Day Seven
Part Four

April 14, 2008
Last Words on Egypt:

More than a week hence I’m moved again to add some more about my time in Egypt. A lot of the blog thus far has been light-hearted. But there’s more. You can’t travel to a place such as this, steeped in history, and dripping with a culture so much richer than yours, and not be moved. Not to somehow be awakened by the very difference in front of you.

The plane descends into the desert. It shutters a bit then settles down, leveling. A look out the left-hand windows unveils something out of a 1950s movie reel. The pyramids sit atop the Giza Plain motionless; the shadows cast long against the plain ground that surrounds them. They are stunning and powerful and full of a hope that only comes with things this ancient. Things time has worn but not broken down. Only here are there things of this age. Millenia pass these things and they barely notice. These were here when Ghandi walked for change in India, when Saladin pushed back the infidels, when Jesus walked the sea of Galilee. These were here before man understood that he could take advantage of buoyancy and float things atop the water. These things, these stone and sand monuments built to honor the life of one man each, manage to honor an entire people. Their fortitude and permanence, their gratitude and grace. I am humbled by what they are and what they represent.
Overwhelmingly the pyramids, the land, and all other things here are brown. All hues of it. The color dominates all surfaces. The fertile ribbon of the Nile proves a small respite. Everywhere the apartment buildings, businesses, condominiums, bridges, and fortifications, even the simple clothes on the backs of the people seem hewn from the same stone as the pyramids themselves. On many buildings the mechanical equipment that in American we imagine as galvanized steel, here is painted and crusted to match the desert. It all blends in.
This blending in is perhaps the cause of one of the greatest misconceptions of this place. The site where this monument, and in fact the Sphinx, is located is surrounded by the city of Giza. Less than 100 yards from the foot of the Sphinx is the edge of town with a Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken overlooking the gate. All of my previous perceptions of Egypt through books and media put the pyramids in the middle of some vast ocean of sand that may take hours to get to. It just isn’t so. The desert does stretch out in one direction, but in all others the town is clearly in view. Due partly to the height of the Giza Plain where the pyramids were built, and the ecru color of everything in view, the city disappears into the background noise of the desert. It is a powerful and fascinating effect. If you look closely at the above photo, (Click on it to enlarge,) between the two great pyramids on the left and smaller one to the right you can clearly see the city looming in the distance with tour bus making its way down the access road.

Turning the other way, looking back towards the pyramids from the Sphinx, you can see the effect clearly. As you look up to the pyramids the background disappears into the wash of the desert making it appear the monuments exist by themselves alone.
Further countering the illusion on closer inspection is the fetid swamp at the base of the Sphinx. Apparently the water table is very shallow in these parts and they have difficulty with ground flooding. That may explain the extremely high humidity inside the pyramid we ventured into.

All this made me appreciate the anachronistic Cairo that follows the Nile. Here, it is bright lights and neon, loud music, honking horns, and color everywhere. I had some fun with the camera aiming at the funny little party boats that ply the river late at night. These were termed by my hosts as “boats for the poor people.” On each little vessel you could hear the loud music bellowing across the river, neon lights flashing, men and women dancing and cavorting on the decks. I truly wished to be on those boats and not on the fancy dinner cruise where I’d been escorted.

On another note, for my bicycling friends out there wondering why I don’t have any pictures of myself on a fixed gear bike pounding the streets of Cairo…. in the words of Tony Soprano “fahgedaboutit!” It would take someone with more skill, youth and testosterone than me to venture onto these streets on a bike. In my eight days here, I counted only seven bicycles total! Here’s one I managed to snag a photo of out the car window.
Every bike I saw was like this. A working bike, designed to carry large loads. No frivolous frilly rides with pink tires here. Seriously, you’d be taking your life in your hands to ride these streets. Imagine New York city with ten times the traffic and no apparent use for the lane markings on the road. A typical road had three lanes clearly demarked with paint, but six or seven lanes of traffic squeezed into them, turning here and there, ipso-facto, no rhyme or reason, very few traffic lights or other controls. In fact I asked my host why they even bothered to paint the lane markings. He said, quite plain-faced, “to make work for the people.” Something now I completely understand to be true.

So that will do it for me and Egypt….at least until next time. I know now that I have a place here and that I will be welcome. These are some of the most kind, generous, and genuine people I have ever met anywhere. If they will have me, I promise to return.


Day Seven
Part Three
April 14, 2008

Some Miscellany:

As we wandered the streets in the old section of town on Monday night, we came upon a section of open-stalled shops serving drinks and food and selling rugs and clothing and most anything else you might need. This section was only two blocks from the heavily secured and touristed area known as Khan El Khali or Khali Kashlili and differed distinctly because it served the local peoples. The first photo to the left is of the bazaar at the former. Take a look. Mainly westerners wandering around here looking for trinkets. This shop on Salah Salem Street was much like the others around it…. about ten feet wide and twenty deep. It was crusted with dust from the traffic and the goings on in the open air back room behind the closed doors in the rear. A cheap plastic-bladed fan blew incessantly, hanging from the wall, from which it hung with some copper wire.

