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Sunday Journal: A novice among the ancients in Egypt

"Chicken or fish?" the flight attendant asks.

"Chardonnay," I reply.

"No alcohol on the plane, ma'am."

Does everyone else on the planet know that EgyptAir doesn't serve alcoholic beverages? Why didn't the tour company mention this? Muslim airline heading for Muslim country equals no booze. I curl up with my copy of Lonely Planet's Egypt guide and suck it up, a 10-hour flight in a tiny space, no wine with dinner. And soon I will discover that a travel book can never forecast all the nuance of a country that is foreign.

In Luxor, I meet my tour guide, Safwat, an Egyptian man who wears designer sport shirts and a Gucci ball cap. Within minutes he tells me that he is not from Cairo but the more sophisticated coastal city of Alexandria. It's an important distinction he wants me to understand. My gut reaction to him bothers me, but for a week I'm dependent on this gentleman.

Safwat doesn't need sleep. He says three or four hours a night will do. So he drinks Nescafé, smokes cigarettes and plays backgammon with the tour crew.

The next morning we go to the souk. An old man dressed in traditional robes and head scarf wanders down the middle of the marketplace. His mouth hangs open. At least half his teeth are missing. There is a faraway look in his eyes. He holds a few coins in his hands, as if he's counting them. Safwat says that Egyptians take care of their elders. The man is allowed to beg here, where the tourists are, because he's in need. I take a coin from my pocket and hand it to him.

"Here," I say when he doesn't notice me. He doesn't even break stride. He simply takes the coin, licks it and keeps walking.

To an American who has traveled so far, a spare coin is not remarkable. But what is, is that a young man, standing inside his store, calls out to me. "Thank you," he says.

Safwat is right. On the streets of Luxor someone is always watching. By the time I walk to the next shop, I have a reputation and have to bargain hard to get the right price.

Heading north, we arrive in Cairo, where smog hangs like campfire smoke in the air. The wet clothes we hang on the balcony dry with a fine layer of dust on them. Safwat says it clears some days, but I don't think so. Everyone and everything here smokes — men, women, cars, buses and trucks, street vendors charring lamb and chicken over glowing coal fires.

Safwat describes the air as just misty, but this mist is so black it blocks the sun.

This is what I know of Cairo. It's a cacophony. Zipping by are taxis, Fiats, mopeds, bicycles and a crowded minivan with the door open to catch the breeze, all honking in 24-hour traffic. City buses are packed to standing capacity. There are prayers from myriad mosques at prescribed times.

Sand clouds the horizon and diesel fumes hang in the air. Food wrappers, soda cans, soiled diapers and empty water bottles are caught in the weeds on the banks of the Nile.

Skyscrapers are coated with so much grunge they are all the same shade of brown. Police officers nap in the sun, their arms wrapped around automatic rifles. Fruit stands, spice stores and flies are everywhere. Satellite dishes are attached to every roof.

Hundred-year-old riverboats are locked forever between low-hanging bridges, docked on the shoreline offering tourists romantic dinners on the Nile. Bomb-sniffing dogs sleep at every hotel entrance. In street cafes, men sit for hours to drink tea and argue politics. A boy on a bike hauls a board over his head that's stacked with bread as he navigates his way between cars. A donkey cart is parked next to a limousine.

Cairo is old. Old limestone buildings, old cobblestone streets, old marble steps and cedar doors bolted with rusted locks. Old women with leathered faces and old men with nicotine-stained teeth. Old electrical wiring thick with grime, wound around dilapidated streetlights. Broken-down metal detectors pushed out of the way. Old stoves dragged out to the street to cook a communal supper. The sidewalks here are older than my country.

I also know that Egyptians are one family. They aren't part Asian, part African, part Spanish, part ambiguous European. They aren't made of subsets as Americans are. They can trace their lineage back five millennia. They're Egyptian. They know exactly who they are.

Gale Massey lives in St. Petersburg. She made her journey to Egypt in December 2010, a month before the massive protests and eventual removal of the nation's president, Hosni Mubarak.

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Sunday Journal: A novice among the ancients in Egypt 07/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 16, 2011 4:30am]
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