In April we spent three weeks in Egypt and Jordan. The trip was chock full of experiences that we will never forget, like climbing down into the belly of a 4,000-year-old pyramid, entering the tomb of Tutankhamen to see his preserved mummy still lying there, and drinking sundowners on the deck while cruising down the Nile. The history of Ancient Egypt is incredible, and we learned a lot. But my overwhelming impression that remains has to do with the people—four in particular. Sabry, our guide in Cairo, Hussein, our guide in Upper Egypt, Ali, a friend-of-a-friend we got to meet for dinner one night, and Omran, our driver in Jordan. Let me tell you about each one.
Sabry is a young, modest Egyptologist, a title which, by the way, requires an intense university degree in Egyptology studying under the master professors and archaeologists of Egypt. He mentioned that the exams are incredibly difficult. For example, the professor would take him to the Egyptian Museum, which holds hundreds of thousands of artifacts, and point to anything and say, “Tell me all about this.” And Sabry knew everything. Unlike other historical periods, Egyptian history spans 6,000 years. Compare that to someone who claims he is a Civil War expert or specializes in the Victorian period.
Sabry also is an expert on modern Egyptian history and spent one of the days giving us the Islamic Tour of Cairo, which included some very old mosques and lots of contextual information that helped give us a better of understanding of how Islam came to Egypt and how it is reflected in contemporary society. (In the scheme of things, Islam is relatively “new” to Egypt, only having arrived in 600 AD, while the earliest ancient religion there dates back to 3000 BC.)
Sabry is a devout Muslim, like the vast majority of Egyptians. We have travelled to Muslim countries before, but never have we seen such earnest followers as in Egypt. Partly this was because we were visiting Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan. As Sabry explained, there are five pillars of Islam: 1) to believe that Mohammed was the last prophet of God Allah, 2) to pray five times a day 3) to give charity to those in need 4) to fast during Ramadan and 5) if you have the means, to make the Haj visit to Mecca in Saudi Arabia once in your life.
We got to see most of these pillars up close and personal. For example, the call to prayer really does happen five times a day. Wherever you are in Egypt, you will hear the muezzin (crier) who climbs to the top of every single mosque’s minaret and sings the call for prayer through loudspeakers. We even saw pedestrians stop, and cars pull over, in order to lay down a mat on the sidewalk to pray during these calls.
It was interesting that each day the five calls varied by just a few minutes (based on the day of the year). Our guide explained the intricate rules about prayer, such as you must wash before each prayer unless you have not gone to the bathroom or touched anyone since your last prayer. Also, if you miss a prayer call, it is fine, but you have to make it up later in the day. During a call to prayer, sometimes our guides would invite us to spend time on our own at the temple or ruins, while they retired to the shade or a prayer room to pray.
The fasting in Ramadan was also heavily observed. During an entire month families wake up at 3:30am to eat a large meal together before sunrise, and then no one eats or drinks anything until sunset, which was around 7pm. I had expected, like Lent in the US, there would be some observers, but not all. That was not the case. Everyone we met was observing the fast—I mean everybody. This means that the country shuts down a bit during the day because everyone is so exhausted, thirsty, and hungry. Many people don’t go to work during Ramadan, and most shops and restaurants are closed during the day. At night, though, things come back to life! There is another custom after sunset: if you see someone walking on the street, you offer them food to “hold them over” on their way home, because surely they must be hungry and thirsty after fasting all day. We saw this even in busy Cairo; people were distributing little packages of meals to passersby, or handing them through the windows of buses to commuters on their way back to their villages.
Charity and kindness abounded, even though Egypt is a poor country with a GDP of about 80% less than the US. The poverty is striking, even for us coming from Mexico, which is actually four times as prosperous as Egypt. It was clear that the Covid pandemic has wreaked havoc in this country, and Sabry’s job in tourism has been pretty much non-existent for over a year. He was grateful to be finally working as a guide again, and he said his family was very happy that he was bringing home some cash. Needless to say, the government did not offer PPP loans and unemployment checks during the pandemic. Sabry said that most of the population was just getting by on sustenance farming and charity.
