On the morning we arrived in Cairo, someone threatened to kidnap me.
Not me individually, but all of us, in fact. Like some distorted welcome nod, on the same day our private jet landed in Egypt’s capital, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri posted a video online urging Egyptians to kidnap Westerners.
Frankly, I am flattered by Al Qaeda’s overestimation of my intrinsic ransom value — and I do not mean to make light of a serious issue or the pain of families and victims of actual kidnappings perpetrated by so-called jihadists. One of the facts of life, like in a movie, is that there will always be bad guys.
Despite all the dangerous things I encounter when traveling, I have never received as many frantic tweets and warning messages as I did that morning in Cairo. Egypt has been in the news a lot lately, and the headlines are not always pleasant . . . but let me tell you what it’s like on the ground.
On my first morning in Luxor, I went for a run along the Nile. It was early and the town was still mostly asleep. Every few blocks I encountered the white-uniformed Tourist Police, most of whom carry automatic rifles. I greeted each one with Salam Alaykum, and they all replied with the heartfelt word, “peace”. Other passersby took note of the foreigner running past and gave me a thumbs up. Some of them cheered at me in English, “Good for you.” Over and over, they let me know how happy they were to see me. I got the impression that right now, there are not many Western tourists running the streets of Luxor.
I am told that outside the Red Sea beach resorts, tourism to Egypt is down 95% since last year’s revolution. For a country that receives nearly a third of its income from tourism, this is a devastating statistic. In a town like Luxor, the well of tourists has run so dry that we enjoyed many of the world’s most famous sites without any of the crowds.
On my very first visit to the Great Pyramids of Giza, as far as I could tell, we were the only Americans around. A few small groups of French and Russians tourists were present but the vast majority of visitors were Egyptians. It happened to be the the third day of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), a time of feasting and family get-togethers. I watched families gather with picnics in Al-Azhar Park and carry flowered wreathes to decorate the graves of relatives.
Cairo was on its best behavior–the streets were unbelievably devoid of traffic and the general mood was festive. in Giza, on this one day, Egyptians enjoyed free admission to the pyramids. And so, my first visit to the pyramids did not resemble any of the tourist-trap scenarios for which I had been warned. Instead, we were surrounded by Egyptian families and young people dressed up in their good clothes, concerned only with having a good time. Their happiness was infectious, so that all of us wanted to be join in the party.
I loved watching Egyptians be tourists in their own country, and as a traveler, I was glad for the chance to meet so many locals. Over and over again, young men would approach me and ask to have their picture taken with me. Afterwards, as if they had practiced the line, they would shake my hand and say, “Welcome to Egypt!”
I remember one boy, Akhmud, who at eight years old was only about as tall as my waist, but he shook my hand with joyful ferocity and beamed before exclaiming, “Welcome to Egypt!” Every single person I encountered was thrilled to meet an American and they all wanted me to take their picture. I was touched by this deliberate show of welcome, so much so that it cancelled out any apprehensions that may have been brewing in the back of my mind.
Yes, visitors should be aware that the country is in the midst of significant political change and democratization. Yes, travelers should always respect local culture values — but, should we stay away from a country because someone who is not even a citizen of that country is tossing around open threats? To do so is to endorse the bad guys’ mission. While Egyptians hope for better government and a better life, the ne’er-do-wells dream of isolating the most populous country of the Arab world from the world at large.
I have mentioned before why totalitarian regimes restrict travel and how travel is one of the greatest human freedoms ever. Today, it is the random terrorist group that wants to stop the good that comes from travel: a strong economy, the interchange of ideas, and the common ground that bridges cultural difference.
But we can’t let this happen.
I will not be terrorized by nincompoops who makes worse YouTube videos than I do. I will not let them hijack an entire nation with their internet threats. The internet is democratic and allows me an equal voice to dispel the opposite message. Thus, I chose to go to Egypt as part of my round-the-world expedition, where I met hundreds of sane, peaceable, level-headed Egyptians who all want the exact same things from life that I do.
The many conflicts in the Middle East are real — you will not see me planning a vacation to Syria this Thanksgiving — but Egypt is not Syria. Egypt is an advanced nation with a sophisticated tourist infrastructure, a very high level of security, and based on my very brief visit, a great desire to move forward. That is why right now is exactly the moment to visit Egypt. I am already planning my return — it’s remarkably inexpensive, the ruins are empty, and the people welcome you with open arms.
Meanwhile, my hometown is being ravaged by a deadly storm, preventing me from returning. At this moment, I have more chance of bodily harm in my hometown that I did back in Egypt. Perceived dangers always appear worse than actual dangers, but I am not going to abandon my home because of a hurricane.
I will not abandon Egypt because a few bad guys tell me to. Just like a hurricane, things might get a bit rough, but in the end, this too will blow away.