Moses in Reverse

We were slaves once in the land of the pharaoh

Passover Haggadah

Write to me, Mom, in Egypt

A ‘60’s Soviet propaganda song

Crossing Sinai – 40 years undone in 4 hours

“Old Moses was right: when it comes to crossing Sinai – go east and don’t look back.” This thought shot through my head when I saw “an armed guard attached exclusively to you” listed among the goodies promised on a one-day excursion from Eilat to Cairo. Yet it was too late. Once I let pyramids creep into my bucket list, even a threat to kick that bucket could not hold me back.

At 1 AM, I am dropped off at the Israeli border crossing near Taba, a patch of land Israel used to own after 1967, but had to return to Sadat as a result of the 1979 peace agreement and a subsequent arbitration 10 years later. A hundred steps across the no-man’s land, and I am greeted by a big sign: “Markhaba bikum fee masr” (“Welcome [to you] in Egypt”).

“Markhaba bikum fee masr”
“Markhaba bikum fee masr”

Two languorous young men in khaki uniforms sitting in the chairs outside are in no mood to budge at this ungodly hour. But the Egyptian border post with a collonade, much more imposing than the Israeli one, has several doors and I stop for fear of entering the wrong one, and who knows, being shot at without warning (just kidding – right?). The guards reluctantly wave me in the prescribed direction. A very slight bespectacled man is already rushing to my help. Somehow, he reminds me of a former Secretary General of the UN. This is Sheinouda, the runner on the Egyptian side, here to guide me through the bureaucratic intricacies of immigration into the Arab Republic. He is a namesake of the current Coptic pope, hence, a Copt himself. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the erstwhile head honcho of the UN and a butt of Dave Letterman’s jokes was also a Copt. Half a dozen or so indispensable formalities later I am free to enter the land of Egypt. Yeah, the “un-promised” land. “Joseph did it, and I can too,” I tell myself.

Unlike the enslaved Joseph, I am going to travel in style. I am met by a driver and another guy, young and burly, who takes the front passenger seat. It’s too dark to see what if any armaments he has. Nor am I thinking of what exactly he would do if his services as a guard were suddenly called for. I am too busy looking around, even though it’s pitch dark beyond a few street lights next to the post. The small black car has a sign in Arabic on the door: “Mab Egybt Limuzin” (“Map Egypt Travel” is the name of the Egyptian tour operator in the cartouche with the ancient “ankh” symbol in the middle; there is no “p” in Arabic). The back seat of this mini-limo is all mine – no other crazies could be found to keep me company on this trip.

"Mab Egybt Limuzin"
“Mab Egybt Limuzin”

When we drive off I look around for a while and catch a glimpse of a camel foraging in a large garbage bin by the roadside (gone by too quickly to take a picture). The road is very smooth, the night is very dark and the desert is very empty – I make myself comfortable ahead of a tough sightseeing day. (I was going to put a “no manna precipitation expected” joke here but decided not to)

We pass several checkpoints and a few indigenous rest places, but I only come to when the dawn cracks and we stop at “Sinai Rest House.” Mitla Pass, a critical point in the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973, is already behind us. The parking lot is full of tourist buses and vans. I wander among them discovering English tour companies’ names and whole phrases written on the vehicles and spelled in Arabic script. There are also packs of dogs and cats, the latter imaginatively spotted in the dun colors matching the surrounding desert.

Real Egyptian Mau cats? Probably

Real Egyptian Mau cats? Probably

While the tourists congregate around the tables outside, a few locals sit, smoke, and drink coffee inside. In the back, an exhibit on the history of the Suez Canal is the centerpiece. 140 years since its opening are soon to be commemorated. It occurs to me that I am about to enter a new continent – Africa. That moment passes unmarked – we cross the continental border in the tunnel under the canal. It’s called Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, but it looks exactly like the one named after Ted Williams of the Boston’s Big Dig fame. I wonder if the same company built both. After all, the Big Dig surpassed both the Pyramids and the canal as the costliest public works project ever (all in today’s money, of course). Not to mention that the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel also developed leaks soon after its completion.

