As a child, I listened to my Aunt Wilma describe in detail the awe she felt when she descended the steep stone steps of King Tutankhamen’s tomb shortly after it was opened to the public. She remembered the beautifully colored wall reliefs and stone sarcophagus with its mummy still inside. Late in life, when the names of family members had faded from her memory, she could still describe her fear when caught in a Sahara sandstorm while riding a camel, and the thrill of climbing twenty meters up the steep side of Khufu’s Pyramid.In high school, I combed the shelves of the Rochester, New York, public library for books of historical fiction centered in Egypt. I dreamed of one day traveling down the Nile, or climbing deep into a 4,500-year-old pyramid.
In 1993, a Foreign Service legal job for my husband with the Agency for International Development (USAID) took us to Egypt for four years. We studied Arabic at the US Embassy, and I began teaching job-specific English to Egyptians working there. This part-time job gave me up-close contact with all levels of Egyptian society, from maintenance workers, drivers, and local guards, to highly educated Egyptians working in the political or economic sections of the Embassy.
It also gave me free time to explore the streets of Cairo, camera in hand. I have always enjoyed photographing people. Egypt presented a gold mine of opportunities to capture and record interesting faces. I peered into workshops, purchased food from street vendors, and sat in outdoor cafés for hours watching and photographing the bustling life of a crowded, teeming, noisy city.
Egyptians are a gracious and welcoming people. They applauded my tentative attempts at Arabic, giving me courage to keep talking despite how I was murdering the grammar. I drank tea in the apartment of a family matriarch in the City of the Dead, while watching the video of her son’s wedding on a black-and-white TV. I tramped through farmland in the Saqqara area to watch women weed fields of greens and old men harvest onions and tomatoes. I talked with women in Mokattam as they sorted though piles of garbage collected by their husbands and sons. Barefoot children with homemade toys smiled and waved as I walked by, and a uniformed schoolgirl shyly asked, “How are you?” in halting English. I have always seen a timeless look in the faces of older Egyptian men and women, strength despite adversity. All willingly agreed when I asked “Mumkin soorah?” (May I take your picture?)
We returned to Egypt for a second time in late 2000, and lived in El Gorah, Northeast Sinai, for almost seven years. My husband took a new job as Force Counsel with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a peacekeeping organization monitoring the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. This posting allowed me to explore the entire Sinai region, and enabled me to learn more about the lives of Egyptians, especially the Bedouin people.
While I was in Egypt, the Sony Gallery of the American University in Cairo exhibited my photographs at a show entitled “Faces of Egypt.” They were also shown at the Community Services Association in Maadi and at an exhibition at the Canadian Embassy. For five years while we were in the Sinai, I created 400 calendars with original photographs and marketed them, along with my photo cards, at galleries and bazaars in Cairo. All the money raised was donated to Egyptian charities that benefited women and children.
In this book I present pictures of ordinary Egyptian men, women, and children as they work and play in their everyday lives. I also describe my experiences while photographing and talking with them. My Egyptian friend Magdy told me he more fully appreciated the lives of many people of Egypt after seeing my pictures. Through these photographs and memories of our ten years in Egypt, I hope you will come to know and understand more about the lives of a wonderful people—gracious, warmhearted, hardworking, and resourceful.