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Metamorphosis: Egypt after the Revolution

In a country in chaos, a football hero and hidden treasure have become unlikely beacons of hope

Visitors at the temple of Luxor, once the largest in the world. Photo: iStockphoto
Visitors at the temple of Luxor, once the largest in the world. Photo: iStockphoto

“We young people wanted the revolution and all the old ones wanted things to be as they were," said Ruby, as we drove to Luxor airport. “In the end, they were right."

Ruby is an unusual name for a man, even in Egypt. “My mother named me after the stone," my guide to Luxor explained. “By the time she realized it’s a girl’s name, it was too late!" He laughed a child’s laugh. Ruby had close-cropped hair, big dark eyes and was slight in build, unusual in a country where most men are portly and the per capita prevalence of diabetes is among the highest in the world.

I had arrived in Egypt a week ago. Why go now, concerned friends asked. Why not, I replied, smiling with more confidence than I felt. Bombings have been incessant since the 2011 blast in Alexandria that killed 23 people and injured 97. In March, a car bomb killed two in Alexandria. In November 2017, militants bombed a mosque and then gunned down 305 people in Northern Sinai. Extremism, and the accompanying mayhem, are the new reality of Egypt.

I went anyway, despite my fear of encountering trouble in a foreign land, because I wanted to study a country undergoing a metamorphosis fuelled by terrorism and the Arab Spring of 2011. Chaos accentuates the character of a nation, and I wanted to see how the Egyptians were fighting the turmoil. I wanted Egypt to inspire me. For isn’t that the purpose of travel—to pursue hope in the most hopeless of times and places?

My week-long trip began in Cairo, where Ahmed was waiting for me when I landed. He was about my age, in his mid-30s, with gelled hair and an upright stance. “You look like you play football," I said to break the ice. He grinned, “Everyone plays football in Egypt since Mo Salah became a star." Mohammed Salah, the star footballer who plays for Liverpool, is perhaps Egypt’s best-known recent export. His face is plastered on billboards all over Cairo.

Why is Salah so loved, I asked Ahmed. “He came from a poor home, trained hard, and when the top Egyptian club rejected him, he left to make a name for himself. He is so humble still, bends to praise Allah every time he scores. What’s not to like?" Though Ahmed didn’t say so, I felt Salah’s road to success was an affirmation of what Egypt’s youth believe—that this country has little left to offer, and, to be successful, you have to leave. I asked Ahmed if he wanted to leave Egypt. “Of course!" he said without hesitation.

With day temperatures in Cairo touching 40 degrees Celsius, Ahmed showed me how to wrap my head in a chequered scarf as we explored the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and Coptic Cairo, the Christian old city. I saw the church built at the spot where Christ is said to have spent three months. A significant church in the heart of Islamic Egypt was a surprising sight.

“Is there peace between Christians and Muslims?" I asked. “Yes," Ahmed nodded, “10% of Egypt’s population is Christian. There is a lot of tolerance because both communities have been in Egypt for long." While he may have been right about the history and demographic split, I didn’t put faith in Ahmed’s attestation of peace. After all, newspapers were reporting an increase in terrorist attacks against the Coptic Christians, including one in December, when an Islamic State gunman had killed 11 not far from where I stood. As we walked out, I thought about Ahmed’s response. I realized that though Ahmed was a commoner, he belonged to the majority. A majority status sometimes makes one desperate to believe that incidents of violence are one-offs, and not symptomatic of enduring hatred.

Later, at the Khan Al-Khalili souk, we ordered cups of cold hibiscus tea, in a café once frequented by Nobel literature prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. Waiters in embroidered jackets served Turkish coffee or mint tea to the hookah-smoking, mostly male clientele. A couple in one corner whispered shyly to one another, careful to ensure there was no physical contact. “Are they dating?" I asked Ahmed. He looked unsure. “Maybe. It’s not very common." Most marriages are still decided with the consent of the families.

Outside, the souk had begun to fill out. Hookah and coffee stands had appeared by the streets, shopowners calling out to the few tourists. Having spent the entire day with Ahmed, I finally asked the question I had wanted to since morning, “Did you participate in the revolution?" Ahmed responded, “Who didn’t?"

Back in the car, I asked him to take me to Tahrir Square, the hot spot of the Arab Spring. It was a roundabout right in front of the Egyptian Museum, which I had visited earlier in the day, undistinguishable from any other busy intersection. “There were a million of us here in that month of winter."

Next morning, I took a flight to Aswan, where I boarded a luxury boat for a three-night cruise down the Nile to Luxor. Meeting fellow passengers at dinner, I realized how few we were; the boat was running at one-fourth capacity. After dinner, standing on the open deck, I noticed the lights of another boat. How many boats cruise the Nile, I asked a staff member. “Just 50. Before the revolution, there were close to 300. Now, even these 50 are less than half-full."

Ruby met me at the port in Luxor, waving a placard and wearing a happy smile. He took me to the Karnak temple, once the largest, most spread-out temple in the world, and to the Valley of Kings, where I learnt that all the tombs, but one, had been robbed.

Who robbed them, I wanted to know. “First, the locals, then the Greeks, Romans and British, and now the locals again," said Ruby. “The robbing continues even today."

I was perplexed, so Ruby pulled out his phone and showed me a YouTube video. It showed a cave or an underground tunnel, with a sarcophagus surrounded by miniature gold statues and a lot of jewellery.

“All this was discovered under an old house in Luxor. Each gold antique is sold for $2-3 million (around 13-20 crore) in the black market."

“But how do people find this?" I wondered.

Ruby revealed that people simply dig under their own houses. Most of Luxor is built atop ruins, and many undiscovered tombs are still hidden beneath. “My neighbour found one antique and he is in Dubai now, driving a Lamborghini. I would do the same in my house, but my mom doesn’t let me."

“And what about the government? Don’t they stop it?"

“There is a lot of corruption in Egypt," he responded with his characteristic smile.

Over the next two days, Ruby and I travelled to many ancient spots, but it was the more recent history of the revolution that still preoccupied me. Or, rather, its consequences. In March, incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had won a majority vote for the second term. To an outsider like me, that seemed like a sign of stability. “First there was (Hosni) Mubarak, and now Sisi," said Ruby. “He won with 97% votes. Where else does that happen! He had no real competition."

I enquired if the revolution had cascaded to cities beyond Cairo. Ruby informed me that youth from Luxor travelled to Cairo to join the protests. But in Luxor itself, all systems broke down. “The police was gone, hospitals stopped functioning. My neighbours and I set up a barricade to secure our area. Prices rocketed and we couldn’t buy everyday things."

Tourism was hit especially hard. Earlier, Egypt used to get close to 15 million tourists annually. By some accounts, that number has now halved. “I used to work 25 days a month earlier. Now I am lucky to get any work at all," said Ruby.

My trip drew to an end, but my understanding of Egypt felt incomplete. It’s a nation undergoing transformation, the ongoing change too deep to be figured out in a week. But Ruby’s last words to me were full of insight.

“You talk about revolution as if there has only been one. Sir, the first revolution in Egypt was in 2700 BC, during the time of the Pharaohs, when most civilizations had not even started. Revolutions run in our blood," Ruby said, as we shook hands at the airport.

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