Monday, June 2, 2008

Adventure on the Nile, by Cathy Pickens

A week ago, I returned home from an interesting journey, one that didn’t, on the surface, have anything to do with mystery writing. I traveled to Cairo and Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, with a group of graduate business students.

Naturally, part of my trip preparation included re-reading Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

I had looked forward to exploring countries and cultures very different from my beloved Carolinas , and I certainly found the exotic – pyramids and camels and a tiny nation-city in overdrive to capture the title of World’s Largest/Tallest/Biggest/Best everything, from tallest building to biggest dinosaur park to highest population of people who aren’t from there.

Photo: Burj Dubai, world's tallest building.

What I wasn’t completely prepared for were the similarities.

I knew that in progressive Egypt, women were once again resuming the veil they’d thrown off decades ago. I also knew that in Dubai, a more conservative country making concessions to draw foreign visitors and investment, I’d see women in full gallabiyya.

What I didn’t expect to see were five black-clad young women in the Dubai airport, slight and graceful, like a flock of blackbirds swaying around the counter at … McDonald’s, yep, the Golden Arches. Ordering McArabia meals, with fries and Cokes. I'm not kidding.

I expected to visit the Mall of the Emirates, an elegant shopping mall that could sit in Atlanta or Richmond or Charlotte – except it dwarfs anything in those cities and boasts its own indoor ski slope.

I didn’t expect to see copies of my books in the Borders store (wow!) or to stand in line at Baskin-Robbins with a woman in a full black gallabiyya edged in rhinestones … and wearing Gucci sunglasses and Jimmy Choo stilettos.

We share other things besides fries, Co’Cola, ice cream, and an affinity for shiny rhinestones. In business settings, a Middle Eastern man waits until a woman proffers her hand before offering a handshake. Didn’t your mama teach you that, too?
Women hold high government offices in both countries, including the ministries of finance. But we also share an odd schizophrenia about women in leadership. Women are to be gentle and ladylike, but they can also be in charge. No easier to figure out the rules in their country than in ours.

In Egypt, as in the South, they value hospitality and friendliness. They welcome those who are interested in their culture, and they are warm hosts. In Dubai, 85% of the people who live there come from somewhere else. Interesting to consider what that must be like for their culture. Unlike the South, though, they have strict visa requirements. Many of those workers can stay no longer than two years and must wait five years before they can return.

Cairo driving reminded me of a lickety-split, souped-up tear down a Southern Appalachian mountain road – except their roads are flat and very crowded. Regrefully, I only got to enjoy it vicariously, in a bus or black-and-white cab. The white lines denoting lanes are only suggestions. On a road marked with two lanes, as many as four or five cars would be running abreast.
Horns are constant. Not the rude, your-mama, I’m-gonna-cut-you-off horn honks common in some (Northern) cities here. No, these were polite little I’m here toots. Get over, please. I don’t mind bumping you if I have to. Stock-car racing legend Richard Petty (who once nudged a lady’s bumper on I-85 because she was cruising in the passing lane) would love it.

The best part, though, was trying to imagine Cairo as Agatha saw it early in the last century. Our hotel didn’t sit directly on the Nile, but it did open on a courtyard much like the one she describes. Families and foreign tourists and white-robed sheiks gathered in the cool evening breeze to the smell of fresh-baked pita and hubbly-bubbly pipes of flavored tobacco and to enjoy an evening that stretched late.

Those of you from the South need no explanation of the small can held by the fellow on the right. The photo is from the website of a couple of Alaskans who travel the world with their can of SPAM. Charlotte, apparently, has lost its seat as #1 city in per capita consumption. Ah, the never-ending struggle for supremacy …
I was entranced by the differences and surprised by the similarities – and not disappointed at all in the mysteries. Pull out your copy of Death on the Nile. Agatha captured its essence.


Anonymous said...

I would be in favor of strict visa requirements to visit NC. As a matter of fact they would have to pass a courtesy test. If you said something bad about the South you would immediately leave.

Someone stole your books from the Transylvania Co Library. The librarian thinks they are misplaced, but I know someone stole them.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but Austin, Minnesota is the no. Uno consumer of Spam, unless you count AOL