A Traveler’s View of Events in Egypt

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SHARES

Cairo and PyramidsAs I have mentioned many times, and will probably mention many times more, travel makes you perceive a place differently after you’ve been there. (Please read my 2009 essay on Travel and Tragedy and the corresponding quote from Adam Smith.)

Last week there were riots and political protests in Tunisia and I watched the events as a detached observer. I’ve never been to Tunisia and I don’t know any Tunisians.

Then the riots spread to Egypt and my attitude changed.

I spent almost a month in Egypt. I traveled from Cairo to Alexandria to Aswan to Luxor, around to Hurgada and up through Suez and St. Catherine’s. I got a good feel for the country. I’m not an Egypt expert by any means, I but I was able to see some things for myself.

  • I usually avoid talking about politics with locals, but in Egypt I had no fewer than five Egyptians go out of their way to tell me how much they disliked Mubarak. In a tightly governed country, you will seldom find people going out of their way to bad mouth their rulers to foreigners, but I saw more of it in Egypt than in any other country I’ve visited.
  • Hardly anything in Egypt looks like it has been built in the last 40 years. (the exception being the Biblotechia in Alexandria, which was a foreign project.) I’m not a construction expert, but it was obvious even to me that the construction of most residential buildings was extremely shoddy. Some walls were literally curving. I hate to think what might happen if there is an earthquake in Egypt.
  • The soliders you’d see stationed as guards often wore uniforms that didn’t fit. Their guns looked old and I often saw signs of rust.
  • During my entire time in Egypt, I only spoke to a handfull of Egyptian women. Most notably, two teenage girls at a McDonald’s who wanted to practice English. (McDonald’s in Egypt is the best bet to find free wifi in the country).
  • In the evenings, I’d see men huddled around the window of mobile phone stores all ogling the latest models. I’d see boy’s and girls studying and surfing the internet on small netbook computers at McDonald’s.
  • I visited other Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and Jordan. I was able to see the relative difference in the standard of living between Egypt and some other parts of the Arab world.
  • I had a fascinating conversation on a train with an Egyptian man who worked for the UN and lived in Switzerland. He told me a lot about the modern Egyptian psyche.

Egyptian FlagAll of the above things have given me a perspective different than I would have if I had never been there. I’m guessing that many of you who have been to Egypt have similar feelings.

In a nutshell, I’m not really shocked by what is happening. Signs of discontent were everywhere when I visited. I had no idea something would be happening now, but I’m not surprised that something is happening.

It isn’t just Egypt of course. This effect kicks in any time something happens in a place you’ve been before. A place where you’ve met people and seen things first hand on the ground. Protests in Thailand, floods in Queensland, or even renovations in the Vatican all mean a little more to me having been there.

There are many reason to travel, but the empathy you develop for other places might be the greatest. It converts a news story from anonymous people in an unknown place to people with a face. Ultimately, if you want to understand the rest of the world, to really understand it, you have to visit it yourself.

That can only happen by traveling.

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Comments

  1. Thomasamatthews says:

    like pic

  2. Gymsulyak says:

    Very true , you feel different , when you been there, we traveled to Egypt 3 years ago, was interesting , did we like it , hard to say, some we did and other not really , but now watching the news is different we feel for their sad , pain full events,and unsure when it’s going to be safe for tourist to travel to Egypt, glad we had a chance, good article.

  3. Shelby says:

    Great Post. Its an absolute nightmare there and hopefully it is resolved soon. Hope everyones friends and family are all safe!

  4. Isobrad says:

    I was in Egypt in December while the elections were going on and was surprised how few people participated. The next day I asked some of my co-workers if they voted and they all said no. The impression I got was that it didn’t matter. My co-workers said that in 2010 Mubarak declared a state of emergency that gave the government the authority to arrest nonviolent political opponents. Because of this my co-workers said there was no point in voting.
    I am planning on returning to Egypt in 2011 but, we are pushing back this trip to the 4th quarter 2011. I have always enjoyed my time in Egypt.

  5. Spencer says:

    Its crazy what’s happening over there in Egypt and my thoughts go out to all the travellers and holidaymakers who are currently in limbo trying to get home.

