Egypt: Its People, Its Political Battlefield

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Eman’s “I Voted” Index Finger – Alexandria, Egypt – May 2012

Considering all that’s occurred in Egypt since I departed the country three weeks ago, it would be beyond selfish to follow up An Egypt Travel Manifesto with a prosaic rundown of the sights and sounds. I thought of opening with a rant about my detention in U.S. Customs & Immigration at Newark International Airport, but that 20-minute hold up – while totally unexpected and a little frightening – was far more comical than life altering, especially compared to what the Egyptian people are experiencing now.

Egypt’s presidential election was held halfway through our seven-day tour and the atmosphere was surprisingly calm during those two days of voting. In fact, our hotel in Cairo – the Semiramis InterContinental – is a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square. That climate shifted drastically once we left.

The health of former and dishonorably ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, has seriously deteriorated. Egypt’s first democratically-elected Parliament in more than sixty years was just disbanded by a panel of judges that Mubarak appointed. Two of the original thirteen presidential candidates will compete in a runoff election this weekend, but neither choice seems to be a popular or positive alternative among the majority of Egyptians.

Yes, we visited some amazing places (the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the Temple of Karnak, etc.) and captured thousands of photos (you can link to some of them below), but I think what we’ll remember most is the people of Egypt.

During our last night in Cairo, the travel agency arranged for the tour group to meet with Ashraf Khalil, author of Liberation Square: Inside Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. In addition to giving us his analysis of the election, the government and the political upheaval, Khalil actually thanked and commended us for visiting Egypt during a time when most will not.

Tourism in Egypt represents 11 percent of its economy versus the U.S. economy which takes in a little under three percent of its gross domestic product from travel and tourism. From the hundreds of unfinished resorts along the Red Sea to the dozens of merchant boys as young as eight years old who swarmed the tour bus doors at each stop, it’s evident that the current turmoil has greatly impacted travel in a country whose residents greatly depend on it. With the few Egyptian pounds we managed to spend in the local markets, I’m hoping we were able to give to Egypt as much as we learned from it.

Our tour guides – Eman and Dalia – possess an overwhelming wealth of knowledge and sense of pride in their home and its richly complex history. They’re academically-trained guides, so I guess this should be expected. However, Eman is currently her blind mother’s sole caretaker, and Dalia is a wife and mother in a country where women are not exactly on equal footing with their male counterparts. To have such an unfailing esteem for your homeland despite this, is an embodiment of courage I think only a few could cull themselves to have, and it was a honor to travel with and learn from them.

Eman proudly displayed her inked-stained voting finger for days following the election. The “I Voted” sticker I acquired this past Tuesday – following Alexandria, Virginia’s primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives and city council – was stuffed in my jacket pocket.

While I definitely appreciate my right and ability to vote, and the U.S. political system is by no means on par with Egypt’s, it’s hard to stay consistently upbeat about any political process that has become so overwhelmingly negative when it doesn’t need to be.

Come November 6, 2012, the “I Voted” sticker I obtain that day might suffer the same fate as its predecessor, but the cartouche pendant that Eman once wore around her neck and gave to me on the last night of our trip, will still be worn proudly around my neck. The pendant’s symbols represent prosperity, eternal life and protection.

You can view my photos of Egypt on Flickr:

An Egypt Travel Manifesto

The Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt – Photo courtesy of Rosanna Leung via Flickr.com

In a little over 24 hours, a not-so-well-traveled thirty-something female from the D.C. metropolitan area will embark on her first trip to the continent of Africa.

  • Destination: Egypt
  • Duration: Seven days
  • Companions: Three well-traveled gal pals
  • Origination: An irresistibly hard to pass on LivingSocial Escapes Deal
  • Motivation: It’s about damn time I did something like this

Other than a week-long trip to Buenos Aires and the Iguza Falls in 2008, and a few days in the Bahamas, my passport’s stamp collection is nothing to be admired. The globetrotting history of my Egypt travelmates includes Paris, Italy, Germany, Morocco, and quite a few other fabulous cities and countries.

According to the State Department, “Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and the second-most populous on the African continent.” And exactly three days following our arrival to this country of 82 million, citizens will cast their votes in Egypt’s first-ever contested presidential election – over a year after the country’s political regime was uprooted by citizen dissidence and its former President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office.

An excursion like this will probably happen to me only once in my lifetime.

