Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Into Teeming Cairo, The Pyramids And Sphinx

Written from Alexandria, Egypt--

For a long time, I had skipped Egypt on my travels, not being in great sympathy with its policies, and somewhat concerned about the security of such a visit. But that was a mistake. Egypt is a marvelous travel experience and no one who can afford such a trip should miss it.

Today, hundreds of Prinsendam passengers took a 12-hour tour from the ship, docked here at Alexandria, into Cairo and Giza to see the great pyramids, the Sphinx and the Egyptian Museum, which has many more King Tut articles than have appeared in periodic tours of the U.S.

Cairo has a population roughly estimated at 20 million people, but it was not quite the ramshackle, disorganized place I'd been led to expect. It turns out to have many fancy sections, high-rise buildings of splendid architecture and a subway line that is longer than Los Angeles'. It even, recently, has built a freeway or two.

The pyramids and Sphinx are west of the city, but the city has kind of grown up around them, and the Egyptian authorities might be well advised to form a national park and buy out property owners who now impede the long views of the monuments, which date from 2600 B.C. There are good perspectives now, but the views from the desert are missing. There are obviously no monuments in all the world like these, and it was a thrill to see them. They loom even larger than expected. I skipped the $3 camel ride, however.

We had a guide today, an Egyptology graduate student, who felt constrained to lecture us for some minutes on the virtues of women wearing the veil and in many cases total burkas on the streets of Cairo. He claimed the women like it, although he said Islam does not dictate it. My fellow passengers sat mute through this exercise, which reminded me so much of the Southern whites who used to say the Negroes loved segregation.

But I did speak up. I told him of my feeling that not until women are liberated and put on an equal footing with men, will Egypt and other Arab countries advance. Right now, these countries labor under a severe handicap: Only half their population really participates in the economic life of the community. I expressed a view that men, like women, here would be better off with a new arrangement.

In accord with the ship's advice, many of the women going on the tour wore scarfs, and many of the men long-sleeved shirts. But Cairo has many tourists and I noticed that particularly the Asians, the Japanese and Chinese women who were visiting and on the streets, were wearing shorts. I imagine Arab men enjoyed the view.

Security on the trip from Alexandria to Cairo was light. No convoy, as to Luxor the other day, and buses drove separately, each with a security man in a front seat riding shot gun. In Cairo itself, and particularly around the Egyptian Museum, there was heavy security.

Tourists get a good reception in this country, by the way.

The Nile flows right through the center of downtown Cairo.

--

Kudos to the L.A. Times editorial pages for running an editorial contrary to a position taken by Sam Zell and opposing Proposition 98, which under the guise of undoing the foolish court decisions allowing muncipalities to seize property by eminent domain for commercial projects would also do away with rent control and do other things as a favor for the wealthy. This is a sound position, and tends to verify Zell's earlier assurances that he would not interfere in editorial policy.

--

Today is the 50th anniversary of the uprising of French settlers and Army officers in Algeria that ultimately brought Charles de Gaulle back to power in France and paved the way, eventually, for French withdrawal from Algeria.

After being restored, de Gaulle went down to Algiers and made one of the great Machiavellian statements of modern history: "I have understood you," he roared. The crowd of Colons roared back. They thought he was saying he understood them and would support them. What he, in fact, was saying, as it turned out, was that he had understood them and was against them.

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