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In June 2002 I took an eleven day trip to Egypt.
Family and friends here in Arizona warned me against going, less than a year after "9-11". They were worried about anti-American sentiment. I decided to go anyway; I am a woman of fifty-five, whose children have grown and moved away, and I have longed to see the countries of the Middle East for decades. For safety's sake, I planned to stay always with the group I would be traveling with, and not traipse off by myself as I have tended to often do when I've taken other trips.
Contrary to my preconceptions, I found Egyptians to be kind and friendly. Although there is anger at certain foreign policies of the U.S. government, the Egyptians I talked to told me they like Americans as people.
The main thing that struck me about the people was their sense of humor. They seemed always to be laughing and joking.
Our stay in Egypt began with a day of sightseeing (Great Pyramids, Sphinx, Sakkara and Memphis) with Mohammed, an excellent guide. Then we had dinner on the Nile, and the next morning flew to Luxor.*
We boarded a cruise boat for several days on the Nile between Luxor and Aswan,
disembarking for guided tours of the ancient tombs and temples.(Karnak, Luxor, Valley of the Kings, and more.) I loved sitting on the shaded deck of the boat, watching the banks of the river go by.
For the final two days we were back in Cairo, for more sightseeing (Citadel of Muhammad Ali and the Egyptian Museum) a dinner cruise on the Nile with a folk music and dance show, and an evening in a non-touristy nightclub because our tour director knew that we both loved Arabic music. The last afternoon we shopped in the Khan al Khalili souk, had dinner in a traditional Egyptian restaurant, and climbed the minaret of the ancient mosque of the Al Burqia complex for a look at the beautiful view of the skyline of that "city of a thousand minarets". I knew that I was sad to leave Egypt.
*There is anti-western feeling in the central part of Egypt (and also problems between fundamentalist Muslims and Coptic Christians), so tourists are usually flown from Cairo to upper Egypt and back.
On June 1st, 2002, I wrote in the little hard-bound journal I had bought to take to Egypt:
I am on Delta Airlines, going from Phoenix to JFK. My check-on bag was searched in view of a whole line of people, before I even got to get to go to the gate. And all the other people whose bags were "randomly" searched were darker-complexioned than I. How can the employees look at you with a straight face and say it is a random search?
I had feared the bags might be searched, and had packed accordingly, (zip-lock baggies come in handy for this).
Of course, there was also a search of my carry-on bag at the security check that led to the gate, and then, at the gate, my carry-on bag and me were searched again.
Packing for the trip, yesterday, my mood began to get more and more wierd. I had thought long and rationally about the decision to make the trip, and had concluded that, based on all the evidence, it was perfectly safe. But it was hard to avoid getting spooked by the attitudes of others.
Several members of my family had actively tried to convince me not to go.
Many other people, though guardedly non-committal, were plainly surprized that I would want to choose such a destination. The newspaper and TV news here in the U.S. had been showing anti-American demonstrations in Cairo.
I had gotten so tired of these reactions that I simply had stopped telling people what I was going to do June 1st."
Several people had been encouraging, though.
I had written to Leyla Lanty, a California dancer who had produced a wonderful CD in Cairo and had good friends there. I had begun corresponding with her after reading a "post" of hers on the Middle East Dance List*, an on-line discussion forum. She had given helpful advice to me when I was setting up my website.
After I wrote her concerning the safety of travel to Cairo, she wrote to her Egyptian friends. Then she wrote back to tell me that they had not heard of any harassment of tourists.
My daughter Lyssa spoke to a friend of her fiance, a young woman who had traveled to Egypt during the last year. This girl had loved Egypt and had experienced no trouble. Lyssa, who is 21, said, "Go, Mom, go!" She and my younger son Brian both share my political views about the Middle East. Dale Jr., who is 22,and not very political, seemed to feel that if I wanted to do this, I should just go ahead and do it. Dale Sr., my husband, had just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Okay." He knows me pretty well after more than two decades of marriage!
My daughter's fiance, who has traveled quite a lot, had an interesting comment. He said, "In other countries, they don't assume as we do that people agree with the actions of their governments. Because their governments don't listen to them, they don't assume that ours listens to us."
My mom, who is almost eighty, was very broadminded about my going. She was concerned, and wanted me to keep an eye on the daily news developments in order to intelligently decide whether I was going to go or not. But she didn't discourage me from going. She said that since terrorism is world-wide now, she did not think I was in any more danger on a plane to Egypt than on a plane to anywhere else. She did want me to be very careful when I was there. I assured her that I would stay with the group, or with the guide, and not go traipsing off on little jaunts by myself as I had often done when visiting other countries.
But the last day of packing was hectic. I'm an instructional aide at a middle school, and if you work in a school, you know that end-of-term is always a busy time. Work ended Thursday, and I only had Friday to pack and get ready, as I was flying out Saturday. All that day I felt as if I was in one of those dreams where you are trying to run from something and your legs will only go in slow motion....and the irrational fears kept hanging around my thoughts like cold shadows.
(I've read that psychologists have done experiments where they put a person in a room full of people. On the wall are painted two lines, one obviously shorter than the other. But after two hours of being told by the others that the shorter of the two lines is really the longer one, the subject of the experiment starts agreeing with the majority. I felt that I was beginning to behave in the same way. I had made my decision to go based on the best evidence I could find, yet was letting myself be affected by the opinions of people whose only knowledge about Egypt was from the mainstream network TV news.)
And the packing process kept getting interrupted. I had to go into town to take my younger son Brian some money, and then took him grocery-shopping and to lunch. (Though it was nice to have the lunch-time conversation with him, as he was supportive of the trip, and there was no one else that I could talk to about it.) I still had to run and buy many little travel items, and get some bills paid. I ended up staying up past midnight, and getting only a few hours of sleep the night before my long and exhausting trip!
"But now", I wrote the next day as I sat on the cross-country flight, "It is wonderful to be on this plane setting out for who-knows-what. Whether or not it is a pleasant experience, at least I will have seen and experienced something of Egypt, a dream for so many years. That is, if Niran shows up! If she doesn't, I'm not getting on that EgyptAir plane!"
Who was Niran? Niran was the woman I would be traveling with, and I had never seen her before in my life!
*to learn how to subscribe to this list, see links page of this website.
Two years ago, in the year 2000, I had decided that my next travel destination would be Egypt. This decision was made during a trip to Morocco with my daughter and my husband. While in Casablanca, a very funny thing happened: I got trapped in the elevator of the Sheraton with a pilot of EgyptAir, the official airline of Egypt!
The elevator did not leave the ground floor, but the doors were stuck shut. We both stood there, sweating, in the little cubicle for a quarter of an hour before help arrived, and in the meantime we carried on a very polite, civilized conversation. When a couple of grinning hotel busboys finally began to pry the thick metal doors open, I told him that, if I had to be trapped in an elevator, I was glad to be trapped with such a gentleman as he, and the pilot said gallantly that when I finished visiting Morocco, I should visit his country, Egypt!
As soon as he said this, my mind began to think, "Yes, of course, Egypt!" All sorts of images from Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy came into my mind, along with the sound of the voice of Oum Kalthoum, followed by music from other CDs I owned, most of which were produced in that wonderful city, the center of the Arabic music industry. The idea drifted down into my subconsious, but continued to surface from time to time during the following year, always causing a smile of happiness.
In the spring of 2001 I began to investigate the internet for a travel companion to go with. I wanted the person to be someone who was as excited about going to Cairo as I was. I knew several people who would love to go, but could not afford it. And I knew people who could easily afford overseas travel but had no particular wish to go to the Middle East. My husband might have been willing to go with me, but he would not have been really excited to be there, and I didn't think I could stand that.
I posted a query on the Middle East Dance List (an on-line forum), and received information about several group tours that were run by American belly-dancers. Most of them did not take place during the summer, though, and that's the only time I can get away.
Also, my main interest in going was to see the historical sites (the Islamic as well as the Phaoronic). True, I am a student of Middle Eastern dance, it's one of my main hobbies, and some of my best friends are fellow afficionadoes of this dance form. But it seems that whenever belly-dancers talk about traveling to Cairo, they talk mostly about the costume houses, or about going to watch the big-time belly-dance stars perform. Don't get me wrong, I did want to see dance performances and buy some costume stuff, but I didn't want dance-related stuff to be the main focus of my visit. So I continued my search elsewhere on the internet.
Through an on-line travel-network website, I found a lady who did very much want to go. She was a nurse in Washington D.C. whose husband had recently died in a tragic car accident. She had decided that, as life could end so suddenly, she would like to go ahead and see the places she had always wanted to see. We talked about spending a week in Cairo in the summer of 2002. But first, she was going to travel to Lebanon, that fall, to visit the family of her late husband.
I very much liked the way she wrote, and we wrote eachother about some of the things we would like to see and do in Cairo, e-mailing back and forth.
While in Lebanon, she was near the Israeli border with some of her husband's family. They were stopped; her blonde looks had caused suspicion that she might be an Israeli spy! She was detained for awhile, and the experience left an unpleasant impression on her. But still, she was game to go to Cairo the following summer.
Then, of course, came Sept. 11th! Of course we were all in shock. Soon after, she wrote me that she no longer had the desire to travel to the Middle East. I let my dream of seeing Cairo sink to the bottom of a sea of despair, hardly even noticing its disappearance; there were so many other things to feel bad about.
In Arizona, everyone around me had been so shocked and surprised by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. I, on the contrary, had feared something like this attack would happen, and I had had this fear for years. (Though I had never conceived of anything anywhere near the size of the World Trade Center attack.) Why had I held this fear for so long?
Because of the anger in the Arab World, caused by the insensitivity and ignorance and cruelty of the U.S. government's policies in the Middle East.
Since 9-11, it has been said over and over by many of my countrymen here in the U.S., that, terrible as the tragic attack was, it "really pulled us all together." As for me, I felt the opposite; I felt that my country was getting pulled apart, and that the tragic attack was bringing out the worst kind of ethnocentricism and racism in people. Only fifteen minute's drive from my house, an Indian man, a Sikh, patriarch of a large family here in the Phoenix area, was killed because he wore a beard and a turban. The picture window of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant was smashed, and the children's Islamic school in Phoenix had to close for a week due to the hate threats they received.
Together, my youngest son Brian and I took cards to the Sikh family and the owner of the restaurant. We just wanted to do something.
You would think that teachers, being educated, would be free from such ethnocentricism. But I found I had to stop eating lunch in the teacher's lounge at the school where I work. One of the male teachers would casually utter anti-Arab statements that would make me so angry that I would not be able to concentrate for the rest of the afternoon.
Troubled in mind, I found comfort in talking to my younger son Brian, in e-mailing my daughter Lyssa, and in phone conversations with my eighty year old mother. She understood my outrage. She told me of the difficulty Afghani students were experiencing in Berkeley, where she lives.
The other place I found solace was on the on-line forum I have mentioned previously, the "Middle East Dance List". Due to the horror of the attack, and the emotions surrounding it, the editor allowed "posts" which were concerned with current events (usually the messages on the forum must deal only with Middle Eastern Dance and music). People were expressing outrage at the back-lash they were experiencing as American turned against anything to do with Arabic culture. But there were also some "posts" from dancers which expressed the same kind of hateful ethnocentricism that was seen in the general public.
I had had an interest in the Middle East for years, reading many books (novels, anthropology, political) and growing to love the music and the dance styles. I sensed that the East and the West were growing further and further apart. It made me want to travel to Egypt even more. I feared that if I did not go soon, things would get so bad I might never get to go!
One evening I read on the "Middle East Dance List" a post which mentioned the Egyptian tours of Niran Al-Ubaidi. I tried to remember her website name, and after several tries got the site to come up. I was so excited to see that there was a tour planned in June, when I could get away! Immediately my spirits lifted. In light of recent events, traveling with an experienced tour leader now seemed the way to go. I e-mailed Niran and waited impatiently for her answer; would my dream of Egypt actually be able to happen?
Niran wrote back that there was still room for me in the tour, and I received an itinerary from her and a schedule of payment. At this point I was no longer so choosy about just what I wanted to see and do there, I just wanted to go. I sent in the initial deposit, and sang Egyptian songs under my breath all day at work.
Then things got worse: the Israeli government begain to escalate even more its violent occupation of Palestine, always excusing its actions as a necessary deterrent to the suicide bombers. The mainstream news sources here in the States seemed to always give front-page coverage to Israeli victims, while giving only minor referrences to the Palestinian deaths and mistreatment. The only news sources I could stand to listen to were NPR and PBS. Bill Moyers" PBS show "Now" was like a beacon in the dark to me.
To me, it seemed that the heavy-handed occupation tactics were causing the suicide bombings to increase rather than decrease. But the US government seemed bound and determined to support the Israeli government no matter what it did.
