Egyptiana III: Curse of the Mummy Room

The Third Part in which Steve becomes a Collector of Fine Art

The Citadel of Cairo

I am not endowed with any special gift of understanding, but I came to understand this much: once a service, however small – welcome or not, needed or not, requested or not, recognizable or not – is provided, baksheesh must necessarily ensue. To the Egyptians, it’s an unbreakable social contract. And for what it’s worth, I’m perfectly comfortable with tipping as a general economic principle. It’s not like I’ve never tipped before. Anybody who knows me will tell you I’m a good tipper. In Egypt, however, the concept is flexible to the point of bankruptcy.

Every time I set down my backpack I could be sure that somebody would appear from out of nowhere to pick it up – not carry it anywhere, you understand,  just pick it up and hand it to me – occasioning baksheesh.The old woman holding the toilet paper hostage outside the public lavatory may engender more inconvenience than otherwise, but the moment she peels off those precious squares and puts them in your desperate hand, you’re on the hook. To my way of thinking, the only way to keep from getting skinned 50 times a day was to expend tremendous physical and mental energy trying to be utterly self-sufficient in all things at all times. I developed the habit of hanging onto my luggage like grim death, and if I had to lay it down for even a second I’d sit on it. I carried wads of toilet paper in my pockets. I’d eat standing up, lest anyone should show me to a chair. I surreptitiously scouted public doors before attempting to open them, then lunge for the handle before some watchful tip-monger could beat me to the punch. I was a tightwad on fire. My success was limited, but gratifying.

Emotionally better equipped than I to address our on-going taxi problems, Sweet Apricot adopted the tactic of buying a city map and spending half an hour memorizing our expected route before hailing a cab. If she so much as suspected the driver of deviating a single block from her charted course, she’d imperiously command him to stop and let us out. To my relief and amazement, it worked like a charm. Without fail the driver would offer a warm, smiling apology and return to the righteous path. Not once did they seem resentful, or disappointed, or even mildly abashed. No harm, no foul, baksheesh, please.

Strolling near the Citadel, we stopped to admire a big slab of ancient wall thickly inscribed with heiroglypics that stood alone in a tight space between two buildings. Neither of us could read heiroglyphics, which didn’t diminish our appreciation of the impressive object in the slightest. Nevertheless, a young man appeared at Sweet Apricot’s shoulder and began translating the relic using only the name “Horus” and what I assume were his only two words of relevant English. “Horus,” he said, pointing to a falcon-headed male figure. “Two babies,” he said, pointing to something that looked nothing like two babies. That little tutorial cost us LE5.

During our visit to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, the gal at the ticket counter sold us two general admissions and asked if we’d care to spend an additional LE20 – each – for access to the popular basement “mummy room.” Of course we did. As we soon found out, the mummy room was closed for renovation, and had been for months. By the time we got back to the ticket counter, the girl who sold us the useless coupons was long gone and her replacement adamantly refused to refund them on the grounds that Egyptian law forbade any but the original ticketing agent to correct the error.

How I imagine the Mummy Room must look

One evening after dinner we were lured into a papyrus shop by the sight of two men wearing ancient garb squatting in the front window and fabricating papyrus paper from freshly cut reeds. We didn’t want any papyrus, but we thought the process would be interesting to watch. As difficult as it may be for some to understand, the meekly whispering, modestly scarved, painfully deferential salesgirl forced me – forced me – to buy something I didn’t want and couldn’t really afford by the simple device of repeatedly asking me to. After 20 minutes of successfully resisting her quiet brand of pressure I was growing exasperated, and when she asked me for the umpteenth time to consider a 1-foot-square papyrus portrait of Maat worth something like LE20 it seemed like maybe I wasn’t making myself perfectly clear.

“I’m not here to buy anything,” I said, firmly. I will go to my grave serene in the certainty that I raised my voice only slightly – for emphasis, nothing more. I’m not a yeller in any case, and deliberate rudeness is simply not in my nature. Ask anybody who knows me. Yet her immediate response was to clasp her hands together at her waist and snap her chin down as if anticipating a blow. I was so mortified that I instantly bought a 2-by-4-foot scroll featuring the Funeral of Osiris for LE140. Sweet Apricot was disgusted at my weakness, and even more disgusted when I blew most of the next morning trying to mail the bulky nuisance back to the States. 

Next Time: Hotel hell!