Taking tourist security to that extra level in Egypt
Deep in misty dreams of sumptuous temptations, something knocked on the doors of my subconscious, cruelly beckoning me back to the world of daylight. The unwarranted intrusion into my reverie metamorphosed into the insistent clatter of fist against the shoddy carpentry claiming to be my door. Some words of arabic had little trouble piercing the feeble woodwork, “hokouma” was the only word I needed to understand, government. “Yeah,yeah, yeah”, I grumbled in the international dialect of the unjustly roused sleeper. With as much thump of disgruntled feet that sandles could muster down the grimy staircase to announce my displeasure, I arrived at reception to discover that Sohag’s police force, in the interests of my security, had kindly decided to organise my day’s itinerary without any of the fuss and bother of actually discussing it with me.
For those of you oblivious to the charms of international news you may be surprised to learn that Egypt has been having a number of security issues in recent times that have put a bit of a dent in the tourist market, well, more of a gaping chasm really. Consequently, away from the sites where you can still spot a tourist or two, they like to keep a track of us visitors in the hope that we are less likely to get blown up or shot at by some undesirables or their own airforce, as was the case with some Mexican tourists last year. In towns such as Sohag the hotels have to inform the local police when a foreigner arrives, so I had related to the officer who had turned up the previous evening, my harmless touristic intentions of visiting the ancient monasteries in the vicinity. Given that the horrifically tortured body of an Italian student/journalist, who had been asking awkward questions about worker’s unions, had been discovered only a few weeks before, it could also be surmised that the police’s diligence had as much to do with the state’s security as my own. Apart from the government’s PR department, no one believed the various evolutions of the official story as it fitted all the traditional job descriptions that the police are known and despised for throughout the country. Whilst having mastered the ability to order tea and kebabs in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, how to ask inconvenient questions about politics has helpfully eluded me so I was in little danger of incriminating myself with the four officers who had turned up to escort me, armed with machine guns just in case things got messy.
While I gulped down a bowl of fuul for breakfast, an officer found a taxi to transport me, scuppering my plans to save money by using public transport. With my own personal armed police escort out in front we trundled off to the countryside. The medieval Deir al Abeyad (White Monastery) and the crazy Coptic church of Al Anbar Karas provided a suitable entree, it was certainly the first time I’ve seen a church with an external glass elevator on the bell tower. Numerous gaudy wall paintings depicting the life of Christ did raise the question of why Copts, whose roots go back to the earliest days of the religion, a long time before much of Europe was even aware of the Bible, choose to portray Jesus as the well-groomed, Charlton Heston type of figure we are all familiar with, rather than something more in keeping with a Jew from the same region.
The inconvenience of being woken at an ungodly hour became doubly resented on arriving at Deir al Ahmar (Red Monastery) to discover that the priest with the key to the building, with its famous frescos I had come to see, was still in bed and probably wouldn’t arrive for another hour and a half at least. If anyone was capable of ensuring that the priest could be turfed out of bed for an important visitor it was the stern, chisel jawed lieutenant of my police escort. Of course, not all Egyptian police are the kind of people who would proudly post their Amnesty International report on the cell wall for his victims to read as hors d’oeuvres to a main course of testicular cremation, with a side order of insertion with irregularly shaped objects. But, he had that kind of face that said he hadn’t risen up through the ranks by rescuing cats stuck up trees and administering parking fines. His affable sidekick could well have been your charming community police officer or maybe the commander’s accomplice in the old good cop, bad cop routine, to add those calming words of comfort and hope before handing back to the descent into hell. The lieutenant was at least capable of partaking in pleasantries as we sipped tea during the wait and unsurprisingly, the owner of the little cafe made a highly effusive play of refusing to accept any payment from such an esteemed officer of the law.
We all had a brief interlude of entertainment listening to the local madman playing his latest opus on his wholly homemade instrument, with its hitherto unheard of tuning system, or absence thereof. Lost in his world of sound, he remained oblivious to the uniformed figures standing over him, only once pausing to look up with a radiant smile as if he was looking at angels rather than possible torturers and a badly dressed foreigner.
