By Michael A. Blum
Not every bucket list includes visions of being a Lawrence of Arabia galloping past the Great Pyramids and across the dunes of the Saharan desert. Mine certainly did not include getting lost and stranded, stuck on top of a rent-a-horse, my guide gone and no civilization in sight.
Nor did I expect while “digging” to pass time, that I would actually “Indiana Jones-up” an ancient artifact from the sand, followed by a panic attack in case the “tourist police” caught me or customs officials stopped me at the border. What if, after 30 centuries of Egypt’s treasures being plundered, the “finders-keepers” rule got vetoed? I wasn’t exactly looking to get locked up for smuggling antiquities.
Then, in a scene worthy of a 007 Bond movie, I found myself backstage standing among political heads of state, modern royalty, and Concorde passengers, at the world’s largest opera production mounted in the Temple of Karnak, starring Placido Domingo.
The opera stage was a half mile long. Each performance area dramatically lit. Aida’s story was set in Egypt and now it was being reincarnated in an actual Egyptian temple, witnessed by the crème de la crème of “society” in black tie, jewels and gowns. Seeing it was hallucinogenic.
Or maybe that was sunstroke. Or food poisoning. Or both. It was definitely the 103.5 fever that landed me back in Cairo in an Islamic, Red Crescent Hospital, projectile vomiting and defecating simultaneously. At that point, a quick death appealed to be a more comfortable option. Also disconcerting was reading after 9-11, that the opening night of Opera Aida was scheduled to be the target of a major terrorist attack.
The Cairo I visited in 1987 is not the same as the Cairo of today. Back then the city’s population was 8 million. Today it’s over 20 million. There are now over 100 million Egyptians, 99 per cent native born exuding a proud heritage that dates back to the Pharaohs.
But Egypt, having once led civilization for 3000 years, is again like a sacred phoenix, seeking to emerge into the next century. The Arab Spring left 800 dead and 6000 injured during the Revolution in 2010. Now, Egyptian youth have found a voice and a community on Facebook. The country is credited with having the most Facebook users per capita. When I was traveling people did not view the world through the prism of social media, smart phone cameras and touch screens.
Just don’t amass too many friends or followers. Those accounts get “special attention” from the government. Even when I stayed in Cairo in the ‘80s, the watchful eye of government was sharp and strict. Especially if they suspect you are up to corporate espionage. Of course, I wasn’t conducting any espionage…but there may have been a few reasons they thought that. It’s because of MCI Telecommunications. This is a side explanation, but please bear with me.
To celebrate 25, I was able to purchase a “valid for one year, $2000 around-the world plane ticket”. My travel funding came from working a freelance producer job for MCI. MCI was the first independent phone company started by three guys and a van, which broke up the entire Ma Bell phone monopoly. Lesser known is, long before AOL, MCI created the first international E-mail network. My trip around the world, was the perfect way to test that network out. Globally.
I would “stop in” at any MCI office from Australia to Katmandu to Cairo to pick up and send my MCI Mail and let the reps know where my next stop would be. My notes for these stories were sent electronically via MCI, printed out as letters and reposted home to friends and family.
The upside was that the MCI reps in these countries just presumed I was a very important MCI executive going office to office to test the email operations. I received the most gracious hospitality, entertainment, meals, tours, referrals and in some cases, even a car and driver. I guess the reps hoped I’d deliver positive reports back to senior management, headquartered in San Francisco.
Mr. Khanna, the MCI rep in New Delhi, kindly referred me to “our representative” in Cairo, a very sweet and soft spoken woman named Abla, (in Arabic translates to “full figured”.) Abla lived with her older sister in an apartment just three floors above the small MCI business office. I arrived in Cairo after dark and had not yet gotten the lay of the land to find other accommodations. I was really hoping to crash at Abla’s apartment. I should not have gotten my hopes up.
Egyptians are very superstitious. The Eye of Horus is hung everywhere to ward off evil spirits and provide protection. It hung in the entrance to Abla’s apartment. Egyptians consider it bad luck to enter anyone’s home left foot first.
