Egyptian Reflections: Culture of Bribes

Culture of Bribes*

Rebecca J. Romsdahl

This is the second of four essays reflecting on Egypt. Please also read the introduction to see how they are all linked. Enjoy!

Our first day of touring Egypt took us outside Cairo to the historic sites of the oldest pyramids at Dahshur and Saqqara. Our driver left the city on a 4-lane highway into the desert and yet, we soon found ourselves on a small back-country dirt road winding through small villages with agriculture all around. “Cairo is one of the few major metropolises in the world where, ‘one can still walk from the centre of town and in less than two hours find oneself in the midst of verdant fields'” (Shenker p. 19). I enjoyed the glimpses of daily life that passed by the car window: fields of caramel-colored soil planted with tomatoes, corn, and cotton; boys riding donkeys piled-high with bundled leaves; small parties of women and girls washing rugs in an irrigation ditch; women walking into town, balancing large tubs or bundles on their heads; brightly colored, shiny Mercedes-Benz dump-trucks hauling rubble; a smallish truck with four full-size cows standing in the truck-bed; and sadly, wherever there are people in this world, there is trash, which we saw littered in ditches, cast-off along roadsides, and swept into corners by the desert wind.

The Nile Delta was once venerated by writers for its wild marshlands. “Now you’ll find it hard to pinpoint where the city ends and the countryside begins: the lushness of the Nile’s arteries is stippled with apartment blocks and spliced by roads in every direction, and any clear-cut divisions have been long buried under a layer of rebars and asphalt. Here, the urban and rural get lost in one another, with livestock living in doorways and workers camping out in fields.” … “Two-thirds of the country’s population live within these 10,000 square miles of farmland fed by the Nile’s branches, and the fields it contains – some of the most fertile on the planet – are responsible for more than 60 percent of the nation’s food supply.” Some say the Nile Delta represents the feeling of a near sacred historical attachment of Egyptians to the soil. (Shenker p. 34)

Our second encounter with gaps between rich and poor presented itself in the form of cultural contradictions. In the US, there are strict attempts to keep tourists on designated paths and prevent people from climbing/sitting on, or touching historic artifacts at many sites, however, the state parks are always my mental model for the relaxed version of protected places. The historic site of Memphis, which was once the capital city of Egypt, reminded me of a US state park- nothing fancy, just wander around at your leisure, explore the artifacts, such as the enormous statue of Ramses II with its beautifully detailed carving, and wonder about the contradictions between what is protected and why. US state parks are places where you can touch and climb and sit on things, because they are not so old or fragile. My partner and I have both worked as summer-season Park Rangers in the US National Park Service, so we have an understanding of how tourism is both good for the economy and education of visitors, but it can also be damaging to the protected sites just by sheer numbers of people (foot-steps, unwashed hands rubbing off paint/architecture, litter…). But the sites we toured in Egypt are so old it’s hard for an American to wrap her head around the facts. I was dumbfounded by the fact that we could climb, sit, and touch statues and pyramids that are nearly 6,000 years old!

In the US, we are protective of our historic monuments that mark our 250 years of heritage. But I think the perceptions in Egypt run something like this: the desiccating power of the desert has preserved these ancient pyramids, statues, and mummies for thousands of years, a few thousands more tourists every year won’t harm them. (No, you don’t get to touch the mummies.) Every time I traced my finger along the rough edge of a sandstone block shaped by human hands thousands of years ago, a thrill like time-travel would run through me. But I kept wondering if there were any Egyptians among the groups of tourists we encountered. We saw and heard Americans, lots of Europeans, Russians, Japanese, and Chinese tourists. Were Egyptians enjoying their ‘state and national parks’? When we asked our guide, Mamdouh, he did not know but said most of the tourists were foreigners, and if Egyptians were rich enough to go touring, they would go to Europe or elsewhere. He also said that most Egyptians do not care about the historic monuments much because they do not know their heritage, because schools do not teach that part of history; it runs counter to the state religion of Islam. That reminded me of the controversy over teaching evolution in science classes in the US; it runs counter to Christianity. It is sad that so many Egyptians do not know how incredible their heritage is and so they only see the monuments as pieces of the national or local economy.