We were super grateful to have Sabry help start our trip with a wonderful vibe and a perfect introduction to Cairo and Islam. He was also kind enough to teach us basic Arabic phrases that lead to lots of laughter, like when I said, “Ya la, habibi” to our driver, which meant, “Let’s go, my love!”
We flew south a few days later and met our new guide, Hussein, in Upper Egypt (note that the Nile flows south to north, so southern Egypt is referred to as Upper Egypt because it is up-river). Hussein is another Egyptologist, born in Luxor (his family house was later torn down because the Avenue of the Sphinxes was discovered below it), and educated in Cairo. With many years of experience, Hussein knew every inch of the archaeological sites between Aswan and Luxor, which is an incredible feat when you realize how much there is: hundreds of pharaohs, thousands of carvings, dozens of royal tombs, temples, etc., all spanning thousands of years. He could look at an engraving and tell you if it was Greek, Roman, or (even more challenging) pinpoint the specific Egyptian Pharaoh who commissioned the work over the span of three thousand years. He could recognize any of the gods depicted in the paintings and explain what each god was doing and how it related to the Pharaoh in power.
Now after the excitement of arriving in Egypt wore off, I must admit I sometimes lost a little interest in Hussein’s talks. While Mark’s brother Nick, aka “the professor,” listened with bated breath, I would sometimes zone out, wonder if we might walk towards the shade, or contemplate when lunch might be. But I think Hussein made it his personal goal to engage me, and would frequently shout excitedly, “Michaela, look here at this carving! Look at the gender. This shows he was a powerful pharaoh.” Yes, gender means what you think it means. He also enjoyed pointing out carvings of women squatting down giving birth: “Mark, in these days you didn’t have to waste your money by taking your wife to the hospital. Michaela, see here how the Egyptian women gave birth—this would be you!” If I strayed too far away from him, he would call these things out loudly across the temple, and I would blush!
Perhaps Hussein’s only weakness was that enjoyed hearing his own voice, and if he couldn’t think of something useful to add (which he usually could), he would say something super obvious just to keep the narrative going. For example, as we trotted through Edfu by horse carriage, Captain Obvious pointed out a bakery that was making Ramadan sweets. He pointed out to me, “Michaela, look what they are making! These are delicious treats, and you eat them like this…” at which point he made the gesture of putting his hand to his mouth. Ah, so that’s how they eat them!
He was a proud father of four children and boasted about his daughter who was at university in Aswan studying engineering. He explained that in the household everyone called him Abu Yousef, which means “Father of Yousef,” his eldest male child. He noted that his daughter is actually his eldest child, and she was very frustrated when her younger brother was born because his name usurped her own!
Sidenote: there is an interesting little side story about the word “Abu.” As mentioned, it means father, and the famous temple called Abu Simbel literally means “the Father of Simbel.” This confused me because I knew the temple was built to honor the powerful pharaoh Ramesses the Great and his beautiful wife Nefertari. But Hussein explained that back in 1813 while this incredible temple was discovered and excavated by the Italian archaeologist Belzoni, he was befriended by a small boy named Simbel who became his constant little helper. So all the locals referred to Belzoni as “Simbel’s father” or “Abu Simbel” since he was never seen without Simbel by his side. Hence, the most famous and probably most spectacular temple ever discovered is named for a small Egyptian boy who helped excavate it! Cute, no?
Unlike the guides who are extremely educated but come from humble backgrounds, it was a fascinating to spend time with Ali, who was born into an upper-class family in Cairo. A good friend sent word to Ali that we would be visiting, and he graciously reached out to us with lots of advice to plan our trip and then invited us to share a meal out on Zamalek island. Like everyone, Ali was observing Ramadan, so we met at 9pm. He was kind enough to call ahead to find out of the restaurant would serve wine (which they did for me, a foreigner) but of course Ali doesn’t drink.