The Suez Canal story
The Suez Canal story

We leave Suez Governorate and settle on the expressway to Cairo. Every kilometer or so, a board with Arabic writing is seen on the median strip. Koran verses perhaps – it’s passing too fast for me to tell. One of them is surely sitting on the famous 101st kilometer from Cairo. That’s where the IDF was stopped in its advance on October 21, 1973, by the tireless Dr. Kissinger shuttling between Moscow, Tel Aviv and Cairo. The good doctor went all out trying to prevent the annihilation of the Egyptian Third Army to avoid an irredeemable loss of face for Sadat. No trace of this event is marked on the road. That is not to say that the whole conflict has been forgotten. Quite the contrary, as I will discover later in the day.

Al-Qāhira – “The Paris of Egypt” (or is it Moscow?)

The only indications that the city is near are more frequent military installations with walls, barbed wire, and watchtowers, all properly manned. Finally, residential buildings become denser. Bus stops appear with clutches of people waiting, some in headscarves or dishdashas, depending on the sex of the wearer.

Business casual
Business casual

The buildings remind me of the Soviet construction in the 60s and 70s, and were probably built at that time too. As for the color… it reminds me of Paris, a little. When I first saw Paris almost 30 years ago, its characteristic mansard-topped manses lining the boulevards had black walls. Soot was covering pearly-grey original facades of the city. Getting rid of coal heat and sanding all walls had made for a much better impression when I returned many years later. In Cairo today, the basic color is dark grey, much like in the once gleaming white New Arbat Avenue in Moscow. It is ranging from moderately ugly to revolting rat-grey with sickly colorless patches.

Authentic “Cairo grey”
Authentic “Cairo grey”

The road is still a western style expressway, but now we are near the city center. An elaborate mosque is on the left. It’s the main and the largest one – An Nuur. It’s not very ancient, however, built in the 19th century. St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the Pope of this 2000-year old community is even newer, dating to 1968. There is even a Hindu temple, but that’s a fanciful mansion built by an eccentric Baron Empain, a Belgian, in 1911. It’s called Qasr Al-Baron – Baron’s Castle.

Baron’s Hindu folly
Baron’s Hindu folly

 

Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

 

Already in Taba the driver told me that I would meet my guide in the morning in Cairo.  Then in a tone of great importance he added: “It’s a girl. Her name is Suzy.” I suspected she would be an expatriate gone native. Suzy, however, is a round-faced, dark-haired vivacious girl, who speaks good but clearly accented English. She wears a black sweater and jeans, and not a trace of a headscarf. Her first task is to chaperone me through the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, or simply and grandly the Egyptian Museum. The collection was founded about 150 years ago by a Frenchman, Auguste Mariette. Frenchmen, Belgians – it surely feels like Paris here, doesn’t it. But first, we have to wait for the doors to open. We zoomed too fast through Sinai, after all. What took 40 years three millenniums ago takes only four hours now (plus two more hours on the African side).

Egyptian Museum
Egyptian Museum

I am wandering through the waiting crowd and the language I hear most is Russian. Several large groups are assembled around their Russian-speaking Egyptian guides. They consist predominantly of young couples, typically a burly guy and a girl in stilt-class high heels. All are scantily dressed (it’s 35C), belying an advice book on Middle Eastern customs which proclaims shorts unacceptable in public places in Egypt. Very few Egyptians are here, much less ones in headscarves. When I see a local boy with a girl whose head is covered, however, they walk holdings hands quite casually. This is yet another repudiation of the customs guidebook.

 

Russian tourists
Russian tourists

The museum is not very big, but it’s filled to the brim with iconic artifacts. The chief attraction is the enormously famous Tutankhamen section. The young ruler’s mask and coffins are equal in pop celebrity to Mona Lisa, and on close examination they live up to the hype. Yet some lesser known items, such as the pharaoh’s golden slippers and golden hawk figurines, are even more fascinating. I refuse to go to the special mummy room, but not because I fled from mummies in terror when I first saw them at the age of five. I am not afraid of them anymore, but I have seen plenty by now and I am reluctant to spend more time in their company. Unlike Milan fashion store windows, all mummies look the same to me. Besides, an additional ticket is required, and I am down on funds for I stupidly forgot to account for a hefty visa fee at the border. In compensation, I stumble upon a display of animal mummies – at no extra charge. There are crocodiles, pet dogs, cats and birds. But the most striking are rams wearing golden masks! Were sheep pharaoh’s favorite pets?

