The end of the beginning

A drop of blood trickled from the last page, chased by a tear. It fell down in the sand, gone and forgotten. The Archer was standing upright, holding the manuscript in his hands. The wound on his cheek had never fully healed and his quill had often written with the ink of his own blood. The last page had been particularly bloody. Yet now, as he touched the cheek that had been scratched by the Arrow, there was no more wound. The Archer knew why. For six weeks, he had been writing in the mind of Thomas, spurred on by the whispers of the Arrow’s whizz. Feverishly, he had written a story of emotions, of places and of people. Tears and laughter, Alexandria, hope and fear, Siwa, hatred and love, Eileen. Thomas’ story in Egypt is over, so of course there was no more scratch on the cheek, as no more blood was needed to write. The Archer’s quill had stopped writing, the Arrow’s whisper was quiet, and the silence was deafening. But his work was not over. The Archer sat down and put the manuscript in front of him. He took up his quill, dipped it in the ink pot, took a random page and started scratching out words. First the shiver of a dreadful feeling. Then the mosque in Cairo. The happiness in Siwa. The dead body in Cairo. Forget forget forget, the sanity of the mind is at stake. The gaps the Archer left would be filled with edge-less feelings, formed and moulded by the imagination of the mind. More often than not, the mind would exaggerate. It would make certain experiences grander than they actually were, and strong nostalgia would kick in for those changed memories. As the mind would forget how all experiences truly were, it would believe its own imagination and tell other minds about its story. Lies, or the truth? One word at a time, the Archer scratched away memory, indifferent about whether he was erasing truth into imagination, or imagination into truth.

The first Arrow has been shot. This is the end of the beginning.


Train mirror

What did I expect for seventy Egyptian pounds? Safety? Airco? Foreigners? No, I was all alone with all my luggage in a train not actually meant for foreigners. Foreigner train cost much more, so I had asked an Egyptian to buy me an “Egyptian ticket”. Accordingly, no one spoke English in the Egyptian train and the stares I received for breaking the unwritten apartheid rule made me feel like a criminal. The trip back from Luxor to Alexandria would take thirteen hours, which in hindsight, was much better than the 24-hour bus drive from Aswan to Alexandria my fellow interns had to endure. Yes, I had been sent back earlier by aiesec Alexandria for conflicting interests and would miss Aswan. I was angry, although I am grateful for the train trip experience.

So there I was, my luggage somewhat hidden a few seats away and me in my seat, which surprisingly had enough leg room. I was determined not to move for thirteen hours and sheepishly observed my surroundings, wiggling my eyebrows at the little children that were watching me a few seats further. They all had shoes that squeaked with every step and it did not take me too long to decide that whoever invented those shoes should be thrown in jail for violations against the human ear. Apart from that, the lack of airco and the fact that I was in Luxor at noon had me sweating from the very first minute. There were not many people in the wagon yet, although every stop until Cairo would bring more people. The train rattled itself into motion somewhat over twelve at noon and the nature of the Nile accompanied us as we went north. During the entire trip, through the rattling and the squeaking, I gave my mind a blank canvas to paint whatever it wanted. Whether through sleep or through staring out of the window, it painted a subconscious, yet vivid and colourful picture of what had been my trip so far. The yellow of the sun and the sand was used to paint the ancient architecture of the Giza Pyramids, of the Temple of Hatshepsut, of the Colossi of Memnon. Fine lines of green through the yellow illustrated the nature along the Nile and the Al-Azhar park in Cairo, where a single dot of the deepest red showed the first kiss, strangely familiar under the full moon. Blue depicted the Nile, the sea and the sky, the balloon trip over Luxor and snorkling in the Red Sea. In a corner, confused lines of all colours showed the word “Hurghada”. The painting was cluttered with dots of all sizes and colours, some only slightly visible, some big and thick, representing the people on the trip. It all made for an unusual image that certainly drew attention and was very satisfying to look at. But the painting was not finished yet, as even the train drive would add a few colours to it:

One of the windows shattered in a thousand pieces, showering empty seats and the walkway with sharp glass. Instead of gasps and cries, the Egyptians started cheering and clapping. Indeed, when I felt the refreshingly cool air filling the otherwise sweltering wagon, I could not help but smile myself as well. Apparently, the window had not been able to withstand the pressure from the sudden gust of wind the train coming from the opposite direction had brought forth. For the following hours, the soft crunch of shoe on glass would add to the wagon’s music.

