GW Expat: Just another day in Cairo

Junior Geoff Bendeck, an international affairs major, will spend two semesters studying abroad in Cairo and – Office of Study Abroad permission pending – Beirut, Lebanon. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from the Middle East as one of GW’s many expats.

“Hiiyyaa!” exhaled our guide Mohammed.

It was the perfect expression for the exhilaration running through my body. I was galloping on the back of an Arabian stallion in the foreground of the pharaonic masterpieces, the three great pyramids. “Hiiyyaa!” I yelled back.

It was 7 a.m. and the early morning sun was peaking out from behind the desert fog. I was still half asleep, and before we galloped I thought my horse Chocolate and I would fall over. Mohammed had taken off, dragging me and my horse behind him, telling me, “After today, you be American cowboy!” I never knew what I had been missing out on. Growing up in Orange County, Calif., the closest I got to a horse was those little ponies that walk in circles at local fairs. I had never ridden a horse, let alone in the sand dunes of the Egyptian desert.

Being up so early had its benefits – there wasn’t another person besides my friend, the guide and myself as far as I could see. We had the pyramids to ourselves, enjoying the views as they were meant to be seen. The tourist buses hadn’t yet arrived and the touts had not risen to set their traps. The daily horde of sunburnt tourists with their shorts and sandals were still sleeping peacefully in the air-conditioned serenity of Cairo’s hotels. It was simply beautiful.

Riding back to Nazlet as-Samaan – the village of the horses and camels – was an experience almost more intriguing than seeing the pyramids themselves. As the village slowly awoke from its morning slumber, we got to see the stable boys washing their horses, laughing and seeing to the daily tasks of preparing for the mid-morning inundation. Young boys raced past on their donkeys, imagining themselves on the Arabian horses the men took the tourists around the pyramids on. We walked past the less fortunate horses, their open wounds and bare rib-cages exposed. Even the Egyptian gap between rich and poor is seen among the horses of Nazlet as-Samaan. I knew this was a part of the town most people were not up early enough to see. The pyramids were awe-inspiring and beautiful, but my imagination and curiosity were captured by the village and its people who lived off the tourists’ dollars. This village, its inhabitants and their ancestors have been here since the first tourists arrived, hundreds of years ago when the profits of this world wonder were found.

Our guide Mohammed and I began to talk and he told me about his life. Now 31 years old, Mohammed came to live here at the young age of 12. He began as a stable boy, like the young ones we passed up and down the main road of the town – brushing out the barn, washing the horses, learning the trade of the tourists. Nineteen years later he makes his living off the tips of those he gallops around the pyramids. His story is similar to those of many people around the world. His deference to “the boss” conjured up images of indentured servitude. It was obvious he saw little of the $14 we paid the stable for a two-hour horse ride. We talked about his family, his children and his hopes for them. He told me of the pyramids, the knowledge he had accumulated over the years. It was interesting, but I wanted to know more about him and the hundreds others like him who came to Nazlet as-Samaan, leaving their families behind and indenturing themselves to the stable owners. He told me of the three kings – Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure – who once lay in the great pyramids of the picturesque travel brochures and postcards of Egypt. I wanted to know what led him here to this life among the horses and tourists. It might have been his lacking English or my pitiful Arabic, but it was a question he didn’t understand, or maybe he just couldn’t comprehend my curiosity.

We arrived back at the stables, our sunrise adventure at an end. It was a beautiful way to start a day: in the background of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring sights. Anyone who has not seen them in person cannot understand their mystery, beauty, size or intoxicating presence. But the true mystery – what makes the pyramids and Egypt a place you visit and never leave – is the people. Among the staggering poverty, smog and dirt, the pyramids and city of the horses and camels will continue to capture imaginations for centuries to come.

It was just another day in Cairo.

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