Saturday, November 12, 2011

An Egyptian in Texas, 1975

On Friday, Egyptian authorities closed down the Pyramids, citing “necessary maintenance.” The real reasons had been spreading for several days. Rumors and scattered articles had been saying that a New Age group from Poland wanted to hold a “meditation ‘ceremony of love’ to strengthen the power of the pyramid in that special day (11-11-2011) to save the earth from cosmic threats.” (This is according to a state-owned newspaper called, Al-Ahram, which means The Pyramids).

At the newspaper office where I have been writing, this story got a lot of laughs. Ancient Egypt and its mysteries, while they exert a hold on the fascination of many, have very little to do with contemporary Egypt. Sometimes modern leaders are called Pharaohs, and sometimes there is a heated political battle over antiquities. But in essence, the connection between modern daily life in Egypt and the great cultural associations the rest of the world has with Egypt is a thin one. Many Egyptians, maybe even most, have not visited the Pyramids, and they are as likely to don a headdress as I, a native-born Texan, am likely to pack my six-shooters and go rope cattle.

In this way, I think Egypt and Texas have something special in common. Both exist with a firm divide between their real history and the Hollywood version. Countless people I’ve met in the Middle East have heard of three places in the U.S.: New York, California, and Texas. Several times the name of my home state has elicited hands formed into guns and joking shouts of “bang-bang!” When I was young, my parents took me to Turkey, and the concierge at our hotel in Istanbul asked us to send him back a ten-gallon hat.

In 1975, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was trying to curry favor with American leaders. Two years before, he had led the attack against Israel to retake the Sinai peninsula, but soon after his real goal became to open up Egypt to Western economic markets. He made a diplomatic trip with his wife Jehan to the U.S., which included 23 hours in Texas. The lead sentence from the New York Times article about the visit was not about policy or negotiations:

Nov. 1-- Texans showed President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt here today how they used to rob banks. They introduced him to some make-believe "soiled doves," or prostitutes, of the Wild West, gave him a Colt .45 six-shooter and made him an honorary Texas Ranger.

The Associated Press had more details:

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ended a 23-hour Texas visit filled with barbeque, banquets, space ships and cowboys Saturday and carried away with him a glimpse of the technological future and a rememberance [sic] of the more lycrical [sic] past.

Jehan Sadat
Sadat and his wife were guests of honor Saturday at a rodeo, horse show and mock shootout at the Glenlock Farms Arabian horse spread north of Houston. He also lunched on Texas barbeque.

Host Hugh Roy Marshall held the western show in his huge dirt-floored show barn and the Egyptian president and his wife seemed to enjoy immensely the ridin’, ropin’, and wrangling’.

This wonderful nugget is from Texas Monthly:

Marshall says the Secret Service found one live round while examining the blank cartridges to be used in the reenactment, which must have done little to reassure them. Even Sadat seemed ‘ a little bit jolted’ when both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun were fired simultaneously, recalls Marshall.

Of course, when American politicians visit Egypt, they see the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, which is filled with Ancient artifacts. Texans, apparently, wanted to give Sadat a full, light and sound depiction of the mythology associated with their state, as a place of bank robbers, cattle rustlers, and sharp shooters. But slipped in among the cultural pageantry, one could see the beginnings of the very serious, diplomatic exchanges that would pave the way for subsequent history:

“Marshall, in making a presentation to Sadat, deplored the disparity between the numbers of U.S. weapons supplied to Israel and to Egypt. He then gave Sadat a 100-year-old Texas Rangers pistol which he said was ‘an installment on the defensive arms that will be given to Egypt. Just as Texas Rangers used this pistol to put an end to lawlessness and injustice, so may it serve Egypt.”

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