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Nicholas Econopouly

January 4, 1999

We returned to Athens from Egypt-Jordan-Israel yesterday. The jet flight from Tel Aviv to Athens took exactly one and one-half hours, same time as the Athens-Cairo flight. Distances are short and it's possible to cover a lot of cultures and countries in minutes or a very few hours.

We spent almost three days in Cairo. It's a big city of 3.5 million people, the largest Arab city in the world. It has an impressive modern airport, wide tree-lined boulevards, big department stores, many very fancy shop windows, and magnificent hotels overlooking the Nile and numerous new industrial plants on the outskirts. It also has a huge population without enough food, decent housing, clothing and an exploding population growth rate. In Greece and other countries we've visited we've had a look at poverty - the word somehow does not seem appropriate to describe the plight of Egypt's poor. The difference, I think, is in terms of numbers - the roofless huts, the narrow and dirty streets, the gaunt faces and limbs, the shabby clothing, all of these are bad enough but the masses of people packing the little villages, swarming out toward the perimeter, overflowing onto the Nile highway, this is what gives the whole thing a look of squalor and desperation absent in so many other poor areas. There's no filotimo here - life holds little dignity - existence is mean, dirty, hopeless - survival comes through the use of your wits, through cunning - the ugliness of poverty, stripped of human pride by the press of numbers, awakens no sense of pity or even sympathy. The sense of revulsion towards the sights, smells and sounds around you leaves little room for anything else.

Egypt is in fact a tiny country - it consists almost exclusively of a narrow green belt on both sides of the Nile and it's here that the population is concentrated. We rented a guide and car and went down the highway along the Nile towards the great pyramids - the land is intensively cultivated but the importance of the Nile is constantly emphasized by the dunes of the desert which can be seen a short distance away. The pyramids are situated at the edge of the desert, where the green suddenly ends up and the sand begins. We visited the Pyramid of Zoser (the "step-pyramid"), the first stone structure in history. It is only a short drive from here to the Great Pyramid of Cheops. It is MASSIVE. You stand at the base of the thing awed by it proportions. We should have been satisfied with that but we decided to get a guide and to into the interior. Entrance is through the "robber's entrance" - a long shaft from the base, perhaps 100 yards along and 3.5 feet high, rising at something like a 30 degree angle to the burial chamber. It's a good argument for good physical education, keeping in condition and all that kind of nonsense. The only way to get up the shaft is to kind of crouch and duck-waddle. It took us three days to recover - during that time every step was agony as badly abused muscles rebelled. The burial chamber? A long narrow room with nothing in it and then the long duck-waddle down again.

We visited a number of other places, including the Sphinx. Most impressive, however, was the Egyptian Museum, filled with its antiquities from the pyramids and tombs of Egypt. Here, too, are the treasures from King Tut-Ankh-Amon's tomb. Unlike the antiquities of Greece, Egypt's are in a remarkable state of preservation, protected as they were beneath the sands of the desert. Also, don't believe that nonsense about Egyptians having little sense of perspective in their art, that they lacked the ability to represent the human form in anything but primitive lines. Their statues in particular are rigidly stylized, stiff, especially those of their kings. But little statues, figurines, paintings, etc. of the common people at work, are as lifelike and well-proportioned as much produced by the Greeks thousands of years later. And their remarkable state of preservation adds to their beauty. The museum was a high-point of our Egyptian visit.

We ate Arab food, tried Egyptian beer, and strolled along the Nile. The hordes of beggars are gone (20 or 30 at a time would surround tourists, beg for money) - but the trinket salesman, shoeshine boys and tour hawkers are all around - and they are numerous, persistent, resourceful and a horrible nuisance. It is difficult to simply look at a show window - the merchant applies his wits to enticing you in, selling you a copper plate, water pipe, wood carving (some of the handicrafts are very, very beautiful and very, very inexpensive.) After a time you view every contact with an Egyptian in Cairo with suspicion and a simple and friendly "hello" by a little Egyptian boy signals your defenses into an alert. It is the problem of the tourist in many parts of the world but much aggravated here by the desperation of concentrated poverty.

We flew to Jordan in a driving rainstorm, made two passes at the airport before landing, a condition we didn't expect to find in this part of the world. We got a hotel room in the Jordanian side of Jerusalem (population 60, 000, as compared to four times that number in the Israeli sector). Hotel space is scarce - reporters, cameramen, technicians are already here preparing for the Pope's visit. We spent almost three days in Jordan and it either rained or SNOWED the entire time. Visits to the Mount of Olives, Bethlehem and Gethsemane were marred by the heavy rain and cold. A visit to the old city of Jerusalem, surrounded by the great wall (you go through one of the gates to enter), was somehow made more fascinating by the heavy snow which fell (and immediately melted). The old city, with its narrow streets, stairs, arches, tiny shops, baklava, halvah, its bazaars, tiny chunks of meat cooking on spits, fruit stands, vegetable markets, (appliance and radio shops!), strange and wonderful sights, sounds and smells, with huge snowflakes falling - this was the highlight of our visit to Jordan. The people are a little shy and friendly once contact is made - they're curious about America, express appreciation for aid we have sent - speak of a dream of visiting the U.S. some day. We liked the Jordanians we met: our impression is one of poor people, of very limited education, bewildered by the complexities of Middle East politics, living on illusions picked up from Cairo radio.

