Gently drifts the river in paradise

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 3 2011

Philip Whitfield

ASWAN: Are we entering an epoch, experiencing an enigma, or engaging in an episode? Ismail Sawi’s brushstrokes lovingly anointing a canvass in the nook of a courtyard could be preserved for posterity, cover a crack on the wall or fetch a bob or two from passersby seeking keepsakes.

History be the judge. Journeymen artists like Ismail, his father and countless sires were engaged to doll up neighboring walls these past 5,000 years. In the Philae Temple theirs is the depiction of Isis, the eternal mother, matron of nature.

It was a job to those artists, probably paying less than minimum wage. Now, you’d need a Pharaoh’s ransom for an authentic thumbnail.

The value of inspiration is fungible. Dying of thirst in the desert, a traveler’s flask of water is worth the sum of all the pelf looted from Egypt. Stirrups gave warrior horsemen the edge to outrun peasants. The Internet was a flash in the pan.

Value is the tourism industry’s bone of contention. Is Egypt a cheap sun-and-sand holiday, a respite from Gulf torrefaction – both driven by volume sales? Or, a cultural experience  – an added value proposition? Can someone come up with a plan that unites both and excites the imagination of people all around the world to come to Egypt?

Egypt is focusing on its unique selling point…as is Spain, Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, the Seychelles, Bali and Mexico. The list is endless.

History may well will record the projection of new Egypt began in this paradisiacal place amid the bougainvillea and the lush palms that rise majestically all around – in Koti and Siou, the fascinating Nubian villages.

A gathering of experts from the worldwide tourism industry, academics and sympathizers celebrating World Tourism Day ponders this thesis: tourism is a significant factor in establishing peaceful coexistence. Cultural disharmony evaporates once people of diverse attitudes share their experiences.

The idea to ask the United Nations to consider this issue in Aswan was the Minister of Tourism’s, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, who wasn’t a passive observer, as ministers of yore were apt to be. From dawn to dusk and then some he engaged delegates in rigorous discussion on stage and throughout a blizzard of TV, radio and press interviews. He’s a trooper.

Creating new jobs is Egypt’s top priority. Tourism’s burden among the three sectors that bring in most foreign money is to conserve Egypt’s heritage, offer an experience that draws repeat visitors and provides sustainable, worthwhile jobs.

The two other big foreign earners have it relatively easy. The Suez Canal’s cash flows are as predictable as its lock gates opening and closing to allow the convoys through. Oil and natural gas exploration waxes and wanes on the whims of speculation and demand.

Tourists are capricious. They groan about Greece because of pandemonium at the Parthenon. They shun Spain, umbrageous about their beaches and beer. They avoid Italy, distaining a libidinous libertine. They can’t afford Germany. Their bête noir is French hoitytoity. They circumnavigate Croatia because it hasn’t made some school atlases yet.

Egypt is cursed by media transmissions. One day Tahrir Square gushes euphoria; the next it’s a specter of bluster, bullyboys and batons. The image Egypt presents abroad is poorly handled.

The goodwill generated by Tahrir is being staunched by stern-faced poker faces issuing terse pronouncements. Gone are the youthful smiles that captured our hearts; the adorable face-painted kids, the mums who left their kettles on the stove to scald suppression. The cantankerous that morphed into pussycats.

The public is assured that the numbers of tourists are returning to normal. Is that the right measure? How should the economic value of tourism be evaluated?

It has nothing to do with numbers aggregated by counting border crossings. An Al Qaida operative is counted in. Is his spending – presumably on explosives, rocket launchers and ammunition – counted as foreign inward direct investment? Or a tripper’s splurge? Is a pair of jeans counted equally with a medium-range ballistic missile?

Tourism’s value is not numeric. It is the unreckonable virtue of the human contact that underlies the exchange of cultures.

My generation is the product of the enlightenment of those who proclaimed European unity. I’m among the first generation of Brits not to be enlisted to murder Europeans.

My parents saved ten shillings a week for a year so that I might line up before my primary school teacher every Monday and have credit recorded in a notebook. At the end of the year, I clambered aboard a steam train, then a cross-channel ferry and lay my head down with thousands of fellow 11-year-olds on a pillow above a Bruges bistro. My buddy was in Germany; classmates were in France and Italy.

The UK establishment began the process of cultural exchange to expunge the victors’ flaunt, to open young eyes to the endowment of creation, the futility of war. The accomplishment of the cohesion of states formed to prevent war has strengthened Europe. Antagonists argue, allies in abatement, not aligned with annihilation.

The unanimous resolution of the expert panelists here in Aswan is that durable tourism exists and grows when sun-and-sand is accompanied by linking cultures.

That throws the Egyptian tourist experience into an entirely new perspective. It plays to Egypt’s strength: legendary hospitality and even-handed generosity. You could argue that Egyptians have been too hospitable to invaders. You could say that a little resistance would have avoided the complexities of its foreign relations.

The revolution’s subtext is let bygones be bygones: look to the future. Amen to that. If Hillary Clinton can bury the hatchet with the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow travelers on a walkabout in Tahrir Square so should Egypt be prepared to consider new attitudes towards former adversaries and new relationships with those who seek to help.

That’s what was agreed in Aswan. Egypt will present the face of its people to the world –the elixir of Tahrir Square’s ecstasy. Each frame on TV was as telling as a portrait of Isis or Horus, of Ra, Hathus, Geb, Seth and Anubis. The images of Tahrir are contemporary history as indelible as the scratching on the Aga Khan Mausoleum, the Monastery of St. Simeon and the Tombs of the Nobles, the Unfinished Obelisk, the Kalabsha Temple or the Temple of Philae, where the ghost of Osaris rests.

The marketing is focused to promote the benefits of interacting with Egyptians, Abdel Nour said. The new campaign validates the expressions from Tahrir: the gentleness of a country that sings its babes to sleep with the River Lullaby:

Drift on a river that flows through my arms. Drift as I’m singing to you. I see you smiling, so peaceful and calm…

Here in my arms, safe from all harm. Holding you, I’m smiling, too.

Philip Whitfield is a commentator living in Egypt.

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