The only English words heard in Said Gomaa's coffee shop are expletives shouted by the action stars blasting their way through a satellite network's afternoon feature. The TV hangs on a braided hemp wall that lets in the fertile smell of the farm next door.
"I would like tourists to come in greater numbers, but they have not come since the revolution," says Gomaa, 26, in Arabic.
He seems anxious. Unlike his nearby clothing stores or his share in a local sand and gravel mine, Gomaa's cafe in downtown Dahshur, a Cairo exurb, represents something of a gamble. He is betting that tourists will be willing to venture off the well-beaten path between Cairo and Giza, that they want more from their visits to the pyramids than snapshots and souvenirs.
If he's right, Gomaa will become a notable person, a young leader who helped Egypt usher in a new age of sustainable tourism, but his vision remains radical.
To appreciate just how radical, drive a little farther. Only a mile or so after passing the cafe and the concrete heart of town, the ribbon of pavement weaves past an empty parking lot, an oil refinery, the short dunes marking the edge of the Sahara and the two oldest pyramids in Egypt. The road is as empty as the desert.
(*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)
Dahshur has a 4,600-year-old miscalculation to thank for its ancient endowment. Archeologists believe that the Bent Pyramid, so named because its sides turn toward a sharpened tip, was an engineering failure that prompted the construction of the better formed Red Pyramid, where the Pharaoh Sneferu was entombed during the Old Kingdom.
Though visits to this World Heritage Site have often prompted rave reviews -- both pyramids have inspired novels -- few tourists make the trek. No wonder. Visitors must endure a long ride out of Cairo along a highway flanked by a sewage ditch and clogged with joyfully decorated long-haul trucks before arriving in a town that, Gomaa's cafe aside, offers few amenities.
Six U.N. organization with some 23 letters worth of acronyms between them are partnering with what's left of the Egyptian government to help locals like Gomaa make the Dahshur area a new hub for responsible tourism, but the obstacles are myriad. Villagers gawk at visitors and some men suck their teeth at women in western garb. Though the group of local men and women mobilized by the UN's World Tourism Organization to jumpstart local commerce with newly learned handicraft skills and a "Made in Dahshur" label talk about development as though it is around the corner, hotel chains in Egypt are already suffering from low occupancy rates and are unlikely to double down by investing in a destination that has never been anything more than a minor attraction.
"We tried to invite out big chains like Sheraton to start an ecolodge, but they will wait until the infrastructure is in place," said Adel El-Gandy, the UNWTO's man on the ground.
Despite the efforts of Dahshur's cheerleaders, the Red Pyramid is empty on the day I visit. A guard sits at the entrance to the tunnel that dives about 165 yards into the carved interior demanding tickets, which are sold at some unclear locale near the desert's border. Fortunately, he settles for small bribes.
"Five pounds for me," he says. "Bakshish."
The feeling of being inside a pyramid alone is hard to explain. The structure doesn't hide its heft the way buttressed or columned cathedrals do. No sounds leak inside. The intense weight of the experience has more in common with swimming in deep water than exploring a catacomb.
Resurfacing is a bit of a shock. The sun is intense and the view harsh. Far off and barely visible, the tourist policeman standing guard over the Bent Pyramid is moving his rattan pad so he can continue napping in the shade.
Contrast that view with this one: Delivery boys mill around on cheap scooters in front of a derelict-looking store stocked to the ceiling with tchatkes while, in the background, the shadows of the pyramids of Giza reach out toward the stands set up for the nightly laser show. This is the panoramic view available to those willing to bribe the manager of the Pizza Hut across from the Sphinxwith excessive soft drink orders in order to gain access to his roof.
No one accuses Giza of being charming.
The town isn't charmed either. Since the revolution, its situation has worsened. Touts, desperate for cash, hassle foreigners at the official entrance to the pyramid site, offering their services as guides or illegal after-hours tours. The government stables where these pushy young men work look like a PSA for PETA. The horses are plainly dying and the sores on some of the camel's faces are alive with flies.
"Why don't you want to ride?" they ask repeatedly, though the answer is obvious.
These hustlers are, in essence, scavengers at the edge of Egypt's massive tourism industry. They are not, like Gomaa and the aspirants in Dashur, thinking about the longer term.
"The biggest mistake that has been made under the previous regime was that the participation of the people was not complete," says Egyptian Tourism Minister Mounir Abdel-Nour, a longtime Mubarak opponent. "If you go down into the tourism sector in particular, it is even worse."
This is why Abdel-Nour describes the UNWTO efforts in Dahshur as "a great project:" A community has been marshaled to create one of the first attractions in Egypt to flaunt a real local flavor. Dahshur could be the anti-Giza, proof that tourists care about the present as well as the past.
But progress arrived with risk: Having a stake in the industry means having something to win and something lose.
"Around three-quarters of my customers are still local," says Gomaa, who calls a friend to translate when visitors do arrive. "At the beginning, this is a good thing. Now it isn't."
Locals estimate that the unemployment rate in Dahshur hovers around 40 percent, a guess apparently substantiated by the scene on the streets, where young men loiter in small groups or overstaff construction projects. The community seems to suffer from boredom rather than poverty: Everyone seems to be waiting for, and wondering about, what comes next.
If foreigners do arrive, they will fundamentally change Dahshur and Dahshur will fundamentally change tourists' experiences of Egypt. In the meantime, a political revolution has interrupted a touristic one, providing an opportunity for both change and ruin.
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