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     Volume 4 Issue 11 | September 3 , 2004 |

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An Egyptian
Travel Diary

Part I

Farhan Quddus

Flying at 20,000 feet across the deserts of Qatar, heading over into North Africa, the view down below is strange. Giant dark circles resembling huge ink blotches litter the golden wasteland. I assume these are dried-out oil fields, but from where I am sitting they look like mysterious crop signs of the desert. The mysteries of Egypt is already baffling me and we have not even touched the soil yet! The captain announces that we are 30 minutes from Cairo airport and I lean back on my first class seat with a plate of "assorted mezze" by my side. If ever a travel agent gets any perks at all in this dreadful business that we are in, it's the free travel and the "familiarisation" trips that we are rewarded with once in a while; and this time around Qatar Airways Country Manager is the generous host, taking ten agents and two airline officials to explore this ancient land and the possibilities of out bound tours from Bangladesh.

Cairo Airport is huge and old but bustling with tourists. Waiting in an endless line at the immigration counter makes me want to cry out for the luxury of ZIA International!! Once through the customs, we collect our luggage and hold onto our possessions fighting off porters and helpers until rescued by our tour operator Ibrahim Bayoumi who helps us board the coach. Ahhh Cairo! What a feeling. This is a real sense of achievement as we start a 4-day tour of the city. Cairo: the "mother of all civilizations"; a monster metropolis going back 1500 years. Cairo: the city of a 1,000 minarets. The ride from the airport to our hotel is long but interesting as we watch the evening's heavy traffic clog the streets. Cairo is a city bursting at the seams. Densely populated with over 12 million people, driving in this city is one hand on the horn and a fist waving out of the window!

We finally reach Zoser Partner Hotel, a five-star property on the avenues of the pyramids, a busy touristy area. As we enter the hotel, black uniformed commando-looking policemen check our bags. They are intimidating, but it's comforting to know that Egyptians mean business when it comes to fighting terrorism. After the massacre of foreign tourists several years ago, the Government cracked down on militants with a vengeance. Before checking into our rooms Ibrahim chalks out the plan of action for the evening and we are all going to an evening dinner cruise on the Nile complete with whirling dervishes and belly dancers. Egypt in March is chilly; in fact, it is cold on the sidewalks of the Nile, where you will find hundreds of these cruise riverboats with ushers hassling you to step into "Five Star Nile Cruise Boats". March is peak season and these boats don't wait long for tourists to cram the decks. At any given moment you have over 100-300 boats plying the river with blaring music and flickering lights on deck. The view is absolutely gorgeous and festive. Cairo comes to life when the sun sets!

On board we watch a flamboyant MC take the mike and break into Frank Sinatra songs the moment he spots a large group of American tourists. Dinner is a buffet spread, much to my disappointment. These cruises are commercial and the choice of food is definitely for the western tourists - potato salad, beef stroganoff, pasta, cold chicken slices with the token selection of hummus and falafel is not my idea of Egyptian culinary extravaganza. The MC introduces a man in a frock and tight pajamas wearing a fez and a waistcoat. The band breaks into fast-tempo mid eastern music and our "swirling" dervish starts his gyrations! For those of you who have not witnessed a dancing dervish before, this is probably the hardest way to make a living, as you are likely to die of migraines or excess vomiting!! Our fez-wearing friend starts to spin like a propeller at speeds not humanly possible. The man's frock blossoms into a parachute; threatening to take off and whiz away like a chopper. At one point I am about to leap forward and tie him down with a rope just so that I won't spill my dinner all over everybody!! The dervish leaves with a thunderous applause and a sigh of relief and the "star" of the show walks onto center stage. "Miss Laila" takes the stage with the glamour and finesse worthy of a Hollywood screen diva. Belly dancers are huge celebrities in Egypt; this art form is highly respected. She has the crowd eating from her hand. Sheepish looking husbands and boyfriends nervously smile as she dances around them undulating her voluptuous body like a snake, dazzled by this enchanting woman sporting an emerald on her navel! Perfectly timed, the boat slows down and anchors on the jetty just around the time our belly dancer blows air kisses and bows to the guests before running off into the night. Three hours of heavy-duty entertainment on the Nile…