  6. Empty_nest_expat says:

    What a great post! And that is so true about traveling to a country helps us to develop empathy. I think even before we develop empathy for foreign peoples, we have to unpack our fear of them. Before I moved to Turkey, I had never been in a mosque, never seen so many women in Islamic dress, or even seen so many Islamic families going about their daily lives (on American TV, Islam is represented as angry young men in their 20s). I am so much more comfortable, and indeed, fascinated by Eurasia and the Middle East now that I’ve experienced it firsthand.

  7. Federico says:

    I have been to Tunisia, and in more ways than one it is the most modern arab country in north Africa. This said, there will always be people unsatisfied with the status quo, yet claiming a head (figuratively speaking) is usually not the solution to many problems caused by citizens who don’t try to evolve. Although I did have some great experiences, others were not at all, and unnecessarily so.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Interesting days in Egypt – without ever having been there it seemed like a stable place where you could book up for your diving holiday or week of winter sun without any worries – now it all seems a little different. I have a friend in Alexandria I was hoping to visit this spring but guess that might go on hold for a while.

  9. This is so true, you are feeling the news like this at a hole new level when you have been there and meet those people. I definately agree that it comes as no surprise what is happening there. With the instant communication world we live in, people have more courage than ever, and are not afraid anymore to protest. It is very hard for a ruler to keep everybody’s mouth shut, even in the Persian Gulf. China is the only big country/political power that is trying, if not to stop the communication of certain ideeas, at least control it. But with the web it gets harder and harder. Democracy is seeing it’s brightest times.

  10. Saroja Sanjivi says:

    Gary, I so agree with you, our perspective does change of the place we have visited. Having said that, these outbursts were inevitable, whats worse for me is, its happening now, when I was all set to travel to Egypt in the coming week :(

  11. Liz says:

    Thank you for spreading truth about the world in which you travel to the rest of the world.

  12. Cathy says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your post, Gary! I also spent a month in Egypt in 2007 and observed the same things as you. In addition, I have a lot of Egyptian friends who have no job opportunities and who at age 30 or more are still living with their parents because they can’t afford on their meager earnings to move out or get married….I also got my Master’s degree in International Commerce and Policy recently and did a big study on Egypt’s economy and future prospects. Mubarak is definitely hindering Egypt’s growth due to rampant corruption. It is funny how we perk up when we hear news regarding a place we’ve traveled to. I feel exactly this way about Egypt!

  13. Katrina says:

    You summed up a lot of my feelings on the subject. The video is extremely touching. Thank you so much for the article.

    I only spent a brief week in Egypt, but I intend to go back. My husband and I made a good friend while we were there and I’ve been thinking about him and his family a lot. He is in Italy, but his family is in Egypt. I sent him a text last night; thankfully, his family is ok. Here is a post I made about our visit and our friend, Mena: http://www.tourabsurd.com/friend-mena/ At the bottom are links to some petitions and other ways to try to support the Egyptian people.

    Thanks again for the post.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I have to say that my experiences in Egypt were very similar – especially about the new construction and the lack of funding for the military and the general apathetic nature of the military.
    I’m in Jordan now watching all of this unfold and am happy to be actually close to it all. Happy to get the Jordanian perspective on it. If I had been watching this from America – I doubt I would have been as interested. You certainly develop a bond when you are close to it.

  15. Dave says:

    “There are many reason to travel, but the empathy you develop for other places might be the greatest. It converts a news story from anonymous people in an unknown place to people with a face.”

    Excellent article, Gary, and that last paragraph sums it up perfectly. This was totally bought home to me in recent times when two different tragedies struck in quick succession in different parts of the world. 29 miners were killed on the west coast of New Zealand after an underground explosion. The coverage in the media was intense for several days here in Australia, dominating several pages of the newspaper and every television station each day.

    A day or two later, at least 400 people were killed in a stampede in Phonm Penh, a city I’d spent several days in earlier in the year. It rated a cursory mention on the news that night and in the morning papers, and that was pretty much the last we heard of it.

