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Was that the Sphinx? – Glimpses in Egypt

Journal Notes

27 March 2003, on the Red Sea, south of Hurgada, Egypt

The pyramids of Egypt…the once enigmatic Sphinx…some “5000 years of civilization”…tourist attractions yes, but where is the ancient wisdom and magnitude? Yes, I agree with the Egyptian man [regarding American influence], named like so many, Mohamed, that there were many empires: Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabs, French, Ottomans, British of conquerors, occupiers, colonizers, etc.,…but is the oldest (or one of the oldest civilizations) not more susceptible of lessons from history?

Mostly American, English-language live music sung nightly by an Egyptian man and a Russian woman to entertain guests in a Red Sea hotel with Germans, French, Belgians, and Russians – I seem to be the first American to come to this very unancient four-star hotel (some two and a half years “old”). I can understand the provinciality and safe routine of experience of my old high school classmates (in America] who still listen, after more than three decades, to the same music from that time, but I would never have imagined then that the music I first heard then would be à la mode entertainment music in, for global example, Egypt to Europeans in 2003.

The Great Pyramids of Giza

The people may come to glance at “the pyramids”, or at least to photo-/video-graph that they “were there”…but they, and the hotel management (not atypically for tourist Egypt), spend their time with pop music (mostly American ’60s); the pyramids are more just one theme of the trivial souvenirs people actually are unembarrassed to buy and gift to others. Frank Sinatra songs are really more what people prefer to any ancient pharaonic facts, secrets or wisdom.

An Egyptian man who works in the hotel mentions (in understandable English) how “20,000 [Egyptian] men” work in Hurgada in the tourist hotels. They don’t want the Iraqi war – then already in progress: they want tourists to come, so that they can work [~$100/month]. And how Egyptian men are “too passionate” about their women not being watched or seen by other men, or to see other men. This is less a “clash of civilizations” than levels of humanity. Presumably in any future democracy – the women can vote from their homes.

In this era of retrospective historical apologies – it is worth noting, as an Arab tour guide shows the pyramids, that the slick external reflective stones on the famous pyramids of Giza were removed during, as the book on Egypt says: “Arab domination”. Otherwise the pyramids would still reflect the sunlight.

Though news reports and studies require much else to be said about Egyptian politics and economics, etc, – the majority of the population of Egypt is too poor for democracy to be possible or credible.

Is “democracy” possible in Egypt – take only a tourist-bus day-trip through Cairo, and think about it.

About beards and how nations react to them in different ways. During the second Iraqi War, not so far away, one Egyptian man, wondering where I am from, and not imagining that I am “American” [everyone told me to not say I was an American), joked that I was Osama Bin Laden. [Due to my beard, face, etc.] I gave the (increasingly global) handsign of the right index finger to the lips to suggest that it should be kept secret. He and I, and the German man standing nearby, all laughed. I walked away undiscovered (as an American).

The famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo must be very poor, as it allows hourly such farcical “tours” of mass tourists to be chaotically raced through the museum.

Hellenistic Egypt gave us the word “museum” (if I recall my historical facts correctly), but now it is debased probably a few scores of times in shops who sell “papyrus” in “Egyptian Papyrus Museums” – which are in reality businesses for tourists which sell mostly cheap quality “Egyptian papyrus” to gullible, or worse, tourists.

One is so rushed, with the crowd, to, by and from the “enigmatic” (?) Sphinx, that one has really no time to sense, feel, contemplate or reflect even that one is actually there. I can well imagine the most enduring impressions of seeing the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids [there are some 96 others in Egypt, excluding those at tourist hotels] for most tourists (fault them and the tour companies for their superficiality) are inside of their digital cameras and video-recorders.

Some tourists only see these ancient sites through the camera focus anyway!

A real war is occurring not some 3000 miles away, but some 300 miles, for me here in Egypt, rather than in the USA; but one can just change the channel.

At the pyramids, the hawkers, camel drivers, and sellers of all things “Egyptian” are somewhat like flies and mosquitoes to someone trying to enjoy a sunset quietly.

Is the Great Pyramid an initiation chamber? It is an irritation environment due to the sellers and con-men.

“...allzu leicht erschlaffen.”[1]

[Faust, “Prologue in Heaven”, line 340]

I wonder what were Emerson’s experiences/impressions of Egypt? Didn’t he come here?

Where was Vladimir S. Solovyov here?

Did Goethe’s “moderation” keep him from Greece and the Orient when invited to go there from Italy?

(The text above has been somewhat edited for making the sense clear. )

Afterthoughts from Moscow

Fear, safety and security seem to be among the strongest social elements. Everyone I communicated with told me not to go to Egypt, certainly not with a war pending, and yet if I am “crazy” enough to go, not to say that I am American. I had been to this place before, and felt sure all would most probably be safe. How are people to get experience if they are so cautious? Meanwhile, only in two cases out of perhaps thirty did I decide it might be best to claim another nationality. The fact that I was American rather more often led to interesting, open conversations with the Egyptians – all safe and friendly. And though there was a war going on – not far away – and all were very aware of it, especially in the Arab world, I had a needed, restful, interesting ‘vacation’ there.

Watching on the local Arab TV (some in English) the news (and Arabic soaps, “How to be a millionaire ”, talk and variety shows) with an Arabic, not American (or German, or French) angle on the world, events, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “victories” in Iraq (the Iraqi flag always above or before the Stars and Stripes, and a different take on who are the good and bad guys), one can see that most people being “locals” – the “clash of civilizations” is a near permanent human condition. And, essentially, this idea is as old as the history since Ur in Iraq, and a modem secular equivalent to “the tower of Babel”, and the Biblical stories of Cain and Abel, or Shem, Japhet and Ham, to which one could add translatio imperii.

The beat of crowd chants – for or against Saddam or the USA in 2003 – are the same in Iraq as they were, at the latest, in the USA, e.g. Washington, DC, against Nixon and Vietnam in 1973. Globalization of anger? A medley of protest rhythms?

12 April 2003 Moscow

There is a lot to be learned about the human psyche, condition and society in recognizing that the Iraqi people looted their own hospitals, and historical museums. Though the race riots near Los Angeles, California, USA in earlier decades had “Afro-Americans” looting and burning down the food stores in their own neighborhoods (some not rebuilt or replaced for years!) – one can fairly wonder how many serious idea of some pan-Arabic pride in “the people” can still be held after such Iraqi acts.

First published in English, #24, 2003, p. 14.


1. “[Mankind’s activity can] languish all too easily” – a quote from Goethe’s Faust, “Prologue in Heaven”:

The Lord
In that too you may play your part quite free;
Your kind I never did detest.
Of all the spirits of negation
The wag weighs least of all on me.
Mankind’s activity can languish all too easily,
A man soon loves unhampered rest;
Hence, gladly I give him a comrade such as you,
Who stirs and works and must, as devil, do.

(translated by George Madison Priest)
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