The Bedu are much harder to crack. Their entire world has changed so completely over the past thirty years, and yet so much about it remains a mystery, cut off from the casual observer and inexplicable to Westerners. In only three decades they have gone from nomadic tent-dwellers and peasants to townsmen, from relying on trade in specialist goods to relying on income from tourism, from being cut off from the rest of the world almost totally to playing host to visitors from every corner of the globe. The disruption to their traditional way of life has been complete, yet most of them would raise little objection. The modern amenities that can ameliorate the harsh conditions of desert life have understandably been met with enthusiasm by the Bedu.
And yet, old ways persist. There are the few who for whatever reason did not make the transition at all, unbelievably hardy mountain shepherds who come to town only twice a year for provisions. A young Bedu friend pointed one of them out to me one day and commented, ‘I haven’t seen him for years. But men like him are rarer and rarer.’ Those are the exceptions. For the average Bedu, the hangovers from the past are less extreme: their pride in their home country (very few of them make the move to Cairo, unlike most other rural Egyptians), the intimacy they have with their camels, and the way they still seem almost mystically attuned to the desert. Their tribalism is less fierce these days, but it is still present; and in general they feel a great pride in practicing an Islam so close, or so they say, to the Islam of the Prophet, including what they believe was Islam’s original tolerance. This is indicated by the firman guaranteeing the monastery protection from Muslim armies, dictated by the Prophet himself, which among other things stipulates that a Christian woman married to a Muslim should be left to practice her religion in peace. How do Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahabis respond to that, I wonder? As it happens, the last Bedu woman to receive Christian communion died in the eighteenth century, a testament to the power of the Prophet’s word.
Pride in religion is another thing the monks and the Bedu have in common, and it acts for them like a powerful balm with which to soothe whatever wounds modernity has inflicted on their pious souls and minds. This is especially true of the monks, who are both more modern and more overtly religious than their Muslim neighbors. But it gives a stick to the Bedu as well, to shake at the nebulous powers that are changing their world – but only when it suits them. In the West, we have given a name to this kind of religious pride: fundamentalism; and it is what in the end most sharply separates us from them who have not been modernized (or not fully so), for it is at to the heart of our different worldviews.
If it is a question of different levels of cultural, psychological, or even spiritual development, as most Westerners believe (if only subconsciously), then who occupies the higher rung on that ladder is not so easy to determine. We secularists – and even the religious among us are secularized in as much as our attitude to authority and deference to the rational favor the individual and not the divine, whatever that means – we value intellectual curiosity, objectivity and broad-mindedness on every level, and to a certain extent we achieve them, which is no bad thing. It is impossible to ignore, however, how much the fundamentalists are in possession of what we used to call virtue, things like honor and dignity, courage, sobriety, and an all-embracing faith; and, in the case of the Bedu at least, how they are markedly free of the psychological complexes which everywhere plague Western man: anxiety, guilt, depression, despair.
Still, the longer I stayed with them, the more difficult I found their fundamentalism, especially as they frequently used it to justify to themselves the ways much of their tradition is being allowed to slip away, in the name of a special dispensation or even of progress, as if being a right-believing member of a divinely favored group were the primary criterion of salvation, and excused the many compromises which, though small, ultimately impoverish a religion for good. Compromises are perhaps inevitable, for ‘offences must needs come’, but they shouldn’t be reveled in, let alone rationalized away. As with the ‘Down with Bush!’ sloganeers in Cairo (and maybe in America too), all quick ideological escape routes smack of hypocrisy, and condemn their adherents to become what they think they are most vehemently rejecting.
If I thought that by going to St Catherine’s I’d be escaping the tension I felt in Cairo between tradition and the realities of modern life, then I was in for a surprise. Never was that tension more evident than on Sinai. When I emerged from church with the monks after three hours of matins each morning, many of us would mount the steps to the parapet overlooking the monastery gate. From there it is possible to look down the valley at the vast desert plain it opens on to – so barren, only an almond tree here, a lone acacia there, to break the still monotone of golden rocks and sand. The Bedu with their camels, the stone huts of the Coptic workers, the monastery gardens, everything was peaceful and unspoilt, apposite to the serenity I felt inside myself from the morning service.
