[Apologies for the absence. Just back from two fascinating weeks — our anniversary! — in Egypt.]
Just last week I was climbing the seriously magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut with my wife. Its sheer beauty absorbs one’s attention. Even my peripatetic gaze. At least until a discordant note in the form of a young Polish woman in a micro sleeveless dress descended the stairs from the first courtyard. Her dress was day-glo orange. All of it. And fully radioactive in the noon sun. In my entire life, I don’t think I’d ever seen clothing that color, save for road crew vests. Not even Dennis Rodman in his lunatic prime.
In the late morning of November 17, 1997 a different sort of scene unfolded on the terrace of that very same temple. Armed with automatic weapons, six Islamic militants aligned with Al-Gama’a al-Islamyya massacred 62 people, mostly Western tourists. They unleashed a Breivik-esque melee, for example hacking and dismembering a few honeymooning Japanese couples. (Tangent alert: Doesn’t it seem less than coincidental that the attack took place at the temple of the first woman pharaoh?).
Those militants understood the enormous value of tourism to Egypt. It seems they also despised the equally enormous Westernizing impact of tourism on the predominantly Muslim country. Today, even with an elected President from the Muslim Brotherhood, more stringent Islamic groups in Egypt still take aim at tourism. The people earning filoos kateer (gobs of money) from Egypt’s tourism, not to mention the people scraping by on its leftovers, simply curse this kind of thinking. The government, for its part, have put in place greater security. The question for me: Why the hell was day glo orange slinking down those steps in the first place?
The point is not at all that women wearing mini-skirts are legit targets for attack. The point is not to suggest an actual justification for their actions (i.e., women who dress provocatively aren’t “asking for it”). The point is that some behaviour – disrespectful, abusive, neo-colonial, whatever – creates a justification in their minds. Gimme a reason! You got one.
The message was consistent in all the tourist books, and in the advice we received: show respect. To do that in Egypt, dress and behave conservatively: women and men should cover flesh, don’t walk around the streets snogging, boozing, etc etc. (In one café that served beer, they asked us not to sit near the door – essentially a tactic of not rubbing the public’s nose in alcohol). But those with the most to lose in the long run seem the least concerned in the here and now.
The Red Sea resort tour companies offering blitzkriegs of Luxor or the Pyramids seem to be the worst offenders if measured by the sheer volume of people being disgorged from their buses who don’t give a shit. The scene: sunburn-glowing Poles, Germans and Brits, dressed for an appearance on Baywatch, mobbing past Egyptian families dressed in galabiyahs. In close second place were the fat Nile cruise boats, moored along Aswan’s corniche, gleaming white hulls matching the jellified flesh prancing around the pool deck. In third place, as a matter of unscientific impression, were the French, cloaked as always in the self-assurance of being French.
The point is that Little Miss Day Glo wasn’t just an insensitive tourist. She became a recruitment poster, fiery sermon topic and a rallying cry all rolled into one. To anybody with an anti-Western agenda, she’s ammo. So if I were those tour operators, I’d be making sure people who got on the bus weren’t dressed to insult. Not because it will matter to the militant. You can’t stop the militant. But you can stop ordinary people from listening to the militant. You can stop people from joining the militant, or having sympathy for his cause. You can stop making the militant’s job easy. In the end, there is something fundamentally wrong with the everyday Egyptian left cringing, clutching the family closer, one hand across their children’s eyes.
But I’m not a tour operator. I work for a humanitarian organization. And yet I ask the same questions and reach the same answer: What about our behaviour as aid workers? We need to stop wearing the day glo orange. We need to stop making it easy.