Travel is a powerful tool, one that can shape and open young minds — especially in a challenging place like Egypt.
Everyone told me not to take my three kids to Egypt. A friend from Pakistan said I was bananas. A half-Egyptian colleague confided she wouldn’t be visiting her paternal grandparents for…ever. My mother begged me to go anywhere else. ("But, please, honey, at least register with the embassy.")
Foolish? Perhaps. Defiant? Yes. Even with terror attacks and unrest in the Middle East dominating the news cycle, I was determined to see Egypt, a place I had dreamed of visiting since I first spied King Tut’s funerary mask at the Met as a four-year-old. For more than a decade, I’ve dragged my kids to every major Egyptian museum exhibition in Chicago, New York, and London. On road trips we listened to corny recordings of the myths of Osiris and Ra ("You rise, you rise…. You are the king of gods!"). The Puffin Classics Tales of Ancient Egypt never gathered dust on our bookshelves.
And those kids, now 14, 12, and 8 — they shared my dream. In a moment when our country seemed to turn its back on the Muslim world, "as soon as possible" felt like the best time to further my children’s understanding of other cultures. They, like my husband and I, were unwilling to accept fear as an excuse to write off a place that so occupied their imaginations. And so, gifted with two weeks of spring break and a burning belief that what was happening in Egypt couldn’t possibly be worse than what was unfolding at home, my family resolved to seize the moment. We would take a leap of faith: that our tour operator, Abercrombie & Kent, would keep us safe on our custom, eight-day odyssey, which combined a four-day river cruise on the Nile with four days in the Cairo area. That we wouldn’t be seen as ugly Americans, but as enthusiastic ambassadors. And that our kids would appreciate seeing their classroom studies IRL.
As our vessel, the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, departed Luxor bound for Aswan, I confess I felt an unwarranted sense of pride for having taken my family to Egypt despite, well, infinite reasons not to. In port, at least a dozen other tourist boats withered with disuse. Even on that first afternoon, as barren rocky hills rose in the distance, security never crossed my mind. My kids read Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile while my husband and I marveled at how silly it seemed to worry even a little. Children on the shore waved to us, we waved back, and life sailed on.
Outside Luxor, at the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, which is dedicated to a female pharaoh who lived in the 15th century B.C., we raced up the ramps to the Osiride columns — alone. The walls were decorated with elaborate scenes of courtly life, the 3,500-year-old paint vivid and seemingly fresh. In the Valley of the Kings, our tour guide, Ehab, noted that just a few years ago, 10,000 people would wait in line in the blistering heat to enter three of the 63 tombs of their choosing. Not today. There were perhaps 50 other travelers, which meant we could linger, often undisturbed, in Ramses III’s tomb and take time to decipher the hieroglyphs with a ruler translator we’d purchased in a gift shop.
On our second evening, we visited the Temple of Luxor at sunset, the lights at the feet of several gigantic statues of Ramses II illuminating the cloudless night. As the call to prayer filled the sky, how could anyone be afraid? The kids played hide-and-seek among the pillars, and I asked them over dinner if they felt unsafe. They looked at me like I was bananas, just as my Pakistani friend had. In and around Cairo, the kids were able to get away from us for a bit. In the souk, they roamed freely and bargained for perfumes, knives, and scarabs, while we parents drank strong coffee in a café. When we visited the Great Pyramid of Giza, just outside the city, we walked through metal detectors to gain access and were greeted at the entrance by dozens of Egyptian schoolgirls. They asked to take a photo with my teenage son, and we all laughed at his crimson blush. This became a running joke, as it kept happening: brave girls at the Sphinx requesting photos; girls at Memphis, the ruins of a city south of Cairo, wanting selfies with him; girls near the entrance to the Egyptian Museum back in the city, pleading for one more shot. Teenagers everywhere, it turns out, all speak the same language of giggles and insouciance.
On the last day of our trip, our city guide, Wael, took us off-piste to Dahshûr, about 15 miles south of Cairo, where the pharaoh Snefru erected the Bent Pyramid nearly 5,000 years ago. The police stopped our group before eventually letting us pass onto the barren road that leads to the 150-foot-tall pyramid, though there was no need: we were the only humans in any direction all the way to the horizon.
When we finally had to leave, we each instinctively pocketed a small stone. Maybe our keepsakes were once part of the early attempt at the pyramid behind us, or maybe engineers from five millennia ago cast them aside.
Our rocks are now safe at home, in Chicago. We survived Egypt just fine, but fear and division persist. So what are we supposed to do? Prepare for the apocalypse and hoard SpaghettiOs? How about, instead, recognizing that we’re more likely to be hit by a falling object than become a victim of a random act of terror. My kids, and the land of Moses, taught me that the antidote to fear is travel. Their developing minds have few prejudices, and the more exposure we give them to people around the world, the more empathetic they will become. And teach us to become.