The weirdest experience: riding a Jordanian country bus. Their buses are relics - when bodies rust and being to fall away, new chunks of metal are welded on - new second-hand engines installed and the buses painted magnificent (red, blue, green, etc) colors, all on the bus. The interiors are like the interiors of typical American school buses, a bit tight on space -- but they're also old, old, old, old. Riva and I took a seat in the back. In front of us, dressed in great heavy coats, wearing headdresses, sitting upright, motionless, silent and facing the front, were the other passengers. No one spoke. No one moved. And again we got that feeling, that not unpleasant sensation when you suddenly find yourself enveloped by a totally new and strange situation. (We're all in favor of country buses, by the way - on Greek buses you're surrounded by a kind of town meeting, with debate flying back and forth all around you. The Israeli bus is quite different again - more later).

We saw an Arab refugee village - not a camp but refugees who have moved out of the camp and into little (tiny) stone houses near Bethlehem. Pathetic, pathetic. Many of them make a living by carving little camels, donkeys, really beautiful things by hand and getting five cents each from local merchants - the merchants then sell the same items for $3.00 each to the tourists. We rode along no-man's-land, patrolled by Jordanian troops on this side, Israeli's on the other and white United Nations jeeps scurrying all over in an effort to maintain the precarious peace. In Jerusalem we found ourselves walking along a wall - we learned later it is the wall which separates the Jordanian portion of Jerusalem from no-man's land Israel. Magnificent: the YMCA has just constructed a new building up against the dividing line near the Mandelbaum exit point - they are confident they said, that the peace will preserved.

We went to the American Consulate, next tot he YMCA building and close to the dividing line and Mandelbaum gate, for permission to cross into Israel. We made out an application - an official explained that the Mandelbaum gate is the only crossing point from an Arab country into Israel, the once we had gone into Israel we could not go into an Arab country on the same passport and that the consulate could not guarantee our crossing. Actually, the procedure followed a simple routine: application, 48 hour waiting period, a trip to Jordanian officials for final approval and then the walk across no-man's-land at the Mandelbaum gate. The distance between the Jordanian checkpoint and the Israeli customs house is about a hundred yards. We paused for a moment in the middle, saw the Jordanian troops behind us, the Israel troops ahead and crossed into Israel.

Israel is a miracle.

The contrast astounds you. No guide is needed to show you. The evidence leaps at you from all directions.

We took the bus in Jerusalem for Tel Aviv, an hour-and-a-half ride to the coast from the eastern border.

Jordan's hills are barren. The slopes are almost totally devoid of vegetation. The land, except for occasional flocks of sheep, lies largely unused. The marks of poor country, poor people, poor land, little water are everywhere.

Suddenly, riding in that bus to Tel Aviv, we saw hills covered with vegetation. In the higher places, where food crops cannot be grown, there is spreading pine and grass to hold down the soil. Below this, terrace after terrace, olive trees, grapes, and citrus trees. In the valley below, stretching as far the eye can see, green fields, bright oranges in trees, fat livestock. And in that whole area, whether in the mountains or the plain below, the land, all of it, has been put to work.

What's the difference? Certainly the mountains on the Jordanian side of the border are no different from those on the Israeli side, except in one in stance the soil has been put to work. Land which has long remained unused loses its vitality: it washes away or packs down hard, loses its nutrients - it needs to be rebuilt with mulches, fertilizer. To do this demands hard labor and plentiful supplies of water. The Israelis have the labor, the Jewish refugees from Europe and all over the world. The struggle to recondition the land has been built largely around the struggle to locate new sources of water - this search for water, the location of new sources, is as much a part of the new nations struggle for survival as is the military race with the surrounding hostile nations.

That bus ride was wonderful. It wasn't only the exhilaration of seeing human efforts in the valleys and hillsides succeeding but it was also the atmosphere in the bus itself. It was causal, relaxed. People talking, laughed. You had a feeling that these people were comfortable in the realization that they are succeeding - it was something quite different from the stiffness and silence of the Jordanian bus or the Greeks escape into the pleasures of too-often meaningless talk and debate. In fact, this seemed to be a quality apparent in a larger sense in Israel that existed in microcosm in the bus: casual manners and dress, conversation, cheerfulness. Tel Aviv? -- a very modern city, plenty of trees bordering its streets, a cultural center, the windows of its little shops filled with goods (like Greece, no big department stores here), plenty of automobiles and occasional traffic jams, a wide beach along the Mediterranean. It is also an expensive city for tourists - a symptom of a place whose living standard is rising and already generally high. We understand, however, that there is only one good Jewish delicatessen in the city - we were advised that we could find the best delis in the Bronx, Brooklyn.

We went down to the Negev. It is fascinating because we could see the progression: old settlements around Tel Aviv (prosperous, lush with vegetation, big trees) (these were established in the 1920s) to the newer ones in the Negev (sparse grass, tiny trees, a frontier look) and a graduation of stages in between. The Negev, 60% of Israel, is a great wasteland without water - it has no trees, little vegetation but it is not a desert. The process of making it fertile has begun and tiny settlements with water piped up from deep in the earth, are building little cases of green. Visited Beer Sheva, a frontier-like city with modern buildings on the northern fringe of the Negev - the architecture contrasted in an interesting way with the Bedouins and their camels in the streets. Went on to the Sodom and the Dead Sea - it is dead and cold and has an awful odor, and the surrounding terrain looks like landscape on the moon (just as the guidebook says). The Dead Sea area is, with all its ugliness, booming with industry - phosphates from the sea to be used for fertilizer in the north.

Visited a kibbutz, too: Givat Brennar, an old one (1928) now big, booming and prosperous. Passed numerous agricultural experimentation centers and visited the Weizman Institute of Science. An impressive place - magnificent orchards and gardens, striking modern architecture - a community of scholars doing research in a variety of areas, including atomic energy, development of water resources, agriculture, many more.

Left for Athens the next morning. Great trip. And we're convinced it should be done in exactly that way: Egypt - Jordan - Israel. No problems. We also met Americans of Jewish background following the same route. Unlike what was likely several years ago, they encountered no difficulties.

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