At least that is how things seemed before, like a pie to the face, the line of tourists below stretching around the monastery entered my field of vision. There they were again, the same guys from the Pyramids. Was St Catherine’s on their itinerary too? The monks to my left and right seemed to be of a different order of person from the hordes below. Is it too hasty and mean of me to say that the difference could even be seen in their faces? The gaze of the monks was collected and mindful, as opposed to the vague mental dispersion of the foreigners. And not only the monks, far from it. Their Bedu servants, some scurrying around with coffee or on errands, others (usually the older ones) simply reclining on some exposed stone or squatting in place, also had an aura of mental attention, at ease with silence – even, in a strange way, while talking – never bored or idle. Everything about both groups, the monks and the Bedu, from their similar robed dress to their exotic headwear to the gentle (but always heartfelt) clucking of their chatter, set them apart from the tourists.
Sometimes I would wander down to mingle with them after finishing my assigned task of working in the garden. Yet in all seven weeks of my stay at St Catherine’s, not one tourist struck up a conversation with me. Did my apron and beard make me stand out as belonging to the monastery, and did that make them feel that I was therefore out of bounds? They shouldn’t have felt so if they did, for many times I longed for the familiarity of their company. And as the monks say, perhaps to justify the disruption they cause, a man can arrive a tourist and depart a pilgrim.
That might be true, but it was hard not to leave my forays amongst them wishing they hadn’t come to disturb the place. One day a package tour of pensioners from Florida loudly asked their tour guide, ‘Is that Mount Sinai?’ pointing at an insignificant lesser peak on the side of the valley opposite the mountain of scripture. ‘Uh, why yes it is!’ the guide chimed back. Cue: all thirty of them turning as one to point and shoot away with their cameras. Maybe I should have disabused them of their guide’s callous fib, but I didn’t. Somewhere in Florida, blue-haired ladies are reverently oohing and aahing at photos of a pile of pebbles.
I am being too simplistic again. There isn’t really an unbridgeable chasm between the monks and Bedu on the one hand, and the tourists and/or pilgrims on the other. As in Cairo, it is rather a question of two contrary tendencies at work within individuals of both groups. Of the tourists, or at least of the vast majority of them, I think it safe to say that they have capitulated almost entirely to the ‘spirit of the world’, to all those ‘isms’ which one hears about less and less as they become more and more entrenched in society: materialism, consumerism, globalism, secularism. They are part of a vast global middle class (the world’s poor aren’t able to afford trips to Egypt’s historic gems, not even the poor of Egypt; and today’s fabulously rich didn’t get that way by being interested in the past) which has English as a common language, and has a shared value system and popular culture. For its members, nowhere is truly foreign any more because the artifacts of their worldwide cultural and economic imperium are close at hand wherever they go. I know because, as I said, I am one of them, and my own quest for the completely exotic is constantly being thwarted. The comforts of my civilization are always there in some form to lull me back into a postmodern malaise that is both deeply unsatisfying and almost impossible to resist. I am an outsider like the tourists, and the difference between my visit to Sinai and theirs is again one of degree, not of kind. I must believe the place touches them somewhere, that some of them at least leave a little transformed, awakened if just barely to the person inside them who remembers when the desert revealed profound mysteries, when virtue was paramount and miracles commonplace, and when the soul’s cravings left the body prostrate on the floor.
