Column

The pyramids, live and in color from Egypt (or maybe the CBC)

Barbara Amiel February 11 1980
Column

The pyramids, live and in color from Egypt (or maybe the CBC)

Barbara Amiel February 11 1980

The pyramids, live and in color from Egypt (or maybe the CBC)

Column

Barbara Amiel

Ever think of what would happen if the CBC were given a whole country to run? This tantalizing thought occurred to me as I picked up a recent CBC memo. “Yesterday 15 pages of corrections to the Toronto internal telephone directory were distributed. Revised pages for the directory will be issued in the near future. The corrections, therefore, may be regarded as redundant.”

The CBC is part of Canada’s culture but, praise be, it isn’t all of it. Egypt, from which I returned last month, is the CBC. This simple but illuminating fact has so far eluded most Egyptologists. Of course, one should not holiday in Cairo and complain because it isn’t New York or Paris. When travelling anywhere I expect to be the one to make any necessary cultural adjustments—that’s only fair.

But it is an equally fair observation that, for better or worse, cultures are 5' largely responsible for g their own state of affairs. £

It is an old Eastern cul§ tural tradition that an official is better than a mere member of the public. It is a tradition of socialism that almost everybody is an official. Egypt is both Eastern and socialist.

Bonnie, a terrifyingly beautiful black woman from Atlanta, is spending her fifth day in Cairo without her luggage. Bonnie is not alone. Thirteen other members of her tour contingent have been trying in vain to dislodge their luggage from airport officialdom. They already have 13 of the 17 pieces of paper necessary in Egypt to entitle you to your own possessions. The other four are receding like Einstein’s universe. They will retrieve their bags only on the day of their departure—after discreet payments.

Payments. On the drive to El Faiyûm, an oasis 60 miles southwest of Cairo, my taxi driver gets out his money, as he may well do, having charged me £3(about $5.40(extra for driving a Mercedes.(This fee was negotiated by—and eventually split with—the Tourist Police, thoughtfully provided by the government to

prevent rip-offs of foreigners.) Anyway, the driver takes out his (my) money in order to give baksheesh to the soldiers. There are eight checkpoints between Cairo and El Faiyûm through which all cars must pass for reasons known only to the Sphinx—or maybe the CBC. In the end the money is not required because at three of the checkpoints the soldiers are asleep. This, incidentally, indicates that security can hardly be the reason for the checkpoints’ existence. On the way back to Cairo, by the light of the starlit desert sky, I can see trucks full of

oranges parked at the checkpoints, and drivers and soldiers abusing each other with gusto. Next morning when I cannot get orange juice for breakfast in this land of citrus groves, I understand.

There is a shortage of toilet paper in my hotel. The one roll extant is guarded by the chief attendant and her two assistants. (Don’t ask why two of the three are not engaged in the manufacture of toilet paper.) All three are government employees and therefore officials; I am only a member of the public in need. My choices are (a) to be abject or (b) to use one of the memos that I might need for retrieving my luggage, it being the type of paper for which there is never any shortage. Unlike, one might add, newsprint for the one opposition newspaper in Cairo, which is closed down this week.

When the phone actually rings in the office of Canada’s commercial counsel, Larry Dickenson, everyone is electrified. “I’d better take it,” says Dickenson, interrupting the interview. “If

somebody actually got through it must be important.” Thirty seconds into the conversation the line goes dead. “Well, at least we did talk,” says Dickenson happily. This isn’t the point, however. The point is the daily accounts in the government press proudly announcing additions to the improved telephone service. It would probably be treason to print that the telephone service is lousy, punishable by the withholding of your weekly ration of toilet paper.

If anybody were to conclude from this that I disliked Egypt, they would be wrong. They would be equally wrong to think that if the CBC were to run Canada, our version would be better. Far from it. Egypt is saved from an utter bureaucratic nightmare by the sense of humor, patience and shrewd individualism of its handsome and likable people. Canadians might not have all these sterling qualities to pit against Head Office should we ever exchange the Rule of the Market for the Rule of Planning by Memo.

The son et lumière show at the pyramids is beautiful but at night it is freezing in the desert. The German tourists have rented all the available blankets. The French watch the show from behind the glass windows of a nearby restaurant, sipping Pernod and murmuring, “Incroyable.” Cleverest are the Japanese who arrive dressed in heavy overcoats and earmuffs.

I pay my admission and shiver. A kindly Arab leads me to an outofservice lounge overlooking the show. It is warm and filled with comfortable chairs. Gratefully, I sit down.

“That’s five pounds,” says the Good Samaritan.

“No.”

“Three pounds.” I shake my head.

“Two pounds and I guard you. Pyramids very old.”

I go back outside into the freezing desert. It is only my second night in Egypt. Pity. A week later I would have given him his 500 piastres and we would both have been content.