Beyond, rooms are filled with colossal and not so colossal statues of pharaohs and their sidekicks, famous and not so much, Old, Middle, New Kingdoms and through Greco-Roman times. Other rooms contain small painted figures of soldiers, rowers, laborers and farmers, all commandeered to attend to the afterlife needs of their buried masters. This anphilade reminds me of toy cities from the Christmas display at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, minus the glitter and the obligatory Elvis impersonator with a harp. The objects here are also several thousand years older.

To the pyramids!

Soldats, du haut de ces pyramides, quarante siècles vous contemplent.

Napoleon Bonaparte

 

Yes, that’s what he reportedly said on July 21, 1798, just before unleashing the Battle of the Pyramids. Which means roughly: “Dudes! Forty centuries are trying to diss you from the tops of these monsters.” Napoleon sailed to Alexandria and then fought his way through the Delta to get to the pyramid stand. I am nearing now the high point of my own campaign. I only need to cross the Nile and fight with the second half of the city traffic. Nominally, it’s the city of Giza on the other side, but in reality, it’s one huge messy megalopolis. The most prominent feature of Cairo traffic is the proliferation of legitimate U-turn spots on divided multi-lane thoroughfares. Suddenly, two or three lanes from the opposite direction are merging with three to five lanes of the oncoming traffic. You can almost hear the ominous screech as they all try to grind together to continue the flow. Unlike in India, these are not tiny, maneuverable auto-rickshaws. It’s all regular size cars, vans and trucks. My driver is a veteran of local road mores, but I tense up every time I see a large independent object zooming within an inch of my face.

Streets of Cairo

We are moving along the street parallel to the Nile embankment now. Suzy continues her guide duties started at the museum. She is hugely excited when pointing at the backs of five-star hotels lined up along the river. Having sampled the safest luxury hotel chain in India a year earlier, my level of awe is much more restrained. That chain was Taj. I expect to roll into a vast desert before discerning the grandest of all monuments, ancient or modern, somewhere on the horizon. Instead, mid-rise buildings gradually become low-rise, then hide behind a ten-foot high stucco wall on the right. A couple of triangular silhouettes stick out just above the buildings and trees. Their summits seem no higher than the glass cow raised on a giant cactus at the Hilltop Steakhouse on U.S. Route 1. These roadside attractions are pyramids of Cheops and Chephren – the two largest monolithic human-made objects in history.

Peek at a pyramid
Peek at a pyramid

At the ticket office I have an option to buy a special pass to go inside a pyramid. This time I cannot pass up, even though I am told there is nothing inside. Coming to the pyramids and not entering is like coming to Amsterdam and not inhaling. (Oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened to us, although not for lack of trying.) A huge parking lot behind the wall is crammed with buses, cars, horse carriages and a handful of camels. My personal limo takes me to the far end of the plateau, from which all three big pyramids are seen together. It’s a new road that caused complaints of hereditary camel-driving tour guides afraid for their all-terrain business. As an added insult, the Supreme Council for Antiquities is planning to build an electric tram to the pyramids and eliminate all other direct access to them. Seeing camels banned after 5000 years of service would surely cause pharaohs to roll in their sarcophagi, if any pharaohs were still left in them.

“Ships of the desert” – not gone yet
“Ships of the desert” – not gone yet

Now I am in the right place to take the obligatory tourist picture – I and the pyramids. Like Napoleon, I have reached the pinnacle, and like him I snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. His nemesis was Lord Nelson. Mine is my own butt. While stepping over a low stone wall to get a better view of the background for my glorious portrait, I sit on the camera dangling from my neck on a string. A crisp crackle of the extended zoom lens tells me that my camera is no more. My logistics planning is better than the Frenchman’s, however. I have an extra camera, albeit an analog one. Suzy agrees to test the picture position for me.

