Selling America: Michele's Letter Home

Merhaba Greg,

My name is Michele Lupowitz, and I am a Fulbright Scholar teaching in Istanbul this year. I have just returned from a week's vacation in Egypt and thought you might be interested in reading an excerpt from a letter to the family about being an American in Egypt, which I will print below.

As you can see from my concluding paragraph, I certainly am enjoying my stay in Turkey. People are hospitable, friendly, and gracious. Rarely do I feel hostility here. There is frustration over U.S. foreign policy (more vehemently expressed by fellow American teachers than Turkish), but Turks seem to separate foreign policy from individual Americans, something I did not feel in Egypt.

I am not sure I would make a good interview — Ernie Tucker is the showman, very well spoken and knowledgeable.

Observations from Egypt:

There are army guys with guns, machine guns, everywhere. They are at the train stations, in the parking lots, outside the hotels and museums, around every monument and temple, on the trains, and there are road blocks along the roads. They would stop our Lady Egypt tour van and ask questions. Our guides had to say we were from Australia or Canada because British and American tourists are supposed to have an armed guard in every car. Yeah, that would make it a fun vacation. There are soldiers spaced every so often along every highway. I wonder, is that due to outside threats, or is it to intimidate fellow Egyptians. Tina asked Ahmed, our guide in Cairo, if he could change one thing about his country right now, what would he change. His answer was personal freedom. The government supports the restrictions of Islam. Islamic religious law regulates everyone's life. It is against the law to make love if you are not married. You can be jailed. And I have a feeling jail in Egypt is not at all like jail in the U.S. We asked if you could be arrested for speaking out against the government, like Orham Pamuk in Turkey, and he said no, there were opposition views in the newspaper, but somehow, I really felt that only mild opposing views were tolerated. I always felt like there was a tension, that at any time some cop might harass. On my last day in Cairo, at the Hilton, a guard actually gave me the runaround. Just to see if he could intimidate. I never felt comfortable walking anywhere by myself. There are few women on the streets in general — those that are are in their cover-up garments. Tina was sick for a day or so on our trip. Ordinarily, I would explore by myself. I never felt comfortable doing that in Egypt.

In the bazaars and stores we are told not to say we are American. For Americans, the prices are doubled and tripled before the bargaining begins. We actually went to a restaurant where the English menu was priced differently than the Arabic. Like the Turks, the Egyptians love to bargain, expect to bargain. I am uncomfortable with bargaining. I am used to Dillard's and Mervyn's, with a set price and wait for a sale. Unlike the Turks, some shopkeepers were rude. When they weren't, I often felt they were pretending friendliness. It was weird. When we found someone real, we usually stayed and bought from them.

There is a simmering anger or resentment — all these "wealthy" tourists coming to see the remnants of Egypt's glorious past — resentment that it is not glorious now. Blame laid on the foreigners who repeatedly overtook Egypt — Greece, Rome, the Turks, England, France. They do not like Americans. They hate the Jews. They claim the pyramids were not built by slave labor as the Jews say, but by farmers who worked for the pharaoh in the off season. A partial truth, perhaps. Talk about rewriting history. I looked up Nubia on the web when I got home. Nubia stretched from Aswan along the Nile half way into present day Sudan. (Most of their homeland is now beneath Lake Nassar.) Their history recounts constant raids by the Egyptians stealing their land and enslaving their people. When a new pharaoh came to power from a different political-religious party than the previous pharaoh, they would destroy all mention of the previous pharaoh in the hieroglyphs, topple their temples and monuments, try to erase the history of their existence. Apparently, they are still doing that.

The temples and tombs are covered every square inch with fabulous artwork, hieroglyphs and pictographs telling the story of the gods, their relationship with the pharaoh-soon-to-be-a-god, and the battles that brought the pharaoh fame and riches. They kept lions, starved them before doing battle with their enemies, and released them on the enemy troops. The pharaoh would personally kill enemy prisoners by hammering a wedge into their skull. When the slave workers were finished building the pharaoh's tombs in the Valley of the Kings, they would be taken into the desert and killed en masse in the name of keeping the existence of the valley secret. (Which of course, it was not. Tombs were raided within days or months of burial.) They used magic tricks and illusion to convince the populace that the pharaoh was divine and to keep them in a state of fear and compliance. I have trouble reconciling the stunning art and architectural achievements with the stunning brutality, and wonder why societies do not, for the most part, enjoy the arts without war and exploitation. Including ours.

There is a huge gulf between rich and poor in Egypt. Families desperate for someplace to live have moved into ancient grave yards. Their kitchen tables are often the sarcophagus of the long dead. We saw people living in half-built houses. I could not tell if they had fallen down or were never finished. Garbage is everywhere. Children were on the streets, in rags, selling lemons or pita bread. On the cruise boat on the Nile, children would row up to us and ask for chocolate or euros (money). They would collect whatever the passengers were willing to part with, even empty plastic water bottles. I remember a phrase I heard from a Native American speaking at a conference: "picturesque poverty." It rang in my ears as I snapped my photos.

Not everyone is poor. There is an element of money. Not sure about middle class. We passed many adobe cities with dirt roads and houses topped with satellite dishes! The ladies were washing mats out on the banks of the Nile. Farmers still cut crops with a sickle, tie huge clumps up with twine, and pile it on their mule to cart into town or into storage areas. We saw donkey carts being used to haul produce everywhere from the villages to Cairo. And we saw farmers and children relaxing in the fields, fishing in the Nile, drinking tea on the sidewalks.

Nassar is viewed with respect and gratitude as the man who brought Egypt back from the conquerors and a puppet king, and gave Egypt a republic. He thumbed his nose at outside powers who tried to control Egypt like a puppet. He took land from the wealthy and made landowners of the sharecroppers. Ahmed's father was one such farmer. He is the first in the family line to actually own the land he works on. He is very proud of that. His goal was to send at least one son to college. Ahmed, the oldest, is that son. But now Ahmed lives in the big city and does not observe the traditional ways. It is a sad point for both. Ahmed wants a modern, working wife. He wants to travel, and to one day open a store of his own, selling art and historical items.

The guides are all well educated in their field, speak English well, and are excited and passionate about their history and their country. They were all about Seth's age, 27 or 28. Trying to make a middle class for Egypt and for themselves.

I left Egypt with my mind and heart a whirl of emotions. Tina and I did not interpret things in the same way. She claims not to have felt the hostility I felt all around me. She thought that people seemed happy and satisfied with their lives and their families, and that material possessions don't guarantee happiness. Picturesque poverty.

Back in Turkey, I feel so much more relaxed. I never feel threatened here. There aren't armed guards every 10 feet. The taxi driver and I piece together a conversation using his 10 words of English and my 10 words of Turkish and a lot of hand signals. It's friendly. His friendliness seems sincere. I feel at peace, at home, relaxed.

May opportunity, prosperity, and dignity come to all in this life-time so that we might finally have peace.

— Michele