By Dennis Fitzgibbon
It took a fair amount of persuading, but my Egyptian friends, Nasser and Heba, finally convinced me last fall to visit their beautiful, historic country.
I met them in Burlington in 2017, and we talked a lot about this trip. As an American, I had some trepidation about traveling to the Middle East. And it didn’t help matters when the U.S. State Department issued this travel advisory less than three weeks before my scheduled departure:
“Reconsider travel to Egypt due to terrorism. Terrorist groups continue plotting attacks in Egypt. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning and have targeted diplomatic facilities, tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, western businesses, restaurants, resorts, and local government facilities. Terrorists have conducted attacks in urban areas, including in Cairo, despite the heavy security presence.”
Agreeing with Eleanor Roosevelt that courage is more exhilarating than fear and confident that traveling with native Egyptians would enhance my safety, I decided to go ahead with the trip. So, I packed my bags and caught a ride to the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport. Twenty-four hours later, I arrived at Cairo International Airport on Oct. 25., 2022.
After getting through Customs, I was relieved to find Heba and her husband, Nasser. Our half-hour trip to their apartment was my introduction to Cairo’s ridiculously hectic traffic. There are few painted lane markers, so cars converged, closely and dangerously, from every possible angle. I was freaked out, but of course, didn’t say anything.
Their apartment is on the seventh floor in a crowded neighborhood — with “crowded” being the operative word. Most of the buildings are nondescript sandstone and reminded me of the ones I saw during my trip to Russia in 1998.
Heba’s mom, sister, and nephew were at the apartment when we arrived. We enjoyed a great dinner: fancy, deep-dish mac and cheese, breaded and fried chicken breasts, and soup made with tiny pasta colloquially known as “bird tongues.”
The next day, Heba and I spent three hours at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. How amazing it was to witness firsthand the very origins of human civilization; some artifacts were 7,000 years or older. Comparatively, Americans will celebrate our country’s 247th anniversary this July 4.
Again, the traffic was utterly crazy. In particularly congested areas, cars weaved in and out of the “lanes” perilously close to each other. It seemed hugely dangerous by my small-town standards. Heba said it works because everyone anticipates what the other guy will do.
I did witness a horrible scene en route to the museum. A guy on a motorcycle, who was probably going 40-50 mph, flew by us on the right. Seconds later, he hit one of two young women standing in the street near the curb. Worse yet, he just kept on going! Sadly, that’s a mental image I’ll never be able to erase.
Both Heba and her sister, Hoda, are excellent cooks. From ful (pronounced “fool”), a fava bean stew, to my personal favorite, koshari, consisting of macaroni, lentils, rice, chickpeas, fried onions, and a spicy-hot tomato sauce, each dish was a culinary masterpiece. A variety of homemade breads, lots of wonderful cheese, and way too many sweet treats complimented our meals.
Each new day was a blend of Egyptian culture, great weather, and fascinating tourist attractions. Our itinerary included a two-hour dinner cruise on the Nile River; breakfast served on the rooftop of our hotel in Alexandria, which provided a great view of the Mediterranean Sea; the Pyramids and Great Sphinx of Giza; riding a camel named Mickey Mouse; the Citadel of Cairo; Karnak and Luxor Temples; the 614-foot Cairo Tower, Egypt’s tallest structure (and a challenge for this acrophobe!); and two days of R & R at my friends’ chalet on the Red Sea.
I learned a few basic Arabic words and phrases. The easiest one to memorize was “yeah,” which ironically is pronounced, “EYE-wuh.” I got used to it after a while. But, at first, it was so weird hearing it everywhere in public. “Whoa, how did they know I was from Iowa?”
On a personal note, it was great to feel so welcomed by Nasser and Heba’s family and friends. Even random people I met were friendly.
For example, during a tour of Alexandria atop a double-decker bus, I saw a seaside building that had “Casino” in its name and asked Heba if gambling is popular in Egypt. The woman sitting in front of us turned around and, in very good English, explained that in this instance, “Casino” meant “Café.” Quickly activating my Irish blarney, I enjoyed a lovely 10-minute chat with her before she got off the bus.
And it was heartwarming when Heba and I were approached by three boys, maybe 8 or 9 years old, who asked if they could take a photo with me. I felt like a celebrity.
During my 16-day visit, I never feared that being an American compromised my safety. However, there were a few times when my surroundings were a stark reminder that, as a white guy from the U.S., I was in the minority.
For example, my friends’ chalet is on the Sinai Peninsula, and getting there required taking a tunnel beneath the Suez Canal. Just on the other side, in the middle of an otherwise vast, empty desert, was a formidable — and clearly no-nonsense — military checkpoint.
“Have your passport ready,” Heba instructed, “but don’t present it unless I tell you that the guard is asking for it.” I took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.
Heba pulled up to a large contraption that she said would perform a complete scan of the car in search of weapons, explosives, and contraband. After we passed that initial inspection, she drove the short distance to a gate and adjacent guard house. It was at this point that I started to feel vulnerable.
A stone-faced, uniformed guard with a rifle slung over his shoulder approached the car and began interrogating Heba. Of course, all of their conversations were in Arabic, so it was only after the fact that she told me what information he was seeking:
“What is your destination, and how long are you staying?”
Luckily, Heba’s brother, who co-owns a travel agency, had advised her to bring the paperwork that confirmed ownership of property on the peninsula. And she told the guard that we’d only be staying two nights.
“Who are you traveling with?”
Heba replied that her passengers were her mother, sister, and “our friend,” thus concealing my nationality.
The guard never did ask to see my ID, apparently convinced that this 66-year-old geezer sitting in the back seat didn’t pose a security risk. Instead, after asking Heba a few more questions, he methodically raised the gate, and we were on our way. Whew!
Traveling to Egypt forced me to step outside my comfort zone. Ultimately, it provided what professional traveler Rick Steves calls the best possible souvenir: a broader perspective. Contrary to all the bigotry and prejudice circulating on social media, I discovered that not everyone in the Middle East hates Americans. People are people, and we’re more alike than we are different.