‘As a child, I believed aliens built the pyramids,’ says Hella, laughing. It’s March 2009 and the pretty, crisp-toned tour guide is adjusting her headscarf as she sits in the front seat of our tour van, smilingly trying to break the ice with yet another busload of strangers.
“They taught us in school that Egyptians used to be a great people. That we built all these great monuments that the world still marvels at, but I felt it was not possible. Look at us today, I would think. Could we have ever been a great people?”
As she speaks, Hella points to the ‘random housing’ that obscures our view of the pyramids from the chaotic main road in Giza. The multi-coloured buildings have tiny windows and common verandahs and offer matchbox-sized tenements to blue-collar workers and young families who cannot afford to live in Cairo.
“They shouldn’t be building so close to the pyramids,” she says. “But there is corruption everywhere. And inefficiency.”
After a leisurely lunch that includes dark Egyptian pita bread fresh out of a wood-fired oven and scrumptious babaganoush, Hella admits she would rather not be spending all her days with tourists.
A conservative Muslim Egyptian, it is not easy for her to talk to strangers, ignoring leers and braving impoliteness and ill-natured travellers, as she secretly hopes for a good tip.
“But I have two children in school. My husband is a teacher and even with us both working sometimes 14 hours a day, we can barely support ourselves.”
It’s seven Indian rupees to the Egyptian pound, she adds, but in India you can get a small meal for R7. In Egypt you cannot get anything for one pound.
I see so many Indians travel, she says wistfully. “They come here with their families for vacations and to show their children the sites. I would like to travel to India. I would like to see your country and show my children the monuments of another ancient civilisation. But we cannot dream of such a journey.”
So where is all our money, she asks, voicing what has now become the country’s freedom cry. “Where is all the wealth that is keeping our currency so much higher than yours?”
We step out of our van and stop in amazement as we get our first glimpse of the Sphinx, with the perfect stone pyramids hovering on the sand in the distance, like some unbelievable mirage.
Hella says she was as dumbfounded when she first visited the Giza complex.
“By then, I was a grown woman and I knew that aliens had not built these wonders,” she says. “It still angers me to think how much we have changed. How did we become a people with such a glorious past and such a washed out future?” Maybe Hella and her children were at Tahrir Square with the rest of her reawakened people, creating history once again.
Maybe she’s at home, dressing her kids for school, taking a forced break with all the tourists gone, and worrying about how she and her husband will pay the school fees. I wish I had kept her visiting card so I could call her. Aliens did have something to do with this mess, she would laugh. But the Egyptians are building again. And that’s always a good thing.