Similarly, the monks are not only gentle, peaceful sages. They are also torn in two by the pressures of modern life. They would have entered the monastery, ideally at any rate, in order to die completely to the world, to eradicate totally their egotistical selves, to struggle relentlessly against the passions and desires that distract and cloud one’s celestial vision. As it stands, however, the current situation at Sinai allows them only one foot in that metaphoric grave. A hundred years ago, the only way to St Catherine’s was by camel from Cairo, and so dire were the conditions en route that many pilgrims, then mainly poor but zealous Russians, died before they arrived. Now the monastery is a five-hour drive from the capital, and the international airport at Sharm-el-Sheikh makes getting there even easier. The seclusion which the monastery enjoyed in the past is hardly imaginable now, and today’s monks are forced to deal with everyone from the (still mostly Russian) pilgrims eager to venerate the martyr’s holy relics, to the mildly antagonistic Egyptian day-trippers, to documentary film-makers from UNESCO there to film a service of vespers.
So many distractions dilute their monastic resolve that it is not uncommon to see a monk at a nearby café mingling with tourists, or listening to the radio, or chatting on a cell phone; that is, falling short of the ideal he holds himself to. This can hardly be surprising, given the loftiness of those ideals; after all, it was precisely to forestall such otherwise unavoidable compromise that the rigors of the monastic routine and its seclusion from civilization were first imposed. And indeed their abbot encourages the monks to adopt an accommodating attitude towards the world beyond the monastery walls, to make dealing with the tourists psychologically easier. The monks are modern men, and if I can sympathize with their monastic aims – for I have harbored them myself – then I can certainly sympathize with their near powerlessness when pitted against the almost insurmountable barriers modernity puts in their way.
The difference between monks and people in the world is again only a question of degree, however great. For we are all on the same road, whatever our means of travel, and we are all confronted by the same bumps and potholes along it, however we choose to deal with them. It is the road of our common humanity, and it stands to reason that its obstacles are felt more keenly by the man who chooses to run down it and not merely walk. Yet, although his trip-ups are more severe when they happen, still as a runner his greater speed and agility perhaps make him especially fit to confront them.
As the bus jostled up the coast of the Gulf of Suez, I awoke now and then to see the high barren mountains of Sinai smouldering in the setting sun. The entire eastern horizon was one jagged summit cast in chiaroscuro as shadow poured down its deep, craggy gullies. They looked as though they had been carved, like giant bits of masonry. In fact, the intricate geometric patterns of those massive fissures reminded me of the stalactite moldings of Islamic architecture used to decorate squinches and pendentives underneath domes, as well as half-domed niches such as mihrabs and monumental Mamluk doorways. I had often looked up at them in admiration, and also wonder. Where had Muslim architects dreamed up such an unusual decorative style? The far-off mountains seemed to provide an answer, and with it an insight into what is perhaps the essence of the Muslim genius, and indeed the Islamic miracle.
When Arab horsemen burst from their peninsular home all those centuries ago, they brought the desert to a world bloated on civilization. The desert, stark and virginal, had first nurtured the seed of monotheistic revelation, and if that seed was to be resown in the decadent imperial worlds beyond the desert, then those worlds had to embrace the desert’s unsullied spirit. The mountain range looked like a mosque turned inside-out. Mosques, like the desert, emphasize breadth, not height. For the Muslim at prayer within them, those stalactite moldings are perhaps reminders of an arid homeland that still echoes in his soul – and in the soul of every prayerful man – and make him sigh for the torrential waters of God’s grace, even as his forebears sighed at the mountain gullies, carved deep from sudden providential downpours.
If Islam brought the desert to the city, then Christianity, as has been said before, brought the city to the desert. The beginnings of Christian monasticism are clouded in obscurity, but have been traditionally dated to the late third century when Antony made the influential decision to take the Gospel at its word. But the monks themselves believe – and there is much evidence to back it up – that they are heirs to an eremitic tradition that began before the Christian era, the tradition of the prophets of Israel who withdrew from the world, or as Saint Paul put it, ‘of whom the world was not worthy: they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.’
