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Welcome in the Land of Civilisation, Good Life, Immortality and Happiness

A story written for the Shell Destinations Magazine, December 2000

Big blue-white signs with such text welcome the visitor near the ancient sites of Sakkara, where the oldest pyramids dominate the skyline just at the edge of the green Nile valley and the empty desert beyond. The condition of the shields may not reflect their message, but the message itself is clear and somehow the shields very much typify modern Egypt.

Napoleon reportedly mentioned to his soldiers just before the decisive battle at Imbabah that ‘forty centuries look down at you from these pyramids’. True or not, they are as impressive now as they were when the western world discovered this ancient world in the footsteps of the French conquest.

We had done our homework before coming to Egypt, but reality beats any book. And there is so much that you can not find in a book anyhow. That is the beauty of Egypt. If you want mystery, archeology, geology, relaxing on a beach, diving or whatever, there is plenty. After almost three years here in Egypt, we still have a lot to learn from this desert land with so much leftovers of the past.

But there is another side of the coin as well: the dry, dusty, chaotic and busy Cairo and a very different society. That side is more difficult to deal with. It took us a bit to digest the legendary traffic, chaotic streets, living in a big town. The children, all three at that time at primary school age, loved the tiny Dutch villa-school. With them happy, we found our way in this different life. We found the desert and the desert found us, with terrup (yes, now we know where the Dutch word ‘troep’ = dust is coming from) blowing into our apartment, covering everything during the infamous khamsin sandstorms. Meanwhile the Dutch school joined the British International School at their brand new campus in New Cairo, a year ago still desert. We moved into a nice cosy villa close to the office and have our own garden, a true oasis in grey Heliopolis. Part of the house is now Lilian’s Kindergarten, which has already been the first step away from home for some 20 (mainly Dutch) children. Our camping gear includes now some ten different kinds of pins to secure tents virtually anywhere, from hard lessons learnt in the often windy (and cold) desert. We have a boab (caretaker) and a maid (and their extended families) and we could happily live without them, but being here provides them and their families with a source of income that they need. Sometimes people back home have a quick opinion when they hear about our ‘personnel’, very much based on a totally wrong image and the only way to find-out is by living in this culture. We gave up explaining. We can get a taxi for a couple of Egyptian pounds to nearly anywhere in Heliopolis, without too much hassle and bargaining. The guards at Sakara nickname me now ‘dr Moustache’ and must believe I am a kind of tour guide, judging from the large amount of visits. Driving still is ‘fascinating’, but from reactions back home in the Netherlands it seems we are picking-up the ‘Cairo style’. In short it seems we are getting settled. But this still is Cairo, in our eyes often chaotic, a very different culture, different values, different rules (or perhaps often no rules), a very ‘Mediterranean’ country. Nothing is urgent, fixing rather than solving problems. Being truly Dutch we need a bit of compensation/escape by the trips into the desert, relaxing along the beautiful coasts of the Sinai, the Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Our oldest switched from Dutch to British education. A bit of an experiment, but it worked out very well, also for the other three Dutch children that made the move together with her. Keeping her Dutch up to date with ‘Edufax’ and homework via the internet is perhaps a novelty for us parents, but absolutely normal for her. The two younger boys still follow the Dutch system, but being part of a larger school now has many advantages, last but not least a much broader English base, without compromising the core of the good Dutch education system. We found that our children may be a bit less used to the more ‘open’ societies in Europe. A topless lady on a beach or on TV is a kind of unusual landmark that draws surprised faces. We also realise that they are still very different from the bulk of the Egyptian society as well. Only last night a good Egyptian friend, working for Shell on the school bus, visited us. After the habitual exchange of family news and other pleasantries he got to the point and advised us that he had noted that the oldest children in the bus were talking about kissing and joking about boyfriends. He hastily added that he thought it was still innocent, but ‘who knows what may come of it’. He truly meant well and this example shows how separate our worlds are. There are no solid guidelines about what to do, but we have learnt to ‘feel’ our way through. It is better to be flexible and bending with the wind rather than being a solid, rigid tree risking uprooting in a storm (Egyptians like to speak with metaphors).

 

Cairo is changing fast. There are many measures for this change: the amount of good, large supermarkets available now, with only a few –state owned- a couple of years ago. In the time we are here already three new brands of beer were introduced, where previously there was only the bare ‘Stella’. Still expensive and the ‘exports’ are difficult to get, but no need for home-brewing to get a nice cold beer on a hot day. The road network is expanding almost monthly with new fly-overs and motorways in construction all around (and in) the city.

Western Civilisation hits everywhere. Luckily there still is a lot of the old Civilisation left. Large parts of Egypt still are as they must have been for thousands of years, donkeys, oxen, irrigation, and simple huts. Very friendly people that are receptive to you as long as you are open to them. A different Civilisation, yes, but one that is certainly worth discovering.

Some facts about Egypt:

  • The ancient Egyptian Civilisation lasted for over 3000 years, supported by a remarkable knowledge of astronomy, engineering, mathematics and medicine and an organised taxation and legal system.
  • We owe our calendar of 365 days and the 24 hour subdivision of the day to the old Egyptians.
  • With a height of 146m, the Great Pyramid was the tallest building on earth until the Eifel Tower was erected in 1889.
  • Four million embalmed ibises were discovered at a single animal cemetry at Sakkara. At the turn of the century about 300,000 cat mummies were shipped to Liverpool to be converted into fertiliser.

Things we have in Egypt that the rest of the world doesn’t !

(taken from the Cairo ‘Times’)

  • Mc Donald’s home delivery
  • Mollokhya (for some reason our tasty national green slime has not caught on elsewhere)
  • Relaxed driving regulations (apparently the rest of the world drives around in straight lines, how bizarre!
  • Magical Economics (250 people in a 40 seater bus, 15 people in a 5 seater taxi, 5 people on a 2 seater vespa).
  • A national obsession with marriage (plus the falt, Shabkha, furniture that goes with it).
  • You can smoke anywhere
  • The biggest construction site in the world – Cairo-.
  • Sogou-2, the finest spicy mystery-meat in the world
  • Execellent Women drivers!
  • 24-hour a day everything
  • Sheesba – now available in Capuccino, mint, fakhfakhena and orange flavors (only the true brave should try these exciting alternatives
  • Five piaster notes (probably the smallest paper denomiation in the world, except for monopoly money)

@ J. Schreurs December 2000