An afternoon with Antoine Naggar is every cynic’s nightmare – he is admittedly always happy, always grinning from ear to ear as if he never got wind of the horrors daily visited upon mankind. It is decidedly the worst of times, but it appears this Catholic Egyptian millennial didn’t get the memo, I thought to myself. I smiled nervously in a failed attempt to mask my disbelief and genuine concern for his wellbeing when he told me he had walked approximately 200 km, from Cairo to Baltim, this past June. “My parents and I got into a huge fight right before I left for Baltim. My father even said he would disown me if I go,” Naggar jokes.
Under normal circumstances, Naggar’s forays into unfamiliar lands without pepper spray wouldn’t raise so many eyebrows. But in a country ravaged by sectarianism and an age-old class conflict, the 25-year-old upper middle class urbanite is playing with forces beyond his Sunday schooling. Or so it would appear. “The purpose of this journey was to step out of my bubble – I was born in a particular social stratum that I knew nothing beyond,” Naggar explains. “I wanted to hear from people, from all walks of life, and see if there was anything I could do to help.”
Although religious intolerance is not uncommon throughout the country, sectarian violence is largely considered an issue endemic to rural Egypt. It is there that Naggar saw fit to embark on this anthropological journey through the presumably dodgy side of the human condition: in the economically disadvantaged farming villages dotting the Nile Delta. He waded through this hard and unforgiving cultural terrain in a pair of red sneakers, two-strapping an orange backpack, and finished off the look with a straw hat. “I looked like a clown to them,” he jests.
Antoine Naggar on the first leg of his journey (via Antoine Naggar)
With a less-than-cautious dose of faith in humanity, Naggar relied on the kindness, generosity, and hospitality of Egypt’s Delta locals over the course of eight days, as he made his way from one village to the next. “Nothing was planned. I only planned my movements, from point A to point B. Sleeping and accommodation arrangements, what I’d eat, that was all up in the air,” he says.
True to their anecdotal history, Egypt's Delta dwellers were the best hosts. “There were days when I’d only spend like 5 EGP a day. People fed and took me in,” he says. During his eight-day journey, Naggar never went hungry, never slept out in the open, and never wanted for companionship. “I stopped at the town of Meet Ghamr, I went to this café. The people there invited me over for tea and we talked for a while, then I stretched on a bench. I was lying back and a man, Aam Mohamed, came up to me and he was like, ‘son, if you need a place to stay, I live in this building, you can come rest and wash up if you want',” he recounts. “I went up with him, showered, and slept – it was the first time I’d slept in an actual bed in four days. When I woke up he had made me boiled eggs to pack in case I get hungry on the road. Before I left, he asked to use my phone; he recorded dua'a to protect me.”
It is not without irony that Naggar was denied entry into a church in Samanoud despite having slept in a mosque the previous night. “One night, I came across this factory. I waved at the guards and greeted them. I told them my story and asked if I could spend the night; at first they were hesitant, but then they were like what the hell! They put me up in the mosque inside the factory; they knew I was a Christian,” he says. “I joined them outside, where they were standing watch, and we talked all night. …One of the guards, Aam Ahmed, is incredibly knowledgeable, one of the most cultured people I’ve ever met. He kept talking to me about US foreign policy, and Iran, and the G7, and Trump, and climate change denial. He then went on to talk about education and education reform, and the economy!”
Antoine Naggar sharing a meal with a family in Baltim (via Antoine Naggar)
His journey wasn’t without incident either. “In one village, I came across some people who insisted I join them for tea. When I told them I was a Christian, they were like, ‘yeah, we’re all brothers, but you guys worship wrong',” he says with a hearty chuckle. “They lectured me about all the ways I was worshipping wrong, and I lectured them about love and compassion and treating people as your equals. After that conversation, we were practically best friends.”
By the last leg of his journey, Naggar had made at least one best friend in every village he came across. To this day, Aam Mohamed, and others, call him to make sure he has a place to sleep.
“If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain,” the internet often likes to remind us, falsely attributing the quote to Winston Churchill, a lifelong philosophical liberal, to give it the ring of truth we all desperately need. In the subtext of the seemingly axiomatic platitude lies an intellectual and moral copout in Naggar's worldview, a call to inaction, an invitation to watch inequality and intolerance and chalk them up to the human condition – it’s only logical. “I believe in people’s inherent goodness. I think bigotry is more about ignorance, a corollary of poverty and inequality. I think if you open up to people, if you love people, they will reciprocate. If I start doubting everyone, I might as well just not talk to anyone,” he says passionately. “Walking was only a means, not an end. It was never about walking this many miles, the point has been to step out of my bubble all along and understand the lives of people around me.”
Instead of waiting to turn 35 for his class guilt to dissipate, Naggar is indulging his liberal tendencies. Upon his return from Baltim, Naggar sought out the help of a few donors and managed to buy one of the factory guards a tricycle to operate as a transportation worker and double his income. “None of us get to choose our parents or our family or our environment, or our upbringing or our education. To many, these are graces we take for granted. I believe that we owe it to each other to share them, and not hoard them,” he says. “It’s unfair that people are born with differential privilege. If we share what we have, we’ll be in a better world.”
The young traveller is championing a brand of adventure travel seldom attempted in Egypt, or indeed, the world. Instead of climbing mountains or swimming with sharks, Naggar braves more sinister forces: mankind – which proved to be more dangerous than any extreme sport when a young American couple cycling the world to prove human kindness were killed by ISIS in Tajikistan last year.
Contrary to statistical evidence – and my deeply held personal belief that people are the worst, Naggar did not starve and he wasn’t bludgeoned to death in his sleep. Instead, he was greeted with countless cups of tea and hearty meals by complete strangers. Antoine Naggar journeyed through Egypt’s tattered social fabric like a weaving needle, in a desperate attempt to mend it, and came out alive. It may not be the dent he had hoped to make in Egypt’s many social barriers, but he didn’t confirm our worst fears, either, and for now, that will have to do.