His story fascinated us. Although he has spent a lot of time outside of Egypt, he is clearly tied by blood and pride to his country. Born and raised in Cairo, as a young adult he was sent to study abroad. In his 20s he was living in Malaysia during the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, known in the west as the Arab Spring. Ali was following the news minute by minute as things escalated. Suddenly there was a news blackout in Cairo, but from Malaysia he could still get news and share it via WhatsApp and Facebook with his friends. For a week he helped share the news and spread the word until he could not stand back any longer, so he flew to Cairo to be part of the revolution. He protested in the streets, risked his life, and ran from bullets. He shared a few incredible stories about the people he marched with. One older working-class man protected him once when the government was shooting at protestors. He told Ali, “We are grateful that you young people, especially from the upper class, are here fighting on our behalf. Without you we would not be listened to. But you need to be safe. Run, now, I’ll stay here, but you need to be safe. Your generation is our future.”
Later we asked Ali how he felt about the current state of Egypt. What we noticed was his thoughtful consideration of the question. Now in his 30s, a father and a husband, he says he has learned that there are no easy solutions. “What we wanted the government to do may not have been possible, but what they are doing now is not that bad.” Basically, he says he has changed many of his beliefs about the “best way” for Egypt to move forward. We all appreciated his openness to changing his opinions, especially after being such a fervent participant in the revolution. Bottom line is, he wants the best for Egypt, and came back to live and work and Egypt even though he could live in work anywhere in the world. He loves his country and his people, and that was very moving.
I’ve saved the best for last. Omran is a character. And a half. Unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, Omran is in a class of his own. He has his own business in Jordan as a driver (he emphasizes he is NOT a guide, just a humble driver). He has owned a fleet of cars and does tours around Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria (though not anymore). Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, he moved around growing up from Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia and eventually settled as an adult in Amman, Jordan. A natural businessman and entrepreneur, Omran spent the three days explaining the way life worked in Jordan. To him everything is about making money. Every story he told us was from the angle of how to profit, which (actually) endeared him to us!
For example, there was the fascinating blow-by-blow explanation of how he purchased his fleet of cars in Jordan. Before the pandemic he had nearly 20 luxury vehicles, which he purchased in a unique way. First of all, he only buys American cars with salvage titles. He pays to ship these cars all the way to Jordan. When they arrive, they remain in the Jordan Free Zone (Duty Free) where he totally revamps each one (sending mechanics, doing bodywork, replacing upholstery), and then brings them into Jordan without paying taxes on all the upgrades he invested in. Pretty labor-intensive, but a cool trick, huh?
Last June when he sensed the pandemic was going to wipe out tourism for the long haul, he sold his entire fleet of vehicles. Again, very savvy. But he is ready at any moment to pivot and buy a whole new fleet as soon as tourism comes back. I asked him how long that would take. He said he could have 12 cars again within a week.
Here’s another example of his clever business mind: realizing that his clients get referred to him by others and prefer to have him personally guide them, he was sending his drivers to pick up guests and all of them said their name was “Omran.” But eventually he got busted because some of them shared photos with each other. I asked if it was awkward, but he said, “They laughed because they know how I am—they get it!”
During the Iraq war he made good money driving BBC journalists to Bagdad from Amman. Does he have any stories? Oh yes—but guess what the topic is? “Everything in Iraq is cheap, I mean really cheap. For example, I drove a GMC truck over there, 8 cylinders, and guess how much it cost to fill it with gas? 1 Jordanian dollar! Actually less, I paid a Jordanian dollar and I was tipping 50%!”
He was also vigilant about saving us money while we were travelling with him. As soon as he picked us up, he chastised me for not purchasing the Jordan Pass, which would have saved us $20 each at the airport on our visas. I told him I forgot and he looked at me, shook his head with near disgust, and kept repeating, “But I told you!” It took him a good twenty minutes to get over that.
