Our Egyptian Travels after 9/11

by Scheherezade

"You're going where?”

 “Are you crazy?”

“Aren't you afraid?  It's not safe to do that; is it?

“Do you have a death wish or something?”

“Why would you want to do something like that?  Especially now!"

I heard all these questions, and more, when I told folks here in the United States that I was, indeed, making my annual buying trip to Egypt in January 2002. Yes, Marjhana and I were going, as usual, to work. And yes, Samra and Amina Salah were coming along too! Samra just likes to come along to hang out and visit and enjoy Egypt and the wonderful Egyptian people.   Amina wanted to practice her Arabic, purchase new costumes, take private dance classes, and escape the Denver winter. But most of all, we all felt that it was more important than ever for us to go.

Why? Well, within 48 hours of the tragic events of September 11th, we at Scheherezade Imports had received emails and phone calls from all our Egyptian business associates and friends, sending us messages of love, support, and prayers. Every single person asked about each of the women (by name) who had accompanied me to Egypt in the past few years.  Were they okay?  Were their families okay?  Was there anything they could do to help? As days and weeks went by, we continued to receive "check-in" messages.

We listened closely to the news.  We read the papers and news magazines.  We scoured the Internet, and we kept up with the State Department and the American Embassy by surfing Cairo websites.  We read the online English versions of the Egyptian newspapers, but most of all, we kept in contact with the folks we know in Egypt; Egyptian friends we have known, worked with and trusted for years.

"Please come to visit us!
Of course it is safe! It is the same as always!
We are worried we will not see you again!
We are worried that Americans now hate us.
We are worried your government will not let you visit us.
We are so sad for this trouble and are worried to think that everyone is afraid of us."

We decided to get back to normal, stay in our routines and get back out there into the world just like the crisis counselors had recommended to every American!

On January 2, 2002, we left for Cairo, Egypt, from JFK airport in New York on board EgyptAir (the same airline on which we have been traveling since 1986). We noticed the difference immediately: security at the airport in New York was very enhanced. (I even got separated from my shoes and carry ons because I forgot to tell them that  I had my film in a lead lined bag in my carry on, and it looked suspicious to them). I was comforted by the fact that security was stringent, and that there were National Guardsmen and lots of plainclothes security around. We joked that it reminded us of the way the Cairo Airport has always been! At the gate, there was additional security and checking of all hand luggage one more time.  Even each crew-member’s luggage had to be checked, and each crew-member’s passport had to be reviewed and stamped. Then the plainclothes EgyptAir security marshals who checked us all at the gate got on the plane with us! Now, that was something new!   Marjhana who doesn't sleep on planes, said they patrolled all night, paying particular attention to those passengers who didn't settle down to sleep. (Me, I am asleep as soon as I hear those engines drone, and I sleep through until they serve breakfast 8 1/2 hrs later!). Marjhana said that she got tired of them looking at her like she was a potential threat, so she went to chat them up and spent a pleasant trip practicing her Arabic and visiting.

The plane was about 2/3 full of passengers, almost completely with Egyptians or Egyptian Americans. It was a few days before Coptic Christmas. I counted about 6 other folks who looked like they were Euro or African/American. This was clearly not a tourist-laden plane!

Upon our arrival at the Cairo Airport, we immediately noticed the absence of the tourist hordes one usually sees at customs. Mostly, it was us and a handful of others. Walid, the representative from the agency that we use in Egypt, met us as usual, with our usual driver. We have known these Egyptian gentlemen for almost 15 years, and they have become very dear to us. On the ride to the hotel, Walid reluctantly told us that they were "on holiday" all month, but he and the driver insisted on coming to get us anyway.  Only later did it come out that "on holiday" was the euphemistic way to tell us he was on "unpaid leave" since December and that it would continue all of January. But they would not hear of not coming to get us in person and making sure that we were comfortably tucked away in our hotel. When was the last time that you heard of someone who was laid off coming to work for free because he/she felt it was the right thing to do for the person on the other end? We were speechless at their thoughtfulness.

They told us there was about a 90% drop in tourism in Egypt since 9/11. "People left as fast as they could, and by 9/15 there was no one here.  There are many people out of work.  There are many people who have no money. 

Look what this crazy man [Bin Laden] has done to all of us!  We don't understand why people are afraid to come here.  Cairo is the same as always!  We are the same as always!"

As we drove along, it was very quiet and there was little traffic, which was very uncharacteristic for Cairo, where the noise level and traffic compete to see who can deafen you or drive you insane the quickest. There were very few folks on the streets. Many neighborhood shops were closed in Cairo, the city where shops are open all night long.

We stay at an old, privately owned, old-fashioned hotel in central Cairo.

When we arrived at the door of the hotel, the staff of waiters, the bellman, the doorman, the security guard, the desk and phone staff and the manager were all lined up in the lobby to greet us.

These are all folks who have worked there for ages, and we have known all of them for more years than I care to admit. As we came in the door, many of them had tears in their eyes.  They thanked us so much for coming.  They all shook our hands, and gave us the kiss-on-cheek greeting shared between friends. It was very emotional for all of us with not a dry eye in the house.

