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Amr Shannon, Egypt's ultimate tour guide

A desert guide works under tremendous pressure. Someone can get a scorpion bite or a snakebite, twist an ankle, be overcome by heat or simply panic

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CAIRO

Tour guide Amr Shannon looks into the desert in Cairo last Tuesday. After more than three decades of introducing thousands of tourists to the thrill of Egypt's unique and sprawling deserts, Shannon is planning to retire in the fall. He is now helping to teach a new generation of guides not just to showcase Egypt's natural beauty but to behave as a life coach.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The police were looking for five cars along a lonely stretch of desert road and, well, here were five cars. The license plates did not match the ones they were looking for, but there were five cars -- so the police detained the convoy.

"Egypt really is a logic-free zone," said Amr Shannon, the desert guide whose five-car caravan was released after an officer finally acknowledged the obvious.

The point here is not to embarrass the police at the checkpoint. It is, instead, to illustrate one of the first pieces of advice Shannon gives before taking tourists to some of the most beautiful and isolated destinations across Egypt's desert landscape.

After more than three decades of introducing thousands of tourists to the thrill of Egypt's unique and sprawling deserts, Shannon is planning to retire in the fall. Equal parts adventurer and philosopher -- Indiana Jones meets Yoda -- he is now helping to teach a new generation of guides not just to showcase Egypt's natural beauty but to behave as a life coach. Guides must know when to intervene (when the tires are buried deep in sand, for example) and when to fade into the background, so guests can experience the buzzing silence of the open desert.

"When you go to the sea, you get prepared; you will pack your towel, your bathing suit," he said. "When you go skiing, you pack skis. Now you are coming to Egypt; get prepared for it as well. If you expect logic to prevail, you will find your intelligence insulted 200 times a day."

Egypt is mostly desert, about 94 percent waves of sand and rock. Its 80 million people live on the remaining 6 percent of the land, most hugging the Nile Valley. As a general rule, Egyptians do not like the desert, with relatively few people seeking solace in the hilly terrain of the Sinai or otherworldly landscape of the White Desert, which stretches to the west.

In these ways, Shannon is a unique blend of East and West. He said his religion was "let it be," a very common state of mind in Egypt. But he also pays attention to detail and has a tremendous work ethic, values Egyptians are not known to cherish.

"When I take clients out, you did not pay me to show you things. You paid me for your time. My duty is to make the best of your time," Shannon said.

Shannon had a privileged childhood. His father, Mohsen, was an army general who had the added advantage of having graduated from the military academy in the same class as Gamal Abdel Nasser, who went on to become president. The family lived in a villa, had cars and servants and even made trips abroad.

While his surname may sound Irish, Shannon said that he was 100 percent Egyptian, and that in 1724, the sheik of Al Azhar, the seat of Islamic learning for Sunni Muslims, was a Shannon. Today's Shannon was introduced to the desert as a 10-year-old, when his father began taking him on weekend excursions, exploring the western desert and the coast along the Red Sea.

"The only souls we saw were workers: checkpoint sentries, coast guard soldiers, lighthouse crewmen and road builders," Shannon wrote in a short essay recalling his earliest childhood adventures. "These people, people who had adapted to the hardships and isolation of such remote places, captivated me. Through listening to their stories and sharing a small part of their lives, I fell in love with the mysterious desert."

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