About two-thirds of the way up Mount Sinai is a long Alpine valley, and clambering over its slippery sandstone brings those obscure beginnings very much to life. All around are the remains of what must have been a vast monastic commonwealth high above the mother monastery of St Catherine, situated lower down at the foot of the mountain. Caves, isolated cells, larger clusters and chapels, all now in ruins, are everywhere. In the region called Elijah’s Hollow, where the prophet fled from Jezebel’s henchmen, the cave where he lived can still be visited – or at least the one that untold generations of pilgrims have venerated. There, we are told, as he had done at Mount Carmel after slaying the priests of Baal, Elijah ‘put his face between his knees’ and prayed. This strange prayer technique is still practiced by the monks, and is part of the spiritual tradition called hesychasm, the way of quiet stillness. The witness of Sinai is powerful, but it still boggles the mind that so many thousands of men and women lived out their lives in such an inhospitable place, separated from their fellows, their sole aim the cultivation of inner stillness and union with their Lord.
Down in the valley, where St Catherine’s stands to attention like the Byzantine fortress it is, daily busloads of tourists make it hard to believe anyone there is able to achieve stillness of any sort. In the summer, numbers can swell into the thousands. They come from everywhere under the sun, and in the four visiting hours set aside each morning they are shepherded through the monastery at an incredible rate. They get their photo of the Burning Bush, whiz past the Transfiguration mosaic in the central church, and brush through the museum where is displayed the famous sixth-century icon of Christ, before being squeezed out of the door. Others will have queued to take their place in the meantime.
As I walked around the neighborhood near the Al-Azhar Mosque in the Old City one day, searching for a recently restored Ottoman mansion, I encountered a young man who looked about fifteen years old. He handed me a business card advertising his father’s carpet shop, and then offered to help me find my way. He talked and talked. His English and German were good enough to get by as a tourist tout, and he told me he was on break from university in Germany, adding with a smirk that his big blonde girlfriend was waiting for him there. He had on grubby sneakers and baggy jeans, and walked with an affected limp like a rap star. All in all, he exuded consciousness of cool. He showed me the blue cross tattooed on the section of his hand between the thumb and first finger, marking him out as a Copt. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he inevitably asked before loudly affirming his faith in Christ. ‘But I don’t hate Muslims!’ he made clear. ‘Oh no, I loves everybody.’
When we arrived at the mansion, he volunteered to be my tour guide, a frequent (though seldom desired) Egyptian courtesy. A lazy gatekeeper sat at a card table collecting money for the tickets. My new friend (let’s call him Yusuph, though I can’t remember his name), always smiling, told me how much it would cost for the two of us. In the inner courtyard, three lovely well-dressed Egyptian girls in school uniforms, one of whom had scarved her head, struggled with a camera. Yusuph hailed them in Arabic, probably with whatever goes for ‘Wazzup’ in that language, and swaggered over. They giggled and, surprisingly confident, approached us asking for help. They showed us a old photo of the courtyard, black and white and yellowed with age, and said that for a school project they needed to take a photograph as close to the original one as possible, reproducing it exactly. ‘Just let me take care of that,’ is what I imagine Yusuph suavely told them, although five minutes later it was I who scrambled over bits of masonry and navigated the viewfinder to fulfil the girls’ request. There were demure thank you’s all around – again those Oriental eyes, whose coy innocence only went so far – and once they had left, Yusuph looked at me and, cool as a cucumber, lifted his arm to mime a brutal fellatio with his tongue-in-cheek.
The ‘tour’ began. It was tiring having him around. Half of what he said was nonsense, I knew. Although the guidebook described the mansion as restored, it looked far from it to my eyes. Scaffolding still surrounded bits of wall, there were planks of wood set at angles here and there, and a thick layer of limescale dusted the floor. Still, I could tell that it must have been very beautiful in the past. There was no glass on the windows, only wooden Levantine lattice work with little peekholes. Some panels, intricately carved, stretched at least ten feet above my head. The grand sitting room had two modest fountains on either side, sunk into ornate diamond-shaped recesses and finely decorated with geometric floor tiling. Above our heads, the women’s gallery all but whispered and murmured from out of the past.