Not sure which foot I led with, but once both were inside I sensed something was off. I was startled by loud unintelligible human shrieking. Abla and her sister were raising a severely mentally handicapped teenage son. And the son was none too happy to see a stranger.
Abla explained that when she adopted her son, he appeared to be a perfectly healthy infant. But over time it became evident that there were problems, ones that kept getting worse. It went unspoken, but one could see she had lived a challenged life. She never mentioned having a husband, but lamented that Egypt offered no schools or programs to help deal with the mentally handicapped. She and her sister and her adopted special needs son were left on their own.
While deep rooted traditional desert hospitality customs would have had Abla inviting me to stay with them, both Muslim society at large and the Government frowned on single women housing male foreign strangers. They also informed me they would have to register my visit with the local police station, “just for safety,” but Abla’s sister “strongly preferred not to have to negotiate” with the police. “Negotiate?” Sounded expensive. I took the hint.
Instead, they served tea and fed me fruit and dates, pita and some kind of delicious dip similar to baba ganoush. Abla kindly lent me a camel hair blanket and let me crash on a couch in the MCI office. Putting emphasis on that I fully comprehended… “only for one night.”
Flash forward… When I landed at the MCI office in Amsterdam months later I was informed, having showed up at offices in New Delhi, Katmandu and Cairo, that a company memo went out asking exactly who was I? Did I really work for MCI? Who was this corporate operative showing up at MCI’s furthest outposts? Fortunately, my Senior VP clients vouched that I was no spy, but technically visiting “unofficially”.
When traveling on a budget, eliminating hotel night fees is optimal and also opens one to experiences a Hilton or Hyatt just can’t provide. Early next morning, I reached out to another gratefully referred host, the Hashem family in Heliopolis. I had casually met the eldest Hashem son, Mohammed, who was studying engineering at UCLA. Upon hearing of my round-the-world travel plans, “Mo” generously gave me his family home address and phone number. “Look them up if you need anything…really… promise me”. So, I did.
Mrs. Hashem spoke no English. Zero. Thankfully she put Mohammed’s brother Mohab on the phone. Both he and his sister Maha spoke quite well. Not to mention being fluent in French as well as their native Arabic. “Any friend of our brother is welcome in our home.” I was not expecting quite such an effusive welcome. They excitedly ushered me into a bone white formal living receiving room. It appeared to be infrequently utilized to greet important guests or to hold special occasions.
Maha disappeared and returned with tall glasses of fresh orange juice. One might not expect this factoid, but Egypt is the world’s largest exporter of the world’s sweetest oranges. More oranges than Florida, California and Spain, exported to 120 other countries around the globe including the US.
Maha also served traditional mint tea from a beautiful ornate tea set, sweet cakes and cookies. She and Mohab had lots of questions about my life in the West. They seemed genuinely pleased to have an American staying with them. I am sure they could surmise I was Jewish as well. But it did not appear to matter in any discernable way.
Israel and Egypt proved peace was possible with the Camp David accords signed in ’78. They were happy to share their home, their history, their food, music and culture.
Like any mother in the world, Mrs. Hashem kept insisting “Yakul. Yakul”. “Eat, eat, eat”. She was always making or baking something. Mohab was eager to show me around town. Over strong coffee at the famous, century old, Groppi’s Café, he offered tips on where to go and how to avoid tourist traps (like Groppi’s) and price gouging, especially the notorious cab drivers.
Haggling over price is expected. You have to haggle. It’s just the way it’s been done for centuries. Mohab explained, “A first price is never meant to be taken seriously. But a second offer is.” This is the Arab way.
Mohab studied business by day and worked as Manager of Concessions at a local musical theater at night. He would finish each night cleaning up at the theater and praying before bed. He would begin each day praying again. Kneeling on his worn prayer rug facing Mecca and praising Allah.
He would repeat the ritual five times. Each time after cleansing his feet and forehead. He would wrap himself in a shawl to recite the “Ishas” from a Koran, kept open at all times on the dining room table. You always knew when it was time to pray. The wailing sing-song call of the “Muezzins,” amplified over loudspeakers, echoed from towers all across Cairo. Sounds forever etched in my sonic memory.
