The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

No to Contempt Religion

To relax in the sun after the long Anglo-Saxon winter, my wife and I took the Good Little Capitalists to Egypt. We visited Cairo and then Sharm-el-Shaykh. Being unrepentant running dogs, we stayed in four-star resorts.

Egypt has "tourist police", separate from the regular police forces. The presence of three or four armed guards at the entrance to every major hotel is disconcerting at first. Rampant ethnic profiling, however, means that Caucasian visitors are generally waved through (though bags are often X-rayed). Some of our guides were old enough to remember the Luxor massacre of 1997; though they consistently referred to it as "the Luxor accident". They are slightly inconvenienced by the tourist police, but seem resigned to it, probably aware of the effect on their own livelihoods of another such attack.

The October Sixth elevated highway winds over the center of the Old City of Cairo for about three miles. As such, it is by far the most important through road in the city. Its name celebrates the initiation of the Yom Kippur War, and the few days of Arab success therein. [As Wikipedia has it: "The Arab world, which had been humiliated by the lopsided defeat of the Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian alliance during the Six-Day War, felt psychologically vindicated by its string of victories early in the conflict."]

The Land of Teeth
The name of the Sin'ai peninsula is allegedly derived from the Semitic word for "tooth". This is an apt description -- the predominant geological form is metamorphosed sediments, tectonically lifted to angles around 45 degrees and weathered to small, asymmetric, triangular mounts. [Some pictures are here.] The intervening valleys have gradually filled with sand, which only serves to make the little water than runs off the hillsides harder to find. The occasional scrawny tree is like a flag pointing to some small hidden reservoir. Walking or riding in this area, even in the cool of evening, begets respect for those who have managed to subsist there.

No to Contempt Religion
In Sharm-el-Shaykh, the permanent shops (as opposed to tents and mobile hawkers) are run, I assume, by the town's leading citizens. The great majority of them, perhaps 80%, displayed a single Xeroxed page somewhere in their front window; the Sinai equivalent, I suppose, of the unobtrusive American flags one would find in the South or Midwest. Printed in landscape mode, they say along the top half "No to Contempt Religion" and below, in a smaller font, "We love Muhammad". Presumably this is a reference to the little-seen cartoons.

The Sinai peninsula supports almost no life; it is given over to perhaps 15,000 Bedouins and their camels. Everything required by the Red Sea resorts must be imported, even the staff. To economize on air travel, those staff work every day for 50 days, then depart (probably for 20 days) to their homes and families. The water in Sharm-el-Shaykh is obtained by chemical desalination of seawater and is not drinkable even by the natives. Thus bottled water (outside the resorts) is very cheap, since the buyers are not exclusively tourists.

The Muezzin
The call to prayer was traditionally shouted from the minarets by the muezzin. However, the spread of technology has replaced him with the playing of a recording. In Dahab, we heard the call to prayer broadcast at maximum volume over damaged speakers; the resulting clipping and distortion made it the shrieking of a desperate madman.

[Cross-posted at Chequer-Board.]