Next morning, the conversation at breakfast is more about the finer art of belly dancing than the splendors of the pyramids, temples and museums. Huddled around tables we sit with our steaming bowls of "fuul medammes" (a thick hearty chick-pea stew with slivers of meat and spices), plates of feta cheese and olives while "Brother Ibrahim" briefs us of the day's plans. It is a glorious Friday morning on the avenues of the Pyramids and our first destination is the Cairo Museum, but since we are all up bright and early and the museum doesn't open till 10, we decide to board our bus and go to the banks of the Nile. The cruise boats are all lined up on the side, in a few hours the engines will be roaring again to take visitors along the river. It's 9:30 am and all is quiet and peaceful here as the oldest city in the world sleeps during the weekly holiday.

After a series of group photos on the Nile, we reach the Cairo Museum and realise why the rest of the city is so quiet; everybody and everybody is here!! Hundreds of busloads of tourists wearing brightly colored tour-group tokens on their clothing clamor around the closed gates of the Cairo Museum. Our guide Yasser has friends at the security gate and we are herded in through the crowds to the Gardens of the Museum. Cairo Museum has not lost its façade since the days of Howard Carter and his partners who discovered the Tomb of Tut en Khamon. Yasser is a graduate of Egyptology and a licensed guide, speaks four languages and can answer any question you may have on Egypt and anything else that is of importance. He tells us that it takes four years to graduate from University with this degree and there are internships to be done. Herding tourists around is not as easy a task as it looks, and we understand why when we enter the

Museum. Each group must have a tour leader and they systematically start to cover this ancient building from bottom to top. The trail is like a train network, one group moves on to the next exhibit and the second takes that place. Yasser explains how most of the priceless Egyptian exhibits are now housed in London or Paris thanks to colonialism and ignorance on the part of the Egyptian authorities. There was a time in the late 19th and early 20th century when one could dig the ground in Egypt and walk away with whatever they could get their hands on. In the case of "Nefertiti", there is not one priceless bust remaining in Egyptian custody. The most popular bust which has replicas around the world is actually in Germany!

Cairo Museum is huge and one needs four hours of concentration, good walking shoes, plenty of water and an open mind to take in so much information. After two hours of being ushered into room after room, climbing stairs, walking through corridors, I give up the tour with the pretext that my hip problem is acting up and I need to rest. The place is so gigantic that I lose my way and I ask a "friendly" attendant for directions to the exit. He walks me eight steps to the left and shows me the stairs and the exit and asks for "baksheesh" with palm stretched! I smile at him, take his hand and warmly shake it, pat him on the back, wink and walk off …feigning lack of comprehension and an unstable mind. Cairo is notorious for "baksheesh seekers" and one has to be careful and a little smart to tackle the street vendors and guides. This is "Price-Haggling City" and the tourists coming in must at all times, keep a calculator. Asking prices must be cut down by 80 % on the first phase of the negotiations and judging on the insistence of the vendor, one can take off another 10 % on the second phase of the transactions. One should not feel bad, because the vendor will still make lots of money and have enough to pay the middle men who will take you on the shopping excursions!

The Citadel is this afternoon's first destination before going for Friday prayers and the driver will be driving us through "Coptic Cairo", the oldest quarter of the city. This 900 year-old Muslim fortress with its 100ft walls was built to protect its mosques from the Crusaders.

Its main attraction is the Mohammed Ali Mosque with its unbelievable exterior and interior. The fortress sits on a hill, which allows great photo opportunities and 360-degree view of Cairo. Our enthusiastic guide is on a roll as he decides to take us for another short excursion to the entrance of the "city of the dead", an amazing district of Cairo where the "living live over and amongst the dead". This quarter is a labyrinth of houses built around and amongst tombs and mausoleums, which defies all laws of architecture. We don't have time to get down and follow the guided tour through this area but the feeling is eerie. We finally make it to the ancient mosque of "Al Azhar" and Friday congregation is a sea of devotees. The Al-Azhar Mosque (the most blooming) was established in 972 (361 H) after the founding of Cairo itself. Located in the centre of an area teeming with the most beautiful Islamic monuments from the 10th century, it was called "Al-Azhar" after Fatama al-Zahraa, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).

The second and concluding part of this travel piece will be published next week

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