Although shoes were always left off inside, in the mornings, I had to be sure to dress myself fully to traverse the short distance down the hall to the bathroom to take a shower. I could not be seen in shorts and just a T shirt or heaven forbid, wrapped only in a towel by “Um” (Mom) Hashem or especially Maha, who was in her twenties.
Maha was smart, appeared modern minded and as mentioned, and beautiful. I had already made the major faux pas of complimenting her on her “stylish (Western) fashion taste” and “intoxicating” smelling perfume. Mohab noticed immediately.
He let me know in stern terms, there would be no “flirting in the Hashem House,” and any further compliments or overtures towards his sister would be considered VERY inappropriate. So, I behaved.
If you have yet to visit, it’s a shock to see how close the Ancient Great Pyramids in Giza are situated within can-kicking distance of the modern urban sprawl of outer Cairo. You turn a corner in the city and BAM… you look up…and there they are! And nothing else to see after them. Far as you can peer out on the horizon… it’s an infinite sea of shifting shadows and illusions.
My illusion, or delusion, was to prod my Arabian stallion faster over the dune tops until I found a shady oasis to rest at. One filled with imaginary fresh water, beautiful belly dancers, figs and dates.
With this vision in mind, I hailed a taxi to Giza to rent what I thought was a relatively healthy looking horse named “Hayat” tethered to a far less healthy looking guide named Ahmed. There were small mobs of shouting hucksters at the Pyramid area entrance, looking to steer tourists off the tour busses and right onto a camel’s back.
Priced by the hour, most camel riders usually went off in under 10 minutes. Basically an expensive one minute photo-op stretched into an hour of paid time.
Still, plenty of tourists opt for the full camel ride. But once you have spent any time around, or on top of camels, you will know they are mean, dung flinging, urine stinking, sputum spitting, black fly infested face biters. Sorry, I don’t like camels.
My horse was named, “Hayat” which meant “Life” in Arabic. Compared to many of the nags I saw for rent, he looked like he had been fed. Judging by his impatient stomping he still had some spirit. Ahmed the guide must have been 40 or 50 years old (or 30). He definitely looked older. His face had seen a few too many sandstorms. Still, he had a twinkle in his eye. He laughed when I told him I wanted to “gallop across the dunes” but “away from tourists.”
Then he smiled. A dark hole appeared between his nose and his chin. It was ringed by blackened gums and showcased three deformed, chipped yellow and brown teeth.
Turns out there may be some historical and evolutionary explanations for Ahmed’s dental decay. Dating back to the earliest Egyptians, sugar had not been introduced into the Nile delta. Instead, almost every meal or food recipe incorporated honey in varying amounts. A predisposed sweet tooth made honey production a huge business in Ancient Egypt. Second only to famous Egyptian cotton.
The honey’s stickiness also attracted airborne micro sand granules that inevitably found their way into everything, especially food. The majority of the population’s teeth got ground down by sand and cavities over time.
Still, Ancient Egyptians are credited with the creation of the first toothpaste. They mixed powdered ox hooves, burnt eggshells, and volcanic ash. Archaeologists have also found toothpicks and even primitive toothbrushes in Ancient Egyptian tombs
Ahmed and I trotted out together past the Great Pyramids. He pointed out that (much like his teeth) after 5000 years of wear and tear, the originals “used to be much prettier” than the rough-hewn boulders we know today. The Pyramid’s bases were once covered by smooth limestone and gleamed just like many modern office towers. The extensive hieroglyphics and carvings were intricately painted in vibrant colors. The cap stones on the top pinnacles were covered in gold. They glinted and glowed and flashed in the Saharan sunshine like light houses in the desert.
I really did want to get away from tourists on camels. There was no room for “extras” in the movie scene in my mind. With Ahmed on his “horse with no name” and me on Hayat, my wish was granted. We galloped away, dashing onwards…outwards… towards…nowhere. Farther and farther into the desert. We got far enough that I could not determine what direction Cairo or Giza or “land” was. Any horse trail prints we made to backtrack were immediately covered by shifting sand and dancing shadows.
Eventually our horses (not to mention, my butt) needed a break. Ahmed pulled up next me.
