“When we cross the border can you guarantee my safety?” The American said.
I rolled my eyes. “What do you mean?”
“When we get to Syria. Am I going to be safe?”
“Why wouldn’t you be safe?”
“I’m an American. Don’t they want to kill me?”
“The only thing they’ll fucking kill you with is kindness.” I said.
I fanned myself with my passport. We were stuck in a queue on Jordan’s Ramtha border. Tendrils of sweat raced their way down my back.
At the time I just wished he’d shut up and sit down while I did my job and got the group’s passports exit-stamped. Now I just wish the clocks could be turned back. That I could have those same annoying border conversations again and show people the Syria I know.
A week on from that conversation, that same American had performed a hip hop dance for a bunch of very amused (and bemused) kids in the back streets of Damascus, been stunned by Palmyra’s columned ruins marching across the eastern desert, walked on top of the ramparts at Krak des Chevaliers, and been convinced by me to have a traditional barber shop shave in an Aleppo old city alleyway.
He came back to the hotel, slick with oil and reeking of the barber shop’s cheap cologne.
“He didn’t kill me!” He said. “And I told him I was American and everything. All he wanted to do was make me drink too much tea.”
I love the juxtaposition of Beirut. All battle-scarred and weary on the one hand and flash-the-cash gaudy on the other. It’s a city where soldiers, slouching against tanks, still occupy street corners watching high-heel clad shoppers, clack-clack-clacking down the pavement, swinging designer-label bags. Old Beirut may be no more but it will take the developers a while yet to wipe out the last crumbling, derelict reminders of a city that was once hailed as the Paris of the East and then nearly destroyed itself with war.
In my last post I talked about Cairo’s unending din; the constant roaring soundtrack that frays nerves and results in your normal voice becoming a shout. There are peaceful corners to the city known as Umm al-Dunya (the mother of the world) though. When the traffic chaos began to wear me down I’d escape to the city’s mosques and madrassas. They were places of quiet, calm refuge where I could sit without a backdrop of car horns, pop music, and non-stop yelling.
A Pharaonic playground of the highest order, Luxor is a tale of two shores severed by the sinuous curves of the Nile. Bite into a slice of provincial Egypt among the east bank’s frenetic sprawl of souqs before chewing your way through the ostentatious magnitude of Luxor and Karnak temple complexes. On the west bank the languid haze of adobe huts, donkeys and jagged desert cliffs is lorded over by the world’s greatest open air museum. You’ll walk among a roll-call of schoolbook-famous kings and queens as you explore this vast necropolis of tombs and temples.
Al-Quseir is a town of skinny alleyways hemmed in by houses washed in a rainbow of watercolours, slowly peeling and fading away. Some places are more of an atmosphere than a set of mark-off-the-tick-list sights and Al-Quseir is one of these.
It’s a town of pastel-hued, creaky doors, and proudly bright hajj pilgrimage paintings stamped onto walls; where the crumbling coral-block architecture comes complete with wooden balconies of delicate mashrabiya screens, hung with lines of washing flapping in the wind. Once you’ve untangled yourself from the lane-way labyrinth there is the surprise of finding the sea, spreading outwards from the empty beach. The quiet only broken by the yells and cries of young boys, glistening on the pier, egging each other on in daredevil dives.
Once a major gateway to Arabia, the grand Ottoman fort now lies in ruins and the only sign of activity at the port are a few old fishermen mending nets. This sleepy backwater is a little seen part of Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera. Rag-tag Hurghada and glitzy El Gouna with their gaggles of tourists are only an hour up the coast but Al-Quseir has somehow missed the tourism boat. With the peace only punctuated by the trilling of a bicycle’s bell as it zigzags through the winding back streets, this is a place apart from the rest of the Red Sea coast.
All of these images were taken in Egypt throughout 2011. Some are of Tahrir Square during the January 25 revolution. Others were taken at the July 2011 protests. A few are examples of the amazing revolutionary graffiti which took over the streets that year. Much of that street art has unfortunately been painted over now.