'Aliens at the Pyramids':
Western Tourists in Egypt
Ma'at Tours organises and leads
annual educational tours of Egypt. Our participants are
motivated by a desire to experience first-hand the wonders
of ancient Egypt. They have little or no prior knowledge
or understanding of the contemporary society that surround
the ruins of Pharaonic Egypt. We invite our participants
to move outside an 'air-con bubble of Western-likeness'
and to experience and grow in understanding of modern Egypt
and its people. How do we do so, and how do our tourists
react? Is present-day Egypt - a developing, Muslim country
- simply the inconvenient, foreign, 'dirty' and possibly
dangerous vehicle that a Western traveller must endure to
access the splendours of the past? You can travel back in
time thousands of years in an Egyptian pyramid, temple or
tomb but once you cross the threshold of a monument you
are back in the real Egypt of today. What then is Egypt?
Its glorious ancient past or a place in the present inhabited
by people facing real, human problems? What do our participants
take away from their Egyptian experience besides gigabytes
of digital images of ruins and some exotic souvenirs? What
are the ethical responsibilities of those leading others
into the past?
'But is it real?'
The vast majority of the millions
of Western tourists who visit the Arab republic of Egypt
each year have little or no knowledge of the modern nation.
Their desire to journey through the Land of the Pharaohs
is driven by a longing to gaze upon the death mask of Tutankhamun,
to see inside his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, to stand
in awe at the foot of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx,
and to 'do' the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel.
The Egypt of the Western mindset
is an Egypt fashioned by coffee-table books containing images
of lonely temples and colourful tombs, (with the odd local
in native dress sometimes thrown in as an aid to scale).
It is an Egypt based on Discovery and History channel programs
featuring dramatic recreations, eminent Egyptologists and
live camera linkups at various ancient monuments. The imagery
and the commentary combine to form a mental view of Egypt
- land of the Nile, land of pyramids and temples set in
sweeping desert vistas. All one needs is a package tour
promising all Egypt in 6 days or a backpack, and the dream
of ancient wonders is yours!
Occasionally modern Egypt intrudes
on the public consciousness of the West with headlines such
as the terrible massacre at Deir el Bahri in 1997, and the
Taba and Sharm el-Sheik bombs in 2004/5. Such terrorist
atrocities frighten off many tourists, convincing them that
no Arab Muslim country is safe, or cause others to delay
their holiday plans. Few have the inclination to ponder
the socio-political and religious fabric of modern Egypt
that led to such events, nor to consider the relative stability
and tolerance of Egyptian society.
Most recently Egypt has hit the international
headlines with stories of strikes and protests over the
rising price of basic foodstuffs.
Bread Queues, Luxor
Used with kind
However, the deaths of some Egyptians
in demonstrations does not hold the attention of the West
for long. Shortages in the supply of government subsidized
bread, huge hikes in the price of most stable foods, the
fact that 20% of Egyptians live below the poverty line of
$2 a day, and that 20% live just above it... Well, it's
sad, and bad, but it really does not have anything to do
with US, does it? And yet it is impossible
to understand contemporary Egypt - with its tip-hungry tomb
guards, pushy salesmen, con artists and beggars - without
knowing that over 40% of the population worry about where
their next meal will come from. Fear of hunger and starvation
is an alien way of thinking for us - al'hamdu li'Allah (thanks
be to God).
We believe that it is of critical
importance that tour companies and operators adequately
prepare their clients for the 'experience of Egypt' and
provide them with opportunities to meaningfully interact
with local people. Our company offers participants extensive
information not just on packing and currency issues, but
on matters such as: social 'do's' and 'don'ts' (not eating
with your left hand is an obvious one, but not allowing
the soles of your shoes to be seen is less obvious); expectations
regarding behaviour at ancient sites; and some basic words
in Arabic (like 'salam'/hello and 'shukran'/thankyou).
We encourage our participants to
explore modern Egypt prior to their departure through such
media as Egypt
Today magazine, internet portals like Cairolive
and on-line Egyptian and Middle Eastern newspapers. We also
encourage our participants to read and reflect upon a code
of ethics we have adapted from Tourism and the Third
World (Manuel, McElroy & Smith , 1996).
Throughout the tour we encourage
our participants to learn more about Islam via personal
interactions with local Muslims. We feel that this is particularly
important given current trends towards polarisation of opinions
and views, and a general lack of understanding of authentic
Muslim traditions and teachings.
