Well, to say I am disappointed would be an understatement. But to be honest, I’m not surprised! I knew it was going to happen but I had hoped someone might have used their minds in the right direction!
After the meeting in the Sofitel in Luxor last week (blog link below) I wondered which people would be asked to be on the committee. I had hoped that they would do something different, like really acknowledge that they live in a country full of disempowered people, a huge percentage of whom live below the poverty line, and that its not all about tourism!
Sitting there in the hotel and listening to the complaints which people had about living in Luxor, and there were many, I felt extremely uncomfortable. There were lots of levels of discomfort and awareness. I knew we were being used for something. That’s the way things are here. We were there to help the powers that be with their objectives and ‘our ex-pat’ needs would be addressed in return! It reminded me of when I first came to live here. Because I am ‘European’ (Actually I’m Irish) I was suddenly in great demand. Why? Because I had money, connections and expertise! Or so they believed! They wanted me to build them a website and market their goods for them and I would get a commission. They wanted me to set up an online shop for them and help them sell their alabaster products in Europe. Eager to please I set it up for them and never heard another word.
The reality was that they thought, because I was not Egyptian, that I was ‘loaded’ and had way better contacts etc. I could make them a fortune. NOT. During my first few months here that was how people saw me. I was a means to an end. And this meeting in the Sofitel felt no different. “Oh we’ll give you something back but really we are using you for own ends. We don’t really care about you”.
As a European wife, marrying an Egyptian man, it was expected that we would go into the tourism business too. ‘Cos that’s what you do right? Initially I was pulled along into this ‘fantasy’ as well, but after a number of failed attempts at running hotels, which never actually materialised because people were too greedy, I gave up. I didn’t want to be part of the tourist industry at all. I had worked in the ‘hospitality industry’ all of my life and I hated it. Why would I do it now? Tourists could be very hard work!!! My husband had worked in the same industry too and for him marrying a European woman was all about business opportunities. He was ashamed of being a farmer, thinking that it made him less of a man. Apparently if you marry a poor European woman, then there is a shame factor to this. It means your skills as a ‘fisherman’ are not very good!!! If you marry a ‘wealthy’ European woman then you have to have the car and the business to show for it! We have neither! People here think that we have millions in the bank but that we hide it by living a farmer’s life! My husband still ‘drives to work’ on his donkey cart! I want to go with him to the fields too, on the cart, but people here are horrified at the idea! “A European woman? On a donkey cart?” What do they think, that I had a BMW in the UK? I grew up in the country in Ireland. I know donkey carts! I will do it this winter, no matter what my neighbours think!!!
But it took even him two years to really trust that I knew what I was talking about. Now he is proud to be a farmer and puts all of his energy into it. He recognises the value of the land, not as a financial issue but as a fulfilment issue, something which raises self-esteem, and helps others to boot!! If only he could get everybody to do this….
The other part which made me feel uncomfortable at the meeting was that our needs, as ex-pats, were somehow more important than the Egyptian’s needs. Those normal people, not involved in the tourist industry, who live in poverty, and struggle everyday of their lives. Those people who work within the tourist industry in Luxor and who are exploited to make a few people at the top lots of money. I felt nearly embarrassed hearing the demands being made by us ex-pats, knowing how difficult it is for the Luxor people to survive. Fair enough we live here, but I sometimes feel like we expect too much from a country, which is so damaged, psychologically and physically. We chose to live in this country and many, to be fair, have good intentions for the people of Luxor, putting their money and expertise where it will be most helpful, but there are so many who are self-serving and who have no idea how people really live in Luxor, or who don’t care. They have tourist businesses here, that’s what they care about.