Finally the priest arrived and I was able to get my hit of medieval frescoes before we hit the road back to Sohag. As expected from the parasitic vermin that taxi drivers are with foreigners, he wanted more money than the sum agreed upon and I stood my ground but with four armed police officers content to back my case he shuffled off sheepishly.
My efforts at informing the police of my proposed, sedate program for the next day, of leaving for Qena late in the morning, came to nought, although I was at least awake when the knock on the door came. At the time however, I was enjoying a leisurely sojourn on the toilet, multitasking with a spot of Facebook perusal, so after having to shout, “Ana fee hamaam” (I am in the toilet) a few times to stop them knocking, my blissful morning contemplation had been well and truly shattered. By now I was in no mood to be bullied into a schedule not of my choosing so opted for dressing at a leisurely rate, with a modicum of dithering to be on the safe side. After a leisurely stroll down the stairs, with their distant memories of cleaning products, I informed the waiting officer that I would be taking breakfast at the neighbouring cafe. Service in Egypt is rarely troubled by any sense of urgency so it was an ideal opportunity to survey the passersby, picking their way through the obstacle course known elsewhere in the world as a pavement or sidewalk. After a nice leisurely breakfast of fuul and eggs and the chance to ponder upon the wonders of existence it seemed that a nice leisurely cup of tea would be just the right thing. Half way through my nice, leisurely cup of tea, a sour faced policeman came stomping up to the officer waiting for me outside the hotel, making an infuriated, pointing at his watch gesture. At this point I realised he was with a car full of others also waiting for me. I smiled and saluted with my tea-cup and finished drinking at a leisurely pace. Returning to my room after a leisurely stroll back up the stairs that only looked worse in full daylight, to pack my back at a leisurely pace, I realised that I hadn’t done justice to my encounter with the porcelain or my Facebook timeline either so sat once again on the toilet. Finally, after a leisurely tooth brushing I was ready for my last inspection of the elaborate staining of the stairwell and take a taxi to the bus station.
A shared taxi was the only option for Qena and so we waited for the arrival of two more passengers to fill the car up, the full police car also waited patiently to ensure I left town, or so I thought. When we left, the police car came with us and it was only when we stopped on the outskirts for an officer to have a chat with the driver that I realised we had a pick up truck of armed police behind us as well, which then escorted us all the way to Qena, much to all the other passenger’s amusement, as well as my own. The high quality of personal service continued on arrival, as they had phoned ahead and a car load of police with machine guns, led by a chatty young officer, was waiting to drive me to my hotel, kindly saving me the expense of a taxi fare. When I rose the next morning to visit the Temple of Dendara, the same friendly officer was there waiting to take me, they even waited for the hour and a half of my visit and drove me back to the hotel afterwards. We all enthusiastically clapped along to the popular mahraghan music on the stereo, particularly the driver, who didn’t seem to feel the need to demonstrate a complete commitment to steering whilst driving. Even my attempt to get the train to Luxor the next morning was thwarted as they were there waiting for me and insisted on driving me all the way there.
This dedication to tourist safety is obviously well-intentioned, after all, if they lost another one of us, even the meagre numbers at the moment could evaporate almost completely. However, the government itself must take some of the responsibility for the situation, with the appalling reputation of the security forces for excessive violence; the military clamp down and house demolitions in North Sinai; the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the continued crushing of any kind of dissent have only served to drive more people into a violent response. I would even have to question the logic of the police guarding independent travelers. Attacks against foreigners have been planned events against specific targets, rather than opportunist attacks on random tourists but there have been dozens of attacks against security forces, so having an armed guard only made me a more likely target. In any event, unless there is some major downturn of events I would still say that the danger to independent travelers taking reasonable precautions is still miniscule. While the reputation of the police amongst Egyptians may not always be good I can only say that all the officers I encountered acted professionally and most were charming and helpful. Simply saving me from annoying haggling with greedy taxi drivers deserves my fulsome praise on its own.