“Do you have wife?” my neighbour asked in broken English. He was the first man sitting next to me that could somehow speak and understand a few words of English. I shook my head at his question.
“Not even a girlfriend, no.”
The man nodded in contentment. “I have very good daughter, twenty year, very good, give me your address.” He pointed at the pen and paper I was holding. I couldn’t believe my ears and laughed inwardly, although I shouldn’t have, as it is a sad thing when a father almost instantly offers you his daughter on the sole premise of you being a foreigner. I ripped off a piece of paper and wrote down a fake address in Ghent, as well as a false surname. In turn, the man wrote down his address and told me to write him when I returned to Belgium.  Soon after, he thanked me and stepped off. Yes, I felt guilty, but what should I have done? The risk of he and his family showing up in front of my door was very minimal, I admit, but European prudency kept me from actually giving my real address.

The thirteen hours of watching Egyptians living their true life, unchanged and true, was a mirror reflecting true Egypt. It showed me anger, violence, poverty and danger. It showed me a people with a passionate fire burning in their heart, a fire long forgotten in Europe. The fire gives them the willpower to fast in the scourching heat, it gives them the strength to fight and give their lives for a cause, it gives them the generosity to hand out a free olive to everyone in the train when the sun goes down. The train mirror might have shown a country full of potential, but too many cracks were scarring its reflection to be certain of that.


Yesterday I forgot your scent
Your fresh perfume, your natural scent
No longer lingers in my memory

Today I forgot your grasp
My hand in yours, your lovely fingers
No longer touch my memory

As if there is no tomorrow
I try to hold on to everything we had
Tomorrow comes none the less

When distance leaves us
It will all be novel again

Marvel of the world still

Everyone of us, some 25 interns, were walking outside, yet we were all quiet. We were walking in the middle of the street, with the hot midday sun right above our heads. Tanks were lined up on both ends of the street for at least one hundred metres, each one with a soldier on top of it, watching us closely. No pictures allowed. The only sound breaking the deafening silence were chopper blades slicing the air, sometimes faint, sometimes right above our heads, and whizzing by. We were right next to Tahrir Square and felt intimidated. The atmosphere was tense. Not so far away, the charred remains of the National Democratic party’s political headquarters, the burnt office of former president Mubarak, torched during the 2011 revolution. I imagined it still burning, its black smoke still darkening Tahrir Square, and wondered whether or not Egyptians were nostalgic of the time when the building was white, not black.

Charred remains

Cairo museum

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, or Museum of Cairo, has a very impressive façade. Grand and majestic, it encourages you to visit the ancient relics and artefacts of what was once mankind’s greatest civilization. Yet façades can be misleading, as I found the actual museum to be disappointing. Not because of what is stored inside, as I am sure every artefact has significant historical value, but rather because of the way it is stored. The museum houses 120,000 items in a relatively small area, which gives it a bloated feeling, as if you come back from a family party after having eaten too much. Artefacts are stacked close to each other and lack order, as well as English information. You walk around rather pointlessly and look at objects without any context, except perhaps the era the objects were from. The most exciting relics of the museum are the mummies stored inside, yet you need to pay an extra 30 Egyptian pound to see those, as if you pay to go to the movies and have to pay the exact same amount to see the best part of the movie. I had expected more from Egypt’s supposedly most famous museum.

The day before, we had visited the oldest Ancient Wonder, and the only one still standing. The Pyramids of Giza have stood the test of time for up to 4500 years and, up until today, still radiate power like nothing else, with their mythical shape dominating Cairo’s skyline from afar. The Ancient Gods seem to be embodied in their architecture, as if Ra and Osiris are watching us from the top, with their menacing eyes. The Pyramids are guarded by the largest and oldest monolith statue in the world, which towers over its humble visitors with its massive lion’s body and human head: The Great Sphinx of Giza. I was in awe the moment I saw the Pyramids looming through the bus window. There were hardly any tourists, which made the experience only better, as if we were the first to discover this strange structure, built seemingly in the middle of sandy nowhere.

Horse carriage


My camel Karim

Most of us started our discovery on horse carriage, where we protected ourselves against the sun while the guides scrambled for more camels. Before long, a Pakistani friend and I were on a camel. Getting on a camel is quite an experience, as they are very tall, quite a bit taller than a horse, and raise their hind legs before their front legs. Make sure you’re holding something when your camel tries to stand up, or you might come into contact with the ground. I always thought of camels as goofy animals, with their clumsy way of standing up and their way of walking (I mean, just look at the picture above), but because of their large hoofs, they can efficiently cover quite a lot of ground when walking in sand, making them indispensable desert animals. Still, I found it hard to imagine a herd of camels storming down a dune, with a warrior sitting on every camel, yelling ‘lalalalala’ in a high-pitched voice while making circular waving motions with a sabre. Anyway.