I feared that these developments might affect the safety of travel to Egypt. But I wanted to go so much, I decided to go ahead and start the payment schedule, taking the chance of losing the money should I decide it was not prudent to go. I weighed the pros and cons, as described in the first chapter of this account, and I felt on "pins and needles" every day as I listened to the NPR news. (Ironically, one of the issues I was watching closely was whether or not Bush's would escalate his plan to attack Iraq, which he is pushing through Congress now, as I write this in October 2002.)
To make things more nerve-wracking, the ticket was sent only a week before the trip. It came with no itinerary, and it didn't look like any ticket I'd ever seen. There were little drawings of the things you weren't allowed to take on the airplane (including a cute little drawing of a submachine gun with an "x" drawn through it.) I drove to the airport a few days before departure and found an information desk where a nice lady went through the ticket and explained it to me. "DL" meant Delta Airlines; I had assumed because the entire ticket was half in Arabic that EgyptAir flew out of Phoenix.
And then came a bombshell from Niran: the other women who had been planning to go had suddenly dropped out due to a death in the family! (They were apparently a mother and her two grown daughters.) And I would be flying back by myself because she had decided to stay on a few days longer in Egypt. Whoa!
I didn't actually make the final decision to go until the day before my scheduled departure from Sky Harbor!
After getting off the Delta Airlines plane at JFK International Airport, I was surprised that the terminal seemed rather small and unpresumptious, compared to the designer-decorated terminals of Phoenix and Oakland. I walked around a bit, feeling in no hurry, as there were hours to wait before flying out at 11:00 PM. But I did feel that I would only be able to relax after I found out the location of the EgyptAir gate.
Everything here seemed to be related to Delta Airlines, except for a busy area under two signs which proclaimed Kuwait Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines. There were no signs giving directions to anywhere else, or to an information desk, or to the central part of the airport!
I found a Starbuck's counter and asked the girl who made my iced espresso mocha if she could point me where I might possibly find EgyptAir.
"Oh, you have to go down the stairs", she said. I had looked down the stairway but it only seemed to lead to a utility exit of some kind. "You go down the stairs and catch the red, white and blue bus."*
So down the cement stairs I went, and waited by a beat-up looking road, in a dusty tunnel with paint peeling off the walls. After a yellow and green bus and a blue and white bus went by, the battered red, white, and blue bus approached and I waved wildly. Once on the bus, a faded chart above the bus windows informed the passengers which terminal they needed to get out at, for the airline they wanted. At each stop, the bus driver would call out the names of one or two familiar-sounding airlines. Then the bus stoppped at the terminal I was supposed to get out at, and the driver called out the names of about fifteen international airlines!
Once in the terminal, I found a counter which said EgyptAir, after following many signs down cement passage-ways. The counter wasn't open, but I wasn't worried as Niran had said they would not open until 7:00 P.M. I went down to a food court and had a sandwich and an interesting talk with a 75 year old woman from Montana who was traveling to Amsterdam by herself. My kind of woman!
Going back to the couches near the EgyptAir counter, I settled myself down, wrapped my arm several times around the strap of my carry-on bag, and dozed. Large groups of people from various parts of the world would pass by as they arrived from different planes: Asians, Africans, Pakistanis.
At seven, the counter had still not opened, and after noticing that all the times listed on the board next to it were arrivals, I realized that this counter had nothing to do with departures. I looked around trying to find the way to the gate. A sign led upstairs, and suddenly I was in a huge sea of people, all appearing to be from the Middle East, each family pushing carts full of large bulging luggage, piled high. Most of the women wore head scarves, and there were many carefully dressed children. The long lines wound around and around. A sign told me which line to get in for EgyptAir.
I found the end of the line and asked the man in front of me, who like most of the others had his family with him and was pushing a heavily-loaded baggage cart, if I needed to be in in this line; as I had already checked my baggage. Osama El-Baghdady, the travel agent for the El Joker Travel office in Cincinnati, had insisted that I check my baggage straight through from Phoenix to Cairo. I was beginning to understand why.
"No", the man in front of me said in a heavy accent, "you go to the front of the line."
Peering over the crowd, I could see about six workers behind the long counter under the EgyptAir signs, and each agent was surrounded by a crush of people.
I'm an American, and it is ingrained in me not to go to the head of a line! I had to ask three different uniformed guards, and hear from all three of them that going to the head of the line was what I should do, before I could make myself do it.
The harried-looking girl behind the counter stamped my ticket a few times and I was off to the gate. By this time it was only a half hour before the scheduled departure!
I hurried up the stairs and found the right gate, crowded with people who all appeared to be Egyptians. There sat Niran, looking totally out of place; she wore a short, sleeveless, brightly flowered dress and had a tattoed anklet and a lot of dyed bushy black hair. Almost all of the other women in the crowd were completely covered up and most were wearing headscarves. (I myself usually wear long skirts and long-sleeved t-shirts when I travel, I just feel more comfortable that way.) Somber colors prevailed among women and men's dress, but the air was charged with the excitement of buzzing conversation, and a holiday mood.
When she saw me she squealed and jumped up, exclaiming that she'd been so worried wondering where I was all this time. "Osama's worried too," (Osama El Baghdady, the El Joker travel agent in Cincinnati) "He couldn't see why you hadn't gotten here yet!" She took her carry-on bag off the seat beside her, which she'd been saving for me. As soon as I sat down, she jumped up again, saying, "Can you watch my bag? I've got to go try and call Osama, he's been worried to death!"
I sat down to wait, and made the mistake of admiring a ten day old baby held by a head-scarved coated woman on my left. She said, "Thank you", but immediately began reciting Koranic verses (I assume that's what they were) over the baby in a faint monotone!
When Niran came back, I called my mom to tell her that I was at the right gate and that I had met my traveling companion. Mom sounded relieved and wished me good luck on the trip. She asked me how I liked "the woman", and I said, "Fine!" trying for a reassuring tone of confidence.
In actuality, I found Niran a little alarming, with her flamboyant dress and manner, (and her sailor's mouth!), but mostly I was relieved and happy that she was there, and now I could really go!
There was a commotion as the EgyptAir employee announced that take-off was iminent. The center aisle of the gate was immediately a heavy crush of people, all trying to move toward the exit that led down to the plane. In vain the lady employee kept asking them to make a single file line! My instinct for self-preservation taking over my natural reticence, I kept myself right behind Niran with stubborn pushiness.
My seat was way in the back, not near hers at all. But I had a wonderful lady sitting next to me, an Egyptian grandmother, (in bobbed hair and casual western-style clothes) who had been visiting her children in Staten Island for two months, as she did each summer. She spoke excellent English and was fun company the whole way.
As we sat there waiting the long time until take-off, the TV screens hanging above the aisles of the huge plane alternated the EgyptAir logo with a prayer from the Qur'an, in Arabic lettering on a background of clouds and blue sky. (It began with he bismullah, as far as I could tell.) Classical Arabic music played on the loudspeakers. The lovely stewardesses and handsome stewards, very spiffy in their navy-blue and green tailored outfits, smiled indulgently at the many little children who were often in the aisles and in their way. Adorably dressed in new outfits, these little ones appeared to be loved by all. The plane rang with jovial conversation and laughter.
Suddenly in front of us, the narrow aisle was filled with a very agitated man, who was losing his temper and shouting, first at the staff and then at his friend, because of a mix-up in the seat assignments.
My seatmate translated for me, "He's saying, I told you we should have flown Lufthansa, but you wouldn't do it, you wouldn't do it!" She and I giggled like teenagers.
Finally the plane took off, and it vibrated with an awful racket! Up in the air we went, and for the third time in my life I began a plane flight eastward across the Atlantic, to the Old World. Sitting for so many hours is always difficult for those of us past the half-century mark, especially in the knee- joints, but it helped to change foot positions from time to time, and to shift around as much as possible.
Earphones were handed out, and among the stations you could choose to listen to, there was one which featured classical Arabic music. Which made the trip easier for me. There were in-flight movies, (late-issue Hollywood) and various comedy shorts. And I was fascinated to watch the people, for though I was not yet in Egypt, I was surrounded by Egyptians!
Twelve long hours later, the city of Cairo could be seen out the window in the bright afternoon sunlight. Huge and congested, it all looked mud-brown, with a curving strip of dull blue going through it which was the Nile. Was this two-toned dusty-looking megalopolis the magical place I had longed to see for so many years? The plane made slow circles and gradually descended, and my eyes were glued to the window, as the name of the ancient city kept exploding in my mind: "Cairo! Cairo! Cairo!"
As the plane touched down, all of the passengers broke into a congratulatory applause. The main in front of us told his seat-mate, "Very nice landing, very smooth," with the knowledgeable tone of a man who is a connosieur of airplane landings. Out in the bright sunlight, we could see a staircase being wheeled up to the plane----I stood up, relieved to be able to stretch my legs, smiled at the nice Egyptian grandmother, and could not keep from continuing to smile ear-to-ear as I prepared to walk on the soil of Egypt (well, asphalt to start with) for the first time in my life.
*(Editor's note: This system has since been updated. Instead of the buses in the tunnel, there is an "air train" which zips passengers from one terminal of JFK Airport to the others.
In the crowd, I shuffled toward the front, encountering Niran somewhere in the font rows of the aircraft. She had made fast friends with a young blonde American girl dressed in jeans. I followed them onto a standing-room-only bus, which took us and the other passengers to the terminal. There was a long cement room with archways open to the outside, which seemed to be a place for passengers to meet agents sent from hotels, businesses or travel companies. Niran was looking around wildly, saying, "Where's Hishaam? Where's Hishaam?"
She screamed the name again as a tall, slender, urbane Egyptian appeared in one of the archways, a grin on his face,his arms and shoulders in a shrug. He was a "meeter and greeter" for El Joker travel, and he shepherded us through the crush of baggage pickup and customs. It was all very confusing, and I felt so stupid, though I tried as best I could to do what I was told. The uniformed man behind the window of the little booth where they stamped your passport said, "Thank you, Habibi" to me, in a rather rude voice, but it did not bother me. Niran told me I should give Hisham a tip for the help he was giving us, and I had to ask her how much, as I had absolutely no idea!
At an exit where a crowd pressed against a fence, we waited until the American girl was met by her Egyptian boyfriend.
Hisham wheeled a cart out to the parking lot, with my medium-sized bag and Niran's two large ones, and we got in a small car and took off. The streets were full of traffic; it seemed hair-raising to me but Niran said it was much lighter than usual. She carried on an animated conversation with Hisham; they seemed to be old friends. I looked out of the window with great curiosity.
What a city of contrasts! Many modern cars, and also wagons pulled by donkeys, loaded with produce, driven by men in long light blue caftans and white caps.
Massive modern apartment buildings, and old buildings in a heart-breaking state of disrepair and shabbiness. The sun was blindingly bright, yet the narrow, deeply-shaded side streets were like dim canyons between the tall buildings. At one point a heard of camels was driven through the streets, golden in the late afternoon light! Niran said that in all the times she'd been here, she'd never seen that.
And we drove over the Sixth of October bridge and saw the Nile, its blue water rippling in the early evening, lush greenery and palm trees all along its banks, just as I had imagined it would be.
What a vital city! There were people everywhere in the streets, and pedestrians freely crossed in and out of the traffic, with apparent disregard for danger. The women were usually covered from head to toe; headscarves were common and often covered shoulders as well as the hair. (But some of the long-sleeved, long-skirted outfits were often relatively form-fitting, and the women seemed to be more independent and lively, than, say, the women of the conservative Turkish town of Bursa, which was the only other place I'd been where head-scarves were so common.) Perhaps I'm way off-base, but the head-scarf, rather than a constraint, seemed to be a protection, a way for these women to say, without speaking, "I'm a decent woman, a good Muslim wife, mother, or daughter, and I should be treated with respect." This would make sense in this large city, where women were constantly thrown into close proximity with so many men whom they did not know.
They appeared to be a lively easy-going people, these Cairenes; the men always seemed to be gesticulating, grinning, boyishly joking with eachother, like little kids. Indeed they gave the impression of living up to their reputation as "the friendliest people in the world."
Many of the liscence plates on the small cars began with the same word in Arabic: it looked like "ma-la-kee". I asked Hishaam about it and he said that the word meant "private" and meant that the vehicle was owned by a private owner.
We turned down a narrow, rather shabby little alley, and suddenly we were in front of the grand, polished, brass-and glass doors of our hotel, the Sheraton Gardens. Directly across from the hotel entrance were a worn-looking postage-stamp-sized grocery store and private entrances to the old aparment buildings opposite. As we waited for our baggage to be wheeled in by the blue-coated doorman, my eyes met those of a head-scarfed woman looking out from a window directly across the tiny street.