An avid photographer, many years ago he took a photo of a unique landscape of a windy road that was shared online on a partner’s tourism website. Someone in the UK called the agency, asking where the photo was taken. The agency asked Omran where, but he said, “I want to talk to the guy in the UK.”
The guy called him directly and Omran said he could take him there. The guy said, “Ok, I am trusting you to take me there, but if you are lying, you have to reimburse me my entire trip cost from the UK.” Omran said fine.
He picked up the guy and his girlfriend from Amman airport, with a ton of photography equipment. He drove them to the spot three hours away, and when they arrived the guy smiled, this was the spot. But he asked, “Omran, how did you get that shot? The light is so different.” Omran said, “Pay me the money now and I’ll show you how.” The guy laughed and paid him. Omran pulled out camping gear and all this food he had packed, and said, “Tonight we are going to sleep in that cave down there, and at sunrise you will get the photo you want.” He said the guy was like a giggling teenager and loved the whole camping experience. His girlfriend not so much.
At dawn Omran woke him up and he took his photos. Months later the photo won an international photo award and is featured in a gallery now. The guy sent Omran another $500 out of gratitude. Omran sent him another message: “I have something for you.” Omran had taken a beautiful shot that morning of the photographer setting up his shot. But he put a watermark on the photo. The photograph said, “I want that photo! How much to take off the watermark?” Omran said, “Not for sale!” The whole time laughing as he told this story.
After a day or two of getting to know each other, Omran made sure that the only topic we discussed was how to help him make more money. He gave us detailed instructions at each site he dropped us off: “Ok, first go to the Treasury, and with the Treasury in the background, please make a video explaining where you are, mentioning the name of my company and the date, so that I get more hits on YouTube.” He also asked me to keep “notes” during the trip of things I would say in the TripAdvisor review that we would write when we got home. This TripAdvisor review was the holy grail to him, and everything was dependent on us writing a perfect review. After each excursion he reviewed the videos I took and gave helpful feedback, like “Speak louder Michaela” and “Mark, wear your mask so they know this is during Covid.” It was hilarious that he was giving us orders, in a kind, but efficient way!
He also graciously offered us lot of tips for our own Airbnb business back home. Omran didn’t ask too many questions (he was usually on send mode). We humored him, so he never found out how business savvy Mark actually is—ha ha! Omran suggested we create an FAQ forum for our prospective guests to ask questions and emphasized that when we answered the question it should be very CLEAR and detailed. He was not happy that we relied on a booking agency (Airbnb) and encouraged us to try to generate all our bookings from our own private website to avoid paying commissions. He also said, “People like free things. So if you can give them a small gift when they arrive, they love that.” Actually, Mark leaves two books out as gifts for each guest (partly as a way to share our messages about kindness and effective altruism) and Omran nodded approvingly.
Finally, after we really got to know him, he said, “Listen, when you go back, please keep an eye out for a new wife for me. I’m looking for someone who is relaxed, likes to cook, likes to stay home. She doesn’t even have to be Muslim. But please if you find someone, send her to me.”
He also talked about his kids. His words were thoughtful, “Look, I’m clear with them. We are honest, we are friends. I don’t ask them to be anything except honest to me. They can tell me anything, I tell them anything. But they need to respect their mother, who they live with. When they come to visit me, even though my apartment is nice and I cook them good food, I tell them, ‘When you go back to your mom, tell them the food is terrible here, the apartment is no good. Because they need to respect their mother.’”
His children are all educated, and one of them is a famous hairdresser for her royal highness (yes, the Queen of Jordan). Another is a TV journalist, and it sounds like she gets herself into a bit of trouble by asking parliament leaders uncomfortable questions. He is very proud of her. He said one day they were at the shopping mall, and a young man walked by and dropped his phone number on a piece of paper near her seat. Omran said he sat back, curious to see what she would do. She got up and chased him, saying “You dropped this. This is not mine. This is yours!” Omran laughed.
