A Second Class Ticket to Timai, Egypt

The Gate of Bab Zuweila in Cairo © 2010 Veronica Morriss

May 25th 2010:

I had been in Cairo for nearly three weeks now, staying with my Egyptian-American friend, Rana.  This was a much needed break from the hustle of grad school.  I felt my energy recharged and I was excited for the upcoming season at Tell el-Timai.  The archaeological Tell (mound) is located in the northeastern Nile Delta, east of the Damietta branch of the Nile and the city of Mansourah.  In antiquity this Greco-Roman city was known as Thmuis and was a major emporium of domestic and foreign trade, as well as a strategic naval center.  Today the city is a degrading Tell nestled between the towns of Timai el-Amdid and Kafr Amir Abdulla Ibn Salam.

I glanced at my watch as the taxi pulled up in front of the Ramses train station in Cairo.  I was hoping to catch the 2pm train to Mansourah.  Although the University of Hawaii would not start work for several weeks, a Polish team who would be surveying our site with magnetometers was scheduled to arrive at Timai tomorrow.

I had 15 minutes before my train departed and I casually strolled down the platform.  I headed for the 2nd Class car; ‘1st Class’ does not exist when you are travelling to Mansourah.  The men from 3rd Class gawked at me as I wandered down the platform.  The wheels of my suitcase produced a rhythmic hum against the checkerboard cement.  Locating your car is always a task, particularly so when it is not listed on your ticket.  An Egyptian man in his mid-twenties noticed the puzzled look on my face as I scanned the train cars, and more than eager to help, he approached me.  I have a keen eye when it comes to sketchy Egyptians, and this one was definitely up to no good.  As soon as the words, “Where you from?” slithered off his tongue, I darted.  If there is one thing that sets me off more than the ravenous mosquitoes from Mansourah, it is the belady (people from the countryside) Egyptians who look at you as though you are a golden opportunity for something or other.  If you’re Russian you’re a tramp, if you’re American you’re easy, if you’re Italian you’re a bitch.  I hate being labeled.

I couldn’t decide whether the red vinyl seats were coated in a layer of dirt or were permanently stained.  The bellboy hauled my bag down the aisle, squinting to read the Arabic seat numbers which were so caked with filth that even he could not read them.  The cart was three-quarters empty, yet I was not surprised to find a middle-aged man in my seat.  As the passengers piled on just as the train was about to depart, I found myself in the wrong seat twice.  It was only after a very large Egyptian woman asked the man to my right why he was sitting in my seat, before the imbecile finally moved.  The logic of Egyptians is baffling; however, I was not in the mood for a heated discussion in Arabic.

There were too many distractions for me to doze off.  The windows, which were coated in what was probably half a century’s worth of grime, were impossible to see through.  Instead, I watched the strange amalgamation of passengers.  Across the aisle to my left a young boy, I would guess in his early teens, pretended not to be intrigued with my presence.  It is rare that a hawaga (white person), nonetheless a woman, rides the 2nd Class train to Mansourah, particularly alone.  The boy made a point to say the few words in English he knew so that I might overhear him.  I smiled to myself.  His mother sat next to the window, her figure shrouded behind a black niqab (veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered).  I caught a glimpse of her eyes and tried to imagine the rest of her.  I wondered what she was wearing beneath that sheet of hers.  What an intriguing pair those two were, visibly the same yet strikingly different than the other passengers.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  The boy was remarkably well-mannered and treated his mother with the utmost respect and devotion.  As the train departed, they waved to an indeterminate figure outside the dirty window.  I imagined they were heading home after a visit with family in Alexandria.

I was so fascinated with the two across from me that I nearly forgot the woman sitting right beside me.  She took a document out of her bag and began editing it.  I didn’t want to appear too nosy so I observed her in my peripheral.  A heavy-set woman in her early 40’s, not unattractive but not pretty either.  She was ordinary.   Her hijab (traditional scarf that covers the hair) went perfectly with her paisley 1980’s pantsuit, shoulder-pads and all.  The train shuddered as it raced along the tracks.  I recalled the latest train accident in Egypt, and shuddered myself.  Suddenly, there was movement in the aisle.   A tiny hand, dirty beyond all reckoning, appeared on my arm rest.  Yuck! I tried to dispel the disgust on my face as this grungy hand began patting my arm rest, only inches away from my arm.  I shifted and forced an uneasy smile at the child who lurched out from behind my seat.  He was unattractive and probably not much older than two years.  He stumbled across the aisle; his stained pants too long for his miniature legs.  Fortunately, the child was not interested in me.  He gestured at the boy to my left and muttered something in gibberish.  I watched he older boy interact with the child.  He too ignored the toddler, hoping that if he avoided establishing eye contact the child might leave.  I know this, because I was doing the same thing.  I chuckled to myself, thankful that I was not only one that felt a tinge of disgust towards this filth-encrusted, snotty creature.   I relaxed a bit and settled back into my seat.  A quick glance at the document the woman to my left was reading revealed a research proposal for something or other dealing with fertility.  Perhaps she was a professor?  I couldn’t decide.

