It was the Women in the Mosque

We were walking around and around the enormous parking lot at the Alexandria, Egypt port looking for the guide we had contracted with to take the four of us to Cairo. Our itinerary included seeing the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx, visiting a souk, and riding a camel—I know it is embarrassingly touristy and, in retrospect, I fear, riding is bad for the animals. First, though, we needed to find our guide and we needed to find her quickly, as we had only one day to see the area. We continued tromping around the parking lot, but at last decided something had come up that caused the guide to not be able to take us. We turned and faced a long line of vehicles with drivers yelling offers to give us tours of Alexandria, Cairo, the desert, or really, anywhere we might be interested in going. We looked at each other, took a deep breath, and then faced the drivers. We selected Muhammad and negotiated a price to drive us to Cairo and additionally to show us some of Alexandria, his hometown.

After climbing into the car, Muhammad pulled onto the street and sped along the roadways, weaving expertly and a bit unnervingly, in and out of the traffic. Trust me, the lanes were merely guidelines. For example, he dodged other cars, trucks, bicycles, and even one donkey cart; and then he steered the vehicle onto the wrong side of a road to cut through to a four-lane highway. About 20 minutes into the drive, he stopped the car at a roadblock, explaining that it would only take a few minutes to pay the bribe and continue on our trip. I, sitting in the front seat, noticed a truck ahead of us with men riding in the truck bed facing our car. The men began leering at me, and Muhammad apologized saying Egyptian men didn’t know any better. I learned later that women did not usually ride in the front seat. Then he told us a bit about his background and family. He was born and raised in Alexandria and studied for some time in Italy. He was married, had three children and wanted us to know, in light of the leering men, that he loved his wife and was good to her. He then told us that he had arranged for us to eat a multi-course traditional lunch in Cairo, but because it was Ramadan he would break his fast after sunset.

The Great Pyramid

After lunch, we headed into the desert to see the pyramids. We four climbed a little way up one pyramid to photograph the Great Pyramid. As we focused our camera on it, a man in traditional clothes sitting on top of a camel rode in front of the ancient structure and posed. When we shifted our camera to another pyramid, the man quickly rode to that pyramid and posed there. In fact, he seemed to frantically ride back and forth in hopes of getting paid for enhancing our photos. Later we bought tickets to enter the Great Pyramid. Countless mystery, adventure, and murder movies have been filmed at this world-famous location, and with images from those films filling my head, we climbed down the steps into the Great Pyramid. At each turn, I fully expected to see a helmeted archeologist scurrying up the stone steps, cradling ancient treasures while trying to evade a villain. Usually I am better about staying in the moment to fully experience a destination, but this time my imagination was on full tilt. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Afterwards, we went to the Sphinx. Seeing it in photos does not convey its essence. I found myself holding my breath, appreciating its antiquity and beauty. Instead of snapping a selfie, we decided to do it up right and asked another visitor to take our picture with the iconic sculpture. Endearingly, the stranger took a photo of us completely cutting off the Sphinx’s head. Not clear on the concept.

Riding camels

I am a bit intimidated by camels. They are tall. And who hasn’t heard of them taking a dislike to a hapless rider, like me, maybe spitting some foul-smelling liquid in my face? Perhaps the camel would step firmly on my foot to convey its dominance over me, the timid first-time rider.  After all, I am super good with bicycles, not towering ungulates. As I step forward, the camel handler gave me a white square of cotton muslin to put on my head with a knotted head band to hold it in place. Then he had the camel kneel. With my goofy cloth in place, I stretched my legs over the camel’s back and as it awkwardly got up I grabbed and clung to the saddle just managing to remain seated. I have seen the Peter O’Toole version of the Lawrence of Arabia movie and the graceful riders in it speeding past desert dunes. Even in my vivid imagination, I could not pass for one of those graceful beings. In reality, the camel walked around while I desperately hung on. My husband, brother, and sister-in-law also managed to get on camels and ride around. Just before our rides ended, the camel handlers brought my husband’s camel and mine close together so we could lean in for a photographed kiss. I am happy to report that we accomplished the feat without falling off. The camels knelt again to let us get off.

