“Flower,” said a young, rather skinny, large-eyed boy in an Arabic accent. As I hopped on the tour carriage, he held out a red flower. The flower’s red petals had specks of brown, and its dry leaves were half shriveled. I took the flower with hesitation, thanking the boy. Why was he giving me a flower? As confused as I was, the boy looked up at me with anxiety filling his large eyes. My mom, climbing on the seat next to me, handed me my wallet. Oh, I thought. He’s selling the flower.
Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is a popular region for tourists. It possesses many of Egypt’s treasures: the Giza pyramid, the Great Sphinx, and the Grand Egyptian Museum. With more than 10 million people visiting the Giza pyramid annually, tourism is one of Cairo’s most profitable industries. On the 14-hour-long flight, I imagined myself standing on the grounds of Egypt: golden mountains of the desert, scorching heat leaving vivid tan lines on my arms, air full of exotic fragrances of spices. Those images were not wrong. What greeted me, though, was not just the hot desert, but also the cold reality of the tourism industry.
As we arrived at the Cairo International Airport, our tour guide Esdin welcomed us as we got on the bus. What caught my attention was a man in his mid-30s wearing a military uniform, fully armed, sitting next to the bus driver. Noticing my curious gaze, Esdin explained: “He’s a police officer. He will be safely escorting us to the hotel. As you all know, terrorist attacks are surging.”
Terrorism is a critical threat to the tourism industry in Egypt. In 1997, during the Luxor massacre, 62 people were killed by six gunmen. In 2019, there was a bombing in Cairo, killing 20 people. These terrorist attacks have varying reasons: some being religious, some being personal, some anti-foreigner. A common rationale behind them, though, is that they are the symptoms of an unstable society, a remnant from the prolonged dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
Little did we know, however, that the danger of terrorism was so nearby. A few days in, just five hours after our tour of the pyramid, a tour bus was attacked by a roadside bomb, killing three Vietnamese tourists and one local guide.
Under the 481-foot tower of over 4000-year-old bricks of the Great Pyramid of Giza, I stared in awe, overwhelmed by the golden, half-worn, sun-scorched tower of bricks that seemed almost to touch the sky. As I approached, something else caught my attention: the shrill voices of little children. “One dollar, one dollar,” they cried, each clutching hand-made bead necklaces, paper fans, and t-shirts printed with “I love Egypt.”
In Egypt, 30% of the population suffers from extreme poverty. 7% of their children—a sheer one million—have no choice but to work; some delve into the tourism industry as street vendors, some as apprentices of mechanics, and some as farmers. 1.7 million children under the age of 14 are orphans; 99% of them were found on the streets, sometimes even in garbage cans, and are called mag-hool el nassab—“of unknown origin.” Out of the 1.7 million, one million of them are street children. These children start working as early as five years old. Without working, it is near impossible for the children to survive. The economic pressure and the lack of familial custody force these children to labor at a very young age.
Standing in front of the pyramids, I could not help but recognize a bizarre contrast. The over-400-foot pyramid glowing under the sun and the less-than-five-foot children underneath the shadow of the pyramid. The laughter of young tourist children holding their parents’ hands and the grim faces of the Egyptian children with their hands full of merchandise. I held a one-dollar bill out to one of the children and asked, “Can I have the brown necklace?” Immediately, three other boys dashed toward me, each holding out three more identical bead necklaces.
On the final day of our trip, we headed to the traditional Egyptian street market. “We’ll split up for now, and at 10, we’ll meet at the station,” Esdin announced. Even though it was night, the market was bright from the lights of hundreds of stores. My dad, an avid merch-collector, took the lead as we headed to the shops. Every time we left a shop, our hands were holding a new bag.
Tourism alone is 12% of Egypt’s GDP, which translates to approximately 30 billion dollars. It is no surprise that tourists are drawn to the many unique treasures Egypt holds. Perhaps, however, it is the beautiful treasures that blind us from seeing the grim reality. Whenever and wherever we travel in Egypt, we encounter those in despair, those in poverty, those in physical danger. Yet we often fail to notice their pain. I do not know if my few dollars spent in front of the Giza pyramid alleviated their sufferings. Nevertheless, it is crucial to pay attention to those behind the shadows of Egypt’s grandiose antiquities, for they are also a part of Egypt.
As the meeting time approached, our family decided to take a ride in a tour carriage to the station. After arriving at a shiny black carriage, I grabbed the handle and climbed the mini-stairs. My dad sat in the front right next to the coachman, and my mom and I sat in the back. The coachman was hopping on his seat when I noticed the young, skinny boy coming closer to the carriage holding his red flower.
With the flower in my hand and my mom handing me my wallet, I realized his intention. Just as I was about to hand back the flower, the horses whined. Too late, the horses seemed to tell me. The distance between the boy and I grew and grew, leaving me with regret and the withered flower.
Seohyun Claire Yoon is a senior at Langley High School and Editor-in-Chief of Kaleidoscope: Literary Magazine. She is a Gold Key recipient of the Scholastic Art & Writing Contest, Finalist of the international Young Writers Award under the Writing For Peace Journal, and has worked as an education content writer under Moosmosis Organization. A believer in trying new things, Seohyun values delving into unique and imaginative categories of literary works including both fiction and nonfiction.