Wednesday, October 24, 2007


because egyptian tourism sites have been terrorist targets ever since the luxor massacre 10 years ago, there's a big show of security here. but, in what seems to be a typical egyptian manner, much of the show turns out to be just that. the special tourism police are stationed in every nook and cranny of any even mildly interesting site. the entrance to just about everything has a metal detector and an x-ray machine, like you see in airport security checkpoints.

but the tourism police mostly just sit around, wait for tourists to come and then whisper promises of special favors (like permitting photos in non-photo areas, or unlocking closed sections of an archaeological site, all for a little baksheesh, of course). and with only a few exceptions, i've always been just waved through the metal detector, even when i set it off (and that's on the rare occasions that the metal detector is turned on). my bag has never been searched, just about anything could be in there.

today was a particularly good example of the senselessness of egyptian security. me and a pair of other travelers i met in luxor decided to go to the al-dakhla oasis, about 350 km due west of luxor in the western desert. there was no bus service there, nor did any shared taxis head in that direction from luxor. so we pooled our resources and hired a guy to drive us as far as the al-kharga oasis and figured that we would take a bus from there.

so this morning at 7:00 a.m. the car showed up and we were off to al-kharga. just after we left luxor, however, we passed a police checkpoint and were forced to pull over because the car had foreigners in it. the driver got out to talk to the police as we waited in the steaming car. eventually the driver returned and said that because we were foreigners we could not proceed without a police escort. so we had to wait until the escort car would show up before we could leave the checkpoint. the escort car would be there in 15 minutes, he promised. "if anyone asks you, say that you are from england" the driver added to me and my czech companions. "i told them that i had three english people in the car. if they knew i had an american, they would say we needed even more security and we will wait here even longer."

45 minutes later, we were still waiting for the escort car. the driver went over to talk to the police again, they talked in their radio, and we waited some more. finally the escort car showed up and we were allowed to leave, the police escort driving just in front of us.

only 5 km down the road, the escort car turned off onto a side road and waved us on to go ahead without them. "they were just escorting us until their superior officer couldn't see us anymore. they don't want to go into the desert." which was all well and good until we got to the next checkpoint and they wanted to know where our escort was. this caused another 15 minutes sitting by the side of the road as the police made several frantic calls to find out what to do. eventually, they decided they didn't want to deal with us anymore--and they certainly didn't want to drive out into the desert with us--so they waived us on. we passed through several more checkpoints on our three hour trip through the desert. each time the driver rolled down the window and said "talat ingileezi". and each time the officer manning the check point would seem to briefly think about what to do with us before just waving us on.

at the checkpoint just outside kharga, we got another escort. they followed us all the way to the bus stop and stayed with us when our car and driver left us there and drove away. it was a contingent of 6 officers, 5 in uniform and one plain clothed guy who seemed to be in charge of the others. we had an hour and a half for the next bus, so we decided to walk to a nearby restaurant to get lunch. the plain clothed guy walked with us, and the police car drove slowly behind us the whole way to the restaurant. inside the restaurant the officers hung around as we ate and then followed us back to the bus station and stood around us as we waited for the bus.

they didn't go away until about ten minutes before the bus arrived. as they drove off, seemingly for no reason, i said to my czech companions, "i guess we're safe now." luckily the cops don't seem interested in following us around here in dakhla. but when we checked into our hotel we were asked to write out a statement saying that we do not want a police escort in this oasis.