Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

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“Dead Tourism”: Reflections on the objects of touristic interest

September 29, 2008

28/09/08 Shiraz

The two main sights we saw in Shiraz were Persipolis and the tomb of Hafez, the infamous Iranian poet. Many of the other things that had been recommended to us, such as the bazaar and certain mosques, were closed on our Friday evening walkabout of the town, obviously the worst time to go sightseeing, especially because it was the last Friday of Ramadan.

Persipolis was quite disappointing: a 120,000 metre square sight of ruins, elevated on a rock slab base 18 metres above ground level. The construction of the ancient city of Parsa was begun in approximately 518 BC by Darius the Great and continued through his successors Xerxes and Artaxerxes, and it served as a royal palace and a place of celebration for the Persian new year, No Ruz. (We found it amusing that we were potentially visiting an ancient site which served a similar function as Glastonbury or Ibiza, to which debauched subjects made annual pilgrimages in order to savour the finest earthy delights of the time… We wondered if, in 2000 years’ time, the nuclear-stricken carcasses of legendary clubbing venues such as Fabric in London would receive similar reverence…) The lifespan of the elaborate, festive city was relatively short, as it was sacked by the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BC. What remains after excavation and reconstruction of the mythical location is a meager selection of structures: the grand staircase, the mammoth frame of the entrance hall, a few scattered columns, and a handful of bas reliefs alluding to both decoration and customs. Unfortunately, like so many other locations that have been reaped and pillaged by hungry Western archaeologists, the contents of the museum and the site are scarce when compared to the Ancient Persian collection in, say, the British Museum.

To be fair, we are a hard group to please, what with between us we’ve visited many of the world’s truly phenomenal sites: Baalbeck in Lebanon, Karnak in Egypt, Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Vietnam, the Terra Cota Warriors in China, Machu Pichu in Peru. And compared to those sights, which are both architecturally impressive and well preserved, Persipolis fell short of astounding. But to give it some credit, the site itself is well-curated, with clear panels in English and Farsi which provide you with plenty of information and therefore spare you the expense of a guide. And it is worth climbing up to the tomb carved out of rock which flanks the city, because it offers an interesting overhead view.

More impressive were the tombs of Naqsh e-Rostam, about a 10 minute drive from Persipolis. These consist in 4 tombs carved into a mountainside, the resting places of Darius I, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and Darius II. They hover in the sheer rock face over 15 metres off the ground, giving the sight a slightly suspended, ghost-like feeling. Below the tombs are bas reliefs which date hundreds of years after the deaths of the kings, and the specificities of these are explained in detail in clear panels.

After resting from our morning spent out in the baking sun poking round 2000 year old tombs and palaces, we opted for a relaxing evening at the tomb of Hafez, who had discovered the inspirational mix of wine and poetry long before the likes of Rimbaud, Verlaine, or their romantic contemporaries. His verses speak of love and loss, hope and fate, and are riddled with imagery of birds, flowers and other such components of nature. He is still revered in Iran today, despite (perhaps even because of) his tendencies towards indulgence standing in sharp contradiction to the values of the Islamic state. His tomb is situated in a well-kept park of sorts, with ponds and grassy patches.

Surrendering to the romantic sensation of the whole experience, I bought a small collection of Hafez’s poems in Farsi and English in the bookshop on the premises, and then sat in a corner and alternated between reading his works and observing the many people who came to his tomb. Elevated under a sort of pagoda, groups would become silent when approaching the resting place of their revered national poet, and then their composite individuals would step up to the rectangular marble slab under which the body lay, kneel down, and place their heads on the cold stone. It was almost as if they were in a place of religious worship, such was their expressed reverence.

As i sat there, willingly being taken by the whole scene, J read the last pages of the book that he has been reading since the beginning of this trip, entitled ‘We are Iran’. It is an observation of contemporary Iranian thought and social movements through blogging. The two of us sitting there in that garden, at that tomb, in the wake of our day spent discovering ancient Persian relics, sparked some funny thought in me. The contrast between J reading about contemporary social issues with very tangible manifestations and consequences compared to my delving into some abstract, romantic past, bothered me. It made me remember how I find it disturbing that being a visitor in a foreign country means, more often than not, spending more time experiencing the ‘dead’ parts of a country (i.e. its remote history) instead of engaging with the complexities of the present. Of course, to familiarise oneself with the past is an indispensable avenue to understanding the present. But to prioritize activities such as spectator sightseeing of archaeological relics over more banal interactions or up-to-date research is also shallow, because it can limit an outsider’s understanding of a place to some long-gone era that is scarcely relevant to the present.

My first inklings of this sort occurred during my year spent living in Egypt. At that time, I was seeking out the reasons behind my experiences of alienation and harassment that mired my time in that country. Initially, I blamed various elements of contemporary Egyptian society, including the sharp rural-urban divide, disparity of wealth, wide-spread illiteracy and the rise of political Islam as a consequence of the failed economic and political reforms of the Sadat era.