To get into the hotel, we had to go through a metal-detector, and put all of our bags and packages through an airport-type x-ray security check. Suddenly we were in a vast two-story lobby, almost empty. I liked the decoration scheme of tan walls sponged in variegated tones, orientalist prints, and blond furniture. Through the large glass doors on the other side, one could see a landscape of boulders, palms, shrubs, and a beautiful turquoise pool. The huge hotel, all painted a golden tan, surrounded this pool complex; on all sides loomed five stories of balconied rooms.
Up from one of the over-stuffed chairs in the lobby sprang Khaled, whom Niran greeted as another old friend. 'How many old friends did she have?', I wondered. Khaled was an aimiable guy, slight of build, with coloring not much different than mine, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved, open-necked shirt. Niran had a lot of questions for him; in the course of talking to her, his shoulders would shake up and down as if he found her animated rantings a very good joke. I liked him very much; he had an intelligent manner which inspired confidence.
But I didn't really pay attention to the 'ins and outs' of their conversation; I was tired, glad to be at the hotel where I could relax and "put down my guard" for an evening, after the long journey with all of its new experiences--- just glad to be here in Cairo, and to know that another day of new experiences was awaiting me tomorrow.
Later Niran told me that Khaled is the owner of the Hurghada branch of El Joker Travel. Hurghada is six hours drive from Cairo on the coast of Egypt, but Khaled was the main travel agent in charge of our stay in Egypt, and she had obviously dealt with him many times before.
She gave the guy behind the Reception counter the vouchers needed for our rooms. (I was glad I didn't have to deal with paying for the rooms, this trip. To tell the truth, I find the employees behind most grand hotel reception counters rather daunting.) We went to our rooms,(I was happy to have time for a nap!) agreeing to meet for dinner in the hotel restaurant after a couple of hours.
A couple of hours later, I was sitting in the restaurant of the hotel, enjoying an Arabic coffee; I sat at one of the small tables along the picture windows that looked out on the garden, which was now dark except for a few lights around the pool. Niran came bounding in, in her usual dramatic way, exclaiming that I had chosen the same table that she always chose. We were soon joined by a young Egyptian friend of hers, whom she had met through an Arabic internet chat room, and contacted by phone that afternoon.
His ruggedly handsome features and longish curly black hair were offset by studious wire-rimmed glasses; like most Egyptians, he immediately started joking as soon as he sat down. (For instance, after introducing himself as Adnan and getting my name, he jumped up. "Well, I have to go!" and before we could even react, he said "Just kidding!" And sat right back down again.) Niran shot comments right back at him (I thought to myself, 'That's why they like her so much!'). Their humor was infectious, and I was soon laughing along with them.
Abruptly she jumped up, exusing herself to go make one of her numerous phone calls. I wondered, 'What in the world will I talk to this young man about?' But our conversation was quite interesting.
A very bright young guy who had studied computer programming, he felt that he had no future in Egypt. Until a short while ago, he had planned to emigrate to the USA, but after September 11, he had heard from friends returning from America that he would probably no longer feel welcome there. Now he was considering Canada or Germany, probably the latter.
I protested that there were many Arab people living in the United States. For instance, the Phoenix area has more than one mosque and quite a few madrasas, (Islamic schools). Adnan nodded, and said that he had heard there are so many Egyptians living in New Jersey that they call it "Little Egypt".
(Since then, I have been told by more than one person that it is truly difficult, since 9-11, for a person from an Arab country to immigrate to the United States. Individuals who have been in the States on long-term visas are finding that they cannot renew them, and some Middle-Eastern entertainers are having to cancel performing tours here because they cannot get even a short-term visa.)
He said that he had heard that each state in the U.S. had had a different character, almost as if each were a different little country. For instance, he had heard that Californians were mostly tall, blonde, and blue-eyed! ("Surf movies!" I thought!) I told him that nothing could be further than the truth; that there were immigrants from all over the world in California.
Then he really "blew my mind" by telling me a "theory" which he had read on various websites on the internet. This "theory" was that the US government had been the perpetrator of 9-11, their motive being to get the American people to agree to whatever the government wants.
"What do you think of that?" he said.
I was stunned.
"No, I don't think the American government would kill ten thousand of their own people in order to get their way about policy," I said.
"Well, I have seen this on other sites also, on....international sites", he said.
(Since then, I have heard from a friend in the United States that there are people in the U.S. who also believe this impossible "theory". Her ex-husband, ---one of the crackpot "survivalist" types--- is one of them.)
Niran came striding dramatically back into the dining room, excitingly talking about a friend she had gotten through to on the phone. After a few polite comments I excused myself to go to my room. After all the commotion I really did want to be alone, watch a little Egyptian TV, and catch up on my journal. I fell asleep as soon as I lay down, and slet well, until----
"3:30 AM--- I just woke, and can't sleep to sleep, probably from excitement. The bed is very comfortable. Unfortunately, with the heavy air-conditioning, my clothes are obviously not going to dry over-night. It doesn't feel sticky out, but perhaps it's more humid than it feels. Because the room is on the ground floor, there's no balcony to hang things out on.
"Tomorrow I will have my own guide, as Niran is going out late tonight and doesn't wish to go sightseeing. I hope having my own guide does not turn out to be an uncomfortable situation. It's ironic how, on other trips I was always pushing my way to the front to hear every word the guide had to say, and here I am complaining about being the only one in the party.
"4:00 AM---The call to prayer is sounding---over the sound of the air conditioning, but loud, and, as always, it affects me with a feeling of purity and beauty.
"5:43---The bird-chirping is beginning to increase. It's lovely that the glass patio doors open to the swimming pool garden.
"7:15---Now I'm sitting at the breakfast table after some roll and cheese and a pastry and coffee, with half an hour to write before I need to prepare for the day's sightseeing (buy water across the street, exchange traveler's checks for Egyptian money, go to the room to put my passport back under my clothes, get hat and long sleeves, etc.)
"I love this table by the window where one can look out on the garden and see the old villa which the hotel was built around. There are very few guests in the dining room, about five English, a party of Germans, and two Americans besides myself. Perhaps all the Asians who were here last night ate earlier.
"It's a nice dining room with large terra cotta tiles, heavy square pillars, and the long row of windows looking out on the tropical plants and boulders of the garden. Niran should appear soon---
So, my first day in Egypt I had a personal guide to take me around. Mohammed was a lean and well-groomed guy with a dark angular face, dressed in jeans, a well-pressed light-blue button-down shirt, and sunglasses. He had an ernest, professional manner about him and I liked his forthright and intelligent way of talking. I also met the driver, Atef, an amiable looking guy with a round face, brown hair, and blue eyes. Atef had already driven six hours from Hurgata that morning!
After handshakes, we set out into the brilliant sunshine, the busy streets crowded with traffic. Tall apartment buildings with tiers of balconies rose on either side, and we passed some Flame Trees covered with intense red blossoms.
The late-model, air-conditioned van had the name of the El Joker Travel Agency on the front, and, wonder of all wonders, seatbelts! There was another person in the front seat of the van, a large young man, dressed rather formally in a camelcolored blazer and slacks, who kept rather quiet. Later I found out that he was an armed guard, and that, as an extra precaution, some of the larger travel agencies employ security guards to travel with their groups, watching out for unforeseen circumstances. Our travel agency was one of the ones that did so. At first the young man was terribly formal, but after a short time, he became as friendly with us as the guides were.
I commented on the seatbelts and Mohammed said that it was now a law in Egypt to use seatbelts, though people rarely followed it.
"It is the law in your country, is it not?" he asked.
"Yes, but many people still do not use them."
I told them how much I liked the music on the radio, and Mohammed said that it was Farid El Atrache.
"That is what is called classical Arabic music, isn't it?" I said. "Is that what the older people listen to?"
"It's not really that old, it's from the 60's", Mohammed said.
Atef was a surprisingly easy-going driver, which was a good thing because the traffic was hair-raising. I was enjoying myself immensely, constantly looking all around so as not to miss anything.
Mohammed went on to explain that the program of the day would be the tombs of Memphis and Sakkara, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Sphinx. He launched into an explanation of Upper and Lower Egypt, symbols used in ancient Egypt (the lotus blossom, the vulture, the serpent) red crowns, white crowns, and red and white crowns. There was so much information that it was difficult to take it all in, though it was presented well!
Soon the van had left the wide avenues of the city, and we were whizzing along a narrower road which ran beside a small canal. Brilliant green vegetation lined its banks, shaded by a luxuriant growth of palm trees. On the other side of the road marched a hodge-podge of apartment buildings, all with ground floor shops where hand-painted signs crowded eachother, proclaiming their wares in wildly written lettering, both Arabic and English. I noticed black and white taxis, white-painted VW buses filled with passengers, and an occasional two-wheeled donkey-cart piled high with green leafy produce or melons, the driver a man of the country, dressed in a long, light-blue galabeya and white cap, with sometimes a small son riding beside him dressed the same.
Somehow or other we got on the subject of "sayings". I told him that I's heard that the Arabic language had a lot of "sayings". (Actually I have a book of them at home.)
"Well, yes, especially the old people. Especially the old women. They can't say one sentence without following it with one of these....expressions."
A bit later, the topic of tourism came up. I told Mohammed that I had almost decided not to come to Egypt, because I was warned about anti-American feeling. Now that I was here, I found the people really friendly.
Mohammed said, "Don't get me wrong, there is real anger in the Arab countries about the U.S. policies, but we aren't angry at the American people. Most Americans that I speak to don't agree with the policies either."
(I didn't have the heart to tell him that there are many, many Americans who were (and are still) supportive their government's policies, but they aren't the ones who go to Egypt.)
We drove up to a gate in a cement wall; on one side there was a guard tower similar to what you'd see overlooking a prison. Armed guards in white uniforms, black berets and black-and-red armbands which bore the words "Antiquities Police" took the tickets which Mohammed had purchased.
Inside the gate were some large Pharoanic-era statues, here and there in the bright sunshine. First we went to stand in front of a massive lion-bodied stone creature, with a young man's face, a serene but powerful face with pleasingly graceful features and a long stylized beard. A stone head-dress flowed down from its crown to its shoulders.
Mohammed began the spiel which he would normally give to a group of tourists. It seem strange to stand there and be an audience of one! But I told myself to ignore this discomfort and instead concentrate on understanding what was told me.
So we went around to the various statues. Mohammed had put a lot of work into the material, and he had a looseleaf notebook of relevant illustrations in plastic sheet protectors. A picture of a real papyrus plant helped me understand a stylized stone carving of a papyrus plant, for instance. This notebook was called a "catalogue".
Then it was back into the van, and on to the next site, Saqqara. Once inside the gate, The van followed a narrow asphalt road that wound through white barren sands; there was absolutely no vegetation. At first I thought that the empty landscape must have been caused by archaelogical digging. But Mohammed told me that this was just the way Egyptian desert is. It made me realize, even more strongly than I had previously, that the Nile River valley is Egypt.
(Since then I've learned that deserts with vegetation, such as the cactus filled Sonoran desert where I live in Arizona, have a much higher water table than does the Egyptian desert.)
Saqqara is a large open site located out in the desert. There we saw the famous step-pyramid, which archaeologists believe was the pre-cursor to the true pyramids that were built later. It is made of five layers of rough brown stone, one on top of the other (like a pyramid-shaped wedding cake), getting smaller and smaller toward the top.
As we went in, a row of humorous-looking carved cobra heads looked down from a few feet above our heads, jutting out from a massive seven-foot-high wall of smooth stone. There were also some very deep pits, lined with stone bricks. Mohammed explained in detail the reason behind these pits, but you'll have to go to an Egyptology book to learn it, because I can't remember!
As part of that day's sightseeing we went into a building where a humongous statue of Ramses II was lying on its back, the massive hands gripping large cylinders of stone. The statue's feet had not survived the centuries, but the gigantic carved leg muscles still seemed ready to march out of the building. It amazed me that the artists of that ancient time could create such a feeling of incredible beauty and mighty power all in one statue.
I can also remember going down a long avenue between columns (the entrance to the Zuser pryamid) and going inside one of the tombs to see the stone bas-relief carvings on the walls of a narrow passageway lit by a skylight. Of all the people and animals depiced in the bas-relief carvings, my favorite were the bulls. I love the graceful way they were drawn, their massive bodies and long curving horns; somehow the artist had captured in that stone carving the essence of the way they move.
Next on the "program" was a visit to a "carpet factory". I had dreaded this stop. If you have traveled overseas as a tourist, you may know the drill. The tourists get a spiel about how wonderful the product is, and how if they were to buy that kind of product in a market (where the prices are much cheaper) the quality would not be good, and so on. Then they hover over you while you decide whether to buy, and the salesman and the guide get a commission on what you do buy.
