Letter From Egypt

"There is a question," our correspondent writes, "that less-sophisticated Americans ask (and more-sophisticated Americans would like to): Why are people in the Middle East so crazy? Here, at the pyramids, was an answer from the earliest days of civilization: People have always been crazy."

Hatred between Palestinians and Israelis abides. Arab-led Islamic fundamentalism destabilizes nations from Algeria to the Philippines. The threat of terrorist attacks by al Qaeda continues. Also, our car needs gas. It is important to understand Arab culture.

Egypt seems a good place to start. Egypt is by far the most populous Arab state. And although Egypt is a poor country in per-capita-income terms, its economy is larger than Saudi Arabia's. Historically Egypt has been the most westward-looking of Arab countries. A Napoleonic invasion, an Albanian pasha named Muhammad Ali, and a British takeover gave Egyptians plenty to look at. The modern Islamist movement can be dated from the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928. Two of Osama bin Laden's closest aides, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the late Muhammad Atef, came from Egypt, as did Mohammed Atta, who led the September 11 hijackings. And there is this thing called the "Arab street," which various serious people take seriously. In the November 11, 2001, New York Times, John Kifner wrote, "It is on just this Arab ... street that President Bush must fight in his war against Osama bin Laden." On January 24, 2002, Chris Matthews said on the television program Hardball, "America's been fighting another kind of war to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street." And on November 16, 2001, the NBC Nightly News reporter Martin Fletcher, broadcasting from Cairo, declared, "The battleground isn't only in Afghanistan; it's here in the Arab street." Well, Cairo has thousands of miles of street.

But there's a problem with Egypt. It's been around for five millennia. America is only three human life-spans in age. I'm an American born and bred, so were my folks, and ... How could the same small part of America vote for Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Clinton? How could any part of America elect a professional wrestler as governor? Why isn't he noticeably worse than other governors? Why is the fastest-growing spectator sport in America watching cars turn left? How come I've never heard of anyone—Linkin Park, Big Tymers, Musiq—on the Billboard Top 50? Why can't they spell? By what means did the Amazon.com list of best sellers come to contain The Wisdom of Menopause, Self Matters, Look Great Naked, and BodyChange—the last by someone called Montel Williams, who is on daytime TV? Have you ever watched daytime TV? Who are these people taking DNA tests to see which one molested the Rottweiler?

I don't understand anything about America's culture. What could I hope to learn about Egypt's? Actually, quite a bit—before I'd been officially in the country for more than a minute. Coming through passport control, I was detained by a solemn fellow who showed me a badge. In his well-ironed dress-down Friday clothing, clean grooming, and chilly politeness, he was the exact counterpart of a Mossad agent at Ben-Gurion Airport. "I would like to ask you a few questions about why you are visiting Egypt," the solemn fellow said.

My tour operator, carrying a placard with my name completely misspelled, swooped in with a great bustle: "We are a prominent Egyptian tourism company! Government-licensed! This man is a valued client! Tourism is in a ruinous state! Do you even see another tourist?! What will become of Egypt's foreign-reserve situation?!"—although that was all body language. I believe the only thing my tour operator actually said to the intelligence officer was "He's with me." Away we went. Have your travel agent try that with the Mossad.

There was another lesson in just the drive through Cairo from the airport, on the far east side of town, to my hotel, by the pyramids in the west. It's the lesson of all swollen capitals in societies with uncompetitive economies. "In a competitive society," the economist Friedrich Hayek once said, "most things can be had at a price—though it is often a cruelly high price we have to pay ... The alternative is ... the favor of the mighty." The mighty have their seat in the capital. Better stick close to their chair legs and napkins to get a crumb from the mighty's table.

Cairo is the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, with as many as 16 million people, most of whom were offering to carry my luggage at the airport. And they were more persistent than the secret police. Annex Damascus to Beirut, Baghdad, Kuwait City, Jerusalem, and Riyadh (what a war you'd have!) and you still wouldn't get Cairo. Almost a quarter of the people in Egypt live in the city, a long haul from the sea, on the site of an old fort of middling strategic importance, distant from natural resources or any traditional means of creating wealth except the Nile farmlands now under Cairo pavement. Think of a capital of the United States located in an obscure Maryland swamp with 70 million Americans gathered there to be close to Medicare benefits, Fannie Mae, and Small Business Administration loan originations.

After ninety minutes in my tour van I realized: so vast is Cairo, there really is no way across it. At least no way with my eyes open. The traffic is too scary. We Americans, who invented traffic, are always being startled by the forms into which it has evolved around the world. (God, if he's a Darwinian, may be similarly aghast at life.) But most foreign driving has the advantage of either brevity, in its breakneck pace, or safe if sorry periods of complete rest, in jam-ups. Cairenes achieve the prolonged bravado of NASCAR drivers while also turning any direction they want, in congestion worse than L.A.'s during an O.J. freeway chase.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In