Lessons Learned From a Visit to Cairo, Egypt in 1980
A cup of decaf in Cairo.
Way back in the last century, I was in college and had the first culmination of my wanderlust dreams. I studied abroad for the Spring semester of my junior year. It sounds trite now, because so many students study abroad in their junior year. But back in the dark ages, it was very unusual.
My parents and academic advisor needed a lot of convincing. I impress myself now, when I think back on how determined I was to make it happen. In January of 1980, I set off on the game-changing journey to Tel Aviv University.
During the first week of our program, my wallet, including my passport, was stolen from my backpack. Rookie mistake, leaving it hanging on the back of my chair in class. I had to find the police station, and then later the American Embassy. I no longer existed without identification, in a foreign country, in the days before the internet. I needed someone who could vouch for me being a US citizen in order to get a new passport issued. Luckily, I had made a new friend who was immediately on board to help. With our hands on bibles, we stood at the embassy, claiming that Barbara had known me my whole childhood in the United States. Again impressed that I knew this was a lie worth telling. That was the start of an amazing friendship for Barbara and me. One filled with adventures like none others I’ve had since.
Peace with Egypt
It was May, 1980, about one year after Jimmy Carter assisted Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin in signing a Peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Borders were suddenly open and Barbara and I could not pass up the chance to travel to Egypt. We had to wait in hours of lines for visas before the trip, only to have the embassy close when it was our turn. We were finally granted them on our second try, and ventured out a few days later. We took a shuttle from Tel Aviv to the border crossing for the equivalent of $12 each! Then there was the five minute bus ride across the border because we were not allowed to walk. I remember the Israeli soldier on the bus saying, “Are you sure you want to go?” The first thing we saw when exiting the bus was a port-a potty overflowing with feces. Nothing looked official or well organized. We waited there for another shuttle that took us through the sand dunes of the desert to the Suez Canal where we boarded a boat to cross over. There were people on the boat who tried to touch my blond hair because they had never seen that before. I don’t remember how, but we managed to get to a downtown Cairo hotel for the night. The full story of that entire trip, how we survived, and made it back to Israel, is honestly worthy of a movie script. But today’s cup of decaf is just about the first day in Cairo, and a lovely man named Samir.
The concrete evidence of that day lives in a few photos taken with my Kodak 110 pocket camera, and in a single post card of King Tut, sent to my parents, dated 5/29/80. “Barb and I finally made it to Cairo – after visa and border troubles and a 12 hour ride, we are in Egypt! Went to the museum-amazing, Ramses Sq, Tahir Sq, Cairo Towers, Parliament, Sadat’s house, the Oriental Market, the Pyramids-Met an incredibly nice man who was our tour guide the whole day.”
I wish I had written more details! My young brain probably thought I could recall it all because it left such an impression. The impression has never faded, but the details…well…little did I know how young brains become old brains.
What I do remember is that Barbara and I set out from the hotel to find the Sphinx and Giza Pyramids. That seems like a reasonable thing to do, except that navigating the streets of Cairo and its public transportation system was terrifying. Literally, I remember busses, so crowded, careening on the streets, circling round-a-bouts with people hanging off the sides. Taxis everywhere, millions of people, and no one spoke English or Hebrew! I remember men in beige uniforms with bands on their shirt sleeves that said, “Tourist Police” in English. However, they did not speak English!
Picture us, ponytails, backpacks, cut off jeans, sunglasses, and sleeveless shirts, in the city heat. Neither of us blending in with the natural flow of the city or its culture. And we are looking at our map, totally lost.
Some how, in the midst of the chaos, we encountered a man who spoke English. His name was Samir. I’m guessing he was in his 40’s. In the picture I have of us, he is carrying a briefcase, wearing sunglasses, and is neatly dressed. Why we felt we could trust him is unclear. Something about him must have felt safe and kind. He offered to take us on a tour of Cairo for the day. I remember a crowded bus ride and a taxi ride. He took photos of us climbing the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and took us to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. He even invited us to his home for dinner so we could meet his wife and children. Sadly, we had to decline that offer because we had a train to catch to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. So, after showing us his ancient and remarkable city, Samir got us to the train station. There were animals and people with heavy sacks on their heads, and an impossible-to-navigate train schedule. When Samir realized we were waiting on the wrong side of the track, he lead us running across the tracks so we wouldn’t miss our train! We boarded the train along with goats and babies, and never saw Samir again.
The Golden Rule
As vague and cryptic as my memories are of that day, there is one thing I have never forgotten. Samir shared that he wanted to help us, simply because, some day, he would like to go to the United States and hoped that someone would be kind to him.
That’s all. He took a day of his life to give to us the gift of a lifetime. He kept us safe and showed us more than we probably would have been able to navigate on our own, and just because he wanted to. I don’t think he was trying to be an ambassador for his country, but more for the global community. How lucky were we to encounter that kind of humanity? He must have known we were Jewish girls visiting from Israel. As we all know, there is never a time when politics in that part of the world are uncomplicated. This was just over a year before Sadat was assassinated, right there on those same streets in Cairo.
I have remembered this special experience many times in the 38 years since, and now I wonder if I have done Samir justice. I know I have been kind and generous to strangers, but have I gone out on a limb, quite like that? I think about my day-to-day life now, and would I not show up to work one day because a couple of tourists asked directions? Is it enough that I overfill the parking meter so the next person has a few free minutes? I’m just not sure how to tally up the golden coins of the golden rule. There is no system of checks and balances. Is every good deed weighed the same, or are some worth a little more? I feel like Samir may have earned some extra points.
Samir is more than just a special travel story and chance meeting, because of the genuine lesson he inadvertently passed along. The pay-it-forward concept is not new, obviously. It’s far more ancient than Cairo, and yet it still is so relevant. If you have ever been the recipient of a stranger’s kindness, you understand its impact. Once, a driver in front of me paid my bridge toll. I will never forget that. Those moments are so special that we don’t forget them. What if they happened more often? What if I did that sort of thing more consciously and more frequently? What if we all did?
Here’s a challenge for 2019: Remember your very own Samir, then find a stranger and buy her a cup of decaf! Pay it forward.