This was a stalwart business here, the sugar cane juice shop. A man with the brightest smile you’ve ever seen stood behind the counter and served us a sweet concoction known as assab. It’s served in a glass with a metal handle. Our friend Sherif bought a round for the crew as we all leaned into the shop from the street. The liquid is soft green in color with a light foam on top. It’s cold and good and the man behind the counter smiles even broader when I suggest how much I like the drink. Dr. Amr, takes me through the back of the shop, opening a flimsy set of double doors, revealing an open air room covered in a foot of sugar cane stalks. There was a young man working on a machine that squeezed the canes, extracting the juice and pouring the richly colored stuff into large containers. “Don’t concern yourself with healthy (sic.) issues,” he says.

The man at the counter, Mohammed, acted as the Assab Barrista, doling out quantities of the juice to his customers and conversing with people as they slugged down his refreshing product. Most people seemed to chug the stuff. Here’s Greg getting his taste.

On another note I’d been interested in seeing some real Egyptian jewelry, but didn’t want the pressure of the bazaar and the wild energy that would erupt around a group of Americans with dollars in their hands. At some point I’d made this known to our hosts and without my knowledge they’d made some arrangements for Greg and I that were quite special. After downing our Assab, we walked a few stores up Salah Salem Street to the Egyptian equivalent of a chicken barbecue shop. The smell was great from the open flame wood-fired grill built into the long wall of the shop. Its grill was stacked with chicken parts. For westerners unfamiliar with the digestive mechanism of this part of town, this is one specialty we passed up. However, we weren’t brought there to eat.

Amr, led Greg and I through the shop to a set of steep stairs in the rear. At the top of the stairs were a set of glass doors that opened into an air conditioned room overlooking the street. Amr asked us to take a seat at one of the large round tables. Then a man came in carrying some suitcases. He was introduced as Mahmud, a friend of the family of Zaineb, one of the ZAD staff. She assured us he was an honest man and that he would show us some hand-made Egyptian jewelry and give us a good deal. So Greg and I sat there as Mahmud unloaded pile after pile of silver jewelry onto the table in front of us. The ZAD staff encircled the table eager to see what we might choose. That’s Dr. Amr Fass behind us with Zaineb to my right and Mahmud’s hands coming into the frame.

Note the plush penguin still along for the ride post-pyramid excursion. We used him to model our selections. Amr asked us to pick what we were interested in and when done to let him know. soon as we did that, he and Mahmud began an animated negotiation in Arabic. I understood it to suggest something like,

“Give my friends your best price.”

“Sure, but they’re Americans, I have to make my money somehow!”

“You insult me, these men are my family.”

You get the picture, it’s all part of the package. They expect this kind of banter. In the end, a good price was offered and taken. Whatever the price, the experience as worth every pound. As soon as Greg and I finished our transactions, the gals of ZAD dismissed the men so that they could do some table-top shopping themselves.

One of the ZAD Group staff members assigned to assist us is Ahmed Idrain. He was at the event rooms before I showed up and stayed long after I made my way back to the hotel room. As most of the other ZAD staff, Ahmed is young, and full of passion. Just after our Assab and jewerlry buying experiences we stepped out onto the street in front of the Islamic University and watched flocks of doves (pigeons) move in that flowing way they do around the rooftops of buildings. As one flock burst toward one of the mosques with one bird leading the way Ahmed started to describe the pattern the birds used and why, relating it to the leadership conversation we’d been having all week. I managed to grab a snippet of him on video. Watch his hands, they are rather beautiful as he gestures.

Later we wandered into Khali Kashlili’s defenses to endear ourselves to the shopkeepers. “Hey mistah!” they’d shout as soon as they saw a westerner. “Tell me how I take your American money? I have many ways, but you tell me which you want.” Brash, bold, and kind of funny.

In the square in front of the mosque, (one of the largest in Cairo I was told,) there are a score of coffee shops and cafe’s. All of them overloaded with tourists….hardly an Egyptian among them. In fact it was so much an assumption that my host, Amr, was constantly spoken to in Spanish by the shopkeepers, mistaking him for someone of Hispanic decent. The perimeter of the square was held forth by Egyptian military and Cairo police armed to the teeth. We eagerly sipped espresso and mint tea under the watchful eye of these nameless guys with Kalishnikovs. Take a close look at this last photo. You’ll see one of them standing with another unarmed police officer.

