I’ve been running around wild and free in at least 50 countries during the last 2 years. Rarely I found myself in a gnarly situation until this April, in Egypt…
If you don’t wanna read the whole story, I can already tell you how this adventure unfolds. We ended up spending one of our 8 Egyptian nights behind the bars. If you do wanna read the whole story, this is how we got there:
As Jesse was coming from Australia and I was flying out of Belgium, we decided to meet up in Caïro just before our big trip to Ethiopia. Counting down the days, I started noticing Jesse’s fondly fascination for Ancient Egypt. He kept sending me hieroglyphs, images of the Giza plateau, drawings of goddesses and pharaohs, documentaries… And then even a live-video of a needle penetrating his skin, that became multiple Egyptian-inspired tattoos on his arms and upper leg. He told me he wanted to create a photographic story (for ENKI), showing what Egypt would have looked like before the Nile at the plateau ran dry. Knowing it wouldn’t be too easy, considering their religion, culture and current political situation… I got psyched to involve myself in this anyways, bought myself some eye-liner and off I was!
Habibi From the moment I got off the plane, I found it hard to breath. The air was remarkably dry, my nose and lips felt dolorous. It would take us one hour to get to the hotel, I was staring out of the dusted window listening to prayings on the radio. The streets were crowded with 90% of men at least, most of them looking slightly (as in a understatement) miserable for some reason. The energy I perceived wasn’t too positive either. We arrived. As I should’ve known Jesse made sure to sleep as close to the pyramids as possible. Our terrace was overlooking the entire plateau and if I’d sit a little bit up in my bed I could even peek at the highest top of the central pyramid.
We decided to do some prospecting after having laid down for 5 minutes, so I put on my long dress and matching headscarf to bled in, kind of… I thought I did a pretty good job but the Caïro-men could still easily tell I wasn’t an Arabic woman though. They were yelling ‘Habibi’ and ‘Good Galabeya’ while throwing beady eyes at me. Attempt on not-drawing any attention, failed. After we wrestled our way through the crowd we finally found ourself in front of the Sphinx. Selfie-sticks disturbing the view nonetheless I felt overwhelmed by this majestic structure. Instead of the Nile, a sea of people was filling up the desert now. Apparently it was a big Holiday weekend in Egypt. GREAT! Wandering around, little drops of sweat were dripping down underneath my wide robe while searching for a quiet spot. And then we found one, a crumbled ruin on the right side of the outermost pyramid. Only one young boy standing in front of something that looked like an entrance. We asked if we could walk passed him to explore, he shook his head and his finger in a horizontal direction at the same time. We asked again while pulling out some dollars (unfortunately that’s how we had to do it) He grasped the bills out of Jesse’s hand real quick and stepped aside. We were in. We couldn’t stop the urge to snap a first few shots. Dress off, scarf off... Without talking, I started to move and Jesse followed me, smoothly. Somehow a feeling of ease took over. I was tiptoeing on the rocks, my fingers were sliding down the grieved walls softly with the 3 polyhedrons filling my sight. My present mind was in a state off unconsciousness, my soul was traveling back in time. I’m not sure how many minutes passed by but suddenly 2 men popped up around the corner. WIDE AWAKE! Like a cold shower at 5am.
Jesse threw my dress right into my arms. The turbaned men came closer, inappropriately close. I backed up a little bit while I was struggling with my dress. From their physical and verbal gestures we could tell they were not happy with this situation. We tried to explain that we were making art, with the biggest respect for the Egyptian culture. They couldn’t see the link between nudity and art, in any way. In their opinion we were making porn or something like that. The conversation shifted from one political situation to the other and back to the fact that they busted us. Then the young boy told them we had some cash, the other one was a ‘well-trained’ civilian, he said he had to call the cops. Until he saw a 20dollar bill. We got out. Inshallah Allah!
Celebration: falafels and a good night of sleep for another attempt tomorrow!
Sunrise, new day, new plan. After devouring those 10 falafel sandwiches the night before, on the way back to our hotel we met Mohamed. Mohamed had a horse and 2 camels, to take tourists on a cruise at the plateau. He seemed honest, sincere, was very well-spoken and he just looked cool. We took the leap of faith and explained him what we were here for. He laughed tremendously hard and said we were crazy people but then with a serious, assured voice he whispered ‘Yes, I can help you guys’… We went back and forward to the pyramids every single day, twice a day, Dawn and Dusk, with Mohamed close by our side. He freaked out several, actually, multiple times but without anything super crazy happening we were able to get out of Egypt and start off our Ethiopian roadtrip.