The "carpet factory" was a two-room stucco building, both rooms large and open and lit by skylights. In the first room, the salesman showed me several children knotting carpets (the fancy silk ones) at hand looms. In the second room were stacks and stacks of carpets and rugs, many more than those children could have produced. There was a dignified older man, in a galabeya and cap, sitting behind a desk.
The salesman took me around the room, and Mohammed made for a chair in front of the desk at the back of the room, where he lounged, chatting in Arabic with the older gentleman, and smoking a cigarette.
The salesman told me there were different "grades" of carpets. The "lowest grade" (here his voice took on a slight sneer) was the folk carpet, large simple designs often representing people and animals, in coarse wool. The "highest grade" were the silk carpets with incredibly detailed oriental designs.
I loved the folk type rugs, and bought two: a very large one with a folk-art design depicting a village (people,livestock, palm trees, and houses) in non-dyed wool of off-white, dark brownish-black, and every shade in between, which I later gave to my daughter Lyssa, and a small one of a rose-colored sunset on the Nile, silhouettes of palms, a guy in a small boat and two ladies in a tent. I still love this rug and have never regretted buying it, though I suspect the design is a non-traditional one aimed at the tourist market. The two rugs came to about $185, I think. (I didn't bargain, so you may be able to do much better.)
When we got back in the van, Mohammed said something to Atef, and they both giggled gleefully. I thought to myself, "You wouldn't be giggling so much if you knew I just spent most of the money I budgeted for purchases, right here at this one shop!"
A ways down the road we stopped at a restaurant called "Sakkara". Atef stayed in the van, and we went through a large arch down some steps to a large outdoor pavillion with many tables, a half-dozen white-shirted staff, and only one other table of customers. (Summer is always a slow time for tourism in Egypt, and since 9-11 things are even worse.)
The meal was excellent, and it was comfortable outside because June 3 was unseasonably cool. First came four little appetizer plates (the most delicious baba ghanoush I'd ever had, plus a yogurt sauce and hummous). The entree of sausages and potatoes was also very good.
While I was drinking my delicious Arabic coffee, I told Mohammed that I didn't mind at all if he smoked. After he lit his cigarette, he leaned back casually and seemed to relax. I said that I was sorry he had only one client that day (me), and asked if he had been a guide for such a small group before! "Only a few times", he said, "I don't mind because it's almost like not working." He went on to say that in a way larger groups were easier, because "they have to follow the program." On the other hand, when he has a large group he has to raise his voice, keep counting people, and make sure everyone is on time.
I told him that I really liked the fact that he felt so strongly about his subject. He said that he had gone to school for Egyptology, as most guides do. He was very proud of his "catalogues"; he had one for each subject, and he had assembled them himself.
"First you have to find the pictures. Then you have to scan the pictues, and the paper in Cairo is very expensive---about five pounds per piece---and then you have to put them together.
"But I think the catalogues help with my clients and it makes it easier for me to explain to them."
I ordered another cup of Arabic coffee. I often find that when traveling, I'm as interested in people's daily lives as I am in the history and famous landmarks.
Mohammed's wife, it turns out, is a teacher's aide like I am. But she works at a very expensive private school. The tuition there is so high that even though employees only have to pay half-price, Mohammed and his wife can't afford it. I didn't ask what kind of school his kids do go to, but he did say that his boy is about to take the mathematics exam. (That day, many young kids in Egypt were facing exams.)
He and his wife met when they were in college, and were able to marry because her family helped them to buy an apartment. Many young couples in Cairo must wait years before they can marry, because the housing shortage is so bad. (Apparently renting is not a good option in Cairo, because the laws to protect renter's rights are insufficient.)
Though Mohammed's son is only 8 (his daughter is 11) they have already started saving for an apartment for the son to have when he marries.
"And we are going to let him be free and choose, the way we did," Mohammed said.(Did he mean that they are not going to arrange a marriage for his son? I did not want to ask.)
I was interested to hear that Mohammed had once been to the United States, when
"the Spiritualists" brought him there to lecture on Egyptology. I had never heard of the Spiritualists.
"They are people who take something from every religion, whatever they take, they like; from Buddhism, Christianty, or the religion of the Pharoahs."
"Well, that's good, I guess---or is it?" (I didn't want to venture any opinions on religion!)
"Well, in a way it is good and in a way it is not. Because they are making it up the way they want. When I went and lectured for them, I told them, 'I will tell what I know, but I will not say what I do not agree with.'"
It was time to get back in the van, and on to our next stop, the Great Pyramids of Giza. All spring I had been singing under my breath,
"See the pyramids along the Nile..."
Compared to my daydream, (in which the pyramids appeared in soft focus, shadowy in the cool of the evening, surrounded by silence), the reality was somewhat less romantic. Massive hot rock steps of brown stone, each one as tall as a human being and as wide, up and up and up. The clutter of the city encroaches on the mighty monoliths; only a slight rise in the level of the ground sets them apart from neighborhoods of tawdry looking apartment buildings. Tourists from Europe, from Asia and from the Middle East looked tiny as they climbed up the ramp and took photos. At the top of the ramp, a smiling family group of women in long dresses and headscarves crowded together for their "Kodak moment".
No matter how many pictures you've seen, the sheer size of the giant blocks of hand-hewn stone is mind-boggling. I tried to imagine armies of workers carving them by hand,and hauling them, miles and miles and miles, without modern machinery. It was difficult to really feel the history. I would have liked to be able to be there in the early morning, or at sunset, without the crowds and the noise.
It was getting hot and I was tired, and I didn't complain when Mohammed seemed to want to get going.
He warned against the camel drivers who were waiting around. "It's very easy to get up on the camel", he said, "but it's not so easy to get down from the camel."
"Oh, I see", I said, "You have to pay more money to get down!"
We drove a short ways to get to a good spot for taking pictures; a spot where the pyramids are far enough away that they can be in the background of the picture, rather than fill it. Mohammed asked if I would like him to take a photo of me. Instead, I asked a rather dowdy lady to take a picture of b me and him both! At first she didn't seem to know what I wanted, and she also had trouble figuring out the camera.
"Russian!" said Mohammed after the lady handed my camera back. "They don't speak English," he added.
"They don't even speak Russian!" He went on to say that what he meant was that Russians don't talk much. I was amused. No wonder that would seem strange to an Egyptian! Egyptians seem always to be talking, laughing, and joking.
Behind us, you could see the road we had just driven on, a narrow straight band of asphalt spanning the barren stretch of white sand between us and the pyramids. I was suddenly reminded of a photo my mom has, a snapshot of my maternal grandparents, taken on that very same stretch of road. It's a black-and-white photo with white borders; my grandfather in a light-colored suit, wearing a staw hat; my grandmother and another lady in 50's style dresses, high heels and hats.
(During the early sixties, my grandparents had lived in Egypt for five years, when he was the head of the YMCA in Cairo. It was their last foreign post before he retired, and they were glad to come home when the five years were over. They didn't really understand the Egyptians, I don't think. New England ways of doing things and Cairo ways of doing things are very different.)
We stopped at the world-famous Sphinx, on the other side of the pyramids, for a picture. The Sphinx was less impressive to me than some of the other great statues we had seen. Too bad that a French soldier, back in Colonial times, had shot its nose off. It seemed dwarfed by the Great Pyramids behind it.
We walked back to the van, laughing at a joke Mohammed had told. He seemed to get more fun-loving by the minute.
On the way back, there was the obligatory stop at the "papyrus factory". A gallery of dark green exhibition rooms displayed framed drawings on papyrus. These are a popular souveneir with tourists. The owner, who looked as prosperous and well-fed as any middle-management American (and as white, I might add!), started on his spiel with unctious cordiality.
The drawings, in Phaoronic style, were meticulously done. But they didn't have that lovely purity of line which, in my opinion, is as important to a drawing as beautiful vocal tone is to a singer. I selected a tiny picture of "The Tree of Life", colorful birds in a tree (it looks great with the European folk stuff in my dance practice room). After his efforts to upgrade me to a larger purchase failed, the friendly tone of the owner vanished as if a hypnotist's hand had passed over his face, and he made a disparaging comment in Arabic to his assistant as he wrapped up my little purchase with his manicured hands. I felt like throwing the package in his face.
I was very tired by that time, and glad to get back to the tiny street where the hotel was located. Mohammed started to say that this might be the last time that he would see me. I panicked inside; Niran had said that he would be sightseeing with us several days, and I had no tip ready! I felt awkward as I thanked him and Atef, although I knew that I could arrange to get his tip to him somehow.
And I've learned that awkward moments are a part of traveling, for over-sensitive types such as myself; awkward moments go hand-in-hand with "not knowing the territory". You just have to do your best and not let it bother you.
I slept hard when I got back to my room, but I woke in time to get ready for dinner. I dressed in a paisley rayon outfit with my dress flats and evening bag, and a little extra make-up. Khaled (whom we had met the night before when we first arrived at the hotel) was there to pick us up on time at 8:30 P.M.
The restaurant was on a large boat which was permanently moored by the side of the Nile. We ate on a vine-covered outside deck, overlooking the reflections of the city lights on the river. We seemed to be the only patrons.
What a pleasant dinner! Easy-going Khaled was so interesting to talk to, with his amiable manner, cheerful and unassuming. Thin as a rail, with features rather similar to those of the famed singer/actor Abdel Halim Hafez. He and Niran discussed Egyptian singers. He likes Mohammad Fouad, she likes Gawaher.
"Don't talk to me about silly singers!" he said.
As the marketing director for the Hurghata branch of El Joker Travel, he was curious about my travel experience. (Niran had been there many times, so he probably knew what she thought.) He wanted to know what I thought of Egypt as compared to Morocco, what the media was like in the United States, and so on. I asked him if he had a lot of Saudi business, as Hurghata is on the Red Sea coast.
"Actually most of my business is from Turkey and Russia," he said. "The Russians did not have the opportunity to travel before, and now they wish to see the world. The Turks are Muslims, as we are, and they visit on the three main holidays."
I commented on the fact that so many of the ladies in Egypt were wearing head scarves on the street. "We are Muslims," he said, "We can do as we like. We can pray five times a day---or not. We can go to the mosque---or not", he said with a friendly shrug of his shoulders, "We are still Muslims."
After the dinner, which, by the way, was delicious, it was back to the hotel. We had to be up early the next day---to take the plane to Luxor!
Very early the next morning, before the dining room was open, I wheeled my packed bag down the carpeted hall to the lobby, as Niran had instructed me to do. Clutching our breakfast-boxes of cheese, fruit, and rather dry bread, we were hustled to the airport; there we caught a quick flight to Luxor. This time Niran and I sat together. She talked excitedly about the boat we would be on for the next few days, and I was happy with anticipation. The plane was rather small, and most of the passengers were European tourists.
Niran told me that tourists are usually flown from Cairo to Upper Egypt. The towns in the areas of middle Egypt are more conservative in their beliefs and some of the people are less tolerant of outsiders. (Also, I had read in my guidebook that there have been some conflicts between Coptic Christians and Muslims in middle Egyptian towns, such as Asyut.)
On arrival at the airport, we were met by an agent from the Luxor office of El Joker Travel, and taken by van to the Sheraton Luxor, a beautiful modern hotel on the edge of the Nile. The lobby was laid out almost exactly like the Sheraton in Marbella, Spain---in a spacious and open modern style, with built-in couches, large square coffee-tables and huge planters full of tropical plants. Glass walls at front entrance and rear let in plenty of light, and doors on either side of the large lobby led to coffee shops, gift shops, and to the bar and restaurant.
Looking towards the rear, I could see that we were right on the Nile, and that it was narrower here; a lovely sight framed by the shady overhanging branches of the trees. Across the blue water, the other bank was bright green with rushes, and palm trees of many different varieties, growing every which way, crowded together in a dense forest that grew close along the shore and was reflected in the slightly rippling water. Beyond this profusion of palms, dusty sand-colored cliffs baked in the hazy air. The beauty of the scene filled me with delight.
Suddenly Niran was introducing me to the guide who would be with us on the next stage of our journey. Maggid was a trim little man, with a round face, glasses, and an ernest manner. He wore a baseball cap, polo shirt, black jeans, and new tennis shoes; his black, close-cropped hair and eyebrows contrasted with his fair skin. The eyebrows were wide arches, shaped like new moons. He greeted me with enthusiastic friendliness, but it was soon obvious that both he and the El Joker agent were growing more and more agitated, in spite of their outward politeness.
There had been a change in plan, and Niran Al-Ubaidi was not happy about it.
The original itinerary had called for us to board our Nile cruise-boat here at Luxor, and settle ourselves in on the boat before taking our tour of the Luxor ruins. It now transpired that the boat was stuck at Esna due to a problem with the locks, and our group, (which included 8 or so other people) was to wait several hours in the hotel lobby before the bus arrived to take us to the ruins. The same bus would later transport us to our boat, which was docked further up the river.
