02/16/2011 02:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Egypt a Mystery for Travelers, Even Before Its Unrest

Egypt is ubiquitous these days. Cairo pops up right away if you go to a news site or snap on a car radio or TV. The surging crowds, the talking heads, the rhetoric that drifts and settles like sand.

The sounds are loud, the images are new. Something has been changing. Something is in the air. But what, in a nutshell, has been going on?

If, like me, you've traveled to Egypt for vacation or for work this sense of drama mixed with some mystery isn't new. It's a country that doesn't fit well into our logical molds. Western tourists tend to lurch and struggle -- like donkeys hauling a load -- to work out what we're seeing and what we should do to try and fit in.

Egyptians can get emotional over simple things. You think back on ordering coffee in a cafe: What made your waiter beamingly, irrationally glad when you slid your chair in slightly to let him pass? You remember bargaining in some bazaar: while looking at slippers you hurt the shoe-seller's feelings, insulted him deeply, and you've no clue how.

Meaning can get lost in Cairo's markets and alleys, though it's a city overflowing with warmth -- both in temperature and in the way you're talked to, smiled at, and summoned as you walk around. Before the recent uprisings, the number of tourists in Egypt had hit an all-time high. Serving travelers is the country's biggest industry and a way of life for thousands and thousands of tiny shops and pushcarts.

Every monument in Egypt comes with a circus outside. Camels kneel in wait for you mount and ride them, strings of postcards twirl in the sun, guards puff on whistles, locals put their palms out itching for Egyptian pounds. A man dispenses slabs of cardboard so you can fan yourself. A kingfisher flashes past, splashing brightness onto shaded stone.

"See the Papyrus Institute!" shouts a placard tacked to a wall. "We Have Swiss Management," boasts a crafts shop jammed to the brim with bowls and baskets. Businesses beg you to visit. Everything's for sale.

Sometimes you think that local rules might be strict. At the entrance to Cairo's Egyptian Museum, there are ominous warnings: "NO CAMERA, ABSOLUTELY," orders a signpost. "NO CELL PHONE," warns another. "NO FOOD." Inside you find a mass of people carrying Nikons, enjoying snacks and pulling out their phones to photograph the masks and amulets of King Tut.

"The guards!" you hear a tourist whisper. "They must be asleep!"

If you have traveled here you know it may be so. Sleeping is just as Egyptian as eager crowds. Bellhops snore in folding chairs beside the doors of hotels. Ticket clickers adeptly drop off in the seconds between their rips and punches. Even cart horses keep their heads relaxed as if in a dream.

Maybe it is the heat. It is as if the air is waiting, listening for something, before it moves. Shimmers rise from sidewalks and cars are baked to dullness by the sun.

Or maybe it is simply part of Egypt's mystery. The culture that has confused us during its days of uproar. Its days of revolution.

Maybe revolution. Probably lots of important change.

If only we could be sure.

Contact Peter Mandel at

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