Pyramid of Khafre

Entering the PyramidsWe had passed the Great Pyramid of Khufu, with its 139 metres the tallest Pyramid in the world, and were standing in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. Its top was still covered with the casing stones that give it a smooth outer surface and make this Pyramid different from the other two. It was also the Pyramid we entered to visit the tomb of Pharaoh Khafre. The corridor towards the tomb went steeply downhill and was very dark. In the tomb chamber, there was an Italian inscription “Scoperta da G. Belzoni il 2. mar. 1818” (discovered by G. Belzoni the 2nd of March 1818). The open tomb was the only thing left in the chamber, as all the treasures and valuables were probably lost or brought to a museum. Most of us, including me, decided to lie down in it, probably the most heretic act an ancient Egyptian could imagine. If I suddenly get struck by lightning or get hit by a meteor, this is probably why. We then exited, took a group photo under ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that were at least 4000 years old, shown in the picture underneath, and traveled on our camels or horses to the Pyramid of Menkaure, which lies a bit further away. Even though Cairo was still visible behind us, it seemed as if we were far away and all alone in the desert. The third pyramid has a long vertical gap in one side, which was made by workmen that had been given the order to destroy the Pyramids at the end of the twelfth century. However, this proved to be so difficult the gash in the third pyramid was the only damage they could do. After having watched the pyramid, we decided to turn back. I decided to join the horse team and climbed on a horse. I feel privileged being able to say my first horse ride was next to the Pyramids of Giza in the desert. It went surprisingly smooth and we even did a horse race, which was very fun. This was, next to my trip to the Siwa oasis, an absolute highlight of my six weeks in Egypt and I would definitely recommend everyone, when the country is more stable, to visit this Ancient Wonder, marvel of the world still.

Ancient hieroglyphs The third pyramid Pyramids of Giza


The delicate delight of your lips gently trails my throat
I relish the flavour of your passionate touch
As we share our last moments

I am as cold as my blue eyes
But for you they turn fiery red

Only sand, except for Siwa

Siwa is a small community of some 25.000 people. It is a village built around an oasis in the Sahara desert, only 120 km away from the Libyan border and quite isolated from pretty much everything in Egypt. Our guide Yussef, a son of one of the eleven Sheikhs that rule Siwa and a pretty big deal in town, explained that Siwa’s isolation made it have its own culture, which is something one quickly notices when walking around. For one, the people in Siwa are Muslim but do not rigorously practice their religion. They drink, smoke, joke about Ramadan and pray much less than regular Egyptians. Women here are completely veiled, even their eyes, which is a strange thing to see, but that is more because of culture rather than religion. One would suspect a small village far away from civilization to be much more conservative, but that is not the case in Siwa, where they are surprisingly liberal, giving everyone the freedom to dress and act in their own personal way. Also, something that came a massive relief for yours truly: Siwan time means on time, which is very different from Egyptian time, where being two hours late is custom.

Day one:
Monday morning, 9AM at the bus station of Alexandria. A few interns and I had decided to finish our six-week stay in Egypt with a three-day trip to Siwa. We were on time for the 9AM bus and mucked around until the bus arrived at 9.45. We slept on the way to Matrouh, a city some 300 km west of Alexandria where we ate the absolute best foul and falafel for just one meagre pound per sandwich, changed buses and drove for another four hours to Siwa, where our guide Yussef picked us up. In two 4×4’s, he and his friend drove us to our hotel, “Dream Lodge”. As it was only 25 pounds per night (some €3), we expected it to be dirty, small and generally not an agreeable place to stay. This is how it looked like:

Dream lodge Dream Lodge 2 Dream Lodge 3

Being such an incredibly beautiful place, the hotel defied everyone’s expectations. The rooms were large and clean and there was a swimming pool and a stunning garden. We were all quite exstatic and took advantage of the garden and shower for a small hour before Yussef drove us to an idyllic paradise of palm trees and sand with a stunning view of the lake. We relaxed, drank fresh juice and watched the sun drown in the lake. Afterwards, we went to the town’s restaurant, which was owned by a friend of Yussef. It was quite cheap and the food was very good. To finish off the evening, Yussef and his friends drove us to a place in the desert where we sat around a bonfire, made music, smoked and drank, covered by a blanket of the brightest stars.