Yusuph warned me to watch my head as we ducked low to enter a small domed chamber. ‘This was the place, ya know, where they had washings.’ It was the mansion’s bathhouse, and was unadorned but for the circular windows speckled across the dome; beams of light sliced the air between us. He entered into a story about Napoleon, who had used the mansion as his governor’s residence after he conquered the city. It was all very confused and incoherent.
‘People came here to, ya know, to yeah, fuckings.’ His smile was broader than is usually called for, his squinted eyes watery. He had become excited and impish. ‘And even once, ya know what they finds here? Even mens fuckings, you know mens with mens.’ His tone became serious at that, portending great wickedness. Then he brightened. ‘But it’s okay, ya know, mens with mens, womens with womens. It all okay with me!’ Everything was becoming very rehearsed. He laughed and, peering behind me, pointed at something on the ground, getting serious again. Going over, he picked up a small square tinfoil wrapper. I could see what it was, and things were clarifying. Gasping melodramatically, his mouth gaped wide. ‘What has been doing in here?’ he said with mock wonder.
I shrugged my shoulders and said I’d better be leaving. ‘Do you like sex?’ he said. Hmmm. Well, everyone likes sex, don’t they? ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ I was silent at his cheek. ‘Oh don’t worry!’ he cooed, aping seduction. ‘This only business. I have a girlfriend, but I do anything. I find mens on the chat room and, ya know, no problem.’
On the way out, upset, I got a cigarette from the lazy gatekeeper. I smoked and walked the crowded streets. This happened two days before my bus to Sinai. I was laid up in bed and left to ponder the odd collision of opposites that produced a boy like that. It wasn’t the morality or immorality of it that bothered me most, but rather the extent to which a person like him is a cultural enigma: part Coptic Christian, part hustler; part oriental street urchin, part gangsta rapper; selling carpets for his father by day, scouring the Internet for tricks by night; the flesh-pots of Egypt meet the Sunset Strip. He was a living example of the kind of traditional breakdown I’d been thinking about, and at the same time a sad foreshadowing of globalization’s savvy and soulless dark side. As a product of that civilization myself – a far more home-grown product of it – I had to wonder if I am partly responsible for what is happening to Cairo, and also if that dark side has found a home in me somewhere too.
The aspects of Cairo that most visitors find most offensive are the ones I found most charming. The medieval quarter, which apart from a jewelry or carpet shop is hardly visited at all by most tourists, provides hours of enchanted exploration to the traveler looking to be personally and culturally challenged. The dirt, the crowds, the squalor, and the livestock mingling amongst the vendor stalls, and even the incessant sales pitches from an endless stream of shady touts: all were part of its exotic charm and otherworldliness, together with the easy smiles of the Cairene children and men (never adult women, of course), whose lips were always ready with a sincere hello.
Cairo is pervasively religious as well, which those of us conditioned by secularism and an amorphous war on terrorism can find very unsettling. For me, however, the prevalence of religion there was precisely what made the city such a marvel and a joy. For example, conversations tend to begin abruptly on the street with a succinct 'Are you Muslim?' or, in the case of Christian Copts, with story after story of recent miraculous apparitions of the Virgin Mary. In this regard, Cairo seems to have retained a dimension hard to find in the West, where reminders of heaven's prerogatives are far fewer and more easily ignored. Not so in Cairo (and in most Muslim metropolises), where both the pious and impious are routinely confronted with the claims of conscience each time the call to prayer rings out from the city's fabled thousand minarets – even if the muezzin’s cry now comes from an audio cassette, and most residents respond with another bubbly hookah drag.
