area had the familiar black police vans. It was the visit to Coptic Cairo and the police presence there with traffic movement controls that signaled that all was not well. The government was not taking chances in a sensitive quarter and that was reassuring. A curfew had been imposed since the explosion three weeks ago, from 4 pm and we had to clear out.
On the visit to the Egyptian museum, we had seen a rally being addressed in a building , apparently occupied by the Press, but it was small, with familiar cadences. We moved around in the city, Tahrir Square and Al-Azhar area, the Khan-e Khalili Market, we boarded the train at 8.30 pm to Aswan where our cruise would begin. There was no inkling of trouble. By 10 pm the National Democratic Party building was on fire and Cairo had erupted. Oblivious, we headed for Aswan.
Aswan is the mouth of the Nile in Egypt with the high dam on one side built over Lake Nasser bordering Sudan and Egypt. It is inhabited by people of Egyptian and Nubian origins. We asked our guide the usual polite question, whether there was any trouble in the small sleepy town. He smiled lazily and told us that there was ‘something’ in Cairo and Alexandria. Aswan, on the Nile is breathtaking in its beauty and tranquility. After a visit to the unfinished obelisk, we boarded our ship to check in and have lunch. Later, we went for a felucca ride, around the banks of the Nile. The felucca is a small boat and it gives a glimpse of the ruins along the river as well as the Botanical garden and the land allegedly bought by the Aga Khan for his burial. He is reported to regularly visit Aswan for treatment in the Aswan sands which have healing properties. We went back to the ship to sail out in the evening.
The ship itself was like a fair sized five star hotel on water. After a sumptuous meal there was a ‘jelabeyya party’. Not in the mood for fancy dress, we played cards in our suite instead till we were ready to drop off. We had tried TV but could not tune into an English speaking channel. Al Jazeera was on air and we saw some of the footage from Cairo and Alexandria, without knowing which was which. We did a “sannu ki ai” and retired.
Coming down for breakfast the next morning, the 28th I noticed armed guards at the entrance to the ship. They had’nt been there the night before. Clearly, all was not well. We were docked in Kom-Omumgo and the grand temple was right on the bank. Everything was just so and picture post-cardish. We sailed after the temple tour to Edfu for a visit to the Edfu temple before sailing to Luxor, our final destination, from where we were to fly back to India. At Edfu, a very small town, we saw a small rag-tag procession, carrying ‘lathis’, contained by the police. They looked , as my husband remarked, “bhade ke”, but I was left with a sense of premonition.
When the tour programme had come we had been surprised that we would fly out of Luxor. I had even felt a little cheated as I would have liked to go back to Cairo to shop at leisure before we left. But as things turned out, it was to be the greatest stroke of luck. Luxor, with its historical importance is not only a popular tourist destination, but also its economy depends almost entirely on tourism. We were to be there two days. The guide assured us that it was too far from the big cities to be affected by the protests and processions there. We saw the amazing Hatshepsut Temple and the Valley of the Kings all through the morning. Travelling in the stark desert interior where these are located, the sense of remoteness from all possible worlds was palpable. However, we needed to cross to the east side of Luxor to change currency. It was there that that sense was broken. There were small contingents of people, mostly youth , all men, and a large police presence. We stopped to drink sugar cane juice, a paradisal drink in Luxor, the largest producer of sugar cane in Egypt. It was on the TV at the juice shop that we had our English speaking guide tell us what Al Jazeera was reporting. The images were unbelievable, because of the rapid escalation of the violence evident in them. We had just left those cities behind! That night there was no TV signal on the ship.
By 30th morning tourist cancellation were being received. People were worried about their livelihood. The streets on our way to the Karnak and Luxor temples in the city were thronging with armed youth and also old men and women. They were guarding their homes, apparently from officials who were to demolish them with meager recompense and no alternative residences. There was discontent on many counts. Poverty, unemployment, urban development which did not factor in social justice , and a government which people perceived to be authoritarian, corrupt and uncaring. A stretch of land between the two temples, funded by the UNESCO was under excavation to be restored to its ancient glory. In its wake it would demolish existing structures like the oldest and largest Coptic church in Luxor , the two-year old Suzan Mubarak library and a huge children’s high school, to identify only a few. People felt the Government’s apathy to their real needs. I wondered how long Luxor’s famed “love for tourists” would last in the face of these onslaughts and perceived injustices.
The last leg of the city’s tour was to evoke memories of the 1984 riots in Delhi. Police guard and protection had allegedly been withdrawn to punish the people. People were talking about gangsters being released from prisons with a free hand to loot. In the city in search of a restaurant for lunch, we chanced upon a demonstration 100 metres away from us. Just short of it was a street where men with lathis and cutlasses were ordering passing vehicles to turn back. They were the employees of hotels with tourists , who were readying themselves for impending attacks on the hotels by the mob. Establishments and residents had raised their own defence forces. We went back to the ship to be picked up at 4 pm for the airport. Going back to Cairo was impossible and inadvisable. Many tourists flying out to and from Cairo had to stay back. We thanked our lucky stars we were not among them.
That night the National Democratic party headquarters in Luxor was set on fire.