As we live out our final days here in Tunisia, I am researching Egypt for signs of safety problems. Analyzing the information is a complex process. One of our Arabic language instructors told me two weeks ago that “Cairo is safe, but just don’t go out on Fridays when the protests are happening.” John read that our vacation rental happens to be located near a popular protest spot in Giza so I’m not sure if we’ll be able to avoid them or not. Today I read a blog post by someone who visited Cairo a year ago. He said that he felt “totally safe in Egypt” right after sharing his experience of a protest during which the camera man standing next to him got shot in the leg.
I hesitate to write about our experiences in these Arab countries. I don’t want to give the wrong impression about them. Is it safe here? Is it dangerous? I don’t feel like it’s unsafe right here in my apartment in Tunis, but outside on the street, I’m not so sure. I haven’t been in the midst of the protests or riots here yet, but I get the feeling, always, like we should be watching our backs. And to add to the confusion, the experience of being here happens in layers and I can only write about one layer at a time. For example, one layer of our experience in southern Tunisia could be described in a short paragraph about dates (the fruit, not months/days). I had no idea that dates ferment (they do) and that they can go bad while still on the stem within only a few days of buying them. Surprise! I’ve never had fresh dates or dates that were addictive like carmel candies. In Tozeur we did and we washed them thoroughly and bit into them with great care after discovering that some of them had tiny living things inside of them.
Another layer of our experience was scenic. There was lots of sand in all directions. It was very barren and very isolated. The sun shines differently in the desert than it does in Rome. It’s really something to see the red sun glistening as it rises along a horizon lined with date palms. And the isolation can be unnerving at times; awe-inspiring and thought-provoking at others. People talk about their incredible, life-changing desert-scape experiences amidst the reddish-colored dunes in the middle of nowhere. And I can’t argue with the fact that scenically, the Sahara is a unique an amazing place.
And then there were human interactions. These were more complex and usually more interesting to me than scenery. The men at the car rental place in Tozeur seemed friendly and jovial, but they talked over us a lot and we felt frustrated trying to communicate with them. While John was finalizing things with the talkative and pushy agents, Lydi and I went to a grocery store across the street from the car rental place for food. There, we were bulldozed into buying some expired mushrooms in a dusty old jar by a store owner who simply wasn’t interested in the word “la” (which means “no” in Arabic). Twice in Tozeur our family was given raw food from very dirty hands as a “gesture” that was hard to avert (we took the food but only pretended to eat it). Mostly we felt unheard, misunderstood, and unable to control even the simplest human transactions under even the very best conditions.
But then, beyond the eccentricities of a place, the scenery, and the people, there is intuition; the feeling that things are okay or they’re not. I can say that as long as I’m not sick, exhausted, freezing cold, or starving, I can trust my intuition more than I can trust just about any other part of my experience when it comes to danger. But it’s hard to talk about gut inclinations without sounding like a cheeseball and it’s usually impossible to quantify the bad things that don’t happen to me and therefore the righteousness of my intuitions because I decided to follow my gut.
All the layers of my experience happen simultaneously. I can feel danger in a beautiful place filled with friendly people because intuition doesn’t always make sense. Am I being overly-dramatic by highlighting my intuition? Am I being unrealistic if I downplay it?
My experience in a place won’t be your experience. We’ll have different experiences no matter what. A European walking down the street in Cairo might be totally safe while an American walking down the street at the same time might look like an excellent hostage to locals in need of a high ransom. I could stumble through a battlefield and make my way to the other side unharmed, but that doesn’t mean that the battlefield was safe. I could also walk through a botanical garden at sunrise and feel like people were following me when they really weren’t. If something happens to me because I didn’t follow my intuition, I was stupid. If something doesn’t happen because I did follow my intuition, I was paranoid. That’s one of the problems with talking about intuition.
It’s hard to depict all of the layers of my experience without feeling like I’m misrepresenting myself and the places we’ve visited. I haven’t seen soldiers throw tear gas, but I also try really hard to avoid situations involving tear gas. I haven’t seen anyone get shot or killed yet, but I have seen tanks and guns and I’ve felt scared for my life, but perhaps needlessly (because obviously I survived to write about it). Tear gas and gun shots have featured pretty heavily into the news coverage of places remarkably close to our living quarters, but does that really count? My gut said, “Don’t stay. Go south,” so we went south (to South Africa) rather than staying a full month in Egypt. On the same day that our plane left for South Africa, France was attacked by terrorists. We were no where near France and weren’t planning to go to France anytime soon so maybe my gut was being a little bit over-cautious. But when my Inner Voice turns into an Inner Scream, it’s hard to ignore it. After listening to that Inner Scream for five weeks it was hard to discern what was Real Danger what was just a Chronically Elevated Stress Level.
At any rate, after reading the story about the fellow who “never felt any danger” in Egypt in 2013 even when the guy next to him got shot, we decided to spend a few weeks in South Africa with a different breed of violence rather than weather another full month of our intuitions constantly nagging at us to get out of the Arab world. We could read blogs and reviews on TripAdvisor until the camels come home, but I can’t trust the intuition of a man who says that Egypt is safe while standing next to another person who got shot in the leg. Or the advice of the Arabic instructor who advised that we ‘just stay in on Fridays”. When my Inner Voice starts screaming, it’s usually best to listen to it carefully and weigh it more heavily than blogs, news reports, or Lonely Planet Thorn Tree posts about danger. And I hope that the people who read what I write will do the same.