Senay Kenfe’s online nom de guerre when backpacking through the world is his tongue-in-cheek self-coined alias, “Tyrone Bourdain.”
After some time, the secret police here became more easy to spot—I just had to learn their costume.
Primarily, they resemble detectives out of the campy police flicks from the ’70s and ’80s that my father loved. You know, the Magnum Forces and French Connections of their time. They can usually be found in a badly-weathered black leather jacket, typically clean shaven, and, if not, then wearing a well-regulated short Nasserite mustache—a distinct sign of a former past in the military.
Once, coming out of the Egyptian museum (after a long day of satisfying my curiosity regarding the unique monotheist Akhenaten and his more famous son-nephew King Tut), I was playing my tourist role and taking photos in the space right in front of the famous destination. Of course, I was ignorant of the fact that I was in Tahrir Square—the birthplace of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 and one of most heavily-watched and guarded places in Cairo, let alone Egypt, by the recently-restored military regime that was originally overthrown.
After spending a couple of minutes taking photos of the few remaining anti-Mubarak bombs in the area, I noticed I was being followed by a taxi, which is pretty common in downtown. It wasn’t until I stopped in front of a stand and noticed that a guy in an apron behind it—flipping falafels only moments before—was now waving me towards the taxi occupied by the district’s military police colonel with a submachine gun, that I recognized the seriousness of the situation. Thank God for film cameras—hard to scroll through all my photos of street art denigrating one of the most revered men in the history of the country when there’s no screen.
The Great Pyramid of Giza.
I’m in a land that openly displays it’s piety and allegiance to warring factions simultaneously with burqas and niqabs—that mask the essence of women completely in public—and small crosses around pale necks, trying to remind us of the continued existence of the oldest Christian community and church in the world. A land of full beards, with foreheads on gebalya-wearing men marked with a dark indentation made by tens of thousands of hard-prostrating moments on rough stone floors—worn with pride.
“MY POINT BEING: A LIFE LIVED IN FEAR IS A WASTE.”
In a region that has been repeatedly invaded over the last two millenniums, a casual walk through any neighborhood can easily turn into a historical tour of architecture from the past foreign dynasties, from the Fatimids to the Ottomans, who ended up becoming conquered by the country itself. A casual walk through any neighborhood can lead you into hundreds of differing phenotypes, faces that say Greek, Nubian, Circassian, Arab, Coptic, and so many more.
As a foreigner, developing an accurate perspective of a country as rich as Egypt could be difficult for someone unaware of the conditioning that has gone on throughout the Western world (think Orientalism) regarding what it means to be in Africa. For example, for a conservative country with a national adherence to Islam into the 90th percentile, a lot of people do not regularly pray and a lot of young women do not wear a hijab.
While definitely appreciative, I was a bit startled to see the amount of warning messages and anecdotal tales of caution from friends and family regarding my upcoming journey through Africa. And—for the sake of a hypothetical argument in the comments below with calls of self-righteousness or naivet'e—I was puzzled by this peculiar fear of the motherland and, more importantly, who orchestrated it, or rather, planted it into the minds of the people in my life who care about me.
Yes, a Russian plane carrying 225 passengers was shot out of the sky, allegedly by a bubbling insurgency in Sinai (CNNs daily coverage of this scared my mother).
Yes, a democratically-elected president was brutally removed from office and his political party was officially banned by the military. But to me, if we’re speaking on my personal security, how many young black men my age were killed in simple run-ins with law enforcement last year?
My point being: A life lived in fear is a waste. I actually spent a week in South Sinai and had the time of my life at a completely dead resort town surrounded by military checkpoints, but that comes later. Seeing the beauty of a country as large as Egypt (the 3rd largest in Africa) implies constantly traveling across the span of the nation. Even now as I’m writing this, I’m midway through a nine hour bus from the former Mediterranean pearl of Alexandria to the ancient Siwa Oasis in the far west, near the Libyan border.
All for the grand price of $7.67.
I bring up money only because it’s so important to realize the value of it, but, more importantly, the impact that’s made around the world by the American dollar. I paid $747 for a round trip flight to a country where one U.S. dollar equates to about eight Egyptian pounds. My weak budget of $100 a week is equal to the monthly earnings of the average Egyptian family. And I don’t bring this up to stunt, but to remind people back home that there are so many places outside of Europe to comfortably and affordably travel and enjoy. But also, more poignantly, to make note of the fact that I now understand the mentality of the rich in America and why there will never be a top down support of the redistribution of wealth in a “developed” nation.
When you can, on a micro-scale here, go outside at anytime and buy, at 2 pounds a piece, a hundred falafels—a fourth of what the average household makes—your standard of living is so out of touch and removed from the lives of most 20 million denizens you pass by on the packed streets of Cairo, that there’s no way you can ever really connect with them.
And that’s just me backpacking—now reapply that to America.
To be continued in part 2.