It was November 2012 and Israel had just launched Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip. Alongside this, an uprising was starting in Egypt against then President Mohamed Morsi. Out of all the months I’d worked for P&O this was when we docked. Warnings were sent from ashore and a high percentage of passengers never left the ship.
I want to write about my experience in Egypt because for many years the Eastern part of the world scared me, simply because I believed the way it was portrayed in the media to be true (which as you know, isn’t nice). In just two days my fears about Egypt turned to understanding and compassion.
Our first port of call was Alexandria, where the day was spent in El Alamein visiting the WWII museum and the Italian memorial for fallen soldiers.
Our last stop was the El Alamein War Cemetery.
After making my way through the cemetery I rested against a wall with a large cross at the top. I looked over the backs of the gravestones that now stood blank and a mosque in the distance rang out the Muslim call to prayer. The soothing sound of Adhan flooded over the graves with ease, as if the cemetery welcomed it. It was extraordinary to witness and I left with peace tingling all over me.
On the drive home our excursion leader spoke about the different religions in Egypt and how contrary to what many believe, Christians and Muslims generally live happily together. She also spoke about her education, how she enjoyed her job and shared her vast history knowledge about her home country. I was completely engrossed!
The next day, two trucks of armed men escorted us to the Pyramids from Port Said, regularly driving passed and pretending to shoot our bus. I tried laughing with them, just to show I was cool with the whole situation…(pretty sure I looked like I was chewing on a gob-full of wasps).
My job, along with a fellow photographer, was to take photographs of passengers in front of the Sphinx. It was the busiest part of the area and the heat was astonishing. However, it wasn’t long before a group of children came to chat to us.
They helped us stop passengers for photographs, when they weren’t selling their postcards, and even gave us souvenirs for free! Most of them were about eight or nine years old and could speak English really well. It turned out they could all speak at least two or three languages.
The conversation got interesting when the boys told us why they had to work so young. The money helped support their families and was needed to save for a wife. Naturally, this took me aback. Determined not to pass judgement I asked one of the girls, with genuine curiosity, if it was important for her future husband to have money. With a serious look she replied –
‘No money no honey.’
She was nine years old. Some of the boys had tried to tease her during the morning, as boys generally do at that age, but this girl was confident and had such wit and sass that they soon gave up. I got the impression she was well practiced in taking care of herself. It was clear she had a strong sense of self-worth too and wasn’t going to be belittled by anyone. That was the case with most of the girls. They were also less bothered about showing off in front of the camera, rolling their eyes as the boys said ‘me next!’
Around me I could see people hard at work, passengers getting annoyed at being pestered, along with local families enjoying themselves. I saw one man spinning his young daughter around while his wife laughed. This wasn’t an image I’d seen of Egypt, I’d imagined the women and girls to be kept inside their homes, unhappy and without an education. After what I’d experienced over the past two days, I got annoyed for only ever thinking of it that way.
Not long before I left, a gun was shot near the bottom entrance to the Pyramids. A swarm of Egyptians fled down the hill, leaving groups of panicking tourists.
Our manager found us and lead us up to one of the Pyramids. The rest of the photographers were there with our guide, Omar. Having worked at the Pyramids since he was seven, Omar had picked up a lot of English and American slang which funnily enough put me at ease. He wasn’t worried about the gun shot. He simply stood stroking his camels neck. Faced with our questions he said ‘Don’t worry! Someone will have got in with a weapon. Happens sometimes. The guards will have shot them, that’s all. It’s well protected here, you tourists is how we make our money!’
People who’d run down soon came back and sadly confirmed Omar’s theory. We eventually made our way to the mini bus via Omar’s ‘special’ tour of the Pyramids. Being allergic to anything with fur, I opted out from a ride on the camel. Instead, I got the chance to speak with Omar.
I listened carefully as Omar spoke about his daughters, how he loved them very much and worried about their futures. He told me that even though terror and killings had become a part of every day life in Egypt, he tried to remain positive, giving thanks for all he had, including his job and his camel too. It was a very enriching conversation and I wish it’d lasted longer.
I relaxed when we got into the mini bus, aware that I was exhausted and covered in dust. For the next three hours I barely opened my eyes until we got to the busy streets of Port Said. It was late and I could see locals outside enjoying the night. Again, I was surprised to see groups of young women laughing with their male friends (eating chips!) just the same as I’d see on a night in Wakefield.
For many years I viewed people living in ‘troubled’ countries the way they were presented on TV. To me they were ‘victims’. We’re seeing words like victims, refugees and immigrants splashed about the British media more and more, making it too easy for us to view these groups of human beings as something so ‘other’ than what we are.
I’ve seen many fearful remarks connected to the tragedies happening today. It seems terror fed to us by the media has made it too easy to make sweeping generalisations about, and I say it again, groups of human beings. Yes, there’s cruelty in the world, but we need to see that there’s good everywhere too, not just bad. This experience made me see that and realise people across the world may live their lives differently, but it doesn’t mean that my way is better, or right. It’s just culture, it shouldn’t even be an important factor when connecting with another person. Underneath all that is what really matters, such as kindness and generosity, the love a person has for their family, their home, the hard work they put into their jobs and the time they spend enjoying with friends. It’s seeing people as we are, doing what we do and loving the way we love, that helps us feel compassion towards one another, something I think the world badly needs right now.