By Faridoon Shahryar
"Please help me," was a frequent request from local vendors at some of the most celebrated tourist spots in Cairo, Aswan, Edfu and Luxor during my recent trip to Egypt where I represented Bollywood Hungama for the fourth 'India by the Nile festival' recently. I covered this festival last year as well but I could see a marked difference. The Egyptian Tourism officials were very cautious in allowing us to venture out on our own due to security reasons but this year we frequently stepped out on our own, moved around in taxis in the hustle bustle of Cairo, one of the most populated cities in the world. Even though the atmosphere was relatively more relaxed, I witnessed a crisis situation in Egypt from close quarters.
When we visited the famed Pyramids or the historic Valley of the Kings in Luxor, I was shocked by the sheer paucity of tourists. I invariably compared it to last year, and I noticed there's an alarming decline in the tourists trickling in. Friday is a holiday in Egypt and the Valley of the Kings should ideally have been packed but it wore a deserted look. The local vendors flocked any trace of tourists that they eyed and desperately tried to sell them their cheap imitations of various tourist attractions of Egypt or the famous Gods and Goddesses. The desperation is so much that they came down to the most ridiculous of prices. The vendors outside the majestic Sphinx started quoting prices in dollars and then they came down to asking for Indian rupees and that too a paltry sum for a wooden memento.
The security outside all the world heritage sites like the Pyramids in Cairo, the unfinished Obelisk in Aswan, Temple of Edfu, Temple of Kom Ombo or the Valley of the Kings cut a sorry picture. The x ray machines at these sites were either not working or looked too jaded, the reason being the drought of tourists Egypt is experiencing. Our tour guide Ahmad told me that Egypt was earning a foreign exchange revenue worth 20 billion dollars before the first revolution in 2010 but post the two revolutions and the cloud of uncertainty encircling Egypt due to the political situation, last year the foreign exchange earned through tourism fell to half a billion dollars. Indian Ambassador to Egypt Mr Sanjay Bhattacharya told us during a media briefing that around 4 million Russian tourists thronged Egypt each year. "Russian tourists were of the 50$ a night kind but just imagine when that 50$ is multiplied by 4 million. When the Russian plane crashed in Sinai under mysterious conditions, the Russian tourists dried down to zero. It has hit Egypt badly," Mr Bhattacharya said.
One common greeting that I received from Egyptians was, "Welcome to Egypt, your second country." If I was dismayed by the utter lack of audience for amazing historic locations, I was amazed by the sheer warmth that Egyptians have for Indians. The moment they identify you as an Indian, a broad smile welcomes you. They are gregarious and vivacious by nature. Subtlety escapes them and expressiveness occupies the general aura around. There is a tremendous craze for Bollywood in Egypt. "Amitabh Bachchan is next to God in Egypt," Sanjay Bhattacharya informed me during an interview. Big B is the universal favourite in Egypt, be it the cities like Alexandria or Cairo or smaller towns like Aswan and Luxor. Shah Rukh Khan is another huge favourite and so is Salman Khan. The Indian television serials are very popular in Egypt. I was dumb founded with the mad craze for television stars like Barun Sobti (his fans spammed my Facebook comments section and the mentions on twitter). Mr Bhattacharya admitted that he had never heard the name of Sanaya Irani, a television actor, who got a big welcome in Egypt during her recent trip.
I was impressed with the unexpected liberal stance in Egypt. I found women to be rather progressive. There is a marked French influence and maybe that is responsible for the way many women dress. In fact many Egyptians have dual citizenship, Egyptian and French. I asked a tour guide that how do Egyptians reconcile to the fact that Egypt has an ancient history that celebrates Gods, Goddesses and historical structures but at the same time it is a country with primarily a Muslim population. Islam prohibits idol worship. So, how do Egyptians relate to their glorious ancient past vis a vis the Islamic dictates? I didn't get a convincing answer.
As the days went by, I was surprised by the warmth that came my way from the local Egyptians. I made many friends and packed in gifts of broad smiles as I headed back home. I have never received so much love as I received in Egypt but there is something that's still bothering me. The cry of "please help me" and the deserted magnificent monuments continue to haunt me.
Faridoon Shahryar is the content head broadband for Bollywood Hungama