I live in my husband’s family home. We live a normal Egyptian life. My husband’s family struggle to live and to pay the bills. Their lives are hard so we help them in whichever we can. We only have a small income ourselves. But we give half of this away to support the family in paying for food on a monthly basis, and to make sure the kids get food for school lunches. We live like they live. No luxuries, except for my yarn, which I cannot live without! Since I have been here I have been doing things a little differently so that they could see the possibilities and the opportunities to be more abundant, whilst still being independent. They have a garden and two small fields. Both of which were growing sugar cane. Now, my husband uses one of those fields to grow animal and human food. We bought a cow and a couple of sheep, female all. I couldn’t understand the idea of buying male sheep, feeding them and then selling them at a profit, when you could have ewes and their babies, selling the babies for the profit, but you still have the ewes.
My husband’s family all came from farming stock so how come they didn’t know basic farming and animal husbandry? Had they forgotten it all? No, they had become disempowered over the years and lost the ability to care for themselves. To my mind they were surrounded by abundance but they just didn’t see it. They own quite a large property, which started out as a small plot of land and a mudbrick house, but which slowly grew over the years, until they now have two large buildings, one of which we live in.
Downstairs it is still mud floors and blue-painted walls but the upstairs flats have ceramic and AC. But still pretty basic. They have a small front garden, and a larger plot out the back, the original plot, which they use to grow trees and food for animals and the house. When I first came here a couple of years ago we took over some of the garden so that we could grow veges. No-one believed anything would grow. I had been growing my own veges for over 20 years so I knew what I was doing. We grew potatoes, and onions and lots of spinach and herbs. All of the things which they normally buy at the souk. I couldn’t understand why they were spending their precious pennies at the souk when they could grow their own food. No-one believed us but we did it anyway. Two years later they grow food all the time and now we also grow it in the field. Little by little, when they see something working they will do it. But they won’t risk it until it is proven. They don’t even see the possibility of it until it is shown to them.
Now we have all of the men in the family buying ewes and growing food. The nice thing about this family is that they always share with their neighbours and when those neighbours, bad-eyes notwithstanding, see what can be done they start to get ideas of how they can do the same. To my mind tourism only benefits certain members of society and when tourism goes it effects them in a huge way, because they are too dependent on it.
I grew up in Spain as a young teenager and had a really difficult time as a result of the growing tourism industry there and all of the abuse that came with it. All of the land disappeared under apartment blocks and hotels and then, when the tourists stopped coming the market collapsed, and they were left with empty buildings and no money. For the last few years that has been my fear for Luxor too. I learned that land, for growing food, was far more valuable and sustainable than tourism, which can be such a fickle market. Yes tourism, when managed well, can be a boost, but don’t sell out to it. It doesn’t last forever. This country is dependent enough already, on the army, the government handouts and food subsidies, etc. What would benefit the people more is to learn that self-sufficiency, education and inter-dependence is a safer and more community-building endeavour than relying on tourist money and all of the corruption it brings with it.
I also believe that when a person feels that they are truly taking care of their own needs and their families needs, through their own hard work, that their sense of self worth also rises. That is more important to Egypt than tourism.
I was disappointed, at the announcement of the new committee members to see how many tourist business people were on it. I only personally know one of them so I can’t say anything about who they are as people but if they have vested interests then I don’t see how how this committee will make any difference to lives of everyday Egyptians. It feels too self-serving. I was saddened also that the charities came third on the list . “The purpose is 1) promoting tourism 2) helping ex-pats 3) supporting charities.” The majority of people chosen to be on the committee are all people within the tourist industry and stand to benefit from this. They were not people who were interested in really helping Luxor in a way which would teach them how to look after themselves. And that, to me, is a failure. A failure to live in an Egyptian reality and a failure to the Egyptians themselves. I know it is not easy to live ‘like an Egyptian’, I’ve struggled with it too, but if we are to truly help them then we have to know them. Otherwise we are not truly helping them, but serving ourselves. That is ok, so long as the demands we make are not above and beyond what the Egyptian people themselves can make, and we know they have very little power to make any demands.
So I will attend the meetings to keep abreast of what is developing. But I will stay as I am, doing my own work quietly and independently. I’m not a group person. But good luck to them anyway. I hope they get what they want, and in the meantime we will continue with our farming and our animals and our lovely home-grown veges!