Day Seven

Part Two
April 14, 2008

The Great Penguin Caper Chapters Three through Ten:

So the Great Penguin Caper Continues…. After Amr umm… convinces the security folks it’s O.K. to do it. Amr tells us we can only take one picture so it better be good… then he winks at me. One of the security guards has to come with us. We all pile back in the van and venture forth towards the Great Pyramid. (Chapter Three)

It’s a busy day on the Giza Plain but we “Penguin Up” and push on. (Chapter Four)

A few more tricks with the trio of flightless birds…. (Chapter Five)

And the gang celebrates…. (Chapter Six)

Time to move on… (Chapter Seven)

Now we turn our attentions towards the unsuspecting Sphinx of Giza… (Chapter Eight)

More Sphinx fun with the setting Sun blinding us. (Chapter Nine)

And we finally put the penguins to bed…. poor birds. All this illegal activity took the air out of them. (Chapter Ten – The End)
Tune in for some more serious ranting next time.

Day Seven
Part One
April 14, 2008

The Great Penguin Caper Chapters One & Two:

Our great hosts and new partners in Egypt, the ZAD Group, took the day off on Monday to accompany Greg and I on an adventure around Cairo. As you may know the work I do in Change Management is based on John Kotter’s book Our Iceberg Is Melting. The icon for the story and for managing change after the class is a penguin, and we carry with us huge blow up penguins. Our expedition on this day included an attempt to take elicit photos of the penguins at the Great Pyramids…. just for the fun of it. We had a blast. The security at the gate put up a big fuss, but our leader, Dr. Amr Fass, pulled out all stops, twisted some arms and greased some palms. I captured some video of the process. Here are the first couple chapters:

That’s Greg Kaiser, my business partner in the Hawaiin shirt, and Sherif one of the ZAD crew in red. And here’s us in the van after a tourism police officer got in and rode with us to the main office.

Day Three
Part Three
April 9, 2008

“From Rectangles to Pyramids”

It’s been a few days since I last posted something. There are still some thoughts left blowing from the trip to the pyramids on Tuesday. So this is a continuation.
If you remember Rafek our Egpytian guide was also an effective historian. One of the things he talked about was how the statues of people in ancient Egypt had one thing in common. They all had the left foot of the subject, (royalty, Gods and dieties mostly,) forward and the right foot back. Turns out it’s because this ensured they would cross over into afterlife, and with their heart first. Preparing for just this afterlife was the preoccupation of most of the ancient Egyptian society. The flip side of this belief was that as you crossed into the underworld, there would be dogs awaiting you. If you were a good soul they would let you go through. If you were a bad soul they would eat your heart. Interesting parallel to many Christian beliefs of judgement…. four to five thousand years before Christ.

Speaking of the afterlife. The mummification chamber just in front of the Sphinx was of most interest to me. It’s where they cleaned out the bodies, removing the organs and storing them in clay jugs.

While the pyramids lived up to the best efforts of my western education….they are big and stunning and indestructable. They are absolutely worth a trip here. Rafek also told us that the original burial monuments were large, but rectangular in shape. The pyramidal shape came later and accomplished several things. It allowed them to build taller monuments to honor thier kings, taking less blocks to do so. It also had the unplanned effect of allowing the towering things to withstand thousands of years of desert storms, allowing the winds and destructive sands to move around the shape easily. Wow!
The Sphinx surprised me. It is much smaller than I’d expected. I can credit this I think to Hollywood. With all due respect to Charlton Heston, I probably watched the Ten Commandments a few too many times. The Sphinx is also at a different level than the Giza pyramids. I’d always imagined it as being close to the pyramids and at the same ground plane. In actuality the Pyrimads exist on a hill, the Giza Plain, and thus are the highest objects for miles around. Again reminding me of Christianity in the way that Catholic cathedrals are often found on the highest points of land. Inside the mummification chamber, the path leading to the Shpinx is paved with these magnificent flat stones of granite and limestone . They are beautiful and I can only imagine that 4000 years ago they were polished to a bright shine with their colors showing clear.

The Giza pyramids are surrounded by deep swirling neighborhoods of tan residential buildings. On the first floor of each is some type of small shop, rugs, scarves, trinkets, food. It’s all available right there. So when our hosts said they’d like to take us to lunch we hadn’t imagined the two choices they would offer.

Yes, here is the rather ironic “KFC SPHINX!” I won’t describe the meal for you.

On the way home from the pyramids we got behind one of the ubiquitous white VW vans that act as inexpensive taxis. The big sliding passenger door is missing on these. People just jump in, often while the thing is still moving. You can ride across town on one of these for five cents. This one has a fat bumper on the back and it’s perfectly normal for them to jump on the back. Rafek says these people pay about half price.

