A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 15, 2012

40 Years Ago, A Young Grad Student Arrived in a Different Middle East for the First Time . . .

This week isn't just the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The exact date is probably buried in a box somewhere in my basement, but I know it was about the middle of June, 1972, that I landed at Cairo airport (only the oldest of today's three terminals was there then) and set foot in the Middle East for the first time.  And it was probably about June 10-20, I believe, so I'll settle for this as an approximate anniversary.The Middle East has changed a lot in that 40 years, and so have I, but the memories of those first impressions are still fresh. So as we move into the weekend I'll ask you to indulge me in some personal reminiscence of 40 years of hanging around in a rough neighborhood, or at least of my first stay there.

In 1972, I had finished three years of Modern Standard Arabic at Georgetown, and set out for a year in the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA) Program at the American University in Cairo. The CASA Program is still with us, and much bigger than 40 years ago when it was relatively new (it began in 1967). There were participants there only for the summer, and a smaller, core group (I think only 20 or so, perhaps 25) there for the full year, I was one of these. The CASA Fellows for that 1972-73 school year have gone on to various careers, but several have risen to head Middle East Studies centers, and at least one made Dean; another is something of a media personality. A few spent careers in government, or finance, and there are several I've never heard from again, I won't name names here, but those of you reading this will share many of these memories.

I was a 24-year-old graduate student who had never been anyplace more exotic than the border regions of Canada and Mexico, and I had committed to spend a year in a country with which, at that time, the United States had no diplomatic relations, Egypt having broken them in 1967. Instead of the huge US Embassy of today (which was our largest abroad until Baghdad surpassed it), there was a small US Interests Section under the Spanish flag. Russian military advisors and other East Bloc personnel were still present in force; as a foreigner, Egyptians would sometimes address me with "Dobry d'yen," although "Welcome to Egypt" was also common.

Nasser had died in September of 1970, less than two years before; Anwar Sadat had consolidated his power the year before, but had not yet embarked on his reorientation from East Bloc to West. So there was a bit of trepidation. It was only two weeks or so since the Lod Airport massacre in Israel at the end of May, and Egypt had increased security at its airports, fearing an Israeli strike. So as the bus pulled away from the plane to carry us to the terminal, a military vehicle — the East Bloc equivalent of a Jeep — mounted with a .50 caliber (or 12.7mm) machinegun pulled in front of the bus with the barrel pointed at us, the arriving passengers. A cheerful welcome.

It was a wartime feel, both for genuine reasons and because the government wanted to maintain an atmosphere of siege. Israel had remained in occupation of all of Sinai since the 1967 war, and the Suez Canal was unusable. Although the 1967-70 War of Attrition was no longer raging, the canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez had been shattered and evacuated except for the military. Throughout Cairo, brick walls had been built up as blast deflectors in front of the main doors of apartment buildings. Foreigners were banned from travel outside the Nile Valley (the resorts on the Red Sea were in the far future anyway, but the Western Desert was also off limits). Western goods were rare and expensive, imports blocked by an austerity economy.

Cairo was smaller then, and much different, though the Nile and the pyramids do not change. What is now called the 6 October bridge was in the early phases of construction (and 6 October had no meaning as yet), and the spaghetti-networks of superhighways and approach ramps were not yet there. 26th of July Street in Zamalek had not acquired its flyover highway, and the Opera Square-Midan Ataba-Ezbekiyya area had not yet been buried in highway ramps and flyovers. There was one ring road, not several. There were only a few luxury hotels: the Nile Hilton, the Sheraton in Doqqi, the second Shepheard's, the old Semiramis. Not much else yet, and not many tourists to visit a country legally at war.

During breaks that year I also made my first visits to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Greece. Lebanon was still in that pre-civil war golden age when Gulf Arabs flocked to Beirut or to the casino at Junieh; Cairo would later benefit from their largesse when Beirut descended into civil war, but then the oil price rise was a year in the future so the petrodollars weren't as plentiful. I and some friends rented a car — 5 people in an old VW beetle — and toured all of Lebanon except the deep south, which was too tense; a few years later we'd have been unable to do so due to armed checkpoints.