What had disturbed and ultimately exhausted me about Cairo, and which made me long for the monastery at Sinai, was far less obvious than smog or crowds. The city is tense; the whole civilization is tense – tense with the encounter between those two familiar and hackneyed poles of cultural opposition, variously labeled East and West, new and old, traditional and modern, nationalist and globalizing. Cairo's main physical divisions manifest this radical opposition, as if she were wearing it like a garment. To pass from globalizing Cairo, the part of the city built up along the east bank of the Nile, to what is called Islamic Cairo a bit further inland, is to go from night to day. The first was designed during the colonialist nineteenth century (and greatly expanded in the nationalist twentieth century), the second built by Saladin in the twelfth. The opposite journey is even more affecting, once the experience of the age and poverty of the medieval quarter has worked its magic and, however one interprets it, forced a change of perspective. As for the fully fledged globalized Cairo, where suburban compounds wall off from the rest of the city those Cairenes who are now integrated into the worldwide economy and culture, where flashy wealth and vulgar consumption reign – well, it hardly begs or deserves comment.
Islamic Cairo has captured the imagination of orientalists for over two centuries. Ever since Napoleon launched his Near Eastern adventure, when what had once been the world's most glorious medieval city re-entered the consciousness of a Europe poised for global empire, the old city has furnished a mental backdrop to the dreams of romantics seduced by sultry stories of oriental luxury and intrigue. The souks and crumbling madrasas, exquisite mosques and ornate Mamluk tombs, but also and more acutely the humble living spaces of the ordinary people and the vitality of their communities: for me, never before had an environment captured the ambience of the Middle Ages. As far as it is possible to imagine, life as it is lived today between Saladin's citadel and the northern necropolis must be as close to the life of a medieval city as one is likely to encounter. And it is precisely this life which sets old Cairo apart from the well-preserved medieval bits of Europe, whose old buildings might be better maintained, but only on the outside. The exterior of a Siena, a Vézelay or a Durham may look medieval, but its inner life is no longer so. Western Europe hasn't breathed the medieval spirit for many centuries, and someone looking for a window on to the Europe of powerful popes and chivalrous princes is likelier to find it in Egypt than in Italy or France.
So many features which must have been common sights in European cities but are unthinkable for them today are still present in old Cairo, which even now barely has internal plumbing or electricity. Decaying Ottoman sabils dwarf their modern equivalents, the small fountains that still supply water to a large segment of the population and which are paid for by the government in accordance with Islamic law. Whole neighborhoods of men and boys will crowd into a local shanty-café to gaze in rapt attention at a single television set, powered by illegally tapped electricity. One small cul-de-sac might contain a blacksmith's workshop in one basement, a stable for goats in another, and a small greengrocer in another, with the one-room flats above playing host to extended families of ten and even twenty, and the street below filled with clucking chickens and tray-loads of pita carried on the veiled heads of peasant women. Garbage trucks cannot squeeze down the narrow streets, so a scorned but invaluable underclass of rubbish collectors pushing dustcarts go from corner to corner gathering however much of the unbagged trash they can. The smell is often unbearable, but a thousand years ago it must have been a familiar one to travelers from the now-sanitized West.
Although these echoes of the past appeal to romantics and reactionaries, still all is not well in old Cairo. Desperation haunts its miles of winding streets and alleyways. It emanates from every hookah parlor, every porch, and every storefront. Collapsing reminders of a glorious traditional past contrast with recent efforts to salvage old buildings in the interests of tourism. These small islands of clean and calm amidst an ocean of deteriorating chaos only serve to reinforce the despair felt by the old city's residents, who still incline towards religion and tradition but whose ability to put them into practice is being undermined and made obsolete. Mosques which have been prayed in for centuries are out of bounds now as construction projects financed by foreign investors transform the old city into the fairy-land tourists from abroad want it to be. What was a thriving Sufi monastery two centuries ago is now scrubbed down and dolled up to provide commercial space for sellers of mass-produced Egyptian knick-knacks. A seventeenth-century mansion that would have once been a whole social organism in its own right is now a place for middle-class displays of Egyptian modern art. And everywhere throughout the old city, monuments and buildings are being renovated and reopened as fee-charging museums, which are a building's death-knell as far as genuinely lived-in architecture is concerned. Cairenes from the more prosperous parts of the city and foreign tourists can afford the ticket price and so their mania for an objectified past is satisfied. As for the people who live there, such places until recently and despite their decrepitude were still resonant with the spirit in which they were made, and provided Cairenes with their only links to a past that many still look to as a living source of inspiration, yet which is becoming harder and harder for them actually to feel or see. The onward march of progress transforms their neighborhoods, but not for their benefit. They are left behind to grow increasingly frustrated, desperate, and angry as they watch the things their ancestors bequeathed to them – both material and spiritual – being perverted beyond recognition.
