In October 2010 we met an effervescent purple-haired tour guide, actually a zany woman with a purple wig, Pam Wieder, at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. She was about to take a group of ten of us on a tour of Egypt. Among countless other things, we were about to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the flesh, a short time before he was ousted in one of the most dramatic revolutions in modern history.
We stayed in downtown Cairo on each end of our trip in a hotel overlooking the Nile, near the renowned Egyptian Museum that houses the gilded treasures from the tomb of the young King Tutankhamun, or King Tut. Behind our hotel a stone’s throw away (ahem) was Tahrir Square, Liberation Square in English, which is not square at all but a bustling traffic circle. Little noticed while we were there, Tahrir Square became the focal point of the revolution that was to consume Egypt and capture the attention of the world three months later.
The antiquities of Egypt were astonishing in their scale, beauty, and number. Not since our summer in India over two decades earlier had we seen such clear evidence of complex, large-scale civilization that so demonstrated the range and depth of human capability.
A week-long cruise along the Nile River Valley took us to Karnak, a vast complex of intricate temples, arches, pillars, and other structures that were the single most impressive display of an earlier civilization that I have ever seen. For its scale and intricate detail, it surpassed the ancient pyramids that we saw near the end of the trip just west of Cairo. But to be fair to the pyramids, breathtaking in their scale and symmetry, their builders lived over 3,000 years before the builders of Karnak.
As we concluded our tour outside of Cairo at the nearby pyramids, we were returning by bus to our hotel in the early evening. A couple of miles north of our hotel we came upon large numbers of security personnel milling around and police cars parked on both sides of the street. Traffic naturally slowed for what appeared to be the presence of a high government official. Then we saw a gathering of people at a funerary with President Hosni Mubarak standing in the center of a short line greeting members of the group. Our local guide called someone and found out that Mubarak was paying respects to a deceased relative of the Number Three person in his government.
It was clear during our trip that many Egyptians were not fond of Mubarak and not at all happy about his plan to have his son succeed him as president. What Mubarak and other Egyptians did not and could not know at the time was that his reign would come to a sudden, ignominious end three months later in the historic Arab Spring, and that six months after that Mubarak would be on trial in a defendant’s cage in court.
The timing of our trip to Egypt turned out to be impeccable, being there just before the lid blew off the country. It was one of our finest trips. Now we watch the unfolding history of Egypt with keener interest than we would have had we not just gone there. We feel we know the people at some more intimate level, care more about their struggles, and cheer them on–and especially their women–as they take to the streets still to claim humanity’s birthright.
Egyptian leaders and others around the world would do well to remember the words of Egypt’s third president, Anwar Sadat, “There can be hope only for a society which acts as one big family, not as many separate ones.” So simple. So difficult. So true.
Oh yes, that zany tour guide, Pam Wieder, who wore the purple wig when we first met her turned out be zany for the rest of the trip. She was such a good dancer she did solo performances to wildly cheering crowds during our Nile River cruise. Nearly everyone present looked on with awe and a good amount of envy. But she did not wear that purple wig in Egypt, at least at no time we saw her.