Syria was fascinating. And even 40 years ago, it had a President named Asad. In Jordan, Petra was almost empty when we visited: I think one other group of tourists were there. There was a government rest house where we stayed, and maybe one or two other hotels. Even five years later, that had changed, but no one went to Jordan, or to Petra, in 1972.

From Damascus we traveled north to Aleppo; I recall spending time while our taxi underwent car repairs in Homs, 40 years before that ancient city would be in the headlines. From Aleppo we crossed to Antakya in Turkey, then across Turkey to Istanbul. We crossed the Bosphorus on a ferry; the bridge was not quite finished yet.

In those days, too, before the Gulf Arabs replaced Beirut with Cairo as their chosen destination, rents were quite low, even in the high-rent districts. Two other CASA fellows and I shared a top floor apartment in Zamalek, with one balcony directly over the Nile on Saray al-Gezira Street, and the other overlooking the Sporting Club with a view of the pyramids. I think the rent was something like LE 125 a month (maybe a bit more, but I think under 200), but in those days the exchange rate was inflated; only five years later that flat would go for 1000 or more no doubt, and today I don't want to know. Indeed, five years later I paid more for a flat in Bab al-Luq with cracking plaster. Taxis still relied on their meters, even with foreigners, so daily life was quite inexpensive,

Prices may have been low, but as I said, it wasn't the "good old days"; wartime austerity meant no foreign goods and many restrictions.

While in my 40 years dealing with the Middle East I've managed to witness a few of the turning points (Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, for one, in 1977; the first GCC Summit in 1981, and some others), I've often just missed them: in 1981 I got to Cairo two weeks after the Sadat assassination. And when I left Egypt after my 1972-73 CASA year, I had no clue that "1973" would be a turning point, The October 1973 war broke out four months or so after I left,

Petra, 1973. I know, I know.
And things have been in flux since. If you'd told me in 1973 that ten years later, I'd be taking my first El Al flight out of Cairo airport,I'd have thought you were insane. Yet I did.

I may reminisce more about my early days in the Middle East, four decades ago. Please indulge me. I feel old sometimes when I contemplate the changes, but the memories remain fresh.

UPDATED: By popular demand (one person) I've found a picture from Petra in 1973. Yes, a lot of us had longer hair and strange pants in 1973.


David Mack said...

No reason you should feel old, Mike. I landed in Cairo in the summer of 1964. I enjoyed reading your post and realized how much the June 1967 war changed things from the laid back Cairo of my year as a Fulbright Scholar. As far as I am concerned, 1967 changed lots of things in the Middle East, few for the better.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

David: I imagine 67 changed far more than 73; I've found a picture and am posting it despite the fact that, well,1973 hair.

aron said...

wonderful post, not least the pipe. is that a missouri meerschaum?

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Looks like it. In those days grad students tended to take up pipes.Sort of a professional badge. Gave it up decades ago, fortunately.

Unknown said...

Mike, we were in Cairo 1979-1980 and it had change for the better by then. Maadi had an American school which our son went to and loved. The worst part was the drive downtown every day. The Shah of Iran came to Cairo in March 1980 for medical treatment at the Maadi hospital. I remember tanks in the streets and AK47's firing in the air. All in all we had a wonderful time and met great Egyptian and Ex-patriots. Loved the times at the pyramids and travels throughout Egypt, including amazing "ships in the desert" thru the Canal. Hope everything turns out for the better as Egypt is a fascinating place and culture.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Anon: The American School in Maadi was there even in 72, I lived there again in 77-78, visited every year or two through the 80s at least, so I saw a lot of the change.

David Mack said...

Hate to pull seniority, but when I arrived in 1964, it was the last year that the Nile was in flood, as they started filling the Aswan Dam in 1965. The streets near the river were awash in stagnant overflow. Mosquitoes and flies everywhere. But relatively few cars and no traffic jams! In the long view of history, the end of the Nile floods may be the most important event in Egypt of the 20th Century.

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