Suzy, the girl-guide

Suzy, the girl-guide

It’s time to come near a pyramid, Chephren’s in this case. Seen from close-up the surface of the pyramid is rougher than a mogul field for a freestyle skiing Olympic run. Only the snow moguls are smooth, while these bumps have serious edges. It might be possible to climb it, if permitted, but compared to the cleanly cut stairs of Maya pyramids, this climb would be no picnic. The Mayas designed their steps for the convenience of highly prestigious priest-executioner teams participating in well choreographed sacrifices. Egyptian priests were not required to climb to the top. Indeed, the accepted theory states that the pyramids were initially cased in smooth limestone which would have made climbing even harder. Instead of going up I intend to go down – into the pyramid. Taking pictures inside is strongly prohibited – cameras are confiscated, like for Lenin’s Mausoleum. I am at a loss why – at least in the Mausoleum there is still a mummy. The first inside passage slopes down. To advance I need to walk bent over, like the employees on the “7 ½” floor in the movie “Being John Malkovich.”  After a short horizontal stretch, the passage turns up – a bit easier on my back. At the end I come to a small chamber. It’s completely devoid of any decorations or ancient objects except for an old Arab in a dishdasha who sits in the middle and drinks coffee. No wonder they prohibit taking pictures. I have since read a doorstop-sized book on the secrets of the Giza pyramids. The only secret the book leaves unexplored is how they deliver coffee to this old Arab.

A mighty fortress is his... butt
A mighty fortress is his… butt

The next stop is the Sphinx. I grew up with sphinxes. Some of them were friends of mine. The oldest were real Egyptians and allegedly portraits of Akhenaton’s dad Amenhotep III. That would make them over 3000 old. Made out of Aswan granite these sturdy fellows endured the desert where they were buried in sand for millennia. Later, they were transported thousands of miles by ship and have now survived two centuries under the rain and snow of St. Petersburg to claim the crown of northernmost sphinxes in the world. Their older relative, the original one, has stayed in place, but fared less well. Due to its size, it stuck out of the sand and could not escape. As a result, it was used as a shooting target by the Mamlukes and lost its nose and stylized pharaonic beard (the story of Napoleon’s target practice is a legend).

I approach the Sphinx and find that it has surprising similarities to two other world famous objects. Like Taj Mahal, it is much bigger than I expected.  Like Venus de Milo it has a very rough and unartistic backside. The part of the beast that embodies both of these qualities is its enormous butt. It takes a while to walk all the way around it and most of the time what you are looking at is not its face. On the other side of the colossus, a woman operator with professional looking equipment is filming a guy with a mike in front of the Sphinx. He is speaking in English, finishing his reportage by saying that it is for Al Jazeera.

Live, reporting 4500 year old news – for Al Jazeera
Live, reporting 4500 year old news – for Al Jazeera

The excursion I signed up for normally includes a visit to a perfumes factory. Seeing that I was male and alone, they wisely spared me that chore, without even knowing that I am deaf-mute to smells. They dragged me, however, to a papyrus shop (a quota is a quota). A standard spiel in a third world crafts outlet starts with a demo of the corresponding ancient technology with the most lavish sample product – in this case a full wall sheet of papyrus with scenes of pharaonic frolicking. It finishes with something more portable and affordable – a personalized cartouche with your own name in hieroglyphs, just as if you were a pharaoh yourself. But being like Napoleon and Moses is quite enough for me and I steadfastly refused additional regalia. The perfume trap pops up unexpectedly later. When I turn my head away from the Sphinx, I see a place that I may have escaped. The sign says Palace of Perfumes “Ramses” Gamal el Faed – all in pure Russian!

Gamal el Faed and his palace
Gamal el Faed and his palace

The Miracles of Mar Girgis (Old Cairo)

On a standard one-day tour of Cairo the last stop is the main oriental bazaar – Khan Khalili. I have decided to see something unique for Cairo instead – the Coptic quarter. It’s called Masr al-Qadima – Old Cairo. This is indeed the oldest extant part of the city, and Copts are the oldest link to Ancient Egypt. To get there, we need to go back and cross the Nile again. On the way, I ask Suzy if she works only as a guide or does something else. I get the answer that stuns me – until I recall that Nasserian Egypt implemented Arab socialism: the government prohibits anybody from having more than one job! This is of course to assure that everybody has a job (with the possible exception of the untidy camel drivers by the pyramids). I wonder what measures are taken to enforce this law. Somehow, I am not sure the number of working people in Egypt is exactly equal to the number of jobs. But then scribes, aka bureaucrats, were already the main glory of Ancient Egypt. According to the most celebrated contemporary Egyptian author, the nobelist Naguib Mahfouz, they still remain so. No doubt they are valiantly enforcing laws such as this.

