A strange and personal tale of Qumran. Our final visit in Israel was to the…
2. The Maid
3. The Soldier
5. First Egyptian Christmas
7. Who’s Who
8. Street Kids
10. The Bank
12. The White Gecko
15. Israel Part 1
16. Israel Part 2
17. Israel Part 3
Egyptian Tales – Episode 5
In this episode, I’m jumping ahead to our first Christmas in Egypt. It seems appropriate for December 2020. We’ll get back to the main timeline next episode.
The Coptic Christian Church was established in Egypt in the middle of the first century A.D., apparently by Saint Mark the apostle, after whom one of the books of the New Testament bible is named.
Coptic Christian Quarter of Cairo.
Six hundred years later, the conquest of Egypt by Islamic Arabs began the persecution and demise of the Coptic Christian religion in Egypt.
Shield—Coptic Museum, Cairo
It’s a persecution that continues today, with discrimination and violence, including bombings. So not surprisingly, when we spent our first Christmas in Alexandria in 1998, there was no general public acknowledgment of Christmas in the region despite a strong Coptic presence there.
Helmets in Cairo’s Coptic Museum
If we’ve grown up in countries where Christmas traditions dominate in December, it can feel strange when there is no sign of the decorations or festivities in the country you are living in or traveling through. During that first Christmas we were still living at the Villa. The rest of the team had gone home to Australia or off to holiday in Lebanon, except for me, Rick and Rod.
Rod was an accountant, one of only two in his working career that Rick has unreservedly admired. He’d been an invaluable part of Rick’s team when he’d been temporary CEO on the rescue mission of the company in Sydney. Rod was generally serious, but quick to smile, down-to-earth and like most Sydneysiders, very direct. More specifically, he was from Balmain, a village within a city of five million. Despite the gentrification of the area he was a Balmain Boy at heart, a loyal fan who still mourned the passing of the West Tigers. He was practical and easy to get along with. Rick was delighted to have him on the team to replace Black Adam. (You’ll meet Black Adam soon when I take us back to our original time-line) At Christmas, however, Rod was missing his girlfriend, his home and all that those things meant to him.
Rick booked the three of us into the Hilton hotel on the coast, hoping it would prove a morale boost by getting the three of us away from the villa and from the unrelenting pressure of the men’s demanding work environment. We had dined at this beach-front Hilton before, the most memorable visit being with a car jammed with all the men who were staying at the time and me, who had to perch on someone’s knee in the back seat. The meal had been entertaining in weird ways, with Aussie Gavin at his rudest, insulting the mild-mannered, inoffensive (also Australian) Geerard, with appalling ‘jokes’ relating to his Dutch ancestry. The rest of us squirmed and changed the subject. Young Rick ordered a mixed sea food dish that included shell-fish, a choice that set my alarm bells instinctively ringing.
I thought, “This is not going to end well.”
A short time after its consumption he turned a worrisome shade of pale and left the table. His choice of meal also necessitated a rapid scramble in the back seat when he had to be released from the cramped confines of the car to continue his purge on the journey home.
It’s little wonder Rick was often mistaken for an Egyptian!
The beach beyond the Hilton’s boundaries.
Now on our return visit to the Hilton with just the three of us, it was good to have a change of scenery. The idea of Christmas in a Hilton Hotel on the Med sounds romantic enough but as our stay in Egypt often reminded us, romantic idealism is frequently not matched by the reality on the days one happens to visit. Being December and the Northern Hemisphere, it was a good deal colder than our Summery Christmases back home. We begged the staff to give us heaters for our bedrooms. “Yes!, yes, this afternoon!” was the promise. They didn’t arrive.
“Have you got heaters?” We inquired the next day in case they were too embarrassed to admit the lack.
“Yes, of course! This afternoon.”
So this familiar Egyptian pantomime went on and the heaters never turned up. Perhaps they really didn’t own any. Maybe they’d never been asked for a heater in December, or ever. We have a tendency to think that a seasonal lack of guests means you get more attention from the staff but the reality seems to be that staff move into a sort of hibernation when there is not the hustle and bustle to encourage enthusiastic service. Besides the three of us, the only other guest we saw was a forlorn Korean.
Rod’s mood sank from quiet to bordering on morose. We chivvied him out for a walk on the beach. The Hilton’s lonely umbrellas stood resolute in a cool breeze. Everything looked and felt grey. Beyond the confines of the hotel’s section of the beach, the ubiquitous rubbish rolled across the sand along with strands of seaweed. (Unfortunately it’s also present too often in New Zealand these days as fishing boat flotsam litters our lovely coasts). In the mornings a Boab (a servant) took a bucket of rubbish to the beach and chucked it into the sea such that the tide would take it away from the hotel frontage to come ashore in front of someone else’s property. Our walks on the beach coated the soles of our shoes with a mix of sand and small blobs of oil making it difficult to remove.
In the past, for sixty kilometres all the way to Masa Matrouh, the coast had been sand dunes with occasional swampy areas behind that had once been havens for ducks nesting amongst the reeds. Such places were depicted in the ancient artworks, especially those from the reign of Akhenaton.
Those wild places had mostly disappeared and the dunes were now being covered with new holiday developments, either large villas or apartments not dissimilar to our villa or massed concrete structures clearly inspired or designed by Cold War Czechoslovakian architects.
If you’re looking at this image on a small screen, you might want to enlarge it…
They were built by the hundreds, plonked on the sand with no apparent consideration for drainage, sewage or roadways.
Every summer several million of those who can afford to, escape the excesses of summer heat in Cairo or the Gulf to spend the three month summer school holiday in the cooler seaside airs of Alexandria and its environs. But this was December, when Egyptians wore their warmest clothes including overcoats and jackets made for much colder climes. To Rick the factory in winter was temperate enough that he was often the object of wonder in his shirt-sleeves.
We left the Hilton with no ill effects from the food or the cold and returned to the familiarity of the villa, to await the return of the satisfied travellers from Lebanon, a few days later. Our second Christmas in Egypt was delightfully different but that’s a tale for another December. I hope that what I’ve related here may cause you to spare a thought for those in your own country whose important festivals are not celebrated by their new ‘home’ nations. They must just as surely miss the gaiety of celebrating their own customs with a like-minded, joyful crowd who speak their own language and value the same traditions.
For other episodes in this series, put Egyptian Tales in the search area at the top.