Egypt journal

At the hotel I casually mention to my host Islem that I will likely ride about 160k tomorrow and camp in the desert. The next morning, his father and the owner of the place says over coffee that he’s phoned the police to tell them that a bicycling American is going to go 160k toward Farafra and sleep in the desert. Alarmed, I ask if that’s okay. He says, “of course, why not!”. I gurgle back my thenwhythefuckwouldyoutellthecops?, all respect to the many people I care about deeply, including family, in law enforcement. My relationship to the police doesn’t involve pestering them unless I have reason to believe the circumstances call for their diplomacy. Sure enough, 50k outside of Dahkla I reach a police checkpoint, ubiquitous navy blue toyota pickups, one says, “hello! You are American?, welcome.” We have tea, everyone is jolly, and they try to sell me a puppy, though that may have been a joke. I realize later that when they asked me where I was ultimately headed, I mistakenly used a wrong but similar word. I told them I was going to “beer” (which was also true, as it turns out). They just furrowed brows and rolled with it.

I’m reminded of the time in Costa Rica when that Austrian nutter said that his favorite thing about America was that you could go anywhere and do anything (legal) that you want, and no one is watching you or keeping track. It is remarkable and exhibited in dozens of ways a day that there is no such thing as minding ones own business here; that varies in strength at home, to be sure, but there is certainly a serious current of it. By the way, the Austrian’s a nutter not because of the sentiment, I like that about America, too, but because his favorite place is Las Vegas, all the “intricate carefully designed mechanisms that have no reason” like the synchronized fountains and miniature railroads. Anyway.

In general the police take a great interest in my doings. While I’m drinking tea with a local, a smartly turbaned man smoking sheesha next to us gets in on our conversation, chats a bit, makes a few discreet phonecalls I notice, police show up to interview me. They’re polite and hospitable, but want to make precisely sure where I have come from in Egypt, where I am going. I’m not at all reluctant to share this information. Too, they look at every page of my passport. Bystanders are paying obsessive attention. They have a manner as if they’re going to get chewed out if they lose track of me, so I’m forthright and detailed about my itinerary. I see the turbaned man the next day in his police uniform, he’s beaming that we’re already acquainted. But he does say something curious: he says, as if apologetic for my getting the very mild shakedown, he says, “Police in Egypt…” and he flicks his handwith a snapping motion so his thumb and fingers smack together. A universal symbol for swift whupdown. “Not in America?”

Later in the market I’m settling up and another customer, someone I’ve never seen before, says to the shopkeeper in Arabic, “this is the American.” (“American” is pronounced like am-er-ricky, and I always have to stifle a chuckle at the sound of it.) I turn to him and smile and say “yes, hello!” and we shake hands. The shopkeeper darts her eyes over me a few times through the narrowest of slits in her black burka, she has thick black mascara so she almost disappears when she blinks.