Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Battle of the Pyramids

Are the Pyramids of Giza, the only existing wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, destined to lose their air of divinity and serenity? Areeje Hindi investigates

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The Pyramids of Giza invariably hog the limelight of ancient Egypt, topping all other Pharaonic monuments and sites. Since time immemorial, tourists have travelled to Egypt to view these miraculous relics of history with their own eyes.

Sadly for Egypt, however, tourist numbers have been on a bumpy decline ever since the terrorist attack of 1997 in Luxor, and because of the modern notion of Islamophobia following 9/11 they never regained momentum. Moreover, with the Egyptian revolution and the lack of security and instability in which it left the country, the number of tourists is lower even than at previous bad times, which leaves the pedlars by the Pyramids in worse shape than ever.

"Something needs to be done as soon as possible about tourism, otherwise we will not have any food to put on the table," says Salem Mohamed, a vendor on the site. "This is not a life. Egypt should be the leading country in tourism."

Visitors to the Sphinx and Pyramids frequently complain about being irritated by the incessant cries of, "Come here sir, very good price!" The interruptions mean they cannot breathe in the beauty of the Pyramids in peace. The touts and pedlars are desperate to make money from the tourists through the exotic services and goods they offer, from camel and horse rides to cheap souvenirs, or even having their pictures taken.

Although the offers are occasionally interesting, most of the tourists are annoyed by the way the touts push themselves into their groups. "They don't leave you alone once you set foot in about a 100m radius of the Pyramids," British tourist Maria Hartman said. "They approach you very closely and don't understand the concept of privacy as is in the West." From the vendors' point of view, however, this kind of encounter is perceived to be friendly and inviting rather than an ambush.

The Giza Plateau was en empty space on the day of my visit, but the road leading up to it was already buzzing with the hum of hassling. No less than seven men came running to my car from all directions, trying to force me to park in a certain area, and of course hoping to get lucky and be the recipient of the small tip I would probably hand over. Then they could become even more friendly and get their hands on me for the whole visit, metaphorically speaking.

The plateau was becoming crowded; there were at least four tours of different nationalities with their tour guides. I saw that the touts were waiting to pounce on the tour guides. They were like competitors in a race waiting for the sound of the gunshot. When I asked vendor Mohamed Hussein why they were in such a great rush, he said, "If I am not the first to approach them then I might not have a chance for the whole day. You see, these few tours can be the only ones all morning. Since the revolution it has been bad."

One problem the vendors create for themselves is the amount of money they demand compared with the value of the items. Prompted by that same desperation, more often than not, they ask for much higher prices than they should. If the tourists are aware of this mechanism, they are left feeling even more annoyed.

"The value of the Egyptian pound is probably less than any Western currency, and so most of us will not mind being robbed of a certain amount, but the amounts they ask us for are extreme," said Christopher Hanes, who was walking around the plateau with his family. Hanes said it was his third visit to Egypt, and he found it easier to buy nothing rather than stand there for 15 minutes trying to strike a bargain.

I find this point interesting. I had always wondered about it, and so I asked one of the vendors straight out why they asked for so much money.

"I think this is normal. I hear that in other places the natives are not treated like the tourists, and here in Egypt too. Like the museum or the Cairo Tower, they view it as a problem because it is not legalised on paper right here," vendor Mina Boulos replied. "It would be a lot smarter, though, for them to have a united quota of how much money to ask for each activity, and this way it would seem professional and civilised rather than a big chaos."

Worst of all is when a vendor tries physically to touch a tourist, which happens constantly. This grabbing a shoulder and pulling a person towards a certain stand is viewed completely differently through the eyes of each of the parties involved.

On the one hand the vendor is trying out of desperation to persuade the tourist to buy his products rather than the other man's, but he does not understand that this gesture is not considered acceptable in other cultures. On the contrary, the tourist sees that touch as a form of physical aggression.

"What really got on my nerves was when one of the men tried to pull me to see something. I couldn't control myself any more and screamed my guts out," tourist Victoria Engue told me as she boarded the bus back to her hotel.

When I tried talking to the vendors, all they wanted to discuss was how little they were making in a week, and how most of them were looking to put bread on the table. They also faced the problem of being constantly chased by the police for their licences and registrations, which most of them do not have because they cannot afford to be registered because they would have to pay taxes.

"See, to get rid of us they say that we should stay away now with our horses and camels, because of a new development project, but after the revolution no one says anything. The policemen themselves sometimes don't find anything to do for days, and they just sit there too," another vendor, Mansour Arabi, said. When I asked about the way they approached people, they claimed that otherwise the tour guides said how much of a rip-off they were, and said they would not get any money out of them.

Tourists love coming here, but they surely do not understand why the vendors enter their peaceful space and ruin their enjoyment. It would be best for both to find a middle ground. Whereas the tourist might tolerate relatively bearable interruptions, the touts need to be more discrete by listening to what the tourist wants. It does not have to be a battle.

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