Day Three

Part Two
April 9, 2008

“The Social Program”
Our host, ZAD Group, took great care to show us some of the more tourist-laden areas of this part of Egypt today. Mohammed Rashed, our main contact here, took the day off to ride along with us and keep us out of trouble – which I’ll describe later for you is not a task taken lightly here. Proving this point further Mohammed, a life long resident of Cairo, hired a private tour guide and a car to take us adventuring. This is something I’d strongly recommend to anyone coming to Egypt. Finding a respectable tour guide can make a huge difference in the type of reception you get in public places and can dramatically lessen the tourist-sniping that local traders and purveyors excel at. Our guide, Rafek, was our protector and instructor. He would simultaneously lecture on the history of ancient Egypt while fending off the hoards of vendors of trinkets and hawkers of services. If either one of us stepped as much as ten feet away from him, we’d instantly be entreated to “take picture me?” or “see my camel sir?” Nice line, eh? Here’s one such guy who’s just convinced Greg he should come closer to his camel. In the kind words of my Egyptian host, “no, no, he’s just trying to make with you business.”

Sure enough, as soon as Greg got a safe distance away from Rafek the guy just bluntly said something like, “O.K. America Great! Now give to me American dollars.”

Here’s Rafek diving in to save Greg.

And here’s Greg counting his Egyptian pounds with the Camel guy making a break for it out the left side of the frame.

And here’s the first offending Camel guy, all bright eyed and thumbs up with American spirit.

With due respect to these guys, this is how they make their money. So who am I to judge that? Rafek had already made arrangements with an entire family of Camel guys to take us riding around the pyramids.

Greg, Mohammed, and I, all got a camel led by one or another of Abdul’s family. His cousin, his father, his brother? Who knows. It was difficult to keep track. Here’s Abdul measuring up Greg with a Camel twitch. Just before we mount up, each Camel guy… to a one… all said exactly the same line when they started to lead us out. “Hiyo Silver! America forever!” I kept waiting for them to call me “John Wayne” or “American G.I.”
And not to be outdone, (or under hawked to,) here’s your fearless leader looking scarily like a poster for why middle-eastern peoples should dislike Americans. Check out those bony white legs and dorky sunglasses. At home these didn’t look all that out of place, but here? And the turban…. Oy!

Anyhow…. the Camel guys quickly found reason to take us each running across the desert… in different directions so as to get us each alone and… you guessed it, ask for some good ‘ol American greenbacks. I had only Egyptian pounds with me, but figured every service deserves some kind of gratuity right? So I hand him a fifty pound note. That’s about $10.00 US. Then he pushes the bill back in my hand and says, “This?, this is not enough to feed my family for one day. I have manys (sic.) family. You have American money?” Well, having grown up in the Bronx, I know a thing or two about street, (…um, desert,) negotiation, so I stick the tenner back in my dopey looking tourist shorts and say, “Cool.” Of course Abdul then pleads forgiveness and says, “you can just more give me when we gets (sic.) back with others. You say Abdul makes you very happy. You happy now?”

This last little piece about making us happy was not necessarily said in jest. They take it seriously. There’s a level of responsibility here regarding hospitality. We often hear people say to us something like, “My wish is for to make you happy today.” From doormen, to waiters, to yes even Camel guys. We have some things to learn from this culture.
Oh, and Greg and I and Mohammed took the tour of the second pyramid. This was a true test of my claustrophobia. The movies have it all wrong! The entries to these tombs start at ground level, then the ramps leading into the interior are actually more like limestone culverts about three feet wide and four feet high. While negotiating this squared off pipe, the whole thing is sloping downhill at a good 30 degree angle. And it was loaded with people speaking all sorts of languages moving in both directions! No cameras allowed down there.

Day Three
Part One
April 9, 2008

Catching Up:

Sleep! A great friend to me. I awoke refreshed this morning and ready to engage this time zone. Greg and I went down to the Club Hyatt for a nice breakfast. Hummus, shaved beef, fresh dates with honey, croissant with fig preserves, and fairly decent coffee.

This place, undoubtedly like it was 5000 years ago, moves for the river. The Nile teems with life and activity. Many bridges connecting distinct parts of the city. Boats of all shapes and sizes, barges, sail boats, skiffs, little fishing boats. The earliest depiction of a boat in the entire history of mankind comes from an Egyptian stone pot dated to 3200 B.C.

These of course were made of papyrus. Ingenious little devices, no? At breakfast we looked down from the balcony to see several fishing boats with shirtless men dipping nets into the river, almost exactly as pictured. The main difference was the outboard engine on the back and the Nike shoes on the men. Now a more common site would be a 200 foot long party boat. Neon lights from stem to stern, loaded with revelers.

Some of the only green you see here is along the river, otherwise the color scheme is decidedly brown/ochre. Like one big khaki blanket. The great Sahara could come in one night covering this place and you might stub your toe on a skyscraper before seeing it. When asking one of our guides about the size of the population here she says: “We are about 17 to 18 million people. I say 17 to 18 because we fluctuate, moving in and out, like the desert itself.”