“So, you are American, yes?”
“You like coke?”
“Um…” well, it was the Eighties, but still not what I was expecting him to ask.
“Um…not…reallll…” Before I could finish, he reached into his saddle bag and produced a can of Coca Cola with Arabic type font. One thing about Coke. It’s ubiquitous. You can find it everywhere in the world. “Shokran”. Thank you, I responded. And I meant it. The dry desert air parches one’s throat very easily. The soda was warm but welcome. Ahmed wasn’t done.
“You like Hashish?”
“I go get Hashish.”
“La Skohran. La. La. No, no that’s OK.”
“No, you like. You stay here.”
Well, it was the 80’s. And much like music was a universal language, so was sharing drinks, and sampling local recreational substances. I was certainly not the first tourist Ahmed “procured” for. Hashish is a different form of marijuana, condensed from the resin encrusted top flowers of cannabis plants, called “keef”. It has been used for medicinal and religious functions in Egypt for thousands of years. Maybe even by dentists?
Ahmed presumed that my Arabian knight experience would be incomplete without a toke of Egypt’s finest. With one last “You stay here…” he just whirled his steed around and cantered off.
So now I am alone, on a horse, maybe half an hour out from civilization. I just can’t tell what direction that civilization might be in. Having already downed a soda, my blood pressure was not the only pressure building.
Thankfully, one of the under-stated benefits of being male is having (in case of emergencies) the world as your urinal. There I was. All alone in a giant litter box. On a skittish horse. No problem.
Getting off a horse is easy. But getting back on? There wasn’t even a saddle. Just a heavy blanket. And the bridle was basically a rope and a bit. What if the horse bucked and went trotting off in the desert? No, no, if I am going to pee anywhere, the safest bet is stay on the horse and go side saddle.
Ahhh… relief… until I felt myself sliding downwards as if in slow motion. Slipped right off the back of Hayat who danced a bit, happy to have my weight off him. At least I grabbed his lead. I’ll just hold on tight until Ahmed gets back. No problem. Where is Ahmed anyway?
Being in the desert plays tricks on your eyes. The heat is visible. It reflects vapor waves off the sand. Everything is still and yet in motion at the same time.
But then I spied something out of place. It looked like a stick or a bone fragment. I yanked at Hayat and he watched as I picked it up.
Maybe if I dug around a little more, I could excavate the rest of a skeleton and see what kind of creature the bone came from? Better yet, what if I found buried treasure? I had already achieved my Sir Lawrence of Arabia moment on the away leg of the journey, so why not Indiana Jones on the return? With nothing else better to do, I started to dig. And dig. I even tied Hayat’s lead around me to free up two hands.
I must have gotten down about a foot or more and was given a surprise. The sand was suddenly wet. I did not realize that there could be water running under the desert, but real travelers knew where the aquifers and Wadis were located. Magic oasis springs are real.
The next level down, the sand was dry again. Fingers scratching, I hit upon something harder. Maybe the buried skeleton? Probably a desert rodent or a cat. Egyptians worshiped cats. Many were buried to accompany Pharaohs and VIPs into the next life. A cat would be cool.
But this was not a cat. When I extracted it and dusted it off, I could not believe there was a small carved face staring at me. It was a primitive figurine. It appeared to be a young male, maybe 2.5 inches long. It had a single forelock of carved hair which identified it as a royal child. I learned later it probably dated back to 2500 BC. I had made an actual archeological discovery!
Total head rush…
… until I remembered. Ahmed was off procuring a different kind of head rush. What if he sees me copping an artifact? Heck, what if someone saw him picking up hash? What if I got busted for both drugs and antiquities smuggling in Egypt? Not cool. Suddenly I was not sure which movie I was in. Or whose?
Then I hear whooping. It is Ahmed, galloping back. Think quick! Cover the sand hole. Wrap the figurine in my bandana and tuck it under my shirt. Act casual. Judging from the open black hole and three toothed grin, Ahmed had “scored.”
“What? You fall off horse?”
“Aiwa” Arabic for yes. Phew. Thank Allah he didn’t interrogate me further.