Suzy also reveals that she is “Egyptian Orthodox.” It sounds a little confusing to me until I realize that she means “Coptic.” This is not related to the Eastern Orthodox Church from which the Copts split in the 5th century due to theological differences (more accurately, they were expelled as Monophysite heretics). But Suzy prefers this terminology. She asks me what denomination I belong to. This turns out to be a difficult question. Many people I had asked for advice were skeptical about the wisdom of going to Egypt while Jewish. Even more unanimously they counseled against advertising that condition if I go. Now, at the moment of truth, it takes me a few seconds to come up with an answer. “I am a non-believer,” I say. Technically, this is true, but just as clearly not the whole truth. I am not sure afterwards whether to pat myself on the back for wit under pressure or self-castigate for chickening out. Since I am an American, the answer is fine with Suzy. I don’t know if she has ever dealt with Israeli tourists. She has never traveled to Europe it turns out (no need to even ask about Israel).

The color of Old Cairo is a pleasant light tan, quite different from the rest of the city. We start at the main attraction – Al-Muallaqah, the Hanging Church, named this way for spanning the remains of ancient Roman towers. An open air pathway between the entrance and the main sanctuary is adorned with bright mosaics. On the first, only one of the four figures does not have a halo, and that is a donkey. The rest are the Holy Family. Suzy explains to me that all four used to live under this very church – in a cave. Ah, yes, of course, the Flight into Egypt! So that’s where they ended up in Cairo. I ask Suzy how this particular cave was identified with the story. “Lots of documents,” she says.

Three saints and a donkey
Three saints and a donkey

The next mosaic is much more populous, but only one ethereal personage merits a halo there. That is apparently a local small business owner called Simeon. He deserves the VIP treatment because he helped to do something here that trumps most deeds reported in the Gospels. He engineered movement of a mountain.

What does it take to convert a caliph – a story within a story.

In the years 972-975 CE, there was a caliph in Cairo named Al-Muizz. He lived way before political correctness and liked to entertain himself by setting up dogfights – among minority clerics. Once, he summoned Pope Abraham of the Copts and a Jew named Yakub Ibn Yusuf Ibn Killis and ordered them to debate religion. Pope Abraham won handily (this is a Coptic story, you realize). But the wily Jew thought up a clever comeback. “Your scripture says that by just exercising your faith you can move a mountain [see Matthew 17:20]. So how about it?” “Yes, how about it?” chimed in the Caliph. The pope’s position obliged him to confirm the claim.  Delighted Al-Muizz allowed the pope three days for home preparation or his head was off. The situation looked more and more like one of those impossible errands Ivan-the-Fool of Russian fairytales was typically asked to do (he probably already existed at that time). Of course, no magic horse or wolf was needed in this case. The Virgin herself stopped by, but rather than telling what to do directly, she sent the miracle study committee to look for a particular tanning booth at the bazaar (that was for tanning cow hides, not aspiring models). The proprietor of the booth, one St.Simeon, taught the clerics some nifty little incantations and special ways to make the sign of the cross. Lo and behold, it worked like a charm in front of the caliph and the rest of the dumbfounded public – the mounten lifted up and floated a bit without any visible machinery. Al-Muizz immediately made preparations for his own conversion and baptism (it’s a Coptic story, in case you forgot again) and followed through in short order at a specially constructed font that still exists. It’s called Baptistery of the Sultan (there are surely lots of documents about its authenticity too).

Weight-lifting Coptic style

I was unable to find a non-Coptic biography of Al-Muizz that would mention such a conversion. I had no trouble, however, discovering that the Jew Yaqub had converted to Islam years before serving the caliph, which was surely a shrewd career move on the way to viziership. Incidentally, he later founded Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the top Islamic institution of higher learning still very much in existence today. Among its future lecturers was Mūsā ibn Maymūn, aka, Maimonides.

