I’ve always had a personal vendetta against photography. Sure, I love looking at pictures while hearing stories of travel and adventures, and I spend an unreasonable amount of time watching videos of places and adding them to my bucket list of cities to visit in the near future. I design perfect itineraries with carefully picked pictures of attractions to visit, food to try, things to do. However, when I am told to take pictures, that’s a different story.
When I was living in Italy, I was in elementary school and somehow convinced my parents to get me my first phone, so I could be “safer” on my class trip to Venice. My parents reluctantly agreed, and on my way there, they texted me to “take lots of pictures!” I came home with a shaky video of a glass factory in Murano and a blurry picture of a gondola. There were just too many activities and too many things to look at, so I had completely forgotten to take out my phone and snap some pictures. This happened again in middle school on my trip to Boston, and again on my family trip to Mexico, and yet again every single time I visited Egypt — to the point that I have no photographic evidence to verify whenever I recount my stories, whenever I am unsure about a particular memory or whenever I feel nostalgic. I’ve always thought I would be missing out on something more meaningful if I took my eyes off of the real thing only to look into a camera lens that would probably not even capture the beauty of what I really saw. Now that I look back I realize my mistake.
Summer 2021 is when I realized the potential of photography. Over quarantine, I would often go back and look at pictures of previous family vacations, but not a single one of them was taken by me. Despite being in some of the pictures, it almost felt like those trips were someone else’s. Fresh out of quarantine, I decided I would take some pictures of my trip to Egypt that I could return to later on. It wasn’t a sudden change of heart I had about photography but a gradual process. It started with a simple picture of the clouds when I was on the plane on my way there, followed by one of the city of Cairo. After not returning for five years, I decided that I would leave with a few pictures to return to mostly because I had missed this city so much, but also because I feared that it would be another five years before I visited again. I hoped that having something to look back at would help me feel closer to my home.
I did not plan for these pictures to be published. I took them for myself and now want to share them with you. Whenever I look at them, I am reminded of my home, and they give me a sense of happiness and security but also of discovery. So I hope that through them you can also feel happiness and a bit of adventure. I’m not a photographer; I take my pictures from careless angles, day pictures are too dark, night pictures are too bright, the sun hits wherever it wants and so do the street lights.
I’ve been to Egypt many times before because that’s where my entire family lives. When I was younger, I’d visit every summer, but slowly these gaps became a year, two years, then three and then five. Even then, I would spend the entire summer getting to know distant relatives, catching up with my aunts, uncles and cousins and going out with friends. Although I did the same thing this summer, I also decided that I wanted to explore places I had never seen before.
I had written an article about the Arab Springs before, did an entire project about it, watched documentaries and gathered pictures taken by others, but nothing could have prepared me for the stark differences between what I had seen in my research and the Tahrir Square before my eyes. The old square was just a simple roundabout where people often sat to chat, rest or wait for a ride. In contrast, the renovated version is complete with an obelisk in the center and four sphinxes guarding it. These are not replicas; they are historical pieces taken out of the museum and displayed in the square. Many people showed concern regarding their conservation in the face of the harsh weather, claiming that these pieces should not be left out to be damaged by the air and pollution. The square is also guarded by the army 24/7 and is no longer open to the public to sit or even stand. I was lucky to take this picture before I was approached and told I had to stand farther away.
Another destination I really wanted to visit was the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. The tour was rushed because of the heatwave that came over Egypt that week (over 100 degrees! Fahrenheit!), but it was completely worth it as the mosque is breathtaking.
There was an interesting dynamic inside the mosque when I visited, with tourists walking in with their guides, workers working on renovations inside and people praying on the side. I was happy to see the mutual respect between each individual inside as tourists whispered to not disturb the prayer and people prayed to the side to leave others the opportunity to sit in the mosque. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the interior in its full splendor because of the renovations, but I am so glad I decided to take pictures because the mosque’s magnificence cannot be put into words.
Of course, a trip to Egypt would not have been complete without a visit to the pyramids.
No, it’s not merely a tourist trap or an overrated destination. Rather, the pyramids are an out-of-this-world experience. If you’re anything like me, you might have seen them in pictures before, and without having to Google them, you probably instantly have a picture in your head of three pyramids, side by side in the middle of the desert. In reality, the distance between each of them is large enough —and even more noticeable in the scorching heat —that we had to drive (and ride a camel) to get from one to the next.
Seeing the pyramids from this distance made it also hard to envision how they actually look up close. In reality, the pyramids are not smooth — they were built stone by stone, and although they used to be coated in a limestone casing, what remains today is the jagged layer beneath. From up close, I could see every stone, each nearly taller than myself. The perfectly shaped pyramids I initially saw from a distance now took their true form.
When I first visited the pyramids, I was around seven years old. I was mostly bothered by the heat. I couldn’t walk in the sand, and all I could think about was whether or not I would get to ride a camel. I wasn’t really planning on going to the pyramids again — since I wanted to visit new places in Egypt — until I overheard my cousins talking about how they had never been despite living there their whole lives. At the time, I wondered how what I saw was so great that foreigners and locals alike wanted to visit. But this time around, I felt it all at once: the sense of awe at how overpowering the pyramids were — taking over the entire landscape — the sense of vertigo that got stronger the closer I stepped and the regret that I’d wasted my first time here. I was in a dream-like trance with no more heat, no more sand, no more camels, for all I could think about was how to capture the grandeur of what I was seeing.
I have to admit I struggled with looking back at some of the pictures I had taken. On one hand, I didn’t feel like any picture I took accurately conveyed what I was seeing and feeling, but on the other, I wanted to find a way to document the incredible sights I saw. The harder I tried to find the perfect angle, the right lighting or a moment without people (or animals), the more unsatisfied I became with each shot. I quickly realized that the pyramids alone aren’t what makes this place magical. The place is only complete with the families on vacation, the workers, the locals, the tourists, the camels and the horses. From the dozens of pictures I took that day, these are the few I thought most closely captured the beauty of the place I call home.
I still believe that pictures don’t give justice to the true beauty and magic of any place. But I couldn’t have explained the magnificence of these places without these pictures. I took some easily, I struggled with some, but I can finally say that I have successfully documented my trip to Egypt.
MiC Columnist Mariam Alshourbagy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.