As tour leaders we are keen to provide
opportunities for our participants to develop a real understanding
of contemporary Egypt and the issues that concern the Egyptian
people, and provide opportunities for them to 'make a difference'
in the lives of individuals. We use local businesses, individuals
and agencies when in Egypt so that money we and our group
spends contributes directly to the local economy and the
economic welfare of local Egyptians, rather than multinational
companies. For example we use Egyptian-owned and operated
hotels, transport providers, restaurants and Guides... These
people are our trusted friends and business partners, but
more importantly they are real people with real families
and real hopes, and needs, and dreams.
Members of our 2008
group offer pens to children on Elephantine Island
Because of our longstanding relationships
with many locals we are able to arrange for our group to
have meals in village homes on Elephantine Island. The women
of the neighbourhood prepare meals for the group and receive
all payments. Many of these women have been able to purchase
second-hand sewing machines from these payments and now
generate personal income from clothes making.
When visiting homes, villages and
mosques we ask all our participants to dress according to
local customs. This means long sleaves and trousers for
all, and headscarfs for women. We explain to our female
participants that such dress is a sign of respect to the
community we are about to visit. The laughter of local women
is shared by our female travellers as they are helped to
adjust their scarfs: it is simple, intimate human contact
that cannot be underestimated in its power to foster authentic
understanding and mutual respect.
Ma'at Tours is a member of the Luxor4Care
Organisation, a charitable group created by ex-pat Brits
in Luxor. Luxor4Care works for abandoned and disadvantaged
children in Luxor. In addition to publicising Luxor4Care
throughout the Asia-Pacific region, we encourage our tour
participants to meet local representatives of the organisation,
to listen to their experiences of children and adults struggling
to overcome terrible hardships, and offer an opportunity
for those who wish to make donations of money, toys or clothing.
What do we hope that our participants
take away with them from such experiences? I once asked
an American women travelling with a 5-star tour company
how she found the Egyptian people. She replied, 'They make
terrible waiters - the ones on my Nile cruiser are very
bad.' She was not joking.
Two participants on our last tour
were comparing the price they had paid for the same souvenir.
One had paid 10 pounds more than the other. 'Oh well,
only 2 bucks, guess a family will have some meat tonight
- chook [chicken] on the table,' she said. 'Chook
on the table' has become one of our favourite sayings.
Once at sites in Egypt we and our
local Guides can give our people detailed accounts of the
history, architecture and art of the numerous tombs, temples
and other wonderful structures we visit, but prior to setting
out on our daily excursions we talk about social issues
and cultural considerations related to particular sites
or experiences that we are about to encounter.
Children at the Nobles
Tombs, West Bank, Luxor
To know in advance that there will
be children begging outside the tombs you are going to see
is helpful, but to know why this is happening is both disquieting
and empowering. While education is free in Egypt, uniforms,
books and pens are not. If you don't have a pen you cannot
write down the lesson or do the homework, and you not only
fall behind in your schoolwork, but you get beaten by your
teacher. But surely a pen only costs about $1? - yes, but
in Egypt that's half a days income at the poverty line,
or 100 pieces of government subsided bread - if the bakery
has any flour in stock.
Such news is disturbing and thought
provoking - yes, and unapologetically so. It is about real
life and real people - the kids who will hassle you
as you head into that glorious tomb you saw on NatGeo, and
hassle you more when you come out. But perhaps such knowledge
- and developing understanding - might lead you to pause
and say 'salam' or share a smile, or even pen, with one
of the urchins most tourists treat with utter contempt.
The smile from a child like Hussan is - surely - more meaningful
and valuable than that 'perfect photo' of the Giza pyramids
Hussan from the West
The ruins of Egypt's pharaonic past
do not lie in timeless, vacant desert vistas where none
but doco camera crews dare to tread. They stand amid a vibrant,
impoverished, modern, developing country and are surrounded
by 75 million people with their own individual hopes, dreams
We are the aliens at the pyramid.
It is we who go to Egypt, and it is we who
are challenged to understand.
Ma'at Tours truly believe that it
is the ethical responsibility of all those who lead others
into the past to provide travellers with the information
and opportunities they need - and deserve - to develop an
authentic understanding of both ancient glories and modern