Jan. 1, 2008
By Ken Krayeske • 7:45 PM EET
Modern and ancient worlds nearly collide in the main roundabout in Al Quayser. I sat in a coffee shop across from this spot and watched the wheels go by for a half hour, and just enjoyed myself.
On a rare day off in southern Egypt back in November, before we set off for Oman, I wanted an authentic Egyptian experience.
I thought about going to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, but I nixed that because I would have needed a day off from my day off. I would have had to get up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus in one of the massive tourist convoys, and would not have gotten back until after midnight.
Because of a terrorist attack at Luxor a few years ago, where fundamentalists mowed down a bunch of tourists with machine guns, the police escort massive bus convoys, and it takes forever.
Instead, I decided to go north to see an ancient port called Al Quayser. I hitched a ride to the main road out of instacity Port Ghalib (which is apparently financed by casino mogul Sol Kirschner of Bahamian Atlantis and Mohegan Sun fame).
The nice trucker dropped me off at a traffic circle where a dozen cabs waited. I haggled with Abu Salam, a cabbie who gave me a ride 45 minutes north to Al Quayser for $7.
Desert on the left, and Red Sea to the right, the cabbie and I didn't have much to say. I learned in my weak Arabic that he had a few kids and lived near Al Quayser, and that they don't get many Americans in those parts.
The view of Al Quayser, the Red Sea and the distant desert from the fort museum. The road into Al Quayer from Port Ghalib stretched between the mountains and the ocean. A gorgeous, hot drive.
He dropped me off in the city, and I started exploring. I found it an intimate little place, as safe a location as I have been to in the Arab world. But I couldn't get the War on Terror out of my head.
It's funny, because I haven't experienced that kind of paranoia since I was deep in Syria, tailed by the secret police. But everywhere I looked, I saw fear of a foreign world. I felt foolish for it, because I should know better.
Walking down a street after I took a photo of a woman, I wondered what would happen to me if some fundamentalists kidnapped me and took me away, held me for ransom. I wondered if the Muslim Brotherhood was active in Al Quayser, or even Al Qaida.
Being kidnapped was a ridiculous notion, and I quickly dismissed it. Then, as I found the neighborhoods, I saw discs with Mecca, airplanes or boats painted on houses, surrounded by Arabic text.
When I saw the airplanes, I thought that they were rejoicing about 9-11. But then I realized I was being ignorant, that these people decorated their houses in honor of their Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca.
This house has chosen to proclaim its occupants' Hajj with a picture of the Kaba in Mecca. Every Muslim who can should go to Mecca. For centuries, Al Quayser was a main stop on the Hajj Route, as it is just a short boat ride across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia.
The town is dotted with tiny mosques dedicated to holy men who died in Al Quayser on their way to Mecca. It is considered an honor to die on the Hajj, which used to be a lot more arduous before air travel.
The mosques are centuries old, and still active. I saw policemen and business people praying at noon in one such shrine. They aren't being built much anymore.
Thanks to the Wright brothers, people can skip over Al Quayser now, and the town's economic fortunes reflect it. But this isn't the first time Al Quasyer's star has risen and fallen.
Even before Islam, Al Quayser was a main port utilized by Egyptians, Romans (who loved the marble and granite nearby), and French and British (who valued its strategic location). Now, the U.S. is trying to support its economy in touristy ways.
The fort museum in Al Quayser, supported by the United States Agency for International Development, told me all about the history. And the sign on the museum reminded me that Egypt is one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid monies.
This smooth power works far better for making friends than war. And as I wandered the roads and alleys, with small hidden alleys and doorways popping out of every wall, and houses built on top of half houses, I loved the confusion and beauty.
From my experiences in other Arab countries, I know the layout is a standard one, disorienting for those not familiar with it. I tried to imagine myself as an 18-year-old kid from Kansas who joined the National Guard to get money to pay for college. Instead, he is patrolling the streets of a small Arab city like this, in intense heat, carrying 60 pounds of military gear and a load of fear.
Yeah, that is why the war is a bad idea. We can't win in a landscape like this, not in foriegn country where the people don't want us there. Not when we lack a defined objective, not when we have violated international laws. No, immediate withdrawal is the only answer for us.
And after about three hours in Al Quayser, I had enough, especially when I couldn't find an open restaurant. No open banks either. It was a Tuesday, so something should have been open. But I could find no food other than fresh pitas from a local market.
So I drank an orange soda in a sheesha bar by the beach, ducked into a tourist shop to buy a souvenir for my niece, and then haggled with a cab for a $14 ride back to Port Ghalib. I spent the rest of the day by the resort pool napping, not thinking about politics or anything.