Too Authentic For You?

Transplanted Englishman Paul Rogers writes about music and lifestyle for LAWeekly, and reports for us from the Characters of Egypt Festival:

“Does he have to keep using that bright pink cell phone?”

groaned the lady atop the camel in front of mine as she pointed her camera down at the little lad leading the lanky beast. My fellow tourist was lamenting the otherwise exotic, trapped-in-time image in her viewfinder–the boy’s hungry eyes and tousled hair emerging from a traditional earth-toned robe–being tainted by a disappointingly familiar, decidedly 21st-century fuchsia Motorola.

That happened in Tunisia a few years back, but I was reminded of it while perusing the Characters of Egypt Festival in that country’s Eastern Desert last weekend. The event returned for its second year to a sandy valley within sight of the Red Sea, about 30 miles south of the rapidly developing resort town of Marsa Alam. An enthralling coming-together of numerous tribal “teams” representing indigenous peoples from all over Egypt, it was a chance to witness their poetry, dancing, jewelry, music, and racing (camel/running/hopping) in and around an array of outsized tents. Organized by the Wadi Environmental Science Centre (WESC) and the Egyptian Desert Pioneers Society (EDPS), Characters of Egypt gathered around 160 of the country’s estimated 300,000 tribespeople.

With fewer than 500 tourists attending on each of its three days and a charmingly loose “desert time” schedule (and despite the presence of sponsors like Infiniti and EgyptAir), Characters of Egypt offered illuminating peeps into numerous threatened cultures in an unusually informal setting. But it was also a place where I found myself, like the lady in Tunisia, trying to influence (rather than truly experience) my surroundings.

See, Egypt is rich in those clichéd yet tempting “juxtaposition of old and new/poor and rich/simple and complex” photo ops. From my 15th-floor room in the Conrad Cairo, I could see chickens, geese, and goats foraging amidst satellite dishes on apartment rooftops; from bus windows I noticed rudimentary desert shacks sprouting incongruous Coca-Cola signs; in Luxor, a gaudy knock-off Real Madrid soccer shirt jumped out amidst the monochrome galabiyya robes of Muslims’ prayer. Yet I found myself, camera in hand, trying to orchestrate still more such contrasts at Characters of Egypt: “Excuse me, Mister Bedouin Tribesman–could you put that cigarette back in your mouth for ironic effect?”; “I say, passerby in traditional Egyptian outfit, can you hold that laptop a little higher so it’s in-frame?”

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My attempts at staging these situations were just as distasteful as the woman in Tunisia trying to artificially avoid them. In addition to the cringe-inducing, patronizing/arrogant overtones of such behavior, it’s also self-defeating, as with it we contaminate the very reality we trekked thousands of miles to witness (yes, even poor folks in remote places use cell phones–or would we prefer that they stay in the Stone Age for the benefit of our holiday snaps?). By trying to control what we witness on our travels, we only create fake memories that are more “us” than “them,” and which conform to our comfort zones rather than challenge them. In so doing, we neuter the very mind-expanding, authentic adventure we (presumably) left home for in the first place.

Photos: Paul Rogers

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