Niran had been up late the night before with Cairo friends, and she had decided to spend the afternoon napping on the boat and skip the tour of the ancient temple, which she had seen before anyhow. She argued on and on with Maggid and the El Joker agent, and after much protest, they agreed to find a bus to take her directly to the boat.
"I'm sorry if they think I'm a bitch, but that was what was promised," she said in an aside to me. I nodded, pretending to understand. I myself believe that these things sometimes happen when you travel, and it's just part of the experience. The problem at the locks was not something that the travel agency had any control over. I was happy to be right on the Nile, one way or the other.
Her special-order bus arrived, and she rode off on it; a couple of young Frenchwomen in our group decided to do likewise. They had joined our party late, and had recently seen the near-by ruins with their previous tour-group. Maggid told the rest of us that the hotel would serve us lunch in the dining-room at noon, still a couple of hours away. I went and got an Arabic coffee and went out onto the patio to soak up the view of the lovely informal gardens that terraced down to the banks of the beautiful blue Nile. My entire being was suffused with contentment and wonder, and such a sense of relaxation that I almost fell asleep. My lazy eyelids would open slightly and I would see through my lashes that yes, I was really here.
At a table a little behind me, a group of working-class Brits was sitting; through my reverie I could hear their bored voices talking on and on in about what they liked and didn't like about various tourist destinations, thereby impressing eachother with how many places they'd been. ("It was a bit of all royt, but not what you'd expect, not at all wot I'd been led to expect, nothing for tourists, not a proper restaurant...").
At noon I went into the dining-room and was shown to the table set aside for the group which we would join while we were on the boat. There would be other groups, each with its own guide, which would join and leave the boat at different times as it made its trip up the Nile.
I was pleasantly surprised by the likability of the others in our group. We numbered twelve altogether. A wiry cantankerous Scotsman and his amiable, slender son and daughter-in-law, three young women friends from Washington D.C. (one of whom was a native New Zealander) and a nice Norwegian couple in their 50's, both tall, lean and blonde. (With myself, Niran and the two
French girls who had opted to go to the boat when she did, it made an even dozen). Although I was still feeling rather tired and yucky, I was happy to be seated with them. Everyone was friendly and we all exchanged introductions. Interesting people, and not a complainer in the bunch!
Soon afterwards, we all followed Maggid outside the hotel entrance, where we stood in the shade of the overhang, watching our luggage being lashed to the top of our bus by the black-skinned driver. That poor man was sweating in his white shirt and tie in the sun, obviously irritated and in much discomfort. "It's not easy for him in this heat", I said to our guide. Maggid told me that usually this driver would not have to deal with luggage, as the boat would already be at Luxor.
A short while later, we were on the bus to the ancient temple of Karnak. It was very very hot; several of us took Maggid's suggestion and bought bottled water at a little stand near the entrance. We passed the armed guards in their Tourist Police uniforms, went through the metal detector and down onto a grand avenue of ancient flat stones. On either side, on raised platforms, were long rows of beautifully graceful large stone animals facing center. They had bodies of sinous cats lying in a crouch, with their ram's heads staring straight ahead as if "on guard."
Ahead of us loomed gigantic walls, built of huge rough square-cut blocks; walls so massive that the groups of tourists entering through them looked no larger than mice. This wide avenue of smooth-cut blocks, as flat as a modern highway, led through an opening in these walls wide enough that several houses could have fit through it. The opening was faced on either side with a grand border of much smoother stone. All in a monotone the color of sand.
Once through the ancient gate, we were in a forest of immense solid stone pillars. They were as tall as a four-story building and at least six feet around, each one carved with heiroglyphics of people and animals cut into the stone. Here and there we would stop to view a slender obelisk or a stone statue of a pharoah, and Maggid would tell who built it, who it was, and why they were important. In spite of the intense heat, the sheer size and antiquity of the temple was overpowering. I was suffused with awe to see around me, with my own eyes, this amazing place that had been built by a civilization with no modern tools, no huge trucks or cranes for hauling and lifting. We walked on and on, it seemed a small city. Guards, in long light-blue galabiyas and small white turbans wound around black caps, kept watch. Grinning and dark, with heavy-featured faces, they seemed like village men. The monochrome of the stone landscape was broken only occasionally: a small shaggy goat, clambering over a pile of ancient rubble, or a spindly palm tree which had found its way through a crack between stone blocks which had been laid three milleniums ago.
After the tour of Karnak, we clambered back into our bus, and were taken to Luxor Temple, a short distance away. When Luxor was excavated, it was almost completely covered with sand, and over the many centuries a village had been built right on top of it, making use of the very tops of the ancient structures.
The village had to be demolished to excavate the temple, but the fifteenth century mosque, which also has historical significance, was left standing. So that now the mosque sits right on the top corner of one of the temple walls, and you look way up to it from the temple floor. It is still a functioning mosque today; a lovely little building with narrow arched windows and door ways, a rectangle of patterned tile-work around the main door, and a row of stylized stone waves marching around the top of the flat roof. From the graceful, small minaret with its smooth round dome hung a large green neon sign that said "Allah"!
Luxor was smaller than Karnak, and, as we were surrounded by walls, the heat seemed more intense. I was thankful again that I have had to become accustomed to heat, (living in Phoenix, Arizona, and driving a car that has no air-conditioning!). Accustomed or not, it felt good to get into the air-conditioned bus again for the ride to the boat, which was still moored at Esna due to a problem with the locks.
We got there around three in the afternoon. The bus parked on the busy little road which ran along the river, worn-looking one-story shops on the other side. We climbed down the steep riverbank on a flight of steps, and then went along a little walk-way at river's edge, which had been planted with flowers by the gardener in his blue overalls and white rubber boots. An aged attendant sat all day in a tiny hut, wearing his galabiya and cap, watering his flowers, and guarding the gangplank entrance to the boat with a rifle across his knees. You could see his little tea-pot in the hut, cheerful yellow walls and a counter of painted tiles.
My little cabin overlooked the outer side of the boat to a view of the river and the palms on the other side. I stretched out on the bed for an afternoon nap, and sighed with contentment at the luxury of having my own quiet space to retreat to.
Wonderfully relaxed, I woke an hour later, in time for "tea" on the upper deck. This turned out to be coffee, tea, and various cookies laid out buffet style. Sitting in one of the padded wicker chairs under the canvas shade-cover of the deck, (which consisted of the rear half of the upper deck of the boat) you could feel the breezes off the river and watch that view, which I could not get enough of. Even four days later when we left the boat, I hated to leave that view! The upper deck was a very pleasant place to write in my little journal.
A tape played romantic European instrumental music, (which seemed pleasant that first afternoon!). Then, faintly, from the town side of the boat, I began to hear the call to prayer. After that,from the same direction, a recording of a singer who sounded like Umm Kulthoum, though it was hard to tell in the distance. The boat rocked ever so slightly on the rippling waters of the Nile. I slowly looked around me, letting the various sights and sounds and sensations take over my consiousness. So different from the daily life at home, so wonderful, so wonderful...
One of the tall slender Nubian waiters, dressed elegantly, as they all were, in pressed white shirt, black slacks and black pinstriped vest, was removing teacups from a table which had just been vacated by a group of chatty young people from Manchester. "What are you writing about?", he asked.
"Egypt," I said, with a smile.
I noticed the Norwegians sitting at one of the other tables, and called out an innocuous remark to them. They invited me to their table, and I found them to be even more likable on closer aquaintance. He had been working in Egypt (his Norwegian company was doing a job in the western deserts), and she had flown out to join him for this trip. Though they were both around fifty, they'd only been married five years, and still treated eachother like sweethearts. Very intelligent, thoughtful people.
It was still broad daylight at 7:00 P.M, when I went back to my room to shower and wash out all of my laundry. Using the nylon twine clothesline, plastic clothespins, and plastic hangers I'd brought, everything was soon hanging from shower door, shower head, and towel racks. By wringing some things out thoroughly, and rolling others in some of the dry towels to get out the excess moisture, I was able to avoid having anything drip on the floor. I finished just in time for dinner at eight.
There was quite a large dining room, with a grand buffet set out on a long table in the center. The different tour groups were seated at long tables with white table cloths and cloth napkins. I joined our group, only to find that there were not enough spaces for all to sit down! Seeing the confusion, the plump black maitre'd came bustling over.
"No, no, you sit with Niran!" he said, pointing me over to a small table where Niran was sitting, facing away from the group. The way he said it, you'd have thought Niran was a movie star. Slightly embarassed, I apologized for the confusion and went to join Niran.
She explained to me that she had been seated at lunch with the two women from France, (who as you may remember had opted to go to the boat at the same time she did). She felt that the Frenchwomen were unfriendly for her, and after lunch had demanded that the two of us be seated at our own table from then on.
Actually, I didn't mind being seated separately. There are some people whom it is difficult to talk to while you are also trying to talk to others. She really had her own agenda, so to speak! And she had a bold familiarity with the waiters, due to having gotten to know them from previous trips. Without thinking, I just giggled and took part in the repartee, though I'd read that American-style flirting is not at all the thing to do in Egypt. "She's been here so many times before," I thought to myself, she must know what she's doing." And she was the person whom I depended on to shepherd me from the plane to the hotel, to the boat, and back to Cairo.
One waiter was particularly attentive to her; I didn't notice it then because he was also very chatty with all of the guests.
The buffet was delicious, and it was all included in the price of the tour, unless you wanted a bar drink, which you had to sign for. The tab was due at the end of the four day cruise. Arabic coffee, unfortunately, was included in the bar drinks! I did run up a few of those on my tab! You also had to pay for bottled water; following the suggestion of others in the group, I learned to buy my own, cheaply, when we were out for the day, and drink enough before I came to the table that I was happy with a glass of fruit drink from the buffet.
I had planned on an early night, but enthusiastically agreed when Niran said that she was going to belly-dance as part of the entertainment that evening, and asked me too videotape. There was still a huge group of young party-hardy Manchester couples on the boat that night; almost all the booths in the large upstairs lounge were filled. Niran was upset that they didn't seem to appreciate her performance. I think it was just that they weren't a very friendly bunch. They didn't return smiles or "hello"s when you passed them in the hallway.
"It's good, it's good!" said one of the waiters with a grin.
"I had a hard time keeping up with her with the videocamera!" I said.
That night I happened to wake up briefly around 3:00 AM. I looked out the little window at the few lights on the other bank of the Nile, reflected in the river. I heard a whirring sound, and looked down the side of the boat to the dark water, two decks below. A motorized raft, driven by a guard who carried a a machine gun, was being driven the length of the cruise boat, back and forth, back and forth, all night.... I made my way back to my bed, and drifted back to sleep.
At dinner the night before, Magd had told our group to expect an early wake-up call and breakfast; it was pleasant discussing the events of the previous day over coffee with the other members of the group. Soon after that, we were climbing the steps to the bus, and and the group, sans Niran, set out for the Valley of the Kings.
What a lovely bus ride along the changing banks of the Nile, its shimmering saphhire-colored water, seen through the out-of-focus palm trees that whizzed by the window. As we drove through the lush green vegetation, we often passed two-wheeled donkey carts overloaded with immense piles of greenery. Was it sugarcane, I wondered? Everything looked delightful in the bright clean morning sunshine.
Gaily decorated little pick-up trucks sped past us, their camper shells painted in stripes of green, black, yellow, white and red, with rows of metal diamond shapes nailed on for extra effect. The brand name of the truck (usually "Toyota" or "Mitsubishi") was always picked out in red, yellow, or green to contrast with the body of the truck.
Most of the dwellings that we passed were little conglomerations of cube-shaped rooms made from mud bricks, the exact same ochre-color as the plowed fields. At first I thought that the houses were partially roofed with dry palm-fronds; then I realized that what I was seeing were walled courtyards adjoining the homes, roofed with branches for shade. It made me think of the song that goes, "Travel my love, but come back, the courtyard is sad without you..." * In this part of the world much of the family life goes on in the courtyard.
I saw banana trees in addition to the many species of palm tree, and from time recognized the dusty-looking long needles of the tamarack pine. In decades past, long rows of tamaracks were planted as windbreaks by farmers in my home state of Arizona.
During the ride, Magd the guide spoke continually on the microphone (which every tour-bus seems to be equipped with): a steady stream of information about the tombs which we were about to visit. We were passing fields of crops, a patchwork of small fields in different shades of green, or the red-gold newly plowed earth.
I raised my hand and asked if the local farmers owned their own fields. He answered that they did, and that the fields were small because Nasser had decreed that each person could only own a certain amount of land. But that law had been revoked, and now things were starting to change.
We came to a shady intersection and turned right, passing two women in head coverings who were tugging and pushing a recalcitrant donkey, its cart loaded with huge water-barrels, to a stone circular well. I thought how slowly things were changing, here in Egypt!