We clambered into Muhammad’s car and headed back toward Alexandria. After the sun set, Muhammad pulled into a rest area to break his fast. His wife had packed a lovely feast for him, and while we waited in the car, he ate with other tour guides also breaking their fast. Let me say that the entire day was very hot and not only did our guide eat no food, he also drank no water between sunrise and sunset. We were impressed by his religious devotion.

We arrived in Alexandria after dark and drove past the lights of the new Library of Alexandria. For history buffs, around 30 BC the Ancient Library of Alexandria was the repository for tens of thousands and maybe as many as hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls and books and is considered to have housed much of the world’s intellectual treasures until it was burned down in 3 AD. We regret that we did not have time to browse through the new library.

Alexandria souk

Instead Muhammad took us to the Alexandria souk, a maze of stalls filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, clothing, rugs, lacy lingerie, and household supplies. And because it was one of the nights of Ramadan, the market was lit with multicolored lights, and banners flapped overhead. Crowds of families and children happily talked and laughed. It looked like we four were the only Westerners in the souk. As we strolled through the aisles, the women merchants tried to engage Christa, and me with smiles and winks. We were utterly charmed by them and the scene.

Our guide asked if we would like to visit a mosque. I was chagrined to realize that I have visited many cathedrals in Europe, the US, and Mexico, but had not visited a mosque until this trip. Muhammad told Christa and me that we had to wear something on our heads. We had only the white muslin cloth from our camel ride, so we folded them into triangles and tied them under our chins, hoping we looked respectful and not too ridiculous. We went to the women’s door of the mosque where we paid a coin to a man who would store our shoes. While our husbands went through the main door into the mosque, we went into the women and children’s area, which was a partitioned section of the main mosque. The partition, itself, was a series of finely carved wooden panels stretching from one wall to another. The dome arced impressively high over us and under our feet the red patterned carpet was worn. We glanced around seeing women and children on the far side of the area, but feeling out of place, we could hardly make eye contact with them. To our relief, the women and their children came up to us smiling. They spoke to us in Arabic, which sadly we do not know. Then we all began pantomiming, learning how many children they have and their names. We told them how many children we have and their names and that our husbands were in the main area. They looked graceful and pretty in their colorful clothes, and they giggled only a little at our scarves. When we left, they give us big hugs. We were genuinely moved by their friendliness.

At the end of the evening, our guide took us to a place where he, my husband, and brother could smoke hookah together. He said women in Egypt didn’t smoke hookah. Instead Christa and I reviewed the day and agreed the real highlight was the women in the mosque. Seeing bucket-list sights is terrific, but our chance encounters with the women touched us. I resolved that on future travels, to visit more mosques.

Egyptians can be warm and welcoming, but since our visit, the country has become considerably more violent. Violence against women has increased, and harassment has, as well. As such, Egypt is included in our 2017 List of 10 Most Dangerous Countries for Women Travelers. If you go, be sure to wear loose fitting clothes with long sleeves, high necks, and either long pants or a long skirt. Also, carry a large scarf in your purse or backpack that will completely cover your head, neck and shoulders that you can put on in the event that you are drawing unwanted attention or if you visit a mosque (think of it as protective camo). If you are planning to visit Egypt, but are not going as part of a tour, we recommend securing a guide who can make proper arrangements for you, provide cultural insights and expertise on local events, and shield you from aggressive vendors. Avoid public demonstrations as participants are often jailed; and keep up with local news for any nearby terrorist attacks. Make sure someone back home knows your itinerary and check in with your contact on a schedule you and they agree to so it is easier for them to find you in the event of an emergency.

We encourage you to travel, and these precautions are for preparation purposes only. Be prepared and then explore the world. Travel is fascinating and empowering. We wish you many happy and safe journeys!

Leave a Reply