At the Pyramids, Egyptians pine for Americans
'Meky Muse,' a camel named for the famed Disney critter, sits idle as the Iraq war hits Egypt's tourism industry hard.
His years in the desert taught him much about the mysteries of this complicated world. But, he says, they also taught him that sometimes life boils down to very simple equations.
"I am a camel man," explains Walid Mohammed Abo Basha, who has been giving camelback tours around the ancient Pyramids of Giza for 22 years. "Americans are camel riders. I want them here."
Egypt's tourism industry - which accounts for a quarter of the country's economy - has been suffering for more than a decade. The crisis, which began with the first Gulf War in 1991 and escalated after the terrorist attacks on tourists at Luxor, Egypt, in 1997, intensified even further after Sept. 11, 2001. Many Western holidaymakers chose to stay off planes in general and away from Arab countries in particular.
And now, with uncertainty during and potentially after war in Iraq - at the height of the usual tourist season, with April sunshine gently enveloping this land - the industry looks to be grinding to a complete halt.
"Its not only the old fears about safety, its psychological now," says Omar Hefny, an Egyptologist and high-end tour guide. "When people see death and destruction on their TVs, they want to stay close to home. They don't have the mood to travel and explore."
And, he admits, when Americans see images of angry demonstrators in Egypt burning US flags and cheering on the Iraqis against coalition troops, "they certainly don't get into the mood to explore here."
But many Egyptians, while furious with President Bush and easily spouting anti-American rhetoric, are begging for one kind of American - the tourist kind - to pay a call. "The French are not scared to come here," says Mr. Basha, "because they come with 'sympathy in their eyes,' for Arabs." But, concludes this man, who wishes Saddam Hussein good health and a long life, "Never mind about the eyes right now, we are more interested in pockets."
Egyptian Tourism Minister Mamdouh al-Beltagi predicts the war in Iraq will scare away some 1.5 million tourists this year, and revenues will fall by about 38 percent. All told, officials here say the war in Iraq could cost Egypt's economy more than $8 billion in tourism revenues, direct investment, trade, and hard-currency remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf.
And, while the US forgave Egypt $7 billion, or two-thirds, of its debt during the 1991 Gulf War - after President Hosni Mubarak sent 36,000 troops to help allied forces - this time around, with Mubarak officially condemning the war, Egypt is not expecting any financial bailout.
Basha, a son and grandson of a camel guides, and a father of five aspiring future guides, had a successful career until recently, making up to 200 pounds ($35) a day. With the money, he built a home: a two-story brick house with a shed underneath for the camel, a 7-year-old beauty named Meky Muse, after the famed Disney rodent.
He named his camel Meky Muse, he explains, to make the American tourists feel at home.
"Now let's say you are a tourist and I tell you my camel is called Ibrahim or Moses. You can't [pronounce] the name and you don't feel comfortable. So I try to make you feel welcome," he says. Sometimes, when he is alone, just chatting to the camel, he calls her Moses. "But that's just a pet name," he says.
The wall in Abo Basha's living room is covered with snapshots of him, Meky, and various foreign tourists posing in front of the ancient Choeps Pyramid. In his wallet, he carries a faded letter from a couple - David and Diana from Philadelphia - thanking him for a wonderful tour. And from out of his traditional galabiya dress he produces a mobile phone, a present from satisfied tourist, John from Miami.
"I speak English, French, Italian, and German," he says, exaggerating slightly. He can say "I hope you come again," in Finnish and "Welcome to Egypt" in Japanese. But Americans are by far his favorite customers. "First of all, that's because I can understand what they are saying. The Australians are OK, too, but their accent is not," he begins.
But that's not the only reason. "I want this bad war to end very soon because now I am working mostly with Russian tourists," he sighs. "Americans are straight. They don't like you cheating them and they don't try and cheat you. You know what you get with Americans."
Ehab Roushdy, a manager at the Cairo Marriott, was not too worried initially about the consequences of this war. During the 1991 Gulf War and following Sept. 11, the reduction in American and European tourists and businessmen was at least partially offset by increased numbers of visitors from the Gulf.
But now, the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and others have not shown up either. "We advertised a special package for Middle Easterners, but no one came. This war, everyone is staying in," he says. Most hotels in Cairo are running at 30 percent occupancy, and several have laid of staff. "It's the worst its ever been," says Roushdy. The situation is similar throughout the region, in other tourism-dependent countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
Snapping photos at the Sphinx, Nathan and Kylie Perkins from Sydney, Australia, admit they contemplated canceling their two week holiday. "But now that we are here, we see that Egyptians will put tourism before politics," says Nathan. "Even so," adds his wife, "if I were an American, I would not come. There is animosity, no matter what people in the tourism industry say.... Australia is in the coalition forces too - but it seems reports of that never made it here."
Mr. Hefny spends a lot of his time nowadays at the gym, doing yoga as he waits for the tourism crisis to end. But he is an optimist by nature.
"People will get used to the situation and come back," he says, reassuring. "Just like eating and sleeping. Travel is a necessity of life."