It’s the strangest thing. I can sit at my quiet desk, in the still corner of a peaceful village and watch live footage of Egypt unravelling. It’s not a distant conflict, a vague upset in a far-off field. It’s people getting shot at in the middle of Cairo.
I’m not going to begin to pretend that I’m qualified to comment on the political situation in what seems like a tinderbox of a country, however, the unsettling scenes on the little screen in front of me turn my thoughts to a week in 2008.
Egypt, with its Red Sea package holidays, had, to me, seemed safe and stable. Hardly even out of Europe with its Mediterranean shore. Then a Scottish friend and colleague met and, in short order, married an Egyptian man. The Panther of News and I would visit.
Much as I’d like to think I am, I’m not well travelled at all. Sure, I’ve crossed Europe, paddled around the Caribbean, honeymooned in Sri Lanka and dipped my toe into the US, but I haven’t even crossed the Equator. I’m not sure what I expected from this Arab nation wedged, as it is, between Africa and Europe. These are some of the impressions I’m left with.
Children rushed into the water at Alexandria’s town beach and fled the waves dripping and squealing. They dashed into the arms of their mothers. Nearby a toddler was held tight while he dabbled astounded in the shallows, possibly for the first time. The difference was the women were cloaked in burqas. They paddled, only the sand couldn’t get between their black sock-clad feet. I tried not to be fascinated, but I wondered how the tots knew which was their mum.
Enjoying the cool of the air-conditioned shopping malls, families browsed. Racks of little girls’ swimming costumes were on display, every garment with long sleeves and cloth to the ankle.
Yet, young women dazzle, their slender limbs sheathed in tight, colourful fabric, lithe waists slung with belts above hipster jeans. These beautiful creatures clearly have their bejewelled and polished finger on the pulse of Western fashion yet don’t literally break the rules.
A local holiday saw families take to the streets in crowds setting up encampments all folding chairs and bags bulging with feasts. Long into the dark, chirping night tots waddled, women talked and men shouted. Their voices were drowned by the rattle and honk of the gridlocked traffic – four abreast across two lanes. This endless tide of Egyptian humanity has been cruelly echoed in the past weeks’ events.
In silence and well-kept ranks, the pale graves of El Alamein provided a profoundly moving memorial. Knowing the facts about World War II doesn’t change the shock of evidence of so much potential wasted.
The Sphinx sat smugly, sneering at the encroaching city of Cairo. Buses disgorged barely dressed Western tourists who’ve day-tripped from Sharm El Shiekh. It’s no wonder the local men can’t tear their eyes away.
And as we took our leave from this bewildering and energetic place, a last early morning visit to the ladies at the airport saw me sneaking past the attendant asleep on the floor and trying to drop some coins in her dish as quietly as possible…