Letter from Cairo

It’s strange, you know! Those veiled women – I find them attractive. I really do. That was last week in Egypt. My traveling companion, Pandelis, a journalist from Thessaloniki, uttered this in all seriousness. Can I quote you on that next Monday in my column? I asked. Well, you can quote me as saying I was misquoted, he replied with some irritation. How can you find women that wear long black robes, face veils and the like arousing? They remind me of our completely unsexy pious, Greek Orthodox women, I countered. Our Egyptian driver, a student at Cairo University, entered the conversation. You know, the dress code is a matter of culture rather than religion. The Koran merely states that women should cover their heads, the way Catholic women do when they enter a church. It also says that both men and women should dress modestly. You Westerners are so filled with misconceptions. And such ignorance too, added Mustafa, a travel agent.Since you started on the business of sex, let me inform you that the Koran strongly urges that husbands should always be sure that their wives have experienced pleasure during lovemaking. How long did it take your Christian world to get around that aspect of marital responsibilities? A day later, Aicha, a student at the American University of Cairo elaborated: The Taleban in no way represent traditional Islamic thinking or behavior toward women. There is, for instance, a Koranic verse that promotes the education of women. The Prophet Mohammed’s own first wife – so well portrayed by your Irene Papas in a Libyan-funded film – was a businesswoman, and in our Islamic culture women go to school, drive cars, participate in politics, you name it. Pandelis Savvidis and myself had both been invited to attend the Mediterranean Travel Fair in Cairo. Egypt, where tourism is a key foreign currency earner, seeks to make the MTF its bourse. There was considerable Greek participation. After a tangible tourism boom during the first half of this year, the fact that the media have, from the first, been making allusions to ‘Middle Eastern terrorists’ will no doubt affect tourism to and from our region, lamented a local travel agent. We’re not panicking, but of course we are anxious. We don’t know exactly what will happen or how the public will react to it. When one thinks about it, not even the brainiest scholars who appear night after night on Greek TV really know where we are heading. Inevitably, wherever we end up, concerns are increasing about what it will be like when we get there. And of course, when I say get there, I do not mean places such as paradisaical Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea, the mysterious Luxor or the pyramids. The way matters are right now, those seem to be the safest places. It is dangerous to generalize about Islamic nations. Influenced by ancient traditions and current politics, the culture of every country is invariably different. While I was in Cairo, a colleague lectured me that less than 25 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabs; less than 2 percent of the world’s Muslims could be called fundamentalist. Nowadays, there are fewer fundamentalists in Egypt than there used to be a decade ago. Controls are strict, and Egyptian state radio has reduced broadcasts of old songs exhorting Arabs to fight to recover Jerusalem from Israel. Tolerance is an acquired taste – it is not innate. You build tolerance. When the pope visited Egypt last year, he used the Arabic phrase for Peace be with you in his airport speech, stressing at the same time the need for tolerance. To do harm, to promote violence and conflict in the name of religion, is a terrible contradiction and an offense against God, the pope warned. Coptic Orthodox Christian Hanna Wafaa, a travel agent in Greece, reminded me that Jesus Christ sought refuge from Herod’s persecution in Egypt and stressed his country’s track record of religious tolerance. (Theological disputes drove Coptic Christians to break with other churches in 451. They are now a separate branch of the Orthodox Church. However, there is a Greek Orthodox patriarch for Africa, based in Alexandria). God seems to play a notable role in a world that keeps replaying the images of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the World Trade Center. Didn’t George Bush the elder declare that the US Marines he dispatched to Somalia in December 1992 were doing God’s work and hence cannot fail? But others, too, obviously believe they are doing God’s work in Africa and Asia. During my stay in Cairo, I asked several Arabs if bin Laden was popular with the young. Most of them looked at me as though I had questioned the next day’s sunrise. Don’t write that. It is not correct! an Egyptian journalist told me when I mentioned I was going to use this observation. Why not? It is my own undeniable experienced, I pleaded, with an air of apologetic interest. The joke is the Egyptians aren’t Arab at all. The Arabs conquered Egypt and stayed. But so have a lot of other races. The Copts, who you mentioned before, have no Arab blood at all, while everyone else is a mixture. The Egyptians used to be contemptuous of the Arabs. In fact, their word for Arab means a nomad, a wild man, you know. I did not know. Throughout the ages, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, French and British influences have all contributed to the country’s multilayered mystique. Egypt’s recent history has been characterized by dramatic change – from a monarchy to socialism to an open-market economy in less than 50 years. Greeks and Egyptians both have so much in common! Dr. Mamdouh el-Beltagy, tourism minister, observed to me (or did he perhaps commiserate with me?), adding that there should be an effective collaboration on tourism. People used to visit Egypt to check out its monuments. Now they are checking into them, since gorgeous hotels like Cairo’s Mena House (where the Travel Fair invited us to a glamorous reception) and the Marriott Palace Hotel were both royal residences in the past, and are now registered as historic buildings. Cairo has changed from a 19th-century French-British provincial colonial capital surrounded by a Kasbah to a glittering 18-million modern city, only partially surrounded by a Kasbah. The country has some extremely beautiful hotels, most of them under world-class international management. And Egypt Air is one of the friendliest companies, which flies at reasonable times, as opposed to Olympic Airways, whose flights are somewhere between midnight and the very early morning hours. With the whole globe in a war mood, the tourist industry needs to unite and rebuild the trust in one of the greatest industries in the world, one that us Greeks – and Egyptians too – so manifestly depend on. There are still repercussions on tourism as a result of the fact that the attacks are still being shown over and over on television, marking memories more deeply that any press statements ever could. But what’s done is done, as they say here in the Middle East, looking sadly at one another. Such is Allah’s will.

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