A Prince in Egypt

by Brian on December 15, 2006

in Living Through Terror,Only in Israel

“Don’t go,” “You’re crazy,” “Its just not safe.” These were a few of the choice admonitions we received when we told friends and family we had planned a vacation in Egypt.

Our friends weren’t crazy. They were clearly acting out of love and from what they’ve read in the media: Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is indeed a hotbed of terrorist activity and the Israeli Foreign Ministry has urged Israelis to hightail it out of there on concrete evidence that Palestinian groups are gearing up for another imminent attack.

But Egypt proper – Cairo and its environs – have been relatively safe. That’s not to say nothing’s happened – there was a bomb in the city’s heavily touristed bazaar last year, and who can forget the horrific attack in 1997 when terrorists gunned down 65 mostly Swiss tourists in Luxor.  But Egypt is doing its utmost to keep visitors safe – after all, tourism is Egypt’s number one money maker. Police now accompany travelers everywhere; van trips into the desert must go in convoys.

And then there are the pyramids.  For as long as I can remember, certainly since I was a little boy, I have wanted to see the pyramids, the Sphinx, the sites where King Tut’s lavish tomb was found (I remember excitedly going to the King Tut traveling exhibition back in the late 1970s). A trip to see the last remaining wonder of the ancient world would be profoundly memorable. I wanted my children to have that mind-blowing experience.

And let’s not forget the Jewish element – we talk about Mitzraim (Egypt) daily in the prayer service. As recently as the 1950s, there were over 80,000 Jews in Cairo. How could we be so close – a quick hour long flight – and not visit.

And so began our journey against the astonishment and proferred common sense of a chorus of well meaning naysayers.

In the middle of planning our vacation, El Al even tried to trip us up by announcing it was canceling its route to Egypt as of December 1, despite the political sensitivity to ensuring there was an Israeli carrier flying between two countries with a delicate peace treaty. “No one’s flying to Cairo from Tel Aviv anymore,” my travel agent said apologetically. “I haven’t booked anyone to Egypt in years.”

El Al then reinstated the flight, but for one month only and then only one day a week; fortunately the times worked with our plans, so the trip was back on.

Now, I have one friend in Egypt, a work colleague named Amgad who I was looking forward to meeting for the first time. When we started to get negative pushback from friends, I asked Amgad his opinion. Was Egypt really safe?

“Absolutely,” he replied, Just don’t go around with a big sign reading “Hi I’m an Israeli, shoot me.” OK, he didn’t say that in so many words, but the gist was the same.

We decided the best way to travel would be to hide our identity. We would be the Blum family from Sherman Oaks, California, not Jerusalem Israel. We’d travel on American passports and list our U.S. phone number. We’d even change our names.

Over Friday night dinner, we resolved that for one week, Imma and Abba would become Mom and Dad. Eight-year-old Aviv would be known as Alex, Merav would be Molly, and Amir…well, that’s already an Arabic sounding name. It means “tree tops” in Hebrew, but spelled with the letter ayin at the beginning instead of aleph, the word means prince. Hmm…a Prince in Egypt. Has a nice ring to it.

We tried practicing our new names. “Alex, could you please pass the salt?” I said to Aviv.

“Sure, Abba…I mean, Dad…” he giggled.

This was going to take some practice…

As the day of our flight approached, though, apprehension returned. Maybe we were taking too much of a risk. I mean, why go to a country where you have to pretend you’re someone you’re not? Where the people really don’t like you?

I wrote to Amgad again. “Think about it, Brian,” he wrote back. “Over the past six years, how many terror attacks have there been in Israel? How many people have died? Now ask how many attacks there have been in Egypt (not including Sinai) during the same time. One.”

He was right of course. Thousands of Israelis have been killed or injured in suicide bombs and other atrocities in Israel where you’re targeted whether you’re a tourist a not. Just the act of just going to a café can be a matter of life or death. Last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah in the north certainly added to the death toll.

Going to Cairo, by contrast, might be one of the safest places in the region to be. The devil you don’t know is always scarier than the devil you do. From what I’ve heard, in fact, there’s a bigger chance of injury in Egypt crossing the street dodging crazy Egyptian drivers than a terror attack.

Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s website lists a travel advisory for Israel and Jerusalem (two separate places on the list, but that’s another story…) but none for Egypt.

As my friend Michael wrote when I asked him about his own visits to Egypt in the past, “there’s always some chance of random violence just as there are always chances for random accidents. Gili (his daughter) fell down the stairs and thank God she was fine, but if she fell the wrong way she wouldn’t be. Planes and cars crash, but you still fly and drive.”

And if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years living in Israel, it’s not let fear dictate what you do with your life. You go on and do your best at living a “normal” life which includes seeing the pyramids and visiting Cairo.

So, what all this means is that, unless some unforeseen event knocks us off our itinerary (there’s rumors of another airport strike looming), we’re heading to Egypt next week. Assuming we get back OK, I’ll write more about how the trip went, what we saw and heard, and how safe (or not) Egypt really feels.

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