The movable mountain, too, now firmly in place is still found nearby. It’s called Muqattam and was curiously in the news recently. A Coptic “caste” (for lack of a better term) called Zabbaleen living in that district has been handling most of Cairo’s garbage collection. They recycle the non-food components and breed pigs to deal with the food part. Pigs act as environmentally friendly waste disposers (although I don’t know if they would pass the latest eco-correct muster). At the same time, they serve as food providers to the Zabbaleen. This heart-warming idyll was shattered in the spring of 2009 by the international bogey-beast – the swine flu. The government of the Arab Republic, in its indefatigable pursuit of people’s well-being, went straight to the root of the problem. To fight this un-Egyptian plague they ordered the extermination of the pigs (it’s swine flu, you see). I don’t know how the Zabbaleen cope, but stray dogs have had no complaints with the government actions. From what I have seen, they have stepped up to the plate and right into the pigs’ hooves (how is that for a garbled metaphor).

Trying hard…
Trying hard…
…but not hard enough

Inside the Hanging Church a striking multi-colored stone pulpit divides the sanctuary in the middle. Multi-culturally aware Suzy informs me with pride that although women and men occupy two opposite sides during worship, unlike Jews and Muslims they are not fully segregated. Along the wall sit relics of some famous personages. The Coptic Church was founded in Egypt by St. Mark the Evangelist. 800 years later his body was stolen by Venetians who made a pretty good use of their acquisition in the following 1000 years. They even built a basilica to keep the valuable booty. In the 20th century, Pope Paul VI returned some of the pieces – from one St. Mark’s basilica to another.

Mar Markus ar-rasul al-batriark al-awwal (St.Mark the apostle and the first patriarch)
Mar Markus ar-rasul al-batriark al-awwal (St.Mark the apostle and the first patriarch)

St. Mark was the first Coptic pope. Images of other popes are on the wall, including pictures of the current pope Sheinouda III with Sadat and Mubarak. Regretfully, this has not provided enough protection for the Copts: a month after my trip, attacks on Coptic monasteries and churches by Muslim mobs have been reported at several locations in Egypt.

St. George also has some of his body parts under glass in the church. He is known locally as Mar Girgis, and his name is given to the subway station and to the whole neighborhood.

Hanging Church courtyard
Hanging Church courtyard

Navigating the narrow alleys of Old Cairo we finally come to the place I have been waiting for – the Ben Ezra Synagogue.  It was bought from the Copts by Abraham Ben Ezra in 882 CE and served as a house of worship for the already mentioned Maimonides, among others. It was also where documents not subject to destruction had accumulated for several centuries – the famous Genizah of Cairo. I feel well prepared for this encounter. My tropical khaki hat so useful for riding camels and elephants under the punishing Hindustani sun is with me, thus I will not need to look for a borrowed headcover here. There is a guard and a metal detector at the entrance, but nobody is wearing hats inside and none are apparently required. It’s not really a synagogue, it’s just a museum without a single Jew. There are no signs or mentions of the Genizah anywhere, and Suzy also does not know anything about it. Five other synagogues still remain in Cairo but those are simply closed: no local Jews are left, and how many Jewish sights do you need for tourists?

Ben Ezra synagogue
Ben Ezra synagogue

Naguib Mahfouz in his novel Midaq Alley described a different scene more than 60 years ago. Arab girls of the poor street of the title dream of a life of independence, clean jobs with nice clothes, and freedom to go out, “just like Jewish girls.” There were enough Jewish girls around to be role models back then.

Canaan or bust

The official tour is over. Suzy is eager to beat the rush hour crowds and jumps into a subway car. My personal limo is also ready to swim with the afternoon flow of the megalopolis. We need to pick up our guard for a trek back across Sinai. As I find out later the requirement to have guards for organized tours on this route is another regulation by the Egyptian government. A jobs stimulus of sorts, as well as a PR move – with me as a stimulating employer.

Where is this MiG from?
Where is this MiG from?

