Egyptian Ghost Stories

We were blithely floating on a felucca along the Upper Nile when we heard about the New Year's Eve bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria. Some of our fellow tour participants had seen the news on Blackberry devices. The tour guide nodded and said that he was aware of the bombing.

When we returned home, Compulsory's dad asked us about the tensions in Egypt between the Coptic minority and Muslim majority. Truthfully, I hadn't seen any. But then again, why would I have? There are parallel worlds in Egypt: The world of tourism, which is an $11 billion per year industry that employs 12 percent of the Egyptian workforce and the world that everyone else lives in. If you're on a tour — especially if you're on a tour — you are shielded in a way that becomes striking after a while.

So here's some background that I had no idea about when we visited the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo on the 29th of December:

Periodic violence between members of Egypt's Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 80 million people, have led to accusations that the government ignores, and even exacerbates, a dangerous sectarian divide. Officials often blame local conflicts for such violence, dismissing talk of sectarian tension.

Over the last year, those tensions were repeatedly marked by violence. Last January, Muslim gunmen opened fire on worshipers leaving a church in southern Egypt, killing seven people. In November, Christians angered that the authorities stopped construction on a church clashed with the police in Cairo, leaving one person dead.

Yikes! I mean, we knew about or even remembered some of the more spectacular acts of terrorism: the 1997 Luxor massacre and the Sharm el-Sheikh attacks in 2005 are two that stand out in my mind. But here's a Wikipedia page that I'm glad I didn't look at before we left. Terrorism in Egypt, when it's not directed against the Coptic minority, seems to be heavily weighted toward the tourism industry. Like I said, Yikes!

Later on, our tour guide recounted some of his greatest terrorism misses. One was at Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, where he was leading a family around in the hours shortly before the 2009 bombing of the market. He said that the family wanted to stay longer but he had a bad feeling, so he encouraged them to leave on time. That was one of the places we visited our first day in Egypt:

Khan el-Khalili Market, Cairo, Egypt

Another one of our tour guide's terrorism misses he said came when an overnight train was bombed. He said that he actually moved the suitcase bomb from the overhead storage above his group's seats to the front of the train — it wasn't luggage from his group and he couldn't figure out whose it was around him. He said that he still has trouble hearing in one of his ears. Oh, and the tour went on as planned — everyone agreed that it should go on.

Now I couldn't find a story about a train bombing, or at least one that would fit the timeline — there was one in 1994, which was a terrible year for terrorism in Egypt, but our guide is only about 31, so that wouldn't make sense — but perhaps there have been other attacks that weren't reported on as widely as others. That said, the way he recounted the incident had the air of a ghost story — he told it to us in a quiet moment I think on the felucca boat. He also told us this before we took the train back up to Cairo from Luxor, so we were kind of spooked by the luggage racks above us on the way back:

Egyptian National Railways Train No. 996 From Cairo To Aswan, December 30, 2010

Tommy (he had an Egyptian name but this is what the tour organizers told us to call him) said that he carried these attacks around with him, and some of what he was describing sounded a little like post-traumatic stress disorder. At the very least the tour guides in Egypt must live always on edge — if it's not the breakneck pace the companies have them shooting around the country then its the constant specter of terrorism aimed at the tourism industry.

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: January 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: ,

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