Globalizing Cairo is also desperate, but its desperation is more familiar. It is the kind of desperation Westerners can see at home in any inner-city area where people try to scrape and claw their way up the socio-economic ladder. In fact, what would be the inner city in, say, New York, is simply downtown in Cairo (in terms of economics, not crime, which is hardly in evidence anywhere in Egypt). If it weren't for the remains of Egypt's Islamic past which are still very visible even in the modern city and which must be dealt with both personally and socially, there would be little to distinguish Midan Talaat Harb from Brick Lane. People there want the acceptance they think comes with cultural conformity to the West, both in terms of their nation as a whole and themselves as its citizens. And since the Egyptians are still Egyptians and thus forced to grapple with an ancient but still living historical tradition, the transition to the present is much more difficult, and gives rise to the exhausting tension which sped me on my way to Sinai. There are little hypocrisies everywhere, like a wife in a burka walking behind a clean-shaven husband in a trendy T-shirt and baggy jeans – where is the genuine tradition in such an arrangement, where the spirit behind the letter of the past?
Their nationalist sentiments require the globalizers to pretend that they are remaining truly Egyptian, yet the writing is everywhere on the wall. The modern city's youth betray the irreverence and cynicism common to globalized teens the world round. They think that to taunt a passing American with ‘Bush no good!’ is enough, as if such a simplistic political slogan can adequately purge the guilt, shame, and confusion which must result from their being caught in a cultural and psychological tug-of-war. In a way, I can see and admire the brave face they are putting on in their confrontation with the mysterious and powerful revolutionary forces that are steadily changing their world and their very selves. Yet they also betray a basic ignorance of the broad trends and ultimate destination; and ignorance can easily turn into acceptance and even complicity. For example, I was sitting and reading the best-selling celebration of the globalized world, Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, when I noticed the young Egyptian beside me, dressed in suit and tie and looking very much the well-oiled up-and-comer, reading the Arabic translation. I imagine that what I found disturbing and even horrifying in the book was for him a stirring rallying cry for future progress and prosperity.
Perhaps I have been overly simplistic. There aren’t really two kinds of Cairene, one religious and yearning for tradition and the other modern and striving for material prosperity. It is convenient to make hasty classifications, but someone in only one or the other of the two camps is very rare. In fact, the tension between Islamic and modern Cairo serves to illustrate a reality that is occurring inside the hearts and minds of every Egyptian. It is probably true than an old Cairene leans more towards tradition, but you’d be hard pressed to find one who doesn’t envy his prosperous neighbors downtown, regardless of what they sacrificed of true Muslim values to get there. Likewise, although that young man reading Friedman dreams of the day when Egypt takes its place alongside Western Europe as a country deserving economic respect (and of the money, the cars, the luxury, and the convenience that come with it), yet in his more thoughtful moments he surely wonders if it is worth the erosion of values, the sexual promiscuity, pornography, and general moral laxity which it also brings. If they have not already arrived, they are just around the corner, yet somewhere they make him doubt.