Not so Habibi anymore 10 extremely intense days on Central African ground passed by and totally exhausted we hit the Egyptian border again. You have to imagine, we were surrounded by free untouched souls, semi-undamaged nature, chemical-free everything, the heartbeat of the earth leading us. Then only a 5-hour flight later we found ourselves right in the middle of this religious fuck-up again.
Even though, both our bodies and minds weren’t entirely ready for another rumble in the jungle, we felt determined to finish what we started, with this time the temples of Luxor as our dance floor. Because falafel brought us a fair amount of good luck last time we fueled up on them again to get ready for the storm. Just as in Caïro, the temples were overflowing with bunches of tourists gathered around local tour guides. And while we thought Giza was over-secured, here at Karnak they even took it up a notch, five guards for each pillar. It was silly. We figured it would probably be a good idea to hide somewhere till a couple of minutes before closing time, then we’d put on our dancing shoes - or actually take them off and then we’d just tell them we got lost. Solid plan. So once again, I stripped down. Dust swooping up underneath my soles while making pirouettes in Cleopatra’s footprints. The thought that probably no-one ever danced in their Birthday-suit between this time and hers made me only spin faster. But you can guess what happened next… Busted, once again. And yes, this time we were in some serious trouble. Like 2 beaten dogs we got guided out by 4 security guards including the principal of the temple where police would be waiting for us with open arms. It was quiet a walk back since we were shooting at the end of the Karnak territory which actually saved our asses. Without being able to share words, I made Jesse clear that he had to delete the images if he saw the tiniest opportunity. Otherwise we would be screwed, big time. And he did, he formatted the card and gone they were. All of them, gone. Poof, no proof! I raised my head back up and started marching faster, I couldn’t wait to see the faces of these cops when they’d discover the completely empty memory card. It made me shatter out loud… Looking over at Jesse’s relieved face made me shatter even more. The never-ending walk came to an end and there they were - all lined up, standing fierce and tall. Jesse handed them the camera. They couldn’t figure out how to switch it on so he gave them a little hand. Black screen saying ‘no images’. Confused and not really content, they looked back up at us - ‘Where are the photos?!’ they asked. We told them we were just testing the light and that we didn’t take any pictures yet. Obviously they wouldn’t believe us. Assuming we were hiding a second card somewhere, it was Jesse’s turn to strip down now. Since there wasn’t a second card and they couldn’t find anything, not even in between his cheeks, the situation only got messier. We got sent from one police station to the other, to court back to jail, back to court and we just kept telling each of these institutions the same ‘facts’ of our story over and over again (copy machines are still non-existent in Egypt, so every single time it got handwritten down). I knew jail here, in Egypt looked slightly different then in Belgium or any Westernized country but I had no idea what to expect before actually going in. The first cel we encountered was packed with at least 20 men, some were passed out on the floor, some were squeezing there hands through the rails, some were bleeding and yelling. I had never seen something like this before in real life. Jesse kept telling me, ‘Marisa don’t look’ but there was no way not to look. At one point this wrecked guy walks in, he got shot or hit in the head or something like that, it looked bad. Jesse and I both kept going from a state of disbelieve to laughter, to pointing fingers at each other to non-speaking terms and back to anger, we just wanted to get out of this fucked up situation. Asap. After being stuck there for several hours we finally got some more news, we had to go to court one last time to see what the final consequences would be. As soon as we entered ‘court-room’, our lawyer was waiting for us. I told him to move out of the way because probably the only thing he wanted was money and I wanted to speak for myself. We kept playing the role of stupid tourists that had no idea dancing in skin-colored underwear (we had to change up the story a little bit because otherwise we probably would have never gotten out) on Egyptian ground wasn’t allowed. Our judge was browsing with his big thumbs through these books that looked as old as the pyramids did. Eventually, he gave us a warning and told us never to do something so foolishly shameful ever again. We nodded simultaneously.
As soon as we got back to the hotel, extremely exhausted but still full of adrenaline, Jesse downloaded this software to retrieve all of the deleted files. He succeeded, because here they are, for you to enjoy our bumpy quest in search of Ancient Egypt. We didn’t t find it back, at all… but I do think we created something Cleopatra would have been proud of.