A Bobby Riggs – Billie Jean King Moment in Egypt

Battle of Sexes

From Ahram Online, reporting on an friendly ‘Battle of the Sexes’ soccer game in Luxor:

The Egyptian women’s youth team has defeated a men’s team in a friendly match in Luxor.

The women beat Al-Madina Al-Monawara, an under-17 team, 5-3 on Wednesday.

The woman’s team was also under 17, so while it was a game of equal ages, the player pool was vastly different. Still, quite an accomplishment, especially for the game to even happen. With better marketing, Luxor might be able to draw the greater tourism they seek:

“The 27 players in the women’s U-17 national squad, currently in Luxor, aim to promote tourism as well as popularise the game in Upper Egypt,” El-Hawary told reporters after the match.

More power to them.


Christian Killed for Collecting Rebel Signatures

From the AP. Earlier I highlighted the Muslim grassroots leader of the Rebel Campaign which collected a reported 22 million signatures calling for early presidential elections. Here is one of his many activists – a Christian – who has now paid with his life:

With a mob of Muslim extremists on their tail, the Christian businessman and his nephew climbed up on the roof and ran for their lives, jumping from building to building in their southern Egyptian village. Finally they ran out of rooftops.

Forced back onto the street, they were overwhelmed by several dozen men. The attackers hacked them with axes and beat them with clubs and tree limbs, killing Emile Naseem, 41. The nephew survived with wounds to his shoulders and head and recounted the chase to The Associated Press.

The mob’s rampage through the village of Nagaa Hassan, burning dozens of Christian houses and stabbing to death three other Christians as well, came two days after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power. It was no coincidence the attackers focused on Naseem and his family: He was the village’s most prominent campaigner calling for Morsi’s removal.

Naseem’s friends and family say he was targeted because of his activism against Morsi. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, he was energetically collecting signatures in the village for Tamarod, or “Rebel,” the youth-led activist campaign that collected signatures nationwide on a petition demanding Morsi’s removal. It organized the June 30 protests that brought out millions.

“Emile was the de facto Tamarod leader in the village and that did not escape the notice of the militants,” said Naseem’s best friend and fellow activist Emile Nazeer. “He, like other activists, received threatening text messages for weeks before he was killed.”

“Almost everyone in Nagaa Hassan loved my uncle. He spoke a lot about politics and people listened to what he had to say,” said el-Ameer, Naseem’s nephew. “He paid the price.”

Click here to read the rest of the article and its sordid details. Ugh.


Touring Egypt with Egyptians

Our family recently had the privilege to go on a Nile tour from Luxor to Aswan.  With my parents visiting from the US, one of the sites my Dad wanted to see was the Valley of the Kings.  At first we said it was too far to try, but then Jayson heard our local Orthodox church advertise a trip to Luxor/Aswan, and so we enquired.  Turns out, no one else in the church signed up, but the travel agent, who worships at this location, was able to get us the same good price as he was offering to the Egyptian congregation, and so we made the arrangements for Mom, Dad, Jayson, me and our three little girls to embark on this great tour.

First step was getting to Luxor which is located about 8-9 hours south of Cairo by train.  We debated going by train or plane – big difference in time and price – and in the end, went with the more adventurous route.  We weren’t sure what to expect as we boarded the sleeper train in Ramses station, but we had three sleeper cabins which were quite comfortable and roomy.

Sleeper Car in the Train to Luxor

Since we left town around 8pm, we got our girls to bed as quickly as possible, anticipating a 5am arrival in Luxor.  Then we enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to our different beds.  I don’t think I slept too much and among the adults, we got varying hours of sleep.  The beds were comfortable enough, but the train was really rough.  We stopped and started all through the night, and felt like we were going to blow right off the track at different points.  About an hour before Luxor, we got some breakfast, then woke and dressed the girls before arrival.

We were met in Luxor by a representative from the travel company and taken to a big tourist bus along with about 25 Egyptians.  Our agent in Maadi had told us he had a group of doctors going on the same trip so we would be with them.  After traveling together a bit, we realized that many of us were together in the same train car from Cairo to here.  We went straight to the Valley of the Kings while our tour guide, Mohamed, began telling us about Luxor and what we would be seeing soon.  He usually works with English groups, but of course could guide in Arabic as well.  And so, our little family had our own English translation from him each time he finished his Arabic spiel.