We stopped for a "photo opportunity" at the Colossi of Memnon, and everyone got out to take their photos. The Colossi, two gigantic seated figures of tan-colored stone, rose above us dramatically against the bright blue sky.
I was out of bottled water, so when I noticed a little stand across the road, I walked over. I was taken aback to be spoken to rather rudely by the man behind the counter. He put my ten pound note in the strap of his tank top and pulled his plaid shirt half-way off his shoulder, sneering at me as he shook his shoulder in the manner of a dancer accepting a tip. He shouted something to the guy behind a cooler a short distance away. They both had dark rough-looking faces, with heavy features.
Bringing my bottles of water, the second guy asked me quite gruffly, "Where you from?"
"Ana amrikaneeya," I said. ("I am American").
"I like American people," he said fiercely. Then, vehemently, almost shouting in my face, he went on. "DON'T like your president Bush. VERY bad, VERY VERY bad!" Quite reeling from his venom (though I myself share his opinion of George W. Bush!) I took my bottles of water, muttered something unintelligible, and turned away. Still in shock, I crossed the red dirt road and climbed back to the security of the tourist bus. No one else seemed to have noticed.
I turned the incident over in my mind as the bus pulled back onto the main road. Should I always make sure another member of the group was with me when I had to go buy something? But then again, why should I? In the vast majority of my encounters with Egyptians, friendliness and good humor had been the rule. Besides, I began to look at the water-seller's tirade in another light. I had read, in quite a few articles, about the growing anger "in the Arab street" at U.S. government policies. Now I had had an opportunity to actually feel this anger myself, and it drove the reality home to me in a way that no number of printed articles (or PBS documentaries) could have done. I had not been in any physical danger, and although the experience had not been pleasant, I had to admit that it had been educational!
(I would also like to mention that during my stay in Egypt, this person was the only one who was unfriendly to me, and I would also like to say that, in retrospect, I find his anger totally understandable in light of the U.S. government's current policies. On the average, the people I encountered in Egypt were far more friendly than the average person in the United States tends to be.)
The road began to creep up into the desolate landscape of the Valley of the Kings. In this remote area of craggy sandstone mountains, there was not a sprig of vegetation. We could have been among the mountains of the moon. Here and there beside the twisting road were little white-painted adobe shops, their walls hand-painted with pictorial signs advertising that they were "alabaster factories". I remembered the beautiful alabaster vases which my grandparents had brought back from Egypt in the 60's.
The famous tombs were indeed amazing, and an easier trip physically than the temples we had visited the day before. At this time of the day, the temperature was still pleasant; and much of our time was spent in the tombs themselves: deep inside the mountains and well-insulated from the heat of the sun.
First Magd bought our tickets, and some of the group opted to pay the extra fee required if one wanted to take photos inside the tombs. (Also, there was one tomb which one could not go into without paying another extra fee.) Then we hopped on a string of little open-sided cars with shade roofs, pulled by a jeep, which took us up the winding asphalt road that led to the various tombs. Tall cliffs on either side shaded parts of the road. I called out to the smiling Washington D.C. girls, who were seated facing us on the next little car back, and snapped their photo.
At one point, little kids came running up with strings of post-cards, and I bought two packets. I usually use a combination of photos and post-cards in my photo albums about my trips.
Besides our group, there were various tourist groups from all over the world: German, Spanish, Italian, and the Japanese in their little cloth hats. You could hear guides talking in all these languages. Well-made cement-and-rockwork retaining walls protected the site from erosion, and the ubiquitous guides in their light-blue galabiyas and little white turbans were everywhere, watching every aspect of this precious national resource.
The paintings inside the tombs were intricate and beautiful. So many interesting symbols, and line after line after line of hieroglyphics, which Magd did a good job translating for us. Even after three millenia, most of the colors still remained: ochre, dark blue, reddish-brown, off-white, and black. Yes, the tombs were incredible, and I would not have missed seeing them for anything.
But as I look back on the different ancient sites I saw while in Egypt, I would have to say that I loved the temples much more than the tombs. The temples were full of light and space, and they were built for worship and for the living. The tombs were deep in the earth, away from the light of day and from living humanity, and they were built for the dead. Also, I found the bas-reliefs and massive sculptures which we saw in the temples to be much more artistically moving than the intricate priestly drawings in the tombs. But that is just my own personal opinion.
On the way back from the Valley of the Kings, we visited a very interesting temple, the Temple of Queen Hatsheput. This beautiful building has such clean lines that at first it appears to be a modern structure. (I thought perhaps it was a museum constructed over the ancient site, to protect it.) But then I found out that what I was looking at was the ancient site! The temple has two long levels, the second above the first, but set somewhat behind it; both levels are completely intact, the long heavy stone roofs, absolutely geometrical, are each supported up by at least thirty square columns. The second level seems almost built into the mountain, and a grand wide ramp leads up to it. At the foot of the ramp is a five foot statue of Horus, simple, with clean beautiful lines and proportions. Only as one gets closer does one see the twenty or so Phaoronic-era statues, with their tall helmet-like crowns and their arms folded over their chests, standing in front of the central colums of the top floor. And all this is the same sandstone color as the mountains behind it.
It is the only temple of the Pharoanic era on which the architect's name is written; Magd pointed it out to us, on one of the columns. Also, after Hatsheput's death, her name was never again mentioned in the historical records. Clearly, this was a woman who "got outta line"!
In spite of one more stop at an "alabaster factory" (I stayed in the bus; I love alabaster but I wanted to save the rest of my spending money for the Khan el Khalili in Cairo) we were back to the cruise-boat by lunch time. Our waiter, the tall, slender, good-looking Ali**, was being especially charming to Niran. He commented on my necklace (which I had strung myself of black and dark-red glass beads, plus some white seed beads and tan date-seed beads) and said that it was Nubian.
"Is it?", I said, politely pretending I was very interested to find this out.
"You're Nubian?", said Niran.
"Ana Nu," he nodded. ("I am Nu.")
I said that I had a CD of Nubian music I liked, Ali Hassan Kuban.
"Ali Kubanee, Ali Kubanee," he said gesturing to his heart. I wondered at the difference in the name until I remembered that a long "e" sound at the end of the word is an ending which means "my". He was saying "My Ali Kuban".
"But Ali Kuban is finished," Ali continued. "He is no more!"
"No more?" I said, puzzled.
With his next return trip Ali said, "Ali Kubanee died two years ago." He must have asked someone how to say this correctly.
(This was one of several examples I noticed during my stay in Egypt, which point to the fact that many people you meet who seem to speak excellent English may actually have a quite limited vocabulary.)
"I am so sorry to hear it", I said with genuine feeling. (I remember when I first purchased Ali Hassan Kuban's "From Nubia to Cairo", years ago, I played it for a solid week, and it still remains one of my favorites.*** What a great ability that talented artist had, to capture the ethnic feeling but also really rock out at the same time!)
That afternoon, after my siesta, I was sitting during "tea time" on the pleasant upper deck, at a table by the railing, with my coffee cup and my journal. I noticed the police rafts cruising up and down the Nile side of the moored cruise-boats, protecting those valuable nest-eggs of foreign tourism. The call to prayer could again be heard from the town side of the boat, which was still moored in the same place as when we had first boarded it. Again the sound of the muezzin's call blended so beautifully with the view of the Nile.
The journal I kept during my Egypt trip has been invaluable to me in writing this account. Many of the details would have been totally forgotten if I had not made notes about them soon after they happened. The deck during tea-time was an especially good place to write because some of the others in our group were also sitting there. If I wasn't quite sure about something that had happened that day, I could confer with them about it. And besides being useful for the journal, these questions often started interesting conversations!
That evening at dinner Ali kept making more and more excuses to come back to Niran and I, which led Niran to imperiously order him away. (We had started eating with the main group again, but we were among the last ones at the table due to her getting to dinner late.)
"Ana sa'am", he said mischievously as he left.
"Oh, he says he's mad!" she said. "The brat! He does this to me every time and I'm tired of it."
*the song is "Safir Ya Habibi"; lyrics may be found on the Samia Khadri translations page of this website.
**not his real name
***the CD "From Nubia to Cairo" is reviewed on the "Reviews" page of this website.
**not his real name
***the CD "From Nubia to Cairo" is reviewed on the "Reviews" page of this website.
I woke up in the middle of the night, got out of bed, and went to look out of the window. The sky and the river were dark except for the relections of one or two lonely lights on the opposite shore. I went back to sleep and woke up again briefly an hour or so later. You could feel that the boat had begun to move!
Sitting suddenly up in bed at 6:00 A.M., I panicked, thinking erroneously that they had missed my wake-up call and that we had to leave in a half-hour! Quickly I got dressed, washed, and made up my poor old face, only to go up and find the dining room closed.
I went up on the deck to find a beautiful world, and sat down in one of the wicker chairs to let my mind take in the scene. The boat chugged silently through a Nile as smooth as glass in the early morning light. The banks of the river passed lazily by, the endlessly changing patterns made by the bunched fronds of the palm trees as they crowded closely together on the bank, just behind the jumble of tangled grasses that hung over the water's edge. Here and there the crowded palms formed their own little deeplly shaded grottos, leading to murky darkness. Occasionally a little sandy beach would come into view, with perhaps a few cattle drinking from the water; just beyond would be a small mud-colored dwelling and a little cleared field, planted bright green. These scenes repeated over and over, like a lovely refrain which calms the mind more and more with each repetition.
I heard voices and got up and looked down the side of the boat. I could see the Norwegians leaning against the front deck railing, and I walked around the narrow side deck to join them.
It was nice to talk to them during the half-hour that remained before breakfast. They were such nice people, Mette and Tor Haug were! We passed a factory of some sort, hidden behind the palm-trees on the bank, pouring black smoke into the air. Mette remarked that it was a shame to see this beautiful area being polluted. The boat-hand who was washing the varnished deck railing indicated to us (by pointing and saying "sukkar, sukkar") that it was a sugar-cane plant.
"I do not believe that it is a sugar-cane plant", said Tor, in his amused, slightly sardonic way (which sounded even more sardonic in his lilting Norwegian accent). "I have worked in the industry long enough to know that it is some kind of smelter. Look, now they are pouring the ore in and soon you will see a big puff of black smoke."
Sure enough, a large puff of black smoke suddenly expanded out of the chimney.
It turned out that they had come up on deck this early because Tor was watching for a silicon factory, which he had heard was located in this area. (He was currently working in the silicon industry in western Egypt.)
"He wants to take a picture of it, and then he'll tell people that he's thinking of buying it," Mettje commented with wry fondness.
I asked him what it was like for foreign investors in Egypt. In the last ten years, he told me, the Egyptian government has changed their policy toward foreign investment, making the climate better for foreign business.
Mettje said that foreign investment is fine as long as it doesn't just make the foreign investors rich and leave the people poor. (I thought to myself that at least it's better than no investment at all.)
They told me enthusiastically that the captain had just invited them down for a cup of tea, and that he'd let Tor steer the boat for a while! They had a picture of it, which they showed me in the digital camera.
Just before we went down to breakfast, the silicon factory came into view.
Our side trip that morning was to Edfu Temple, a temple dedicated to the worship of the god Horus. The air was still pleasantly cool as we descended from the bus and walked along the shaded side of the massive stone walls. The monolithic structure has the appearance of an impenetrable fortress from the outside; four solid walls as tall as an eight story building, slightly narrower at the top than at the bottom. The front wall of the temple is made up of two trapezoid shaped sections connected by a mighty stone bar with an imposing carved stone shelf running along the top of it. This bar forms the top of the entrance gate, which is a rectangular opening at least twenty feet high. By this opening is a solid five food stone statue of the god Horus, in the shape of a hawk, simple but beautiful.
Imposing bas-reliefs of gods with huge ornate crowns stand facing outward on both sides of this gate, while two bas-reliefs of warriors, poised with arms back as though to throw their spears, stand enternally ready to guard the temple from their posts at the outer edges of the front wall. High up on the top part of these walls, two smaller rows of similar figures (smaller meaning merely life-size!) march, or sit in rows of thrones, along the top part of the front wall sections. Above and below the parade of figures, are two rows of rectangular holes: Magd told us that these holes once held timber poles from which large banners flew. I thought to myself that it must have been a grand and glorious sight in the ancient times: painted in many colors, with all its flags flying.
Once we passed through the gate opening, huge pillars loomed all around us, mysterious in the shadows. Magd explained the meaning of the hieroglyphics which circled the pillars, and also pointed out that the crowns of these pillars, way up under the dark roof, were actually representations of different plants: palm, papyrus, and lotus, beautifully carved in stylized designs. The bas reliefs on the walls were "negative bas reliefs" he said. They had been carved into the wall, so that each figure was surrounded by a thin ditch of dark shadow which emphasized the silhouette. "These are some of the most beautiful bas-reliefs carvings we have seen so far", I thought to myself. One of them in particular affected me deeply. It looked like a man and woman, a king and queen perhaps, holding eachother by the arms and gazing into eachother's eyes. I stood and looked it for a long time. It was as if a powerful love emanated from the two carved figures, and hung in the air around them, even after all these centuries. (Actually I found out later that the carving depicted a god giving his blessing to an earthly king!).
