01/31/2011 09:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Raw Memories of Egypt in an Earlier Decade

Those of us who are not Egyptian may not be able to understand the turmoil, but this uprising against Hosni Mubarak may end in a better life for many. As we follow the unfolding events in this nuclear age, we cannot help but worry about Egypt, the Middle East, and the world.

I worked in Egypt in the 1990s, visiting sites throughout much of the country, and talking to people of all kinds. As I read about the insurgency and think about my time there, a few word snapshots come to mind, my raw impressions from another decade, off the tourist track. I offer these glimpses as a minuscule piece of a vast and complicated puzzle.

Cairo. The city sprawls low and wide, neighborhood to neighborhood, millions upon millions. There are gated mansions and leafy, exclusive, streets along the Nile with expensive high rises and hotels; but to this visitor, the city seems vast and poor.

Vendors sell tissue on the dusty streets as drivers frequently blow their noses and wipe their sweaty faces. Tissues are thrown out the windows and swirl like snow on the hot pavement. Horns honk in cacophony, in a language known to the drivers.

The neighborhood called City of the Dead, with piles of rubbish. A synagogue now empty , with an old Jewish man guarding the entrance. Hawking and tourism at the pyramids just outside of Cairo, and claustrophobia within the pyramid, in a close, crowded space, climbing like crabs at an angle to a stark tomb on the apex, and then turning right back after a minute, dreading the crawl back down.

Luxor. A forest of towering obelisks covered in hieroglyphics, ancient even when the Romans in their togas stood before them. Many monuments were cut down to grace traffic circles and parks the world over, and the Washington monument emulates the shape.

Visitors have come here for millennia, awestruck, while Egypt's dynastic royalty lies silently in caves amid splendors collected for their time in the underworld. Beyond the ruins and the riverboats, farmers plant on the ribbon of green between the desert and the Nile. And beggars hide in the shadows.

Alexandria. A ghost library filled with the knowledge of the ancients looms in imagination where the sea now washes. What could we have learned had that repository not been destroyed? What information will never be retrieved?

Art-deco buildings curve along the waterfront, and a garden/park by Farouk's former palace. He was a fat playboy, the last of the kings, still alive and making headlines when I was a child.

In the rubble of a construction site, I find shards from ancient times, bulldozed and chipped. People walk by them unaware or uncaring. They grace my coffee table, a part of history.

A military man/The Red Sea. A strange, stressful drive for a couple of days on a narrow road along the Red Sea. Parts of the scenery look like Big Sur. Our driver is a military man, who leaves the car's main lights off as he wends through the dusty evening.

I want to snorkel, but the driver has a girlfriend waiting, and bullies us to skip the adventure. I sense danger and reluctantly comply.

When I ask to stop at a gas station for a toilet break he does not listen, and I am forced to pee on the side of the car, in the desert, with him facing away. When I return to the rental car company, I complain, but they do not care.

Desperation. "Are you from California? I have a cousin in California." It's a common line preceding a request for money: baksheesh, tips. Even from the guards in the Egyptian museum, when I ask a question about a mummy.

At one point, I'm besieged by a group of boys who grab my arms and insist I let them hoist me over a curb that I could easily step over myself. I have no option. There is a need to make work, to survive.

A dignified older gentleman in a suit and tie says something softly to the boys that makes them scatter. He walks me fifty feet or so to the steps of my hotel, and bows. At last I have found someone who is not scrambling for money.

As I turn to go, he extends his hand. Palm up.