Memories and teachings of a trip through Egypt

Egypt is a border area. In its splendid lands, crossed by one of the most wonderful rivers of the planet, covering multiple cultural realities. It has one of the most important Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions in the world. This is evident only for those travelers who enjoy aesthetic sensibility and who, above all, enjoy the historical archeology which witnesses several stages that represent the symbol of the richness of cultural exchange and the articulation of the identities of peoples.

There, the borders of Western civilization converge due to their origin precisely in the traditions of classical Greece as well as in the Roman republic and empire, in Judaism and Christianity. Such borders tend to be more blurred than some analysts might realize.

When visiting Egypt, it is possible to confirm what other experienced travelers have endeavored to explain: cultural boundaries are often not as clear and rigid as expressed in contemporary political discourse. The cultural difference, although evident in some cases, is blurred by definition in border areas. But this lack of definition, rather than generating uncertainty, translates into dialogue.

Before visiting Egypt, it is normal that there are several prevailing views on the country, which may be the result of the previous study or, at worst, the prejudices built in the West around the Arab world and Islam. "Third World," "Islamic country" or "Arab country" are some of the categories that, from a political and cultural perspective, could be attributed to the country with the purpose of simplifying what could intuitively be considered a complex society that overwhelms any traveler. Curiously, it is only with experience, after traveling the country, from Aswan to Alexandria, that it is possible to appeal to a fourth concept: "border zone."

For intellectual convenience, traditional cultural representations have been favored, although their use may be deeply problematic at the time of outlining, for example, the characteristic features of Egyptian identity. Undoubtedly, Egypt can be considered as a Third World country. One only has to pause to look at the limited options of its political system and the marked socio-economic inequality that can be observed, for example, in Cairo and its surroundings.

There is no doubt that it is an Arab country in all its expression, that is to say, apart from the language and its food, its society rests on a series of properly Arab values related to the tribal organization of families and commerce, in particular, the haggling. Equally, it is evident that Egypt is an Islamic country that, some years ago had a moderate version that motivated the Muslims to coexist with certain harmony with Jews and Christians.

From Abu Simbel to Gizeh, the traces of the great pharaonic civilization are undeniable. It is possible to appreciate the power of the pharaohs who, worried about their divinity and their political prestige, built great stone temples that not only today overwhelm modern architects, but also travelers and tourists who feel their humanity with great depth and, hence, its deadly limitation. The advent of Islam, on the other hand, is not only felt in the patterns of behavior followed by the Egyptians but has also left traces in its towering mosques adorned with small architectural details that add up to create a true aesthetic experience. Likewise, the presence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in Sinai, the most problematic "frontier" of Egypt, and in the Coptic neighborhood of Cairo is evident.

The experience at Sinai can be simply wonderful, not only in landscape but also spiritual terms. It is not surprising to think that the same landscape that today travelers observe was the same as the Jews admired in search of their promised land and the backdrop of one of the most emblematic passages of the Old Testament. The Coptic neighborhood, on the other hand, is a symbol of coexistence and tolerance because its inhabitants have fully integrated to the Egyptian Islamic society.

But the most interesting of the pursuit of the traces of the past in contemporary Egypt is how the historical stages overlap. In the Egyptian Museum Cairo, you can admire the sculpture of a typically Greek-Roman Ptolemaic general with pharaonic additions. A similar overlap is found in the Temple of Karnak, where the ceiling of one of its rooms is the floor of a mosque where on one of its walls is possible to find the carved figure of Alexander the Great, represented as a pharaoh paying tribute to the Theban gods.

As is usual in those civilizations that have sought to constitute a hegemonic worldview, the West as a cultural entity has sought to delimit its borders by building other worlds, as artificial as unknown to those who supposedly inhabit them. The main mistake has been to consider Islam as a whole or the Arab world as a homogeneous reality. And in this construction of identities at the service of the political interest of expansion, the obvious fact that its boundaries are blurred has been ignored, as can be seen when visiting Egypt.

Witness the Greek, Roman and medieval European political philosophies, Christian and Jewish theologies and the most recent articulation between liberal democracy and capitalism, the identity of Western civilization could be blurred, at least for some analysts, in reflecting around countries like Egypt that, in theory, are part of another cultural reality, but whose history is possible to trace to a great extent to the origins of the West. This is evidence of how weak the construction of civilizational identity can be based on difference and antagonism.

Egypt must be read not only as a symbol of how blurred the borders of the West may be but also as a reflection of the wealth that can be derived from cultural exchange.

This trip gave me some lessons. One of them could a call to moderation in the reflections oriented to construct identity from the cultural difference. The identity of the country is not built only from the difference; it is also the result of the reaffirmation of their values to trace them in other societies.

The other is to learn to understand and investigate other cultures. There is no doubt that an educated and educated traveler in Western discourse might find some contradictions between societies such as Egypt and the more marked Western values, particularly if their perspective rests on human rights or gender discourses. However, since in some cases these contradictions are insurmountable as long as people do not negotiate what they are, it must be recognized that there are people who think and act differently and who, therefore, should not be considered as if they were morally inferior.