We were not thinking about food when we decided to go to Egypt, although drink was on my list. My roommate and I were living in Tunis in 1980, where the school break at the end of January was rainy and cold. Egypt sounded dry and warmer. I also fancied having a birthday in Egypt. I would be 22, and I thought it might be easier for two women to have a celebratory drink there than in Tunis.
It was my roommate’s idea to go. Her two-year teaching contract in Tunis was nearing its end and she did not want to miss seeing the pyramids and the cultural center of Arab civilization before leaving the Middle East. I was only a student, and I was broke, but she needed a traveling companion and gave me a deal I couldn’t refuse.
What I knew about Egypt came mostly from the Bible. To me it was the land of plagues and miracles and refuge, a birthplace of agriculture and granaries. I was a farm girl and envisioned Pharaoh’s dream in the Book of Genesis—fat cows of plenty, grazing by the glittering Nile, unaware that the starving cows of famine were coming up behind them.
I was also a journalism student, and the chance to be in Egypt in the wake of the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty signed the previous March was too good to pass up. Relations between Egypt and Israel were “normalizing.” I didn’t plan to be anything but a tourist and had no idea what I might see, but I could at least feel like an eyewitness to history.
We left on a Sunday, January 27, and passed over Libya on the short flight along the North African coast. Below we saw the dry, tan continent. Then a green ribbon of vegetation appeared, bisected by the glinting river. Jen had her eyes glued to the pyramids as they appeared west of the green ribbon. She had a long list of things to see and guidebooks in her suitcase.
We descended into the city of Cairo, east of the river, not white like Tunis but the color of brown sugar, sunk in a haze of dust. Tunis was a city of a million, Cairo had 11 million. It was impossibly huge and oppressively loud. The military presence was overwhelming, men in khaki topped with green or black berets. People spoke to us in English instead of French. Our cab driver welcomed us enthusiastically, repeating the names of Sadat, Carter, and Begin, and the word peace.
Cairo was not peaceful! Jen had picked out the old colonial Hotel Viennoise on 11 Mahmoud Bassyuni Street, not far from Tahrir Square and the river, and we found the whole building vibrating with the sound of steel striking steel—Eastern Desert Drilling at work on a construction project in downtown Cairo.
We spent the next two days criss-crossing the city and taking short trips to the desert’s edge. We walked around the Giza pyramids and Sphinx, majestic but battered, absorbing their scale. Jen rode a camel and I rode an Arabian horse. We tracked down a friend of her family who had lived for years in Egypt to take us on a windy, early-morning tour of the Saqqara pyramids miles south of Giza. We drank tea in a red tent and saw the tombs of sacrificial bulls.
A few blocks from our hotel we spent hours in the Egyptian Museum, massive, jam packed with mummy cases, idols, statues, beds and chariots, jugs and swords, busts, animals of stone, gold, alabaster, wood, hieroglyphics, the Rosetta stone. A cab took us to Old Cairo to see the church of St. Sergius, where the Holy Family was said to have lived after their flight to Egypt, out of Herod’s reach. We saw the Coptic Museum and the Islamic Art Museum and the Citadel. We climbed to the top of the hill to see the great mosque of Mohamed Ali overlooking the city, then back down to the mosque of Sultan Hussan at the bottom. The sheer size of the city was felt in each call to prayer, with so many more minarets and voices than in Tunis, projecting across the miles of districts and neighborhoods.
I had not realized my birthday would share winter break with the Mouled, birthday of the Prophet, a holiday not celebrated widely in Tunisia. In Egypt, the city was ablaze with lights that looked to us like Christmas. We took a cab ride to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, strung with colored lights in wild profusion, and got lost for hours in the shops and smells of foods and incense and spices, among children, and women in black, and robed men. We bought dates when we got hungry and returned to our hotel in the dark.
One night we walked arm in arm from our hotel to the Nile. It was a half-moon night, warm and clear and pleasant. Between banks of softly swaying palm trees, the dark river moved silently northward. We paid 50 piasters and rode to the top of the Cairo Tower, up 15 floors to a bar where Jen drank a Pepsi and I had a brandy just to say I did.
At dawn heading south out of Cairo on a train, the ground rushing past looked like Eden, lush and green, cool palms against the glittering horizon. I saw cattle, fat and thin. As the day wore on the sun glared over plots of ground, human figures bent over black soil, walking children carried parcels wrapped in cloth, donkeys pulled loaded wooden carts. It was dark when we disembarked in three-thousand-year-old Luxor in a press of hawkers, a mass of human faces and voices and movement, the whinny and clop of black horse-drawn cabs in the warm night and dim light that seemed to flicker. The air and all of us were dry and dusty. A Western movie could have been shot on the spot. Lying in a hotel that night after a harrowing search for a room, Jen and I were exhausted in the sudden silence, wondering if it was a mistake to leave Cairo.
But it wasn’t. We spent the next three days in the valleys of kings and queens, crossing the Nile on rafts among boats loaded with sugar cane, riding donkeys through ruins of temples and cities and tombs. We ate little and I recorded and remember none of it; our senses were filled with sunlight and wind and history. On rough beds we slept soundly.
A rickety train, windows crooked in their sashes, carried us even farther south to Aswan. There we stayed in another plain hotel, spending our money to see the dam that had drowned villages and temples and delivered electric power to Egypt. We took a boat ride to walk in a rescued temple, moved to a high island when the dam flooded its original site.
It was in Aswan that I turned 22. While Jen went to shop, I walked to the grand old Cataract Hotel and ordered coffee on the terrace and wrote a letter to my parents. The sky was azure, the Nile gleaming, palm trees framing the view. The china cup and saucer were perfectly shaped and balanced, and the coffee was jet black, intense and smooth. I had not anticipated such coffee, so close to its source. I had never drunk anything that good.
Photos: top, a sugar cane boat on the Nile near Karnak at sunset; center, resting among the ruins near Luxor, where color has been preserved in a spot shaded from intense sunlight; bottom, view from the terrace of the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. Gayla Marty, 1980.