Thursday June 23, 2005
No guides, no masters
the beaten path in the port city of
By Tarek El Seewi
The paunchy policeman, complete with firearm and sweat-stained brown khaki uniform, pulled up a plastic chair and sat, uninvited, in front of us. His armband said “Tourist Police” and I wondered if we, the tourists, were being protected from the locals, or vice-versa.
“Welcome to Rashid, Rosetta,” he said, somehow combining shyness and mild intimidation in one smile. “Who is your guide?”
Behind him the
Instead, this town of 160,000 is a
crowded provincial center and marketplace, filled with crumbling buildings both
old and new, a few historical sites, a wide stretch of
Though it is difficult to tell from the
run-down state of the contemporary town, the history of the area is rich.
Originally named Khito by the ancients, the town came
to be known as Rashit during Coptic times and then
Rashid with the coming of the Arabs. Its location on the spot where one branch
of the Nile meets the sea has made the area militarily important throughout
history, at least for those who wanted either to conquer
In the 17th and 18th centuries, when
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 may forever be Rashid’s toehold in history. It
happened as French soldiers looked for a suitable place for a fort to guard the
meeting of the Nile and the
Though the Rosetta Stone
is perhaps the most famous archaeological relic ever found, it has done little
to bring lasting tourist dollars to the town. Instead, Rashid relies on fishing
and boat building to make its way in the world. There is no Rosetta Stone in Rosetta. The English, presumably in a fit jealous
rage at having no Pharaohs of their own, hauled it away to
Besides the sweaty tourist policeman, who didn’t give us his name, there is also no significant tourist infrastructure in the area. While there is a hotel in one of the historic buildings, Rashid is more of an Alexandrian day trip than an overnighter. The restaurants are of the popular variety, grilled fish and plastic seating. Public transportation, other than the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriages and a few brightly colored taxis, seems absent.
“Your nationality?” the insistent
policeman asked me as we were waiting interminably for our grilled fish dinner.
Wondering if pleading the fifth would have any use in
Who am I to say that two men and two
women sitting along the
As soon as our new guide left us
temporarily to eat our wonderful grilled fish dinner at the Zahoor
restaurant, right on the banks of the
“Hey, what are you doing, that’s polluting!” my environmentally minded friend shouted. An old man in a wooden boat directly in front of us agreed and started cursing the restaurant owner in a grizzled voice.
“I like that old guy,” commented our
shouter, “he’s cleaning his boat and complaining about polluting in the
That didn’t stop the restaurant’s other guests from indulging in the time-honored joy of tossing cigarette butts, paper towels, plastic bags and cans in the long-suffering river. They also indulged in the ancient tradition of staring at strangers.
Our friendly policeman came back to drag us through the rough, narrow streets of the town. He began to give a running commentary on what we were seeing but, relishing the joy of having Arabic speakers around, gave up on his meager English and buzzed on in Arabic. His explanations were perfunctory and lacking and therefore easy to translate to our non-Arabic speakers. Clearly, he’d memorized a set of descriptions and was simply rattling them off one by one. It would have been nice to have been guided, if guided we must be, by someone who was truly interested in the history of the area.
Most of the time, though, we, like so many lazy Judases, let our Arabic-speaking friend shoulder the burden of the guide while we hung back and stared at the people staring at us.
Our guide was torn between spending enough time with us to earn his expected tip and getting us the hell out of town so he could go home and sit in front of a fan, but we convinced him to take us into one of the old houses.
He explained that the house we were in, just to the west of the town’s main square, had been built by the town’s chief judge three-hundred-odd years ago. Pointing to a cave-like cellar, he said, “That’s where the prisoners were kept.” It was an impressive four-story house, despite the ongoing renovation. It even sported a dumb waiter. The top two floors were reserved for women and still bore elegant mashrabiyyas in the windows. It was a thrill to be able to stare down at the maddening crowd without having them stare back at us.
Our guide took us next to the mosque of Al Mahli, dating from about the same time as the judge’s house and intriguingly constructed. It’s still in use today, so the female members of our group remained outside. Maybe it was the long-bearded gentleman with the fiercely-flashing eyes sitting against the wall and reading who convinced them of this.
Eventually, our trip was over and we made our way back to the car, sans tourist cop, through choruses of, “Welcome to Rosetta!” and “What is your name?”
Driving out, we were increasingly
relieved as the packed humanity gave way to date palms and the open road back
to modernity and the bustle of
Copyright © 2005 Cairo Magazine