    Now it didn’t surprise me that the coverage levels were as they were. Disappointing, yes, but not surprising based on what I’ve seen in the past. What really hit home for me was the level of sympathy that I personally felt for the people of Cambodia and the families of the dead. Friends I made in the capital city were personally affected by the tragedy, and part of me grieved with them. Nobody in my social circle here could really understand why those deaths affected me as they did and why I kept talking about it for days afterwards. My friends and family hadn’t been to Cambodia, and hence for them the stampede was just more random strangers dieing in a foreign land. To me, however, it meant an awful lot more than that.

    Thanks for posting this today.

  16. Good post. Nice points. It is why photography can be a powerful element. Putting faces with conflict to bring awareness to difficulties yet nothing takes the place of personal interactions and it is likely the reason I love the people and countries I have had opportunities to visit and why they hold a special place in my heart. (And why I have so much trouble editing those photographs!) Sometimes even knowing someone who has been there helps to feel the heart of the people.

  17. Holgs says:

    Unfortunately many visitors to Egypt never stray beyond their extravagant Nile river boats, so don’t have any real contact with local people. Despite that, or maybe because of it, Egypt is a great country to explore independently. I think those that do so will be more likely to share your empathy.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Travel is certainly the best way, but let’s not forget the international connections we are all forging online, even with people who live in places we’ve never been before. While not nearly as immediate as being in the actual location ourselves, we still have concern for those whom we know are going through danger and/or difficulties at any given time. We also learn about cultural differences from our friends in distant lands.

    This is one of the reasons I so strongly support the use of videoconferencing in schools, from the earliest grades through graduation. There is no quicker way to prevent the growth of bigotry, racism and xenophobia than to have children interacting with their peers from far away countries. I saw an ad with young American students going on a “field trip” to China. The classes shared experiences and compared their respective cultures. If this was carried out every week throughout every school year, students would finish high school with their horizons already broadened. They would care more when tragedy struck in other countries. And they would be very much less inclined to believe that “different” was synonymous with “inferior”.

    They would probably also be more inclined to travel, further and/or more often. That would certainly be a great thing. But I believe we would surely have so much less strife in the world if children were allowed, from a very young age, to become friendly with their peers in foreign countries. Even if they were only able to spend time together virtually.

  19. Corib says:

    Gary I have been there and you totally nailed it. Like you, I just listen and try to avoid political conversations while traveling. I was traveling there in May 2008 and the subject of Obama and who would be the next U.S. president came up a lot. I started to feel that the interest stemmed not from what it will necessarily mean to me but how it will change things in Egypt. There was hope that a new leader like Hillary or Obama would lead to political change in Egypt. They have now seen that it’s up to them to do something about it and they are. Like you, what’s going on there doesn’t surprise me. I also noticed how the city seemed to be crumbling down. I asked one of the guys running the hostel I stayed at about it. He explained that most buildings in the city were under rent control. It’s kind of like people here in NYC who pay $100/month for an apt. in the West Village but worse.
    Anyhow…great article :)

  20. Corib says:

    Gary I have been there and you totally nailed it. Like you, I just listen and try to avoid political conversations while traveling. I was traveling there in May 2008 and the subject of Obama and who would be the next U.S. president came up a lot. I started to feel that the interest stemmed not from what it will necessarily mean to me but how it will change things in Egypt. There was hope that a new leader like Hillary or Obama would lead to political change in Egypt. They have now seen that it’s up to them to do something about it and they are. Like you, what’s going on there doesn’t surprise me. I also noticed how the city seemed to be crumbling down. I asked one of the guys running the hostel I stayed at about it. He explained that most buildings in the city were under rent control. It’s kind of like people here in NYC who pay $100/month for an apt. in the West Village but worse.
    Anyhow…great article :)

  21. Robert_borello says:

    Well stated

  22. I really like this article. It’s a little-discussed, very important truth. Hooray for empathy and hooray for travel and talking to the folks we encounter in the places we go!
    – Lillie
    http://www.TeachingTraveling.com
    http://www.AroundTheWorldL.com

  23. I really like this article. It’s a little-discussed, very important truth. Hooray for empathy and hooray for travel and talking to the folks we encounter in the places we go!
    – Lillie
    http://www.TeachingTraveling.com
    http://www.AroundTheWorldL.com

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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