The sites that day were interesting, and the three girls did well despite it being hot and including lots of walking.  We were all enjoying the places we visited, but also curious to get to the boat where we would be living for the next five days.  It wasn’t long before we learned of a complication in this trip.  Due to a workers’ strike at the locks near Luxor, our boat was parked about one hour south of Luxor in the town of Esna.  This meant that we had to drive over an hour after touring before boarding the boat.  And so, the schedule I had worked out for day one was not going to work.  Fortunately, our littlest one was able to nap during the long bus ride, and we all made it till the 3pm lunch when we finally got to the boat.

Exhausted on the Unexpected Bus Ride

By that first evening together, Emma and Hannah had made friends with a young single Egyptian named Mahmoud, who was traveling with his two sisters, parents and grandmother.  He quickly became like an uncle to them and throughout the week I often heard Emma call out, “Mahmouuuud, Mahmouuuud” as we walked around the temple ruins.

Mahmoud, with Hannah our Future Archaeologist
Mahmoud, with Emma our Future Captain

Day two was another complicated day due to the lock strike.  Since we had more to see in Luxor, we now had to drive an hour each way making for a long morning.  Or so I thought.  We were supposed to leave by 8 or 9 am, but by 10am our whole group was waiting in the lobby of the boat as the tour bus we were supposed to ride was having trouble finding gasoline due to a gas shortage.  I don’t know exactly what time the bus arrived to pick us up, because the boat left the port for about half an hour to allow another boat to set sail, and when we docked once again closer to noon, our tour guide was more than ready to get on with the tour.

(Click here for a tour of our Nile cruise boat, and here for a lazy gaze at a pastoral Nile River island.)

During our waiting time, the girls were once again playing with Mahmoud and this gave me a chance to meet him and his family and we had a nice time getting know each other.  I wasn’t sure if I was the only one stressed out about such a late start to our day since the boat was supposed to sail for its next destination at 3:30.  I knew we had two places to tour in Luxor and at least two hours of driving.  How could we possibly do it?  I was relieved to hear the concern of others in the group too, but they said that the sites we were to see, the Luxor and Karnak temples, were among the most important of the tour.  We couldn’t just skip out on these sites.  I quickly tried to refigure Layla’s eating and nap plan as it was obvious she would not be doing either of those things on the boat this day.

Out of the six or seven families in our tour group, there were four young children: our three girls, and a 1 ½ year old boy, Yusuf.  He was traveling with his parents, aunt, and grandparents, and Emma and Hannah really took to him.  By day four, Hannah practically looked like she was in their family as she walked along with them at the sites and played with Yusuf on the boat.

With Yusuf, on the Sun Deck

We also met up with them a time or two in the disco room and the kids all danced together.  On the final day, Yusuf’s dad delivered three black plastic bags to our girls, each one filled with the same assortment of snacks: a pack of crackers, a lollipop, a tube of chocolate, a small cake, some gummy worms and a juice box.  By that point, Hannah was too sick to enjoy any of it, but the gesture was so typical of the generous Egyptians we know.  It never even crossed my mind to buy something small for anyone, and yet, they bought all three of our girls bags of snacks.

Several other people in our tour group enjoyed playing with our girls as well.  One of the daughters in a family of three older girls often played with Layla when she was strapped to my back.

Layla, with One of Many Children Lovers

It wasn’t unusual to find Layla in someone else’s lap on a motorboat ride or as we were waiting in the lobby of the boat.  Even though we were the only non-Egyptians in our group, they welcomed us in and made the trip extra-special for our kids.

Not only were we the only foreigners in our particular tour, we were the only foreigners on the whole boat of three tour groups.  According to one of the workers on the boat, they’ve only had Egyptians riding the boat for quite awhile now.  One evening while I was in line for dinner, one of the servers asked me how I liked the food.  I answered that I thought it was very good, and he tapped the lady next to me in line and said, “See, she is American and she thinks the food is very good!”  I felt very strange when he said that like my opinion is more important than anyone else on the boat?!  But perhaps he was excited about the presence of foreigners in his restaurant for the first time in a long time. Tourism has taken a severe dive since the revolution.

Among New Friends

There were three or four elementary-aged girls on the boat, and after the first or second day, they became friends with Emma and Hannah.  Their time was limited together since we didn’t tour at the same time, but they could see each other on the sun deck or in the disco room.  One night there was a gallabeya party.  A gallabeya is a traditional robe-like dress which is a typical dress for men living in upper Egypt.  Technically the woman’s equivalent for that is called an abaya.  We weren’t planning on mentioning this party to our girls since it wasn’t going to start until 9pm which is two hours past their normal bed time.

