Friday, January 04, 2008

Cairo: Final Hours

They need to stop oppressing gays in this country and let us run things for a few years instead. Egypt needs our help, and bad.

I head to the airport in a few hours, and don't know if I've ever been so glad to be leaving a city. It's not that anything outright bad has happened, so much as I've never been to a place so desperately in need of a revolution. It's a city ruled by cars, where people live like rats in the margins.

But I don't know what I would have skipped. I spent the day yesterday with two American archaeologists at Giza, and it was great. They were pretty amazing, actually - they kept digging through the dirt exclaiming at every pottery shard. They could actually look at a fragment and tell without pause how it was fired and cooled, and what period it came from. Saqqara and Dahshur were worth a day. Old Cairo was worth a day, easily. I had to see Islamic Cairo after reading all the history, even though all it's monuments were shockingly run down compared to other places in the middle east.

Today I went to the museum, which was the tipping point for me - what should have rivaled the Louvre instead had all the grace of a warehouse. I woke up early, coughed up all the gunk that had collected in my lungs the day before, packed, ate, and hit the road. The toxic cloud that had settled over the city the night before was blocking the sun, but it was Friday and at least the traffic was a bit lighter than normal. I walked along the Corniche, the road that runs along the Nile. I only had to shake off two hustlers, which wasn't bad.

I thought that I'd beat the crowds, but there were thousands already lined up outside the gates of the museum - tourists of every conceivable stereotype, the worst being the transvestite hookers. I mean, Russians - God's gift to misanthropes everywhere. They only dressed like transvestite hookers. It made no sense: plastic high heels, daisy dukes and halter tops and bare midriffs in the middle of winter in a Muslim capital, tons of make-up, fake blond hair, and fat boyfriends in capris and tight shirts. Worse, they were rude. You could be reading a plaque, and they would literally push you out of the way to get a better look.

I had been confused when people kept telling me how nice the Egyptians are. I mean, yes, they are. But, I thought, where aren't people nice? Pretty much everywhere I've been, and that includes New York and Paris. Now I know: they aren't nice in Russia. They are assholes.

Back to the museum. Sigh. So much wealth, just squandered. Everything was arranged pell-mell, much of it behind grimy glass panes. The toxic cloud from outside crept into the main hall, and turned the air inside a sickly yellow under the glare of the fluorescent lights.

I think of the incredible impact just a few Egyptian pieces had at the Louvre, and how little impact this museum had for all it's pieces, and can't understand why this museum can't find the resources to apply the most basic modern principles to managing or displaying the collection. With the 25US entry, plus 50 for the mummies, and the thousands of tourists there just in the few hours I was inside, and we're talking tens of millions of dollars a year just in entry fees. Poverty is not an excuse here. Certainly they could have at least put in decent lights, or washed the grime off the walls and display cases. Or - inshallah - put in bathrooms where you didn't have to bribe the doorman for toilet paper (or have them demanding baksheesh while you were still pissing).

But overall, this was Cairo. Noise, chaos, dirt, and a government that seems more interested in putting money into the military and secret police than providing basic services. There's such an amazing infrastructure here. It's a shame it's been allowed to decay. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go cough up a lung and then find somewhere to eat.

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