After ten days in Cairo my bowels were acting up, so my memories of the bus journey to the Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai are enveloped in a haze of achy drowsiness. My plan was to spend the whole of Lent at St Catherine's, the oldest continually inhabited Christian monastery in the world. I had been in and out of monasteries for years, but this would be my first experience of monasticism outside the West and my first time in an Arabic-speaking country. Though a Christian, I have always been fascinated by Islam, which for me has been like one of its women, as I've written somewhere before; it is veiled and mysterious, with shining eyes and a beauty vaguely discernible beneath layers of obscurity. I hoped seven weeks with Greek monks and Bedu tribesmen at the foot of Gabal Musa, the mountain of Moses, so close to the Muslim heartland and a crossroads of many faiths and civilizations, would shed some light on the Islamic question, with which I am inexplicably and inexorably fascinated.
The coach taking me there was typical of the well-traveled fleet of the East Delta Bus Company. Its original German owners had retired it long ago and the Egyptians, whose expectations of comfort during travel are not the same, no doubt bought it from them for a bargain. Old and banged up from the innumerable hot, dusty journeys it had made on the poorly paved (if paved at all) high desert roads of the Sinai Peninsula, the inside was tattered and everywhere marked with mysterious stains. In the aisle near the rear exit a dented aluminum container rocked and rolled about, and from it could be heard the loud sloshing of tepid tea, which sometimes even dribbled out of its lid, further dirtying an already sticky floor. A pushy hostess, probably in her thirties but maybe younger (Egyptians age faster than most), wearing an unlikely uniform of pink hot-pants and even pinker blouse and lovely in a malnourished toothless kind of way, hawked her meager wares: chips mainly, but also dates and chocolate bars, and of course the tea. She never took my polite refusals as the definitive answers I intended them to be; I assume her wages are somehow linked to the number of snacks she sells. Between my knees and the seat-back in front of me was negative space, and the overhead compartment was too small for hand luggage, so my lap had to bear the burden instead (or else my head the pain of falling baggage, which in my case would have been a typewriter). All this pressure on the legs cut off circulation from the lower half of my body, and whenever I emerged from a fitful nap I had to stamp out an awkward needle-pricked dance with my cramped feet, stifling an urge to cry out in frustration.
Egypt was wonderful and Cairo had been grand, but it was all beginning to wear on me. The congestion and density of the city, and its unparalleled levels of pollution, were at times unbearable, yet such irritants only scratch the surface of Cairo's real oppressions, which are far subtler. After all, one must be resigned to dirt and discomfort to endure the city at all.
Many were the tourists I encountered there who were not able to muster the required resignation. For travelers like them, the world beyond the predictability and orderliness of their everyday lives is an exotic spectacle to be enjoyed from a safe distance, a kind of giant movie set-piece providing an oriental ambience to what in the end will simply be another collection of family photos and anecdotes. It is very rare (and infinitely moving) to find a package tourist who allows the power of an ancient foreign civilization to touch him at the core of his being. Yet it happens: once, someone told me of one such woman who, standing before a Byzantine ruin, exclaimed in a reverent whisper like an awe-struck child, 'This is even better than Disneyland.'
But Cairo isn't really part of their itinerary anyway. People not predisposed to the true Orient only go there to visit the Pyramids, and in fact might spend three whole weeks in Egypt without having even one genuine encounter with the country's living heritage. To them Egypt is ancient Egypt, and evokes pharaohs, ankhs, and mummies; they care about temples half-buried in the sand, cheap reproductions of hieroglyph-covered papyri, and of course those Pyramids, astounding structures certainly, but also pickled, not really alive. Were that proverbial tourist – clad in Hawaiian shorts and baseball cap and with a newly bought digital camera slung around his neck, able to take thousands of pictures – were he to turn his back on the Pyramids and gaze instead on the city stretched out before him, a city of 20 million, a city of Muslims and alien Christians, a difficult city surely, but filled with inestimable hidden cultural and spiritual treasures; were he to do so and try his best take it in, then he would realize that Egypt did not end with an asp at Cleopatra's breast.