That evening we strolled a few blocks to a favorite restaurant that is usually loaded with tourists and locals. We were the only foreigners there. The staff inquired where we were from.  When we told them America, they were delighted and thanked us for coming to visit them. Many of them expressed condolences for our tragedy, asked after our families etc. We had a lovely dinner and were treated even more hospitably than ever before. The next day, as I headed directly to Al Wikalah to start the work of the trip, I noticed again closed shops, fewer taxis, less folks on the street and much less traffic. I also noticed we were the only Westerners on the streets.

As many dancers know, Al Wikalah is the first stop on the agenda for dancers in Cairo from anywhere in the world.  Everyone checks in with Mahmoud to find out:

  1. Who else from where is in Cairo?
  2. Who is dancing and where and when?

 If you hang out at Al Wikalah for a couple of hours, you will get the scoop on it all, and if you hang around all day, you will probably see a good percentage of all the dancer/visitors who are in town. There is a constant stream of dancers in and out, the phone rings off the wall, and it takes an act of Congress to get Mahmoud's attention long enough to try to discuss just one aspect of a wholesale order before he is off attending to another issue.  I arrived at 11:00 a.m. and was there until 8:00 p.m. I saw 2 women from Norway, one from Italy and one from Scotland. That was it for the whole day, and evening. Not once did the phone ring that Mahmoud spoke to anyone in other language than Arabic (no calls from tourist/visiting dancers). In all my years of traveling to Egypt, I have never experienced anything like it.  The upside for me was that we had lots of time to visit and also do business such as fine-tuning some design ideas that we had been throwing around for a few years but never had time to really put together.  However, in the vast scheme of things, I could have wished for another reason for him to have time for such a leisurely visit with us.

We talked at length about the effects of 9/11 on the Egyptian people and their economy, the devastating effects of the loss of tourism, the loss of jobs, the staggering increase in poverty, an almost 30% devaluation of the Egyptian Pound against the U.S. dollar, the resulting skyrocketing of inflation, and the fact that bread costs alone had risen so high that the Egyptian government had to put a halt to it because a significant number of people couldn't even afford bread. (A significant number of people in Egypt live at, or below, the poverty line).

In the days that followed, as I walked around the markets and went to the shops of other merchants I deal with, I saw evidence of these things everywhere myself, but the most amazing thing was that the Egyptian people were as welcoming, warm and hospitable as ever.

Two things stand out in my mind most vividly: one day as we were walking in the medieval part of the city near Bab Zuelwa, we stopped to admire the restoration work that had almost been completed on the gate. An old gentleman with a pushcart full of carrots was standing near by. He was wearing a jacket with lapels over his galabiya. He noticed we were obviously not natives and smiled when we turned in his direction, "Welcome to Egypt---from where?" he asked.

We answered him "Min Amerika" (from America).

He replied, "Mish mumkin! La! Inti Amerikania?" (This is not possible! No! You are American?)

"Aywah, ana Amerikania" (Yes, I am American"), I said, and he turned up his lapel to show us a small American flag pin. He smiled at us with tears in his eyes and we did the same.

The other event that stands out and is representative of the way in which we were treated happened on one of the last days that we were in Cairo. On a few previous trips, Marjhana and I had done some business with a merchant, who sold perfume bottles, Oils, and beautiful blown glass ornaments, and incense diffusers. They had seen Marjhana and me walk by their store a number of times this trip, we would stop and say “Hi!” or wave, but had no business to conduct. On our last day in the market (word gets around), one of the runner boys from the shop stopped Marjhana and asked her to stop by before she left. The shop owner proudly presented her with a gift: an Egyptian perfume bottle hand painted like an Ameican flag. (See the photo.) We thought it was a profound gesture!

There were daily instances of warmth and welcome, and comments of "America is number one!" with a thumbs-up when we would be overheard speaking English in the street.  There was a rainy night when Marjhana mentioned in the cab casually that she forgot to buy bananas.  The cab driver, overhearing our conversation, pulled over, stopping traffic, while he ran in the rain to a banana pushcart to buy us a kilo of bananas, and then refused to take any payment for them. "The bananas are a present; you are guests in my country!"  Also, the security man at the entrance to the Abdeen Palace Museum initally refused to believe we were Americans because he thought all Americans hated Egypt now and would not come to visit. Everywhere we went, when people discovered we were Americans, they expressed condolences and sorrow, and shared with us the pain for what had happened to us all. Even strangers asked after our friends and families, and offered us reassurances of support and welcome.

We were as comfortable and as safe as we have ever been while in Egypt. There is very very little crime in Egypt. Cairo is absolutely safe for women to walk in alone, at anytime of the day or night. (Heavens knows, I have walked at every hour of the day and night while in Cairo, over the years). I feel safer there on the streets than any place in the U.S.

We met a few other hardy dance souls on our trip. Leila Haddad was there from Paris as she usually is in January, and we also had a chance to visit briefly with Horacio and Beata Cifuentes from Germany.  The Cifuentes are regular travelers to Cairo also. All of us agreed that Cairo was still Cairo no matter what else had happened in the world! We were all treated well and were happy to be there. As a matter of fact, I can hardly wait to go back, and thankfully, I soon will!

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