 

We pass a solemn cream-colored cylindrical building on the right. In front of it are camouflage-painted MiG fighters, large caliber guns and military flags. The sign says Banurama kharb uktubir 1973” (1973 October War Panorama). This is a monument to the Egyptian “victory” in the Yom Kipur War. October 6th is now a national holiday in Egypt. Kids with parents or school groups are brought here to be administered a dose of official patriotism. I would be curious to know how far beyond the 6th day of October the story in the panorama extends. Somehow, I don’t think that October 21st is included. Too bad my itinerary does not allow for a stop here.

“Banurama kharb uktubir 1973” (War “victory” monument)
“Banurama kharb uktubir 1973” (War “victory” monument)

We have to stop, however, on the outskirts of Cairo under an interchange bridge to wait for the security guard who has been less lucky with the traffic. Hany, the driver, takes advantage of a break. He knows somebody called Jack in California. He wants me to direct any American interested in having a reliable driver in Egypt to email Jack to give business to Hany. I assure him that he will be the exclusive beneficiary of any such inquiries. Our burly protector finally arrives and we head east.

The song about Soviet builders of the Aswan Dam, quoted in the epigraph and sung almost fifty years ago by a popular crooner Mark Bernes, insisted that its hero “did not want to go back to Russia yet” out of desire to leave even more of a trace on this “yellow and mysterious Nile.” They were apparently far from the first contractors on a grand Egyptian project. In a recent interview, Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities, revealed that the latest archeological finds near the pyramids confirm that the laborers were not slaves (this, by the way, is the same guy who is persecuting the pyramid camel-drivers). The main proof was some builder burials uncovered in the vicinity – too posh for slaves. It seems very important somehow to make that point about ancient Egypt lately. One could only guess why. Maybe Moses, too, was just a dissatisfied contractor foreman. 

I have no problem leaving after a tough day. Granted, I am returning not to Siberia but to the original “land of milk and honey”, to quote an influential authority – Mr. Yahweh himself. Once again we drive through the tunnel under the canal. It is actually named after the general who commanded the engineering unit of the Egyptian Third Army. He was setting up bridges for the crossing operation, a major component of its success, but was killed on October 7th and did not live to see the army’s dire predicament two weeks later. Another stop in the desert – a rest station for the locals – boasts a row of colorful hookahs outside. Apparently, the station people are taking a break from smoking at the moment.

Waiting for their masters
Waiting for their masters

By midnight we reach Taba. From time to time, Bedouins make holes in the barbed wire protecting the border somewhere nearby. This is no security threat – it’s done simply for business. They smuggle prostitutes from Russia into Israel. Eilat has become a completely Russian town in recent years and a few Slavic smuglees would be quite inconspicuous there. For my money, the town deserves to be renamed South Sochi. Israel has recently announced plans for a more serious border wall near Eilat, but a surplus of sex workers may not be their main concern.

I am hoping my border crossing will be easier than the Bedouin variety, and indeed, the border formalities go quickly and smoothly. Too smoothly, it turns out. The last checkpoint before the exit from the guard building is empty. There is nobody even to ask. After some hesitation, I keep going. A hundred meters further I am almost out of Egypt when a middle-aged uniformed guard sitting in a chair by the border line demands documents. He is awake enough to detect that some extra stamp is missing from my papers and sends me all the way back to the building. This time the chekpoint is manned, all the right magic symbols are affixed, and I am finally back in Canaan. Moses did not have a good map or a GPS. Instead, he relied on a prerecorded voice in a bush. As a result, he grossly overshot his target destination and ended up in the Hashemite (then Midianite) Kingdom of Jordan, from which he was unable to escape even after forty years of asking around (and he did not always ask nicely). I have been in and out of the friendly kingdom already, so I am not making a similar mistake, even though it only takes an extra mile here to cross the wrong border. I zero in on Hotel Dan named after one of the Moses-led tribes. It is currently full of aged competitors in the all-Israel Sportiada.  They had moved to the promised land from exotic places like Moldova and take part in assorted athletic events all over Eilat – like the bridge tournament right in the hotel. But that story is for another day.

Out of Egypt
Out of Egypt
My courageous Israeli tour agent
My reliable Egyptian (Coptic) chauffeur