Bedouins singing

Day two:
Dead Mountain

We are standing on the highest point of Siwa. The green of life is followed by the yellowy white of sand. How life thrives with that blue drop, how quickly it dies without. It is midday and we are all standing on what is called the Dead Mountain, a mountain perforated by many ancient Egyptian tombs, some of which were very significant discoveries, with mummies and treasures. We take our time for some panoramic pictures, me with my Xperia Arc S smartphone, the others with professional cameras, sip some tea in front of the mountain, return to the hotel, where I went for a refreshing swim, and start the focal point of our Siwa trip: an SUV tour through the desert.

SUV tour

I hang out of the open window of our SUV, deflated tires. Sand is stinging my face as we race through the desert, 100 km/h. The sand dune in front of us grows at an alarming pace, I imagine it opening its mouth and swallowing us, like one of the sand worms in the Dune novels. But no, we swoop on top of the dune and suddenly stop before a seemingly impossible descent. Yussef grins, gives gas and we scoot down the hill. We race like this for over an hour before stopping on a big dune.

“Thomas” written in sand, immortalized until the wind blows me away.

Lake desert

Above picture shows our next stop. A lake in the middle of nowhere, where we swam between little tadpoles. It seemed so unreal swimming while surrounded by rough sand, harsh desert. I swam to the other side, spoke Italian with another small group of people that was there and got scared of a little scarab beetle that I thought was chasing me. Before long, we left for our next adventure, which was something I quite enjoyed: sandboarding. The same concept as snowboarding, except you do it from a sand dune and cannot turn, or at least I couldn’t. Very enjoyable and a good workout running back up the hill with the sandboard. The hill offered a good view of yet another stunning sunset, after which we moved to a valley between sand dunes, where we would eat and spend the night. Yussef and his friends prepared grilled chicken with rice and potatoes, something that tasted like heaven after a day full of gritty sand. Peace and quiet, everyone satisfied. To finish the evening, we left our stuff at our sleeping place and drove to a hot spring that relaxed everyone’s tense muscles for an hour. We drove back and prepared ourselves to go to sleep. There were so many shooting stars that I ran out of wishes, although my primary wish was lying next to me.

Day three:
We woke up at around 8.30 and ate a quick breakfast before turning back to Siwa. On our way back, we had to drive through a protest, which was something unsual for Siwa, as Yussef told me Siwans did not generally care about Egypt’s situation. They were shouting “Get out, Sisi” as well, which struck me as particularly strange. I had never expected pro-Morsi protestants here. We quickly heard about the army cracking down the protest camps in Cairo, resulting in hundreds of deaths and chaos throughout the entire country. Public transport was nonexistent either, which was a problem for a few people on our trip, including me, that had to catch their flights. Luckily, Yussef could arrange a car for the people with urgent flights. It would drive us to El-Alamein, where someone else would drive us back to Alexandria. Four of us left, the others were stuck in paradise. On our way back, we got stopped multiple times by soldiers that searched our luggage and asked for our passports. Twice, we were being held under gunpoint by a stationary machine gun. We also saw a gigantic plume of smoke over Matrouh, blackening the air, blocking the sun.

The Veil in front of Time

Luxor panorama

High in the sky, we all floated. The sunrise over yellow black Luxor had coloured the dark Nile with a fiery red, contrasting the green along the river. There was no need for words, the colours said enough. The excavations were seemingly insignificant small black holes in sandstone, yet they were uncovering what had been such a significant civilization. Often out of reverence for one person or one god, thousands of sweaty backs worked for years under the crack of a whip, building monuments that have stood the test of time for up to 4500 years now, defying contemporary imagination and fuelling our admiration. What is contemporary Egypt compared to its ancient predecessor? Does any contemporary civilization match up to the grandeur of ancient Egypt, with its multi-faceted religion, strong hierarchy and incredible architecture? While floating over Luxor in the hot air balloon, I was inclined to say no, but quickly realized that was a foolish thought. It might seem that some previous civilizations, such as the ancient Greek, Egyptian or Roman ones, seem to have achieved more than the contemporary ones, but we might not see how great modern civilizations are because we live in the midst of it. Only time can remove the veil in front of contemporary human achievement.

Veil of Egypt