We moved into the indirect light of the open courtyard, still cool because the outer walls of the temple shut out the morning sun. Our footsteps made hardly a sound on the smooth stone blocks of the courtyard floor.
Edfu was built during the time that the Greeks had conquered Egypt. Magd pointed out that the temple included elements of both Egyptian and Greek design. My Fodor's guidebook says, "Ptolemy built temples to familiar designs, at Edfu and Kom Ombo. These and subsequent works were meant to reassure Egyptians that their gods being respected and to confirm Ptolemy as a ruler by divine right."
We exited through a high walled corridor carved with hieroglyphics on either side. The two young women from France were walking in front of me and I asked them if I could take a photo of them. They graciously agreed and asked me to take one of them with their camera, also. They dressed in simple cotton dresses and or skirts and T-shirts with sandals, just as comfortable and much more elegant than the usual shorts and running shoes of the English and American women tourists. They worked for a non-profit organization in Paris which helped farmers in third-world countries. The red-head was an Algerienne in origin and spoke Arabic as well as French and English.
It was while we were in Edfu temple that Magd pointed out to us something that I'd noticed previously: on some of the bas-reliefs, the faces of the ancient gods had been defaced, with what looked like a million hits with a sharp object. He said that this defacing was done by groups of Christians who had fled persecution, by leaving the cities and hiding in the ancient temples. He said that many Egyptians became Christians during the Ptolemy era, when Egypt was ruled by Greeks who became very Egyptianized themselves, and how four million of these Egyptian Christians were martyred during this time when they tried to practice their new faith. He said that at his Coptic church every Sunday, they tell again the story of these martyrs.
He said that after so much persecution, the Christians felt that they needed to deface carvings, so that the gods represented by these bas-reliefs would never be believed in again. He did not say when the Christians were hiding in the ruins, but it must have been many centuries later, after the temple fell into disuse.
Over time sands slowly began to fill up the temple. When archaelogists began the excavation, a local tribe was using the temple as a dwelling. I have a print of an old etching which depicts how the temple looked at that time: robed and turbaned men grouped against the top halves of the Edfu pillars, with a shaft of light coming through the door, only half as high as the original gate.
As we walked out I thought to myself that, while it's important not to forget martyrs, continued repeating of the martyr's tragedy makes it hard to let go of the hate, and all to easy to transfer that hate onto their decsendants of the perpetrators.
Walking with Mette, I pointed to the guard houses on the walls, where the antiquities police lounged in their white uniforms, berets, and machine guns.
"Egypt protects its ancient monuments well," I said.
"I think they are really protecting the tourists!", said Mette.
By the tall hedge at the exit was a little outdoor cafe which looked as if someone had pieced it together on a very small budget. It had one wall, a roof supported by wooden posts, a worn-looking stove and sink behind a makeshift counter, and a floor of plain stone tiles. But the posts were painted a cheerful sky-blue, burgundy damask tableclothes covered the tables, and the plastic chairs were bright yellow. The hour was still early so I was surprised when Maggid sat down at one of the tables and announced that we would stop there for tea or a drink. I went to the counter to buy a bottle of water, and a rather fierce looking little man lept up with athletic ease, slid over the counter, jumped down on our side and went to get the water from a cooler. He asked the usual "Where you from", and as usual, I answered "Ana Amrykaniia".
"Very nice people! Very nice people!" he said emphatically. It was then that I noticed the two large grim pictures of coptic priests, with their black turban-like hats and heavy ornate coptic crosses hanging from their necks, on the wall behind him. No wonder Maagid had sat down here to drink a glass of tea!
At lunch, I arrived early, before any one else. Ali*, the waiter who always joked with Niran, came over to see if I wanted a drink. He mentioned that tonight he would go to his home when the boat docked at Aswan. At first I thought that he meant that he would no longer be with us (staff seemed to change at some of the stops) and made appropriate expressions of regret.
"No," he said in his charming accent and rather sweet, boyish manner, "I go to visit my mother, then I come back."
"Oh!" I said, and we both nodded in joking comprehension.
When Niran got to the table, painful sunburn lines showing in her low-necked blouse, he began his usual bantering with her. When I mentioned to her that he was going to see his mother that evening, he asked, pointing to her and to me, "You and she go with me tonight to visit my mother?"
At first I stared incomprendingly as he went on another errand. Without thinking things through (an unfortunate habit I've had all of my life) I thought, "Cool.....visit to private home....conversation with Nubian matron....."
He returned with Niran's drink.
"If you're asking us to visit your mother...." I started to say, when Niran interrupted suddenly.
"This drink is terrible, bring me another one!" Then, when he had left, she said, "Jeeze, I don't like the guy that much!" The rest of the meal she was quite huffy with him, and he did not bring up the subject again.
Considering the incident later, I realized my naivete. Of course a visit between tourists and staff would be "outside the pale". I thought of the sleek cruise ships and of the wait-staff with their spit-and-polish elegance, and of the shabby towns that we passed by.
Quite innocently I mentioned Ali's invitation to Mette the following morning at breakfast. Being a person who has much compassion for the less fortunate people in the world, she was quite upset that the waiter could have made such a mistake in judgement. The whole group had become very fond of him due to his playful good humor. Mette that she was sure that socializing between staff and guests was not allowed, and that Ali had risked losing his job.
This upset me very much, to the extent that I lay awake at night thinking of it. Niran had not behaved any differently than many other female foreign tourists, I'm sure ---how could he have been so stupid?
Later, after I returned to the U.S., I continued to ponder the issue, and have discussed it via e-mail with several internet correspondents who know Egypt well. They have told me in no uncertain terms that socializing with guests, especially foreigners, is strictly forbidden to staff both on boats and hotels. "Flirting with men in Egypt (or any other conservative country, whether Muslim or not), is always a potentially dangerous game with unpredictable results", one friend wrote me. "The local women are almost totally unavailable for casual dating, and if a foreigner seems to be available, the men will go for it big time!"
In fact, one of my correspondents wrote me that a woman in the tour group she was with found out, painfully, what can happen when a foreign woman flirts with an Egyptian man the way she would casually flirt in the west. The results were very unpleasant for the woman tourist, and cost the Egyptian hotel employee his job.
Looking back now, I am quite disturbed by the wrong impression we could have given, had we accepted the waiter's invitation, which seemed so casual to me at the time. I will end this section by quoting Leyla Lanty (with her gracious permission). She has been to Egypt numerous times and has produced a CD of belly dance music in Cairo.
Leyla wrote me, "Egyptian employees of tourist guest accomodations are strictly forbidden to fraternize with the guests and will lose their jobs if they get caught. Even if a foreign woman is riding in a taxi in the back seat with an Egyptian man, he will be careful to make sure that from the outside of the taxi it will be easy to see that he is not touching her in any way. If he is seen by a cop (tourist police) touching her or appearing to touch her, he could get arrested or at least hassled unless he can prove that she is his wife. Pretty serious!"
*not his real name
We were scheduled to dock for a tour of Kom Ombo temple around five, so I took an early nap and then went up on the deck at three or so, with my journal, of course. I stopped at the upstairs bar to get an Arabic coffee, and soon was ensconced in one of the padded wicker chairs on the rear deck, engrossed in my writing. It was pleasant under the canvas shade cover, as the shoreline vegetation we were passing baked in the sun.
There suddenly appeared on the bank the spectacle of a bright pink hotel, at least five stories high, which had the words "Rest Land" in large crudely-painted black letters along the top story. A bright-lavendar stucco fence continued along the bank, and here the black-lettered name shouted again, on a white rectangle outlined in black.
Suddenly Niran came running up, and said excitedly that my presence was requested by the captain, down in the bridge. The captain? At first I didn't want to go. "They probably want to see me because they think I'm like her," I thought.
"But they insist," she urged. "It's a real privilege and a great photo opp!" So I followed her around to the front deck.
There we climbed backward down a ladder into the bridge, which was a long narrow room which spanned the front end of the middle deck of the boat. It was all panelled in varnished wood. A huge picture window ran the length of the front wall, above a long counter. There were smaller windows on both ends of the room, adding up to a panoramic view of the Nile.
In a big old-fashioned wooden high-backed chair, which was padded in printed cotton, a crew-member sat steering the boat by means of a large wooden nautical steering-wheel. On the counter between this wheel and the window was a small square control-board which only had about ten levers and dials on it.
Four or five men sat on a padded built-in bench that ran the length of the back wall: rugged looking guys of a very different physical type than the elegant Nubian waiters upstairs. They all made cordial sounds of welcome.
The captain and the first mate wore form-fitting skull-caps of white cloth on their grizzled heads, and lounged comfortably barefoot in their long light-blue galabeyas.* They both carried an air of dignity and authority about them. The other crew-members were dressed in the standard work uniform of matching dark blue shirt and trousers, and they wore black rubber boots. One of these guys in blue was actually steering the boat. Occasionally the first mate, who watched the Nile the entire time, would mutter some command to him. The captain himself was watching TV, (a small set which was sitting on the counter) as were the other guys sitting there.
(Later, when I got home and was showing photos to my family, my brother Joe, who has had a lot of experience with boats, was struck by the simple control board which was visible in two of the photos. He said that the captain must be an incredibly experienced and intelligent individual to be able to command such a large boat with only such basic equipment. "That's got to be a very high-status job, and he's probably a very respected member of his community," said Joe.)
Niran, in a filmy red swimsuit cover-up, was throwing herself all around the cabin with her usual exclamatory way of speech, which the crew seemed to find highly amusing.
"This is the captain's mate and this is the captain", she said, and then proceeded to reel off the names of the different crew members. I was invited to sit down, and was given a tulip-shaped glass of mint tea.
An old Egyptian movie was on the TV. On the black and white screen, a lovely girl was doing a folkloric dance and singing beautifully. I asked Niran to ask them who the singer was.
"Sabuuh", said the captain in answer to the question, as he motioned toward the TV set and gave the "thumbs up" sign.
I smiled, motioned to the TV set myself, and also gave the "thumbs up" sign.
I truly enjoyed watching the movie and hearing the music that was part of it, but I felt a little uncomfortable. The hawk-faced first mate was staring at me fixedly under his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows, and motioned toward me as he voiced a question to Niran, who answered vehemently in the negative, "Mafeesh!"
Which I think means, "No way!" (I never asked her what his question was!)
I tried to think of something to say. "El Nil gamiil!" (the Nile is beautiful)was all that I could bring to mind; the captain again gave the thumbs up gesture. I felt that he was a good person, a wise person.
A news flash from the TV produced exclamations of disgust from Niran. As President Bush's image came on, the consensus among the crew was "wehesh" (bad), thumbs down from everybody. Then, Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, was shown. His image produced a round of thumbs up, including one from me.
"Sharon?" the first mate said, directing the question to me.
"Wehesh!" I said with feeling, which brought nods of approval.
There was a pause, while I wracked my brains to think of some way to converse some more. All that phrase-book studying and my mind was one big blank!
I turned to the captain, inclining my head politely, "Inta....min wayn inta?" ("Where are you from?")
"Minya", he said. He tried to explain where Minya was, but I couldn't make head nor tail of it. Then I remembered that I'd brought my Fodor's guidebook up on deck with me, so that I could make sure to get the place-names spelled correctly in my journal. I turned to the map of Egypt, and they pointed out Minya, which is located south of Cairo near Asyuit. (Asyuit is one of the towns not recommended to tourists, due to the Copt/Muslim clashes and religious conservatism there.) It was interesting to me that the captain came from such a conservative community; it went along with his style of dress.
The crew seemed to be quite interested in the guidebook, which had a lot of nice color photos. They were pointing out to eachother some of the famous religious buildings in Cairo, and so on. "Forshaa Arabiiya", said the captain, ponderously, and repeated, "Forshaa Arabiiya".
When they handed the book back to me, I motioned for them to keep it. The guy who was holding the book (the same one whom we had seen washing the decks in the morning) gestured to his heart in thanks, but gave it back to me.
The captain said, "Fil Minya... fil Minya...Madame." He motioned to himself as he said "Madame", and it was quite obvious that he was saying that his wife was in Minya.
"Ah!", I smiled. There was a pause, when suddenly I had an idea.
"Fil Minya," I said, "Madame," then I made hand motions like stair steps, and raised my eyebrows in a questioning expression.
"Ah!" he said in comprehension. He held up five fingers. "Khamsa! Khamsa habibi!" ("Five! Five beloveds!") He pointed to his thumb and said, "Madame", and motioned to the others, "Khamsa habibi."
