Egypt from the inside
Trevor Naylor is the author of Cairo Inside Out (AUC Press, hbk, 2016; pbk, 2020) and more recently of Egypt Inside Out (AUC Press, hbk, 2020), both beautifully illustrated with photographs by Bulgarian photographer Doriana Dimitrova. Naylor, a traveler to, and resident of, Egypt since 1986 gave us these Seven Answers on the two travel books.
In Egypt Inside Out you say that you wondered “if this country I’d grown to love was often misunderstood by those who passed through.” Do you think Egypt Inside Out helps to break down some of the misunderstandings people may have about the country?
What I see in both my daily life and work life is that Egypt is often misunderstood by many of the tourists who pass through, simply because they are not allowed the time to absorb the best thing about Egypt. . . its own people. Also when visitors go through the mass tourism experience they may find their earlier preconceptions of Egypt and the region reinforced negatively. My book offers a slower-paced view of Egypt which is borne of the time I have spent with Egyptians who know I am not a tourist, but rather, a fan of their country. Egyptians are naturally humorous people with an observant wit and earthy wisdom. Hanging out with them is fun when they are not trying to sell you something.
You wish to offer “a new look at a classic journey”—through Egypt Inside Out. Why is your perspective so different? Is there an intentional double meaning behind your choice of title, showing off your Egypt, the one you know inside out, while at the same time shifting the camera lens so as to observe the outside from the indoors?
The Egyptian tourist experience may involve being managed hour by hour by a guide who determines exactly whom you meet and how long you spend with them, and where you stop to eat or shop. The average tour has good intentions; to show you Egypt’s amazing sights in a short trip; this sadly does not allow the individual time to go off-piste.
Egypt Inside Out is a book I hope the reader can absorb at home and which reveals the country behind the modern myth of global travel. This is not an issue unique to Egypt, but a feature of modern life, as more and more people rush to tick countries off their bucket list. Some of those visitors (we meet them very often in our bookstores) want much more and to have some independent views to balance the constant facts and figures about ancient Egypt that they are blinded with during their short time in Egypt. I had some friends from Australia visit Cairo for two days after a Nile Cruise, these were middle aged professional people who had paid for the best boat on the Nile and had a good time, but they told me afterwards that the 45 minutes we spent together crammed in a taxi (seven of us) hurtling through Cairo on Friday morning to have pancakes was easily the highlight of their trip. Such moments are what make memories.
If you had to sit inside on a very hot Egyptian summer day to enjoy the view of what was going on outside, where would that be?
My own perfect spot on a hot Egyptian day would actually be outside, in the garden of the Marsam Hotel in Luxor, looking across the countryside at a way of farming which has not changed much in centuries.
When you travel independently, whether alone or with friends, your experience of the country is so different because you meet and talk to real people, and see sights, hear sounds, and enjoy being close to a landscape you would not usually see. Also, to eat Egyptian food, as you do at the Marsam, slowly cooked in the traditional way as you relax through a long, lazy afternoon is a special treat and an escape from the hurly-burly of everyday life. In such places one meets travelers and hears their stories and reactions to Egypt. They vary wildly from great to awful but one thing is for sure. Egypt is a place they never forget. It is rather like visiting India: once you’re inside, it envelops you!
You write in the book: “From your car Egypt can be like a silent movie, forcing you to add your own story to what your eyes observe.” Would you say that when we are sitting on a train, in a tuk-tuk, or in a horse carriage and looking out, we are compelled to become more aware of all the fabulous details around us—sounds, smells, colors, light, gestures, that make up our impressions of Egypt?
From a car there is a degree of insulation that can provide a welcome break from the noise and heat, but the visual experience is fascinating. At first it feels like that pinch-yourself moment when you cannot quite believe where you are, but this sense of disbelief soon settles into a feeling that you are watching the world through a TV screen, which provides both security and a moving frame for the scenery outside.
For some, that car windscreen is filled with an art house movie, for others it looks like a world they may want to keep separate from, until they have their first moment of real connectivity with Egypt and then things change. The warmth, both physical and emotional, that exists all around, captures the visitor’s soul and the smiling begins.
In order to really feel that “sense of place” that you describe, you advise your readers to “visit slowly.” Is that also to allow oneself to reflect on one’s own experience of Egypt?
At the end of the day or after returning home from a sightseeing visit, you do need to reflect on the things you saw, which were perhaps crammed into a series of half-day visits to tourist sites.
Egypt Inside Out will hopefully bring back readers’ great memories of Egypt while offering them interesting facts and bits of the country’s very rich history. There are many books and guidebooks about Egypt, but mine is different. From Egypt Inside Out you will be encouraged to read more about Egypt but you will also get a feel for how to enjoy its many known and lesser known locations at your own speed and with an independent eye.
You describe Cairo Inside Out as the genesis for Egypt Inside Out. On your wider journey across Egypt, for the making of Egypt Inside Out, what was one of the most exciting discoveries that you made?
Before writing this book I had never been to Marsa Matruh and it was over thirty years since I had last been to Siwa Oasis. My trip to both places last year was mind blowing, not least because it was done with friends. We learned a lot together and took great pictures.
The fun stories related to making this book are countless, wrapped as they are in my many years of being connected to Egypt and its people. If you have the ability to make a joke, or to connect with people in a human way about life, work, families and the world, then you can make friends with one sentence in Egypt. One should never be afraid to make a joke in Egypt, to anyone at anytime, for life in Egypt is hard and everyone is grateful for a break to allow for some fun.
Why do you think Egypt continues to fascinate so much?
Egypt fascinates because it has a place in everyone’s heart as being part of the cradle of civilization. Most people have a traveling wish-list and Egypt is on it. Long may that remain, and while no one can ever know everything about Egypt, it is quite possible to understand it. When you look at a view and feel yourself to be a real part of the scenery or crowd of people around you, then you have begun your inside-out experience.
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