Memories of Egypt

Travel Tales — By on February 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Pyramids and SphinxLike many of you, I’ve been entranced on  a daily basis by news of the revolutionary events that have transpired in Egypt during the past few weeks. It’s had me reflecting on my own trip to Egypt five years ago and the Egyptian people that we met while we were there. Mohammed and Khalil and Sabah and so many others – shop keepers and students, tour guides and cab drivers. And, while Egypt itself is a bit chaotic, I found the Egyptian people to be unbelievably friendly and welcoming and dignified.

Because of this news from Egypt, I thought now might be a good time to post this story, which is excerpted from my travel memoir. It doesn’t involve any dramatic events (though we have a few of those stories, as well), but rather is the tale of our interaction with one particular Egyptian. Khalil was a university student from small town near Luxor and was spending the summer working at a news stand in Dahab, on the Sinai Peninsula. Although the story is lighthearted and a bit humorous, you will also see him here discussing his dreams for the future and the economic difficulties faced by him and other young Egyptians – and that is relevant to what is taking place now in the Middle East.

So, this is in recognition of Khalil and all the other Egyptians that we met. May your future be as hopeful and successful and free as you all deserve.

One night, while nosing through a news stand in search of a current copy of Time or Newsweek, we struck up a conversation with a university student who worked there. Khalil told us he was from Upper Egypt, near Luxor, and came to Dahab in the summer to work. He lived with the store owner, he said, and so received free room and board in addition to 300 Egyptian pounds a month ($50-55).

“I am working on my English,” he told us. “Would you mind coming back here in the evenings for the next few days while you are in town and speaking to me, so I can practice?”

“I think your English is already very good,” said Lisa, “but we’ll come back and help you with English if you will talk to us about Egypt and your culture.”

“Agreed,” he replied.

Khalil said that just speaking English was helpful to him, but he was especially interested in learning idiomatic expressions that were particular to our country.

“Like what?”

“For instance, you like to say ‘bats in the belfry,’ yes?”

“Bats in the belfry?!”

“Yes, an English man last month, he tell me this popular saying.”

“Maybe in England,” I laughed. “Actually, I have heard that saying before, but it’s not used so much in America. I think it refers to someone who has a few screws loose.”

“A what? A few screws loose?”

“Sorry! That’s another saying. They both mean someone who is a little bit crazy, or eccentric.”

“So to English person I say, “He has bats in the belfry,” and to American I say, “He has a few screws loose?”

“Uhh, sure. I suppose.”

This conversation wasn’t exactly going as I had expected.

After talking for a while, we said goodnight and Lisa promised to come up with a list of sayings for him. And she did. The next evening, we went back to the news stand.

“Ah, welcome, my friends,” said Khalil when he saw us. “O.K., I take break and we talk.”

We walked about 20 yards away and sat on a wall overlooking the sea. Initially, we discussed some of the differences between different regions of Egypt. Khalil was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, but he said at home he would wear more traditional clothing.

“If I wore a galabayya here in Dahab, people would see me as a simple person from the country,” he said.

This was similar to what we’d experienced. The only people in Dahab who wore traditional dress were the local Bedouins, but in Luxor galabayyas were common and in Aswan they were almost the rule. Similarly, these local customs affected how tourists were expected to dress. In Dahab, some foreign women walked around in shorts and bikini tops, but that would be shockingly unacceptable in southern Egypt.

As we conversed that evening, Khalil told us he was studying to become a teacher, though he didn’t know how realistic of a goal that was in the short term.

“I want to be married, but it will take me 100 years on that salary to earn enough money for a wedding. So perhaps I work abroad for some years, like in Saudi Arabia, to make money. In future, then, maybe I teach.”

“Could you ever work in a Western country?” asked Lisa.

“Ah, I love to travel to West. But it is unrealistic, I think. Very expensive for Egyptian to go to West, especially America. Almost impossible financially. And even then, it is very difficult to get visa.”

“That’s sad,” said Lisa. “We enjoy traveling so much. I wish everyone had the opportunity.”

Then Lisa broke the sadness by pulling out her list of American sayings.

“Ah, wait one moment, I almost forget,” said Khalil, rushing back to the store.

He returned a minute later with a small bag, which he gave to Lisa.

“You tell me yesterday you are going to have dinner to celebrate your birthday. So now I give you birthday gift.”

It was a small jar, filled with colored sand that formed a picture of a camel walking in the desert and the words “Happy Birthday Lisa.” An artisan who worked next to the news stand had made it especially for the occasion.

“Wow. That is so sweet, Khalil!”

“Ah, it is a small gift. But you should have nice birthday in Dahab, yes?”

“Thank you so much!”

“O.K., now we can see your sayings.”

Lisa had actually done an impressive job of preparing a list. It included some more traditional sayings (“piece of cake”), some contemporary phrases (“totally cool, dude”), and even one expression that couldn’t really be considered an idiom at all.

“Boston Red Sox are world champions.”

I laughed when I saw it on her list.

“That’s a great saying, but it’s really not in the same category as the others.”

“Oh, it will be a great conversation starter when he talks to Americans,” said Lisa.

“What does this mean?” asked Khalil.

Lisa briefly explained to him the story of how, in American baseball, the Red Sox had not won a championship from 1918 until 2004. She told him how exciting it was for the city of Boston in October of 2004 and how tens of thousands of people, including me and Lisa, had lined the streets and the river for a victory parade afterward.

“All Americans will know about baseball,” she told him. “But if you happen to say this to Red Sox fans they will love you for it.”

“O.K.,” smiled Khalil. “I will remember this saying.”

“Maybe the next American he meets will be a Yankees fan,” I said hopefully.

The next day, and the day after that, whenever we saw Khalil, he greeted us the same way.

“Boston Red Sox are world champions.”

Good luck, Egypt, from all of us who have been blessed to experience your culture and to meet your people.

Photo credit: Bob Riel

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  1. theresa says:

    Absolutely love this story..thanks for posting it for others who haven’t had a chance to read your book

  2. dboover says:

    This story reminded me of my trip to Paris, where I spent evenings conversing with the gentleman at the desk.
    He wanted to improve his English and I wanted to improve my French. It was the most enjoyable part of my trip.
    I also love the title of your blog. Thanks for the memories(yours and mine)

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    Bob Riel is a writer and a traveler. Go here to read more about Bob, his work and the Travels in the Riel World blog.

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