However, the young girls on the boat, as well as the older girls in our group, were very excited about this party and asked Emma and Hannah if they planned to attend.  Not only did this mean staying up quite late, but also buying a gallabeya!  Following the lead of those in our group, we purchased a gallabeya for Emma and Hannah at one of the shops during our stop in Kom Ombo.  We later purchased some more on the boat and then some fancy head-ware at the market in Aswan.  Although it wasn’t in time for the party, by the end of the trip, our whole family was properly outfitted.

At dinner, just an hour before the party, Hannah was too tired to eat and decided to go to bed rather than attend the party.  This meant only Emma had a chance to participate, and she had a great time with her friends.

Dressed up for the Party
Dressed Up at Home - Adults have more Inhibitions

We had a wonderful trip and saw amazing sites in the south of Egypt, but probably the highlight of the trip for our entire family was the living people of Egypt, rather than its ancient monuments. You can see pictures of the temples anywhere, but how else could you get memories like these?

Our Touring Party

(Too bad the normally punctual Americans were late for this group shot. Oh well.)


Instability in Upper Egypt, Experienced

Ever since the revolution Egypt has suffered / benefited from waves of popular protest. The expressions in Tahrir Square were largely political, yet included a significant expression of social and economic discontent. The original chant which rang through the streets demanded, ‘Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.’

Most focus since the revolution has been on political matters, and these have yet only partially been achieved. The achievement is significant, as Egypt now has a parliament freely elected by its people. Yet the primary lesson learned by the population is that if you have a grievance, fill the streets.

‘One Hand’ on the Railroad

A few weeks ago I was assisting American documentary filmmakers obtain an interview with a Coptic priest and a Salafi sheikh, the latter of which was running for parliament with the former’s support. The couple is producing a film entitled ‘One Hand’, which focuses on youthful and unique expressions of national unity. They had other business in Asyut, and I was to meet them with the priest in Maghagha.

My train arrived as usual from Cairo, but coming from Asyut was another story. With the priest I waited at the station, and waited, and waited. Finally we learned that nearby villagers decided to escalate their protest against the local government for failing to deliver the normal supply of gas bottles needed for cooking. The shortage prompted a huge increase in price on the black market, so they decided to block the railroad tracks.

At this news we knew it could be hours, though probably not days, until the track was opened again. The priest and I drove an hour south to collect them on the side of the tracks. For whatever reason, the task was complicated by the fact there was very poor cell phone coverage, but we managed to speak with their neighbor who assisted them in their disembarkation. The filmmakers spoke very little Arabic.

Eventually they made it over to us, surrounded by a group of young men who were offering to ‘help’. They may or may not have been, but once we got them in the car one of them asked where we were from. Oddly, I felt a bit unnerved out of concern for the (young) couple, answered ‘America’ with a smile, and received a reply suggesting his ‘help’ may have been variable. ‘F*** America,’ he said, ‘We hate America.’

‘I know,’ I replied smiling still. We got in the car quickly and drove away, with both exhaustion and a sigh of relief. The long delay made little impact on their work, as the sheikh was not free until near midnight to begin a very friendly and welcoming interview.

Lock the Lock

The next two examples come from a Nile cruise on the occasion of Julie’s parents visit to Egypt. We boarded the sleeper car from Cairo and unloaded in Luxor, very pleased there was no railway protest to extend the journey.

Yet after the first few local sightseeing locations we noticed something strange. We got on a bus and drove over an hour away to board our cruise and spend the night. The next day we repeated the same ritual, only delayed an additional two hours. There are many ancient Pharaonic sites to see in Luxor, and both the delay and the absurd driving distance played havoc with our scheduled itinerary.

Mother and Daughter Exhausted from Extra Travel

The normal agenda is to get off the train, see the sites, and then board the boat right there in Luxor, stopping at all the tombs and temples along the way.

Unfortunately, we learned the workers at the canal lock in Isna were on protest, refusing to let any boats past. They began their sit-in on the 25th of January, to commemorate the revolution.

This left the boats in Luxor stranded, but fortunately our boat was trapped on the other side. This explains the hour plus bus ride after we finished sightseeing. We had to drive south to Isna in order to spend the night in our cabin, and then return the next day for Luxor sites, day two.

Only the next morning we encountered another post-revolutionary difficulty. The nation as a whole, but Upper Egypt especially, has suffered periodic gasoline shortages. The bus, we learned, was desperately searching for an open tap.

