Our tour guide’s name is Alaa al-Din, but he asks us to call him ‘Aladdin.’ My mother jokes that he must normally take the hearing-impaired around the Valley: he raises his voice, spaces his words, and repeats most phrases. He begins each sentence with ‘Excuse me’ to get your attention, and ends with an affable, mock-naive nod, or maybe a tap on the knee if you’re nearby. He has a slightly lazy eye, minor lisp, shaved head, skinny frame, and a laugh like a sputtering motor. “Excuse me, if you want to go to the extra sites, no problem. It will cost one hundred pounds, no problem… the extra sites, if you want to go… it will cost one hundred pounds. No problem.” Affable nod.
He tells me that Luxor used to get upwards of 6000 tourists a day. Then came the 90’s and the terrorist attacks, and those who came had to move around in a bureaucratically lead-footed police convoy. Then came September 11th, 2001 (and word that Al Qaeda’s number two hailed from Egypt). And then, a decade later, the revolution. Now, Aladdin says, 800 tourists a day is an optimistic figure. “This is why people are desperate. They only know how to make money from one thing, tourism, and there are no tourists.” Aladdin diversified. He learned how to give tours of Petra, in Jordan, and teach diving classes on the Red Sea.
Others did not diversify. Luxor today is a frantic scramble to please the few People With Money who show up. From the train station, where they are assailed by offers for cheap rooms and extras (A/C, swimming pool, breakfast, internet, tea, coffee, tour fixing, snacks, donkeys, camels, first born sons), they proceed to the street, where they are offered carriage rides and felucca trips for pennies (“Please. Twenty pounds. Ten Pounds. Five Pounds. One Pound. One Pound!). They climb into a cab and are offered rides to cities three and six hours away. Egyptians often talk about their peoples’ natural hospitality. In Luxor, this self-promoted national trait drifts into huckstering promotion of a weirdly vaudeville type, as if everyone is trying to make Luxor look like a Disney version of the Orient. Occasionally, the façade comes down: I did a double-take upon hearing one carriage driver clearly pronounce, in English, “Open your hand!”
The wax and wane of tourism affects more than just the tourism industry. On the road to the monuments near Luxor, farmers must keep their sugar cane fields three hundred meters from the road, because gunmen used to hide and snipe at tourists from the tall stalks. This means less cultivatable land. Hotels no longer buy bulk subscriptions to English language newspapers, which means that tourism companies don’t pay for advertising, or pay less.
The village of Qurna, however, has been hit harder than any lateral industry. Qurna sits at the foot of a mountain near the Valley of the Kings, and the Mubarak government believed that the draining water and sewage produced by the villagers might damage the tombs. “The foreign press picked up on this,” wrote journalist Jill Kamil in Al Ahram Weekly, “and justified the demolition of the houses by propagating a myth that the Qurnawis were thieves who traditionally pillaged artifacts to sell to tourists and who had done terrible damage to the tombs.” UNESCO did not buy that narrative, and offered each family in the village 40,000 Euros to relocate. The money had to go through the Mubarak-era Department of Antiquities, and they ended up with a mere 10,000 pounds per family. UNESCO no longer supports the move, and today, Qurna is a ghost town.
We arrive at the Colossi of Memnon, two statues of Amenhotep III and hop out of the air-conditioned van into the piercing heat. Several very young children, who give their ages as between eight and twelve, flock to us to sell scarabs and plastic necklaces. An older man swats them away, and then offers to take our picture for a few pounds. Aladdin points up at the statue, whose face has been eroded by the wind, forcing the late Pharaoh into a cubist humility.
Back in the air-conditioning, my mother chats up with a man about where in the world they’ve seen the worst poverty. My mother thinks it was in Giza, on the way to the Pyramids, but he disagrees, for he has been south of the Sahara.
As they finish categorizing the third world, Aladdin takes up the first. “How do you tell an Australian in Egypt?” he asks. Before anyone ventures an answer, they get one: “Because he has a drink in each hand! How do you tell a Japanese?” Pause. “He has an umbrella in one hand and a camera in the other.” The stand-up routine rolls on. “How do you tell an American?...He pretends to be Canadian!” And finally, perhaps the most poetic of all the tourist typecasting: “How do you tell a Russian?...She is almost naked, bottle of vodka in one hand, and wearing high heels…like a ballerina in the desert.”
“These are stereotypes. But they are all a little bit true.” Affable nod. Tap on the knee.
Before we get to the Valley of the Kings, we pass a small village and stop for a moment to admire the front of a yellow house. A photograph of this yellow house appeared on the cover of the 2008 Lonely Planet guidebook. “We could stop for pictures,” Aladdin tells us, “But the family who lives there has gotten annoyed, because everyone who comes by stops for a picture.”
Photo: Aladdin points to a pile of hands, by Emily Smith