And then I went on holiday to Luxor and Assouan, the sites of many of Egypt’s most infamous sites, including the Temples of Luxor and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings, and saw things differently. It was about 5 months after my arrival in Alexandria, where i was attending university to study Arabic, which was largely enough time to make me realise what is acceptable attire for women in Egypt: modest dress, not showing too much leg, upper arm or chest. The streams of scantily-clad Europeans on package holidays that I encountered in Assouan and Luxor made me lose my self-righteous disdain for the attitudes of some Egyptians towards me, which I had initially perceived as irrationally sexist and anti-Western. It made me understand that the behaviour of most tourists that come to Egypt actually foster the image of a certain frivolity and unfettered sexuality (compared to what is acceptable and unacceptable in Egyptian society). It also made me remember that I also had once played a part in creating that very image of Westerners in Egypt.

Egypt’s main industry is tourism, and it receives thousands of tourists every year, who flock to its celebrated relics in under-dressed gaggles on the ubiquitous Nile cruises. I had been on a similar cruise several years before, on a week-long class trip. I remember sunbathing topless in the glorious spring heat on the deck of the boat with my blossoming adolescent companions, and wandering round the ancient sites in tank tops and shorts. We were completely ignorant of anything to do with contemporary Egyptian values or manners, and lapped up the ancient history as if is was the only thing of substance in the country. I knew no Arabic, had no concept of the country’s recent history, its anti-colonial struggles, it’s wars, it’s occupation… I also knew nothing about Islam. Again, i was completely ignorant of anything that constituted twenty-first century Egypt, and behaved in according disrespect. And, returning to those tourist sites after having learned a fair amount about all those things, i realised that,similar to my young teenage self, the vast majority of those who visit Egypt are equally ignorant.

The tourist industry in Egypt is based on a civilization that existed somewhere between 5-3 thousand years ago. The millions who partake in that industry have their appetites whetted with visions of the country as a grandiose, mythical land of the Pharaohs. For the most part, they come away from their visit with that idea solidly rooted in their minds, because all they have been exposed to are the radiant sunshine and scenic palms of the tranquil Nile shores, the cradle of modern agriculture; the breathtaking temples and palaces that adorn bygone kings and queens that fashioned themselves as the representatives of Gods on earth. They have been shuttled from from boat to archaeological site in clean, air-conditioned buses, without having to spend too long in the blistering heat or dirty streets of the towns they stop in, or without having to interact with any local people apart from those highly irritating ones who run after them trying to sell cheap plastic replicas of the wonders they’ve seen.

They leave Egypt not having known an Egyptian outside the the frame of tourism, outside their own positions of privilege (obviously, no one can ever truly escape their privilege, to think so is naive, but in this case the extent that such privilege infiltrates every single relation is very strong). They might have had an entertaining Egyptian guide, or bought a carpet from a pleasant man who offered them tea, or been showered with innumerable shouts of ‘welcome in Egypt’. They are undoubtedly more fascinated by dead, decaying bodies (the mummies) than the the living, breathing individuals that populate the country. They probably also got slightly ripped off by a souvenir peddler, and perhaps resent being taken advantage of. The only modern structure that has probably been framed as being of any significance is the Assouan dam, and even then it is no doubt belittled in comparison to the glorious temples that have just been visited.

Basically, that type of tourism constructs an image of Egypt in tourists minds as a place of nostalgic return to a past, dead civilization, which is made to harbour a historical richness that is pre-packaged, sanitised and fit for Western consumption. When they compare this romanticised past to Egypt’s current social ills, including poverty and corruption and the rise of political Islam, the country is seen in a state of regression, because the current culture is rendered devoid of any significance outside the touristic trope. Reciprocally, tourists in Egypt do not even consider modifying their behaviour/dress to suit Egypt’s cultural values. Therefore, in turn, the Egyptians have come to think of foreigners as disrespectful and endowed with unimaginable disposable incomes that enable their jilted consumption of the treasures of ancient Egypt. Both images mutually reinforce the negative aspects of each party’s other, and sustain a tense, problematic relationship between the two.

Although the Egyptian case is an extreme, I have elaborated upon it so much in order to question the extent to which similar patterns reproduce themselves in all touristic destinations. How do we ‘experience’ a foreign country? What do we choose to see, what do we prioritise? Inversely, what do we deem as banal and hence not of interest? We precipitate upon the anti-Israeli street demonstrations in the major cities of Iran that marked the last Friday of Ramadan, but perhaps disregard the groups of schoolchildren leaving school, or the myriad different ways in which women transcend the strict Islamic dress code through hairstyle, make-up and other dress forms…

No traveler should forget the implications of their gaze, and how that gaze creates what is seen of our difference…

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