On our last day we asked him to take us to the Dead Sea for lunch on the way to the airport. As we drove there, he negotiated on the phone with many hotels and tour operators until he found the best deal for us. Lunch, use of the hotel pool, access to the sea, and a mud bath, all for $15 JOD (about $21 USD). He decided to accompany us for this excursion because he was afraid the hotel would renege on the deal, so he said, “Don’t pay anybody anything, I’ll pay for it and you pay me later.” It was nice to have him there as a “fixer” that afternoon.
And yes, Omran is Palestinian and had a lot of say about the neighboring nation, which he corrected us when we referred to it as Israel. “Over there? That is Occupied Palestine.” As we drove along the Dead Sea, Israel was just a few miles away, and our cell phones jumped from Israeli to Jordanian carriers. Although the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is complicated and ugly, Omran seemed to keep an open mind about the situation. Before the pandemic he even arranged tours to Israel, dropping his clients at the border, connecting them with a team member that would guide them around Jerusalem for the day, and then collecting them at the border that night.
“I wouldn’t want to live in Israel, it’s way too expensive!” he says. Well of course not! Omran likes a good deal, and Israel doesn’t offer that. But he was surprisingly “cool” with the state of Israel and the situation between Israel and Palestine (a few months after we left, they started bombing each other again). Omran doesn’t really see things as religious or geographical, he sees everything through a clear economic lens. And in this way, he doesn’t really have a bias towards one side or the other.
Omran’s banter thoroughly entertained us, but looking back, what resonates with me most is the gratitude I feel for having the chance to get to know these four men. When Mark and I travel, we tend to avoid hiring tour guides because we prefer our independence (and don’t want to join a group of annoying tourists), but having these incredible experiences reminded us how unique it is to spend so many hours talking, laughing and travelling with locals in order to really connect.
Before I arrived in Egypt, I thought I understood what Islam was and I admit I had a preconceived notions about Muslim people. Of course, I was aware of the small population of Muslims who identify with radical extremists, and that they are super devout and some that even oppose democracy and the Western World. But I assumed that most (the rest) approached Islam not from a religious perspective, but more as part of their culture and family. However, I was wrong. What I learned about Egypt is that the faith of Islam is part of everything—food, family, work, and the state. Egyptian Muslims are truly faithful. Their faith is based on very humble, kind, “golden rule” kind of tenets, like helping others and being a good person in the eyes of God. I saw charity right before my eyes daily—strangers helping strangers. I saw countless people walking around the city or climbing up on a bus with the Koran in hand, reading it whenever there was down time. I also appreciated the dedication to prayer. Five times a day is a serious commitment, and the people I met shared with me how much they enjoyed the time of prayer. It wasn’t a bothersome obligation, but rather, a chance to interrupt the grind of the day and rest their mind that might be full of distractions, and instead be present for a moment. It is a time to relax, be grateful, and be pious. To do this five times a day is quite unique in this current 21st century, don’t you think?
So thank you, Sabry, Hussein, Ali and Omran for your kindness and friendship. What you’ve given me is something I didn’t expect, but will always remember, and we will see each other again, inshallah!
A few more photos
Because of the lack of tourists, we were upgraded to the presidential suite on the MS St. George Sonesta Nile River Cruise. As Nick sat down with us to dinner every night he would say, “Man, I need to travel with you guys more often!” Ha, ha! My favorite part of the presidential suite was that every time we came back to our room, there was a treat waiting for us: a box of chocolates, cookies, bottles of wine, chocolate-dipped fruit. Mark enjoyed playing the grand piano in the foyer of the ship (Titanic style) and Nick kept coming into our room to drink up our free booze. Something for everyone!
That’s all for now. Thank you very much for reading!