‘Welcome to Cairo.”
“Happy New Year!”
“Where are you from? Germany?”
“Happy Valentine’s Day!”
Egypt was delighted to see me. So overjoyed, in fact, that Egyptians couldn’t contain themselves. They shouted greetings (some comprehensible, others befuddling) wherever I walked: along pinched lanes in the old Islamic quarter, inside Pharaonic temples and tombs, in a Nubian village in Aswan, on the sandy shores of the Red Sea. The pleasantries came from policemen on horseback, vendors pushing heavy carts of peanuts and men smoking shisha in outdoor cafes, their salutations released in plumes of scented smoke.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome!”
Thank you, it’s a been a while. About four years, by most people’s count.
The calendar pages started curling on Jan. 25, 2011, the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. The following June, elections ushered in Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi. About a year later he, too, was gone. Next up: Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The former head of the armed services will celebrate his first year as president in June.
“We will go for it and see what happens,” said Mohamed, my Cairo guide. “But we are happy with this man. With so many problems around, we need a man like this.”
The years of political tumult upended the country and spooked millions of international travelers. Tourism, which reached record-high levels in 2010 with 14.7 million visitors, tumbled weeks later. Cruise ships eliminated Egyptian ports of call. Western governments warned their citizens to avoid travel there.
Since Sisi’s rise, travelers have struggled to form a precise picture of Egypt, especially as troubles bubble up in nearby lands. Though countries have downgraded their alerts, and cruise lines and tour groups are slowly returning, uncertainty persists. Many wonder: Is the country safe? And, if so, will it last?
From Washington, I polled several experts on this topic, including an international risk-management analyst, a specialist in Egyptian travel and the country’s minister of tourism. They all told me that the country was safe and stable. Calm had been restored. It was time for Americans to return.
So this American did.
The Nile’s blue ribbon
The winds of travel regularly blow in the same direction, from north to south, or Lower to Upper Egypt. The majority of tourists follow the Nile’s blue streak from Cairo to Luxor to Aswan, then back up.
I was not going to break from tradition, though I did want to put my own independent stamp on my mid-February trip. Instead of flying or driving to Luxor, I planned to take the overnight train. I also wanted to observe — close your eyes, Mother — one of the “gatherings” that often form after Friday prayers. And — keep ’em shut — I hoped to visit the Sinai Peninsula.
My agent at Audley Travel flicked away my fancies with her guardian-angel wings. However, she did grant me my third request, as long as I stayed in a resort town along the Red Sea coast. (Note: The State Department urges caution for all parts of the country, especially areas in the Sinai beyond Sharm el-Sheikh.)
Overall, I had a long leash with few restrictions. I could freely walk around the cities and towns alone (following street-smarts protocol, of course) and dress liberally (but not a la Kardashian). Depending on the company, I could broach topics (religion, politics, gender relations) often considered indelicate at company holiday parties. In return, I felt that many Egyptians were eager to share their opinions and recent experiences.
“The last few years in Egypt have been really hard,” Mohamed said as we waited for the car in the airport parking lot. “We had nothing and now we need everything. But it is getting better as people start seeing hope.”
Alone with antiquities
Throughout my travels, I often discovered myself alone (e.g., Tombs of the Nobles, Howard Carter House, Valley of the Queens) or with small knots of people (Valley of the Kings). I came across the most robust crowds at the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, near Luxor. I was surrounded by Egyptian college students, many of whom found an American tourist to be as interesting a relic as the longest-reigning female pharaoh.
My Luxor guide said that during the golden age of tourism (6,000 people per day in 2010), folks often waited up to five hours to enter the three tombs at the Valley of the Kings. My record thumb-twiddling stretch: less than 5 minutes to see the tar-colored King Tut mummy. The longest queue: the Mummy Exhibit at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
“It’s busy, busy, busy,” my guide, Abdel, said before noon. “This line will remain with us till 3 or 4 o’clock.”
No matter the size of the audience, or the attractions’ state of decomposition, security officials always seemed within shouting range.
After the Luxor terrorist attacks in 1997, the country amped up its patrol forces, even establishing a tourist police. I grew accustomed to seeing uniformed men slinging semi-automatic rifles. I noticed them in airports, outside monuments, in the scrubby hills and along rural roadsides.
Trust the chef
Chef Anha minces garlic but never words.
“Nothing,” she said emphatically, “will happen to you in Egypt.”
My first lesson at her House of Cooking school: Trust the matriarch of the kitchen on all matters.
The longtime chef teaches with her daughter, Mona. The pair of professionals take cooking seriously but not themselves. Anha is Lucy to Mona’s Ethel.
They hold classes in their sunlit Nasr City shop plastered with photos of grinning students posing with their homemade dishes. Mona handed me a checkered apron, while Anha reviewed the “I Love Egypt” menu: orzo soup, sauteed veggies stuffed in saj flatbread (or shawarma for the meat eaters), baklava with walnuts and a mango yogurt drink.
To warm up the senses, Anha placed a platter of spices under my nose and quizzed me. I sniffed and called out cumin, cinnamon, ginger, smoked paprika and allspice. I blanked on turmeric but still passed.
“Three things make your food taste better,” she said with conviction. “Spices, marinating and sauce.”
While I stirred the tomato base for the soup, Anha, who wore a headscarf and a name tag adorned with a heart, shared Egyptian dining traditions.
“People here love to eat,” she said. “Whenever we visit a friend, we bring something to eat. You don’t show up without something to eat.”
We talked about local dishes, such as pigeon stuffed with rice and giblets sauteed with onions, and comfort foods, including ful (a fava bean mash), falafel and koshari, a mix of rice, lentils and fried onions. She illustrated the cost of food by comparing the prices of chicken (cheapest), veal (most expensive), beef and camel. Yes, camel, for about $7 a kilo.
After several hours, my guide arrived to collect me. But Anha wouldn’t let him leave. She told Mona to prepare him a plate and instructed me to bring some food to the driver, who was waiting for us in the car.