The unsightly child staggered back down the aisle to where his father was sitting.  His grimy hands clutching an assortment of sweets that he had managed to acquire from the passengers on the train.   I glimpsed a sign for Al Maḥalla and the train shuddered violently as it slowed down.  Mahalla is an agricultural city about 60 kilometers west of Mansourah.  Few tourists venture to this region of the Nile Delta for fear of the Muslim Brotherhood which is thought to have roots here.  The vibration of my cellphone startled me.  Ahmed, the son of one of the local authorities, spoke to me in broken English.  He was going to be my ride to Tell el-Timai which is about 20 kilometers east of Mansourah.  I thought I had arranged Hany (one of my workers from last year) to pick me up but word travels fast in Timai.  I later discovered that Ahmed’s father had intercepted my message to Hany and was trying to finagle his way onto my payroll.  Corruption abounds in Egypt.  Nothing is free.

I thought about my plans for the field season.  The dig team would not arrive for another two and a half weeks.  I hoped to get a sufficient start on my coring work before they arrived.  Although I was eager to begin excavating the suspected harbor, which would not begin until the University of Hawaii’s field school officially began, I relished the thought of an empty dig house.  The Polish geophysical surveying team was scheduled to arrive tomorrow morning.  I still had to arrange their transportation.  They refused to travel after dusk; the roads in the Nile Delta are death traps and navigating them at night is a ticket for a disaster.  I hoped the Polish would locate a harbor using their trusty magnetometer which detects magnetic anomalies underground.  Metal, stone, and mudbrick produce magnetic signatures that can be located with geophysical devices such as a magnetometer.  Unfortunately, modern rubbish abounds the archaeological site and often hinders our efforts at discerning what lies beneath the salt-ridden soil.

The brakes on the train wailed.  We were in Mansourah, the frontline of a bloody battle between the French and Muslim armies many centuries ago.  In 1250 AD, King Louis IX led the Seventh Crusade in hopes of destroying the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt and capturing the holy city of Jerusalem.  He did not succeed and thousands of crusaders lost their lives.  The burnt hulls of the French ships presumably litter the Damietta riverbed.

I wheeled my bag through the mass of inquisitive travelers at the station.  The air was dusty and dry.  A warm breeze sucked up the droplets of sweat forming on my neck.  I spotted Ahmed among the traffic jam of cars parked out front the station doors.  He had a genuine smile plastered on his face.  He loaded my bag into the trunk of the small taxi cab and we left Mansourah.  Pummeling down the narrow road to Timai, we dodged the frequent donkey carts.  The open windows created an effect similar to having a hot blow dryer aimed at your face.  The air was sweet and pungent.

An inundated field outside of Tell el-Timai © 2010 Veronica Morriss

It had been nearly a year since I was last in the village of Timai and though I worried that returning would foster unpleasant memories of the past, the dig house felt entirely different.  It was empty and everything was covered in a thick layer of dirt.  Mr. Mohamed, the owner of the building, apologized profusely for not having it cleaned before I arrived.  He was an honest and pious man who never cheated me.  He had a kind face that imparted a degree of trust.  Directly juxtaposed, Ahmed’s father was there.  His presence put me at guard.  He had brought several men along to clean the house.  They quickly made my bedroom and bathroom presentable, while he chided them in the background.  Surely enough he tried to exact an exorbitant fee from me for their work.

After insisting that I would be fine all by myself, everyone emptied the building and Mr. Mohamed locked me in.  Of course, I could get out but he did not want an intruder barging in on me.  Law requires a police force to protect any foreign archaeological mission in Egypt.  However, they were not on duty until the University of Hawaii’s mission started in a few weeks.  I was thankful for their absence.  They put a hamper on my freedom.  I could not leave the house without a previously arranged escort.  This was not my style and more often than not I had a platoon of angry soldiers chasing me down.

I unzipped my bag and retrieved my toothbrush and towel.  I felt grimy and needed a shower.  I tried to ignore the two enormous cockroaches that scurried behind the toilet.  After witnessing a rat bound across the kitchen counter, I decided this place needed some attention before the University of Hawaii team arrived.

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Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Archaeology, Egypt

Author:Veronica Morriss, M.A.

Maritime archaeologist

One Comment on “A Second Class Ticket to Timai, Egypt”

  1. January 28, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    wonderful post, I love the photos

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