Ahmed dismounted and joined me on ground level. He took out what looked like a brownish stick of gum wrapped in foil, breaking off a piece and handing me the remainder. I was waiting for some kind of pipe or smoking device but instead, he popped the whole piece into his mouth and started chewing with two out of his three teeth. He masticated until it was soft. Then he spat it back into his grimy palm and deftly began rolling little hash spindles between his moistened fingers.
He unsheathed a sharp curved scimitar knife from his belt. Then came a cigarette. Ahmed sliced it perfectly down its length, then inserted the small pieces of hashish into the tobacco. He wrapped it back up in a rolling paper, cut the filter, and much to my disgust, licked it and massaged it into a perfect joint. Satisfied with his handiwork, he presented it to me. He cupped his hands around a wooden match, protecting the flame from the desert winds so I could receive the “honor” of lighting and “hitting it” first.
The hash was strong. I vacillated between elation and paranoia. It was magnificent to be riding over the dunes feeling young, free and intoxicated, but then remembering I was also in possession of not one, but two serious forms of contraband. Time to get back to reality. Ahmed led the way, fortunately not noticing the protrusion under my shirt. I gave him a generous tip. I had important pending “business” and needed to get to Luxor.
Important to me at least. I kept hearing about a huge concert production at Karnak and given my concert producing and events background, I was determined to land a job at it.
The concert turned out to be the most ambitious opera production ever staged. And the job site was in a giant temple complex outside the ancient city of Luxor. Only 14 hours away by train.
Before trains, the way to sail down the Nile was on a “falooka.” A wood-hulled and canvas sailing vessel that came in variety of sizes. It seemed like a far more authentic if not romantic mode of travel. I thought I’d test ride one first and brought my Casio keyboard along to play, sailing beneath an orange fireball sunset across the Nile.
I asked the Captain how long it would take to sail to Luxor?
“Maybe 12, maybe 14 days”.
That was not going to work for my calendar. Then he brought up the hippos.
“You know hippos? On Nile they are more dangerous than crocodiles or cobras. They attack falookas and drown tourists.”
Was he kidding me?
He spat into the water. Hieroglyphics do show that the Ancient Egyptians despised hippos and hunted them down. I suppose it’s like hunters in the U.S. hating bears or harmless deer, and shooting them down. What the Captain didn’t mention was that the Egyptians already hunted them all into extinction. The last wild Nile hippo was spotted in the early 19th century. There was really no real fear of hippo attacks. He was pulling my leg.
I opted instead for a 14 hour, $3 second class train seat. I learned a valuable lesson. Never buy a second-class train seat if a first class exists. Sure, no hippos to contend with, but beyond hot, cramped, dirty, long and miserable. The bathroom is a lurching claustrophobian nightmare closet with a small filthy floor hole that empties directly onto the tracks. Need I describe more?
Verdi’s Opera “Aida” is set in Egypt and premiered in Cairo in 1871. A flamboyant impresario named Fawzi Metwalli, an Egyptian-born entrepreneur who lives in Austria, made it his mission to bring the opera back to the original setting. He sunk $10 million of his own money to pull it off. After much debate and untraced “donations,” the Egyptian Government allowed a massive, half-mile long performance area to be constructed in the forecourt of the Luxor Temple.
The staging was still being built when I talked my way into meeting with the Italian Production Manager, accompanied by the Egyptian Government rep in charge of the site. They found my recitation of college concert production credits and English skills to be job worthy. “But your tourist visa requires government approval to be hired.” Shaking their heads, they apologized. My odds of being cleared to be hired were doubtful, but they did need help. The pre-prod period was filled with chaos.
This one-of-a-kind event had been hyped all around the world. Opening night would attract 5000 guests with ticket prices from $600 to $1000. Steep price for 1980s dollars. Renowned Spanish tenor Placido Domingo was set in the lead. Maria Chiara was the diva from Italy. There was to be a cast of 1500 actors, singers, dancers and a grand “March of Aida” featuring lions, tigers, camels, elephants and horses. There were supposed to be another 1000 extras playing soldiers.