After several hours delay, a different bus met us at the dock and filled up from the boat’s supply of gasoline. I’m not sure there weren’t other shenanigans we weren’t being told, but we did see long lines of vehicles at the gas stations we passed on our way back to Luxor. I’m also not sure who’s bottom line must accommodate the extra costs of bus and gasoline – travel agent, cruise, tour guide – but the blow to tourism is substantial.

Other tours which knew of the lock strike at Isna cancelled their trips altogether.

A Free Pass at Edfu

The Massive Temple at Edfu

Later on in our tour we had a pleasant outcome from local instability. Our boat docked in Edfu, but the captain told everyone the tourism workers at the temple were all on strike. The rumor circulated but before it had time to settle in the guide rounded everyone up and we went ashore. From there, we rode horse drawn carriages to the site of the temple.

What we didn’t realize until later is that our carriages stopped at the back side of the temple. We passed along an open area along the wall of the massive complex, circled to the temple gate, and moved through en masse.

At the entrance of nearly every tourist location there is a small area to mill about where the grandeur is open to all onlookers. Then there is a welcome center where a ticket is purchased and then a souvenir section where tourists – foreigners especially – are all but assaulted by desperate sellers.

We skipped all this. By coming in the back we avoided whatever protest prevented entry from the front. At the temple gate some semblance of guard took money from every tour guide, but then allowed the group in without tickets, no questions asked. Ticket prices for Egyptians range from 1-5 LE ($0.18-0.80 US), but foreigners must fork over between 35-80 LE ($6-13 US) depending on location. It is still minimal, but it was a nice surprise – pleasant also, as we avoided the souvenir gauntlet.

Groups Moving Past the Entrance as Tour Guides Give a Little Baksheesh (Tips)

The Big Picture

It is difficult to know what to make of these protests. On the one hand, they are at the least annoying and disruptive, and perhaps even damaging to the local economy. Several people, especially in Cairo, criticize such strikes. They say people should be patient: ‘We waited thirty years to get rid of Mubarak, we should not expect things to get better immediately. In fact, such continuing ‘special interest’ protests are only making things worse.’

Fair enough, but how can this point be enforced when there is a window of opportunity now? Forty percent of Egyptians live on under two dollars a day, wages are low even in the middle class, and few people have benefits of any kind. The revolution has changed political leadership, but not so much at the regional level. Protests have proved effective for many in getting what they want – which could be as basic as a living wage. Who knows but if they wait longer the system will reset itself and local leaders will pay as little concern to their needs as before?

In many ways, the problem is one of trust. President Mubarak allowed the failure of the social contract which ensures domestic stability. Open political participation was minimal, but so was food on the table. As Egyptian institutions eroded from the inside, it will take a long time to rebuild following the revolutionary collapse. Unless such a contract is widely renegotiated, small and localized strikes will – and perhaps reasonably – continue.

Who pays the bill? Is it reasonable for the average working Egyptian to wait until the Muslim Brotherhood, elite liberals, and the armed forces get around to a new economic policy? If so few cared for their needs then, should they trust anyone will care now?

Perhaps they will. The only one of the three to demonstrate practical concern for the poor were the Islamists, who have now been widely elected to parliament. It is fair to ask if Islamist concern is opportunistic or transformative, but many have worked sincerely. Will they follow through? Will they be allowed to? Will the people wait? If so, for how long?

Revolutions are not easy, and the pain can linger even after resolution. Egyptians are among the most patient people on earth; they are now being put further to the test.


On the sleeper train ride home I woke at about 2am from a lack of movement. It is difficult to catch shut-eye while the car lurches back and forth, but I was able. After about 45 minutes of standstill, however, I inquired. A baggage handler told me there was a train driver strike over assignments on the newer cars, which also came with a higher compensation.

Our car was newer, and despite my complaints above was much smoother than the older model we semi-suffered on the way south.

The handler assured me things would be settled soon, so I used the calm to get back to sleep. It worked, as I was unaware of another long delay that woke my wife around 4am.

In the morning I asked the porter about the delays. He replied there was just a normal backup of several trains at a particular station. Asking more specifically about a strike, he denied anything of the sort. I think I ran directly into the noble Egyptian quality of saving face.

In the end our scheduled twelve hour trip took sixteen. I don’t know if the drivers got what they wanted, or how it came about we did not spend an additional evening or two in the sleeper car. I just hope Egyptians remain patient as their lives accommodate such disturbances at an increasing frequency.

I suppose if everyone is doing it, it is easier to forgive.

Fortunately, They Slept Through the Night

Final Postscript

Today the media carried the news that a Luxor-Cairo train the day after our travels was attacked by thugs who tried to steal luggage from car number five. The passengers successfully beat them off.