Due to the importance of tourism in the Egyptian economy and the negative impacts of past terror attacks in the country, there was an army of tourism police officers; we saw them everywhere. There were even teenage boys carrying what appeared to be AK47 weapons at some of the more remote sites; they would usually be patrolling the top of a nearby hill. But the tourism police had uniforms, side-arms, and patrolled among the tourists. Despite what seemed to be a significant presence of law enforcement, we learned that a large part of the tourist economy in Egypt involved bribery. Mamdouh, was our tour-guide for two days, but he was not allowed to go inside any of the pyramids with us because each one had a set of on-site guides who had various responsibilities (in Peru, our guide called it the ‘full-employment’ strategy). One man sits at the entrance; you pay him the ‘entrance fee.’ Another man is your guide through the pyramid. At each site, Mamdouh would tell us whether or not we could touch things or take photos inside. And inside several sites the guide would slyly encourage us to “go ahead, take photos, I won’t tell”. One site-guide bullied my partner to climb inside the sarcophagus (stone coffin) that was displayed in the burial chamber, for a photo opportunity. Then as we were walking out, each guide would ask for a tip; there was often a full story with his bribery request. He had seven children at home to feed and did not make very much money at this job. As former Park Rangers, all of this made us very uncomfortable, but when this is the customary practice and knowing that a lot of Egyptians lived in poverty…we paid each one. The only bribery request we refused was from one of the tourism police officers who offered to take our photo at a site; Mamdouh had warned us against this and we did not want to find out if the officer would ask for a tip after taking our photo or might threaten to arrest us in order to get a larger tip.

At the Great Pyramids of Giza, we were awestruck and giddy as children. From the airplane window and from photos, the pyramids look big, but not so big; they don’t compare to modern skyscrapers. But as we walked up to the base of the largest pyramid, it just kept getting larger and larger. This unusual perspective is hard to anticipate and you don’t recognize it until you are standing in front of the pyramids and you see how tiny people are walking around next to them. I joined the millions of tourists over the centuries in climbing up on the exposed pyramid blocks to stand on one for perspective; a single sandstone block was as high as my waist! As I stood there with dust on my hands, feeling the desert sun heating the sandstone blocks, looking up at the height and breadth of the pyramid, the thought of people building these monumental structures by hand was mind-blowing.

The thought that these were mausoleums for kings, is such a wide gap between rich and poor that it is hard to imagine; for example, King Tut, who was only 19 years old when he died from malaria and had only ruled for 9 years, was found entombed in a solid-gold sarcophagus/coffin inside two additional coffins and three outer boxes, all ornately painted or set with gold and jewels. We saw his coffins, and his many other treasures, on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Ancient Egyptians’ religious beliefs held that the dead should be buried with all the items of daily-living they would need to be comfortable in the afterlife. So, the pyramids of the kings contained burial chambers filled with gold and jewels, chariots, furniture, and miniature carved servants and soldiers; and the walls were covered with elaborate, beautifully painted instructions to pass the many tests that would be administered by the gods. All of these riches provide insights on how the kings lived. While the people who built the pyramids were poor farmers, or at best stone craftsmen, recruited into hard labor during seasonal downtime, such as between planting and harvesting. The burial practice for commoners was, of course, simple- wrap the body in a cloth, bury them in the sand, in a cemetery with some everyday objects and a bit of food.  All of this went through my mind as I stood on the pyramid block. When I turned to have my partner take my photo, I laughed to see he had been become entangled with one of the locals trying to sell tourist trinkets- miniature pyramids on keychains, postcards, bookmarks made from papyrus, and small plastic replicas of brightly painted sarcophagi. But it gave me pause to think how rich we are compared to the average Egyptian, even though we do not fit in the category of rich, compared to wealthy Americans. On our way back to the van, we bought some papyrus bookmarks from a little girl.

Put simply, [the Egyptian revolutionaries] have battled to replace a ‘me first’ system with an ‘all of us’ system. In doing so, they have connected the dots of political and economic injustice – at a time in which rampant inequality is compelling many others, in the global north and the global south, to try and do the same. Therein lies the revolution’s threat, and its living, giddying possibilities (Shenker, p. 4).

The culture of bribes from tourism made life a little more prosperous for millions of Egyptians. But when the revolution erupted, Egypt’s international tourism collapsed into rubble like a pile of Jenga blocks on the floor. Within the first three years, overall tourism revenue dropped 54%. But the impacts on our favorite places is devastating. The city of Luxor, the sites outside Cairo, at Memphis, revenue from these ancient monument sites has dropped by 95%. When we visited Egypt in 2010, we were among 15 million tourists to enjoy the sites. In 2016, there were only 5.3 million tourists; most of those from the neighboring Arab countries and they primarily visit the coastal resorts along the Red Sea. I hope tourism will rebound. I found the people of Egypt to be friendly, easy-going, and good-humored; I take hope from Jack Shenker’s book that they are also very resilient.

Reference: Shenker, J. (2016) The Egyptians: A radical story. Allen Lane of Penguin Books. United Kingdom.


* This series is being reposted here from Rebecca Romsdahl’s blog, Blue Marble Notes, with her generous permission.

Rebecca J. Romsdahl is Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy at the University of North Dakota where she teaches courses on environmental science in policy and communication. Her research examines the human dimensions of global environmental change. Romsdahl earned her PhD in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University, her MS from Michigan State University, and BA from Gustavus Adolphus College. She enjoys global travel adventures, hiking and camping, gardening, and visiting her family farm in Minnesota.

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