The biggest buzz was that Prince Charles, Lady Diana, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor and George Hamilton, Princess Caroline, Egyptian President and First Lady Mubarak, King Hussein of Jordan were all expected to attend. The Concorde had been scheduled to shuttle champagne swilling VIPs in from London and Paris.
Major banquets were planned around the opera to celebrate this world class arts event. There was going to be press. A lot of it. And lucky for me, I carried a press pass.
I had worked as a stringer for a number of local papers and magazines in LA and knew an official looking press pass and correspondent business card could come in handy when traveling around the world. Sure enough, I was welcomed at the “press hotel” put on the official lists and left to mingle with a coterie of hardened war journalists. Reporters from many different countries, stationed in cities across the Middle East, getting drunk at the pool, laughing at the inanity of wearing fatigues and covering war, death and destruction one day and the same fatigues to cover a black-tie opera the next. War zone reporters don’t pack tuxedos.
With an official Opera press pass in hand, I went back to the production manager to volunteer. Signore Domingo and other lead singers wore surgical masks backstage between rehearsals and sound checks. A single micro granule of sand lodged in a throat could be ruinous.
As gorgeous and spectacular as the costumes and sets were, the acoustics left much to be desired. The ancient pillars were beautifully lit up against the night sky, but the stones bounced sound waves and the sand absorbed them and reflected back in muddled echoes.
Given my English skills, my assignment for opening night was working with the press team setting up pre and post-show receiving lines and photo calls for the expected dignitaries and celebrities.
Other than a sell-out opening night, it was pretty much a given the opera was going to be a financial flop. There were still 7 other performances scheduled with no one buying tickets. Concierges at the area hotels were giving them away for free.
Right before opening night, Prince Charles, Lady Di and King Hussein of Jordan, all cancelled. First Lady of Egypt Susanne Mubarak attended, but not her husband the President.
Sofia Queen of Spain, Princess Caroline of Monaco, soccer star Maradona, all posed for the paparazzi and Karl Lagerfeld whipped his signature ponytail around backstage. There were a number of serious looking dudes introduced as members of the “U.S. diplomatic delegation.” I think that meant CIA. It was quite the scene. Lots of loud chatter in Arabic, Italian, English and French.
The March of Aida procession did not come off as planned. No elephants. No camels. Plenty of horses and what looked like a lethargic drugged lion, pulled across the stage in a cage. He still got a good round of applause.
the press bombarded Mitwalli the promoter, estimated to have lost half his investment.
“How much money did you lose? How does that feel?” they shouted.
Fazi replied, “I feel good knowing I have brought ART back to Egypt!”
Unless “art” only came to be in the 1500s, this was an ironic if not expensive misstatement when one considers the incredible carvings, statues and hieroglyphic paintings that have existed for 3000 years in the very place he was “bringing art back to.” But there was more behind the story.
A major terrorist plot was uncovered by Egyptian intelligence, to attack the opera performance and kill Prince Charles and Diana on opening night. I didn’t learn this until I read an amazing book. “The Looming Towers” was a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Lawrence Wright which chronicled the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and its split with Al Queda that led to 9-11.
Wright cites reports that Egyptian Security foiled a significant plot when the producer of the opera could not supply enough extras to play the soldiers. Instead the Egyptian army sent a thousand trained recruits to take part in the staging. The plot was cancelled.
I didn’t manage to stay an extra day to find out. I came down with sun poisoning. Or food poisoning. Or both. The headaches, sweats, cramps, hallucinations, high fever, not to mention the gastro aspects. Enough that I wound up in a Red Crescent Hospital.
After receiving a blood test, giving a urine specimen, x-rays and undergoing examination by a stunning red-headed Welsh doctor with sexy accent who was volunteering her services abroad, I was given an injection, prescribed antibiotics, rest and rehydration. I presumed the hospital bills would bankrupt the rest of my trip. I was elated to receive a bill for $64.
After, I had enough money left to ship my precious artifact back to the states. My somewhat guilty conscience I could atone for at my next destination. I was heading to the most sacred if not most famous city in the world, Jerusalem. And yes, while I was there, a miracle happened. But that is a story for another time…