Live From the Longchamps, Reflections
by Jimmy Dunn
It was not long ago that I was in Egypt, and it does not take long for me to miss her. I arrived back from Egypt only a couple of months ago after spending three weeks, mostly in Cairo at the Hotel Longchamps and unfortunately mostly working, but also having my spirit rejuvenated. Egypt does that for me, I think, because of its vitality and the friendliness and accommodating Egyptian people. To me, an American, after having visited Egypt more times than I can count, it still seems strange that my fellow countrymen often express concern about traveling to this lovely country, so old and yet so full of life.
I have often made comparisons between Egypt and the United States, and for good reason. Like the States, it is a melting pot of nationalities, where some people go to make their fortunes or simply to live in a more secure region than many others in the area. They hassle about the cities, making deals and finding opportunities. At the same time, it reminds me of a bygone era we once knew in the States, when there was not so much crime, no street gangs, no school violence and where people on the streets even in huge cities might be friendly and helpful, and hardly ever rude. Egypt is like our kindly old grandmothers, full of experiences and understanding, and yet, frequently innocent of the trials and tribulations of our modern world.
As a culture, they don't particularly care for our government's wars, our intrigues and sometimes our meddling, but they like Americans. Egyptians are like that. Rome used Egypt as a breadbasket to feed its empire, but they like the Italians. Napoleon invaded Egypt, but they like the French. Britain put a stranglehold on their economy and ran the country for awhile, but they like the English. I suppose that it must be because so many different people have invaded Egypt, settled there, vacationed there for over 2,000 years, that the Egyptians simply look at individuals in a different light than they do their respective governments. I think, in the end, that the Egyptian people have always, always loved their country and the land on which it was built, and feel honored to receive foreign guests and to show them the wonders that God provided and the ancient spectacles created by their ancestors. They are the very same as one who might, living along the Grand Canyon, wish to proudly show guests their haven. Yet there is more to it than pride. I have often thought that the Egyptian people have some extra hospitality gene that others lack.
Egypt is safe these days. While in Egypt, I walk about unconcerned, go places in Cairo that few tourists ever trod. This last trip, one of my most memorable moments was when I decided to check out a fire. Smoke seemed to be blanketing the city, rising from a point seemingly not very far away from where I was staying in Zamalek. I thought this might make an interesting story, and it did seem as though a sizable portion of Cairo must be on fire.
Hebba, the owner of the hotel were I like to stay, told me where she thought the fire was located and I rushed downstairs and grabbed a common black and white taxi. The fire seemed to be just beyond some tall buildings, but as we neared those, it was evident that it was much further away. In fact, it was some distance, and it took us almost an hour of driving to finally reach it. We traveled past small goat markets, through slums, where people made their meals on outdoor fires in narrow, alley-like unpaved streets and into an area where tourist police do not patrol and few, if any, vacationers ever visit. The fire, next door to a elementary school, turned out to be unremarkable, though it was a good opportunity to catch the city's firemen at work. What was perhaps remarkable, though not really to me, was the treatment I received. I was the only foreigner around, and clearly an American. If that was not clear enough, I certainly told people when they asked. I had trouble getting close enough because the area was cordoned off, but it was also clear to the Egyptians milling about that I wanted to take some pictures.
At first, a young boy ushered me up a dark stairway in an apartment block to the roof of a nearby building, but I could not really see the fire from there. I offered him some money for his assistance, but he refused it. However, from that building I could see a much better vantage point from the grounds of the elementary schoolyard. There, school had let out and many of the young students were scampering up a wall that directly overlooked the fire. I circled around to join them but soon discovered that, while the wall was scaleable for these young agile children, it was not for my 52 year old frame. But I was met by both the schoolchildren and a few of their teachers with curiosity and no small amount of enthusiasm. One of the teachers even opened up a nearby gym and produced an old, rickety ladder, which I used to join the kids on the wall.
So here I found myself, in the midst of what must be considered the most common of Egyptians, in a neighborhood far from any tourist areas, surrounded by dozens of people eager to help me. Try that in New York. Unfortunately, I dare say that, were the situation reversed and I were an Egyptian in a large American city, the outcome would have been equally as reversed. Egyptians are simply a friendly people, and it was not the fire, but rather those about me that stays in my mind to this day.
But it has always been like that. I can remember on my first visit to Egypt so many years ago, becoming lost in the back streets of Cairo. Wandering up to a small cluster of Egyptians, I made inquires about my location. A few of them could speak English, but rather than pointing me in the right direction, several of them broke off and led me back to my hotel. My memories include many times walking down a street in this city of sixteen million people with a camera around my neck, and being greeted by a passerby with a smile and a friendly, "welcome". My memories include so many instances of people going out of their way to help a stranger in their land.
This is my Egypt, and the reason I miss her so when back in the US. Like most Americans, I love my country and there are certainly more beautiful places to visit at home than I could probably ever journey to in my lifetime. However, Egypt draws me back again and again, and cradles my soul as it did mankind's early civilization so long ago. I hope all of my readers may someday experience Egypt for themselves. It is more than a trip of a lifetime. It is a life experience.
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