My 1998 trip in Egypt

I dug out my Egypt journal from 1998 when I spent about a five weeks traveling across the Sinai, to Cairo and up the Nile (which means south, into Africa). This was my first time really traveling. I was 20 years old.

I was hoping for some penetrating political analysis that might help me understand the current situation in Cairo, but there’s not much there. I did meet tons of young Egyptians with very modern, occasionally progressive, selectively informed views of the world—some of whom I imagine are now gathered on Tahrir Square. But I was not very aware of Egyptian politics at the time.

There are a couple of themes that jump out:

1) I can never sleep: “I can’t sleep cuz of the damn Bedu Tea—that’s it!” (2/3/98)

2) I have lots of digestive problems (in retrospect, these are probably, wheat/gluten related, but I did not know it at the time:

“I shat and burped all nite long + hardly slept. I had something really bad in my stomach – I tried to sleep late but of course just lay there. So I took a cold shower, tried to shave, + made noodles that I couldn’t even eat. I lay in pain reading Song of Myself for and hr. or so + drank a Pepsi. Then I went off to check e-mail—oh shit. I was stumbling—my head is light… ” (2/4/98)

“Do they really drink Nile water here?? I think so…” (2/26/98)

“So I slept crappy in Mohammed’s crappy village. Shat bad thrice. This morn. really bad. All water every 20 min. I wanted to hurl. We had to ride a truck into Edfu — 1 LE — I was w/ 4 tourists now. Needed a shitter in Edfu – but no one helped me so I hurled in a coffee shop— a lot of Muhammed’s crappy sahleb did come up. And other undigested food. Perhaps the culprit. I then led the tourists to the temple and we are waiting for Jeff to get his Pharonic pleasure. The back to Luxor + either to the Red Sea or Cairo. We’ll see.” (3/4/98)

3) I’m still more obsessed with religion than politics:

“We talked about Jews, Is. + america, religion, sex, money, anarchy and I explained evolution. One lawyer guy thought I was Is. and kind of freaked me out. There was an old security guard from the bank there who was very funny. Sephina—moch kabir. Then I drank helba w/ three guys but they murdered a rat so I left nauseous. Now I am trying to sleep. —INCHALLAH.” (Esna — 2/26/98)

“Then I met up w/ 4 college kids + a mother—Fifi, Ibrahim, Mohammed, + Joseph. They were kinda young but we hung out for all afternoon. Went to a few mosques—I like a good mosque. Then I told them I was Jewish. They were shocked!! So was Gaza chick. And the boys I hung w/ last nite.” (Cairo 2/8/98)

“Then another “rich” friend Mohammed showed up + the religious conversations started. I am kinda tired of this but feel it is my duty to spread doubt + fear thru-out the Muslim world. Every Muslim I have met uses the same “Scientific” proof for god—the teleologic approach I think—who made the sun, the Nile, yo momma—chicken + egg, and well at least no Jesus stuff. We talked for a long time. They thought I was a spy … Then Mohammed gave me a Great Cheese Bun + I went back to Jamaica + slept on the porch-er balcón. This morn I talked to my two stoner roomates a Coloradan lad who is probably going to get … [censored!]” (Palestine Club, Aswan 2/29/98)
[CONTEXT: the “doubt + fear” I mention above is the absolutely intoxicating spasms of perplexity that an agnostic, pro-Arab Jewish American who speaks Arabic creates throughout the Muslim world, or at least did in 1998 (pre-GWOT)… nothing nefarious.]

4) I think the most interesting post journal entry (beside my immature ponderings on women, tourism and food) is my experience visiting the town of Asyut, a long time fundamentalist stronghold that was under lockdown in 1998 by Egyptian police (army?) I hitchhiked there:

2/22/98 Al-Qasr —>Asyut
“So I continued up the street and encountered two nice boys … from Farafra of course … we sat down + the younger one ran off-returning moments later w/ two heads of lettuce for me. So I broke out the peanuts. 1/2 hr. later a big truck pulled up—I lashed my bag to the bed + Ahmad + his friend + I took off for Asyut!! Quais! He was a very nice man from Alexandria. We talked about the desert a lot—he doesn’t like the desert. At the rest stop they shat in the desert and then made tea w/ a big gas stove in the cab of the tractor trailer. They kept a tea pot, cups, sugar etc in the glove compartment. They dropped me—for a head of lettuce—7 km from Assyut, center of Islamic fundamentalism + terrorist activity. I walked a km. and then a small pickup stopped +took me into town. I met some local college boys + we walked over the bridge in search of coshari—only to be stopped by the police—copious police you could say—they got rid of the college boys + took over. I watched as they searched targeted galibeya’d individuals from every minivan. 3 guys w/ guns felt ’em up looking for a gun I guess—checked ID worked em over. I wasn’t quite sure why or why I was just standing there. Then the CAPTAIN came up + asked me about a hotel + made conversation. Of course leading to Iraq + US + well the inch-Allahing Sadaam wiping out Israel. w/ a hearty laugh + smile. I just swallowed … [censored] … I gave them my nus-nus Is/Pal bit—then I jumped on a police transport w/ two armed guards + crossed the channel. I switched trucks + went to get coshari w/ an armed guard. I was really laughing now. Then I got a hotel room for 20 lbs—not what I really wanted, but fine—my own room—and Mr. Mamdough who likes dealing w/ Americans + wants to migrate. There are 3 police here guarding me. Thanks.”

2/23/98 Jihad —> Masr Qadimah
“Slept fine—survived at least—I waited around for my police escort this morning + we went out—the 4 of us. I got some good falafel — 1.80 for a lot. Then we walked to the Nile—checked it out. They wouldn’t even let anyone talk to me or even come near — I bought some good hot bread. We let it cool on the street. There is a whole culture of letting fresh bread cool here. In fact—all of society may be based on the 15 min cooling period of bread. Then I bought the pigs tea—went to get my bag + we all went to the train station. 13 LE to Luxor—I think 2nd class. We waited in the train station cafeteria for 45 min. + then they “helped” me on the train. Very strange … The train was pretty nice—a lot of leg room. I read a little—looked out the window—the whole way was NICE farm land. I love the geometry of farm land I think. It is beautiful squares + diff. levels of tall sugarcane, dwarfing hashish, soldierly onion … and the occasional squatting fellahin changing all that geometry w/ a sickle.”

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