So in addition to the to-do (secure tourist visa, buy linen pants) and packing lists (SPF 45, straw hat, international plugs, and 32GB SD card) I’ve been following diligently, I figured creating an Egypt Travel Manifesto – a declaration of what I hope to accomplish while I’m there would be a list to have as well. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • PHOTOS: Take between 50 and 60 photos per day. With a newly purchased Canon EOS Rebel T2i Digital SLR Camera (Thanks, Target, for the awesome sale); a borrowed extended lens from my ultra-generous photography mentor and coworker, John Taylor; and an ample number of landmark visits on the travel itinerary,  I hope to kick my photo-taking skills up a notch or two, and have a great portfolio of high-res digital photos to prove it.
  • CULTURE: Be a good representative of the U.S. and fully respect Egypt’s mores. No profanity, inappropriate attire, staring, finger pointing, or disrespectful behavior. I try not conduct myself this way on American soil, but hey, even I have an off day. In any case, this will be my first trip to Africa and the Arab Spring, and I will not give credence to the notation that Americans are not tolerant or willing to immerse themselves in foreign traditions, the Islamic faith or countries abroad.
  • LOCAL NEWSPAPERS: Pick up a few local newspapers the day after the presidential elections. Next week’s presidential election will be as historic for Egypt as the 2008 presidential elections were for the U.S. I purchased a copy of a few national newspapers following the U.S. elections, and although I can’t speak or read Arabic, I hope to do the same in Egypt.
  • NOTES: Photos are great, but journal keeping is good as well. Great photos of the pyramids and local residents will serve as a great record of this trip, but I also want to remember the intricate details and experiences that photos can’t capture. An interesting question that’s asked. A nice nugget about the local culture from the tour guide. A funny joke from a local businessman. These are memories that will definitely be the bookmarks of my trip and I hope to capture them in the written word.
  • FOOD: Don’t be afraid to eat the unfamiliar. The DC area has no shortage of restaurants devoted to authentic ethnic cuisine, but I’m sure none of these establishments can beat the palate pleasing experience of dining at an establishment in the heart of Cairo or along the Mediterranean Sea.
  • SHOPPING: Gotta buy stuff for the ones you love. Fresh spices, fabric, jewelry, and coffee are just a few of items and gifts I’m buying for family and friends while in Egypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to get everything through customs on the return trip and in one small bag. Traveling internationally with extra luggage is not cheap.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA: Don’t neglect Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. I’ve been shamefully neglecting these social media channels over the last few weeks — work, life and tweet balance. I’ll be solely dependent on WiFi whilst there, but hope to posts as many real-time updates and photos as possible. Thanks in advance to the Cairo area Starbucks I plan to camp out in for a few hours.
  • TROUBLE: Stay out of it. Most if not all of our itinerary stops will be in safe tourist areas, but if the unexpected protest, peaceful demonstration or whatever happens to occurs near us, I will resist the urge to take photos or grab a flag or poster in support – “if I know my place, I’ll stay safe.”

A long manifesto, but a simple one to uphold. If you have suggestions on what I should add to the list, please, please share. I welcome your ideas, especially if you’ve previously visited Egypt, Africa or anywhere in the Arab world. 🙂

Enter the 2012 DCist Exposed Photography Show… Everyone’s Doing It!

2011 DC Tweed Ride

Do I have a four-figure priced DSLR camera? No.

Do I even have one of those mildly-priced, ultracool Nikon Coolpix that Ashton Kutcher sports with seductive eyes during every commercial break? Uh. No.

Despite this, I’ve managed to take a few fairly nice photos this year using borrowed cameras from friends and a few Sprint smartphone devices. Managing public relations for the company allows me to test out new products so I can become proficient enough on their stellar photo and video capabilities and of course, show them off to potential and current Sprint customers.

After taking stock of my small photo collection from this year, I’ve decided to submit a few pics into selection pool of the 2012 DCist Exposed Photography Show. Hoping the entry above becomes a serious contender, along with this one and this one.

My coworker, John Taylor, is also throwing his hat into the ring. This is my favorite of his three entries.

If you have some great 2011 Washington, D.C. area photos that you think are worthy of the 2012 DCist Exposed Photography Show, I encourage you to submit them today… or next week. The submission deadline is 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, January 11, 2012.

Make sure to read and follow the rules carefully. I’ll make sure to keep my fingers crossed for you.