"Oh, nice family!" I said. I tried to say in sign language and with Niran's help that I had two sons and a daughter, all grown, but it probably didn't get across.
Niran said that it was time to go as the boat would soon be stopping for the tour of Kom Ombo. I was rather glad the visit was over, interesting as it had been. "Shokran", I said, and, motioning to my heart as I started to climb the ladder, "El Nil albii". ("The Nile, my heart")
*before I came to Egypt, I wondered about the full sleeves of the galabeya, (long shirt worn by men); I didn't see how the sleeves would allow someone to work. Here the two men in command wore the galabeya, and sat barefoot. They did not have to do any physical work, so the sleeves did not get in the way. They also appeared to be at least a decade and a half older than the other crew members.
Right along the dock there were fields of bright green farmland, and an old man in a worn galabeya and turban was plowing by a tree next to the fence, with primitive plow and water buffalo. Behind a hedge were several cattle standing under a shade built of rushes. It looked like a "picture-perfect" farm, and indeed it was for show; it surrounded a restaurant which was dubbed (in English) "Rural Land" and consisted of a packed-dirt patio, tables with thatched shade-covers, and an outdoor kitchen under a wooden shade-roof. The trees and shrubs of this "farm" were all pruned into fancy hedge-shapes. This amazing place, quite large, spread itself out behind the wall that faced the ancient grandeur of Kom Ombo temple.
Our group walked past the Nubian vendors in their dazzling white galabeyas and colorful skull caps. Sitting in a row on the curb, which was painted in cheerful alternating bands of black and white*, they were selling bright trinkets, their makeshift stalls behind them.
"Hey, blonde lady, I am here, I am Mohammed Ali Cassius Clay!", shouted one guy, as our group walked passed them on our way to the temple. Slender blonde Shannon, the wife of the Scotsman's son, turned and gave them a shy smile.
Only a few minutes walk from where the boat was moored, Kom Ombo was built on a slightly-raised promontory which overlooked the Nile. The site curved out into the river, resulting in grand views on front and sides. Maggad showed us the "Nile-o-meter", an articulated trough that was built into the stones of the temple base. It measured the depth of the river, and was used in ancient days to figure out how much to tax the farmers.
Kom Ombo was smaller than the other sites we had seen, yet gave an impression of massive strength. The late afternoon sun made the stone blocks and the bas-relief carvings stand out in high contrast, against stark black shadows. I particularly liked the look of a wall which had begun to tumble down over the passage of time, creating a jagged fall of ancient square-hewn stones. A couple of huge blocks at the base of this wall had been laid bare, which allowed us to see the method by which the ancient builders locked stones together. Maggad pointed out an hour-glass shaped hole between the two blocks, into which a small locking puzzle-piece of stone was fitted to join them securely.
That day, group of Irish tourists had joined our cruiseboat. I'd chatted with some of them on the deck earlier; they were friendliness itself, much more outgoing than the Manchesterites had been, and their thick working-class accents were delightful. Their guide was an Egyptian who had emmigrated to Ireland as a boy, rather fast-talking and pushy, and he sounded just like them when he spoke English. His loud monologues were full of jokes; "Follow me, lovies!" he kept calling.
His group was also touring the temple and followed right after our group, almost nipping at our heels, as his comic spiels were always shorter than Maggad's serious little speeches. Surprisingly, our scholarly little Maggad stood his ground, and refused to budge at each of his stops until he had calmly finished with the lecture that went with it and had answered our questions.
Our group listened attentively and patiently in the hot late-afternoon sun. I'm looking at photos of them now which I took at Kom Ombo, (in their sun-shades, sun hats, and sunglasses, bags over their shoulders containing water bottles and sunblock, and their cameras around their necks). The photos remind me of how much I liked all of them. Over the days of the boat trip, the group had all grown quite fond of Maggad, our little Coptic tour guide. I liked him very much also, though I did sometimes grew irritated at the careful "political correctness" with which he answered certain questions of mine! (I preferred Mohammed's directness!)
The bas-reliefs here had were carved in a slightly different style than those we'd seen before. I noticed that the gorgeous wide-shouldered, trim-waited figures had more pronounced belly-buttons than the the bas-reliefs at the other temples. The skillful artist had managed to carve the life-size figures in such a way that one sensed the flesh covering the toned muscles. It almost seemed that that flesh would give slightly to the touch, if one pressed upon it.
The columns of the temple made a hallway; one could stand at one end of it and see the view of the Nile, clear through to the other side.
The following day we were scheduled to get even closer to the Nile; part of the program was a ride on a felucca, or native sailboat, to Elephant Island and to the temple of Isis!
The sun was still blindingly hot when we returned to the cruiseboat. What luxury to have a snooze in my cool, dimly lit cabin! Waking up, wonderfully relaxed, in the late afternoon, I could see the banks of the river through the window, so much closer than before. The Nile was narrowing as we chugged southward.
I climbed the stairs to the back deck and found an idyllic scene. Nora, the Algerienne, lounged on a deck chair, her neck resting against the back, her slender leg extended on the low wicker table. The French girl was sprawling in a similar manner, as they both gazed at the crowded palms and grasses on the banks of the Nile, so close to the boat, and so beautiful in the late-afternoon light. Arabic music (for a change) was playing softly on the speakers. I sat down at a nearby table.
"It's so peaceful," I said shyly.
Nora Ourabah leaned back her curly auburn head with a lovely soft smile on her delicate features.
"It's one of the best moments", she said.
We watched, as if under a spell, as the banks slowly changed from that beautiful golden light that happens so briefly at sundown; dark olive shadows and green, relected in the slightly rippling waters, along with the pale gray-blue of the sky. We continued to watch until the vegetation was so dark that one could not make out the shapes of the individual trees; the shore seemed ominous with mystery, so still and quiet as we chugged by. The waters mirrored the murky shadows, with hazy dark upside-down reflections of the tallest palms. Out from the shore, the river mirrored the pale gray sky, the entire surface dimmly shimmering with darker indentations, giving it the luminous sheen of old silver.
As we left to go down to dinner, I commented to them on how nice it was to have the Arabic music for a change. She told me that they had gone to the upstairs bar and asked if they could have the music changed. She said that she told him they didn't come all the way to Egypt to listen to European music!
At dinner, Niran acted sick and out of sorts, and left the table early. I thought perhaps it was a ruse to forestall another invitation from Ali**.
After she left, Mette offered me some of their white Egyptian wine (they always ordered a bottle) and we had fun talking about the Khan El Khalili. I told her that I'd not been to the famous old souk, but was scheduled to visit it on returning to Cairo. She talked in tones of childish wonder about the streets, each given up to a different craft...and we both admitted to being horrible at bargaining! The Algerienne said that she wasn't bad at it, "Though when I want it," she said, "It shows on my face."
The French girl said she was hopeless, "because if I want it, I want it," (she shook of her head and shoulders) "And I don't care what
I pay for it!!" She was so cute as she said this with her pale skin, wide arched dark eyebrows and cloud of black hair, that we all broke out in giggles.
That night the "planned activity" on the boat was something called a "treasure hunt", run by the jovial pushy Irish-Egyptian tour guide whose group had been right on our group's heels as we toured at Kom Ombo Temple. Most of our bunch went to their rooms rather than take part in this craziness. (I later heard, from the Washington D.C. girls, that they did join in. They said that at the end, when everyone was on the dance floor, they even got Maggid up for a couple of dances.!)
I went to my cabin gladly. Now that we were docked in Aswan, my window faced the wide corniche*** road rather than the river. The light of the street lamps and the passing traffic came through the window, and thundering "treasure-hunters" upstairs sounded like a herd of elephants! I began to realize that I did not feel at all well. During the course of the night I felt worse and worse, and indeed was up most of the night, with violent diarrhea.
**not his real name
*** "corniche" means beach in French
*Later in the Nubian museum I was to see models of traditional mud homes which were trimmed this way.
**not his real name
*** "corniche" means beach in French
The next morning I still felt unprintably awful, and went down to breakfast just long enough to tell Maggid that I would not be able to go on the outing that day. At his suggestion, I got some anti-diarrheal tablets from reception. I crept back to my room, and fell deeply asleep all morning.
By lunch-time I had recovered enough to try a couple of rolls, and walked slowly down to the dining room. Not feeling up to much conversation, I chose a seat at the end of the table, in the corner of the room. Niran pranced in, sat down across the table from me and proceeded to down a full plate of food (which rather turned my stomach!). Again the picture of health, dressed in a red "sports bra" top,which showed off her newly tanned midriff, she was cheerfully flippant to Ali* the waiter, and seemed not at all affected by my discomfort.
"Have Ali* bring some mint tea to your room", she said. "That'll settle your stomach".
Mette, the Norwegian lady, told me how much she enjoyed the Temple of Isis, where the group had been that morning. She admitted to especially liking Isis' temple because Isis was a female goddess, and she went on to describe enthusiastically various aspects of the Temple, especially the way the Wings of Isis spread around the Temple to protect it.
"I'm so sorry you missed it," she said kindly.
"Well, that's one thing about being sick," I said, "you just don't care."
The others agreed with Niran's suggestion that I ask Ali* to bring some peppermint tea, and I took it to my cabin with me.
I drank the tea, took the second dose of medicine, lay down, and turned on the little TV. I switched to the channel which I'd prefered in the Cairo hotel. It featured a sermon of some kind, being given by an older man with a kindly, fatherly air. He was seated on a small table, and held a small book in his hands (I assume it was a Quran), which he occasionally glanced at as he spoke. The camera would occasionally pan over the audience, a sea of men seated in a mosque. From time to time the speaker would smile an "as you see" kind of smile, and look around his audience. It was Friday, "Youm el Gom3aa" (Day of the Mosque.)
I wished I could understand the message, and I wished I knew if this speaker was hand-picked by the government, and/or whether his message was the kind of message favoried by the majority of the Egyptian public. If you do not know the language, there is so much you miss when you visit a country.
After the talk, a wonderful old movie came on, Egyptian with English subtitles. It featured a famous Egyptian actor*, an older, stout gentleman whose face was full of character. He played the role of a shcoolteacher who falls in love with his young lady student. She leads him on, because she wants to use him as a vehicle to get to her actual boyfriend, who is a gangster! There are a lot of comic scenes, and a scene where she sang a beautiful song while his heart fluttered as he hid behind the vines. The girl arranged to meet the gangster boyfriend and go to a nightclub. Learning of this sinful plan (!), the teacher storms into the night club and punches the thugs, which causes him to get ejected twice by the bouncers, and and each time he calls loudly for his fez!
The schoolteacher enlists the help of a young, handsome airline pilot who "just happens" to be standing outside, and they both rush the girl out. Then they "just" happen to seek refuge at a villa belonging to a famous movie director, where a young and handsome Mohammed Abdel Wahab "just happens" to be rehearsing with a full orchestra, singing a song which says that if you love someone who doesn't love you, the purest form of love is to let her go and love the person who is right for her!
Then the famous movie director (who is wearing a silk smoking jacket and an ascot!) asks the teacher a few leading questions in a wise cultivated voice, which make him realize he needs to let the girl go because she loves the pilot!
After the Egyptian movie I fell deeply asleep again. At dinner I felt hungry enough for a regular meal. That evening there was to be a Nubian folkloric show, and we were all interested in going. It would be our last evening on the boat. I asked Magd if this were the night we were supposed to dress up in Egyptian dress, and he said that "the Galabeya party" didn't work unless there were more people on board.
So much for being able to use the beledi dress I'd brought with me!
The Nubian show was great. Two doumbek players, a guy with a large frame drum, and a great singer with a microphone, provided spirited Nubian music for the dancers. There was a female dancer with a flashing smile did little lady-like steps in high heels, while she moved her long pink headscarf/veil from side to side, and a line of male dancers did what almost looked like Turkish or Debke male line-dancing, behind her---running steps and kicks in a line where they all moved together. There was also a wonderful stick dance performed by one of the male dancers, and a fantastic old guy who stepped forward and blew amazing stuff on a instrument that looked like a Turkish zurna.
Then a comic came out in stereotyped "African" outfit of grass skirt and headdress, and made the audience do some great "schtick". Three honeymooning lads from Dublin were willing victims. The Norwegians, sitting across from me, were enjoying the comedy immensely. Niran didn't think the show was that great, but I liked it very much. Of course, she has seen a variety of Egyptian folkloric shows and even been to classes with Mahmoud Reda's troupe.
I was tring to figure out a time to slip Magd his tip, hoping to catch him alone after the show, as he was always surrounded by members of the group. I really liked Magid and thought he did a great job as a guide, though, as I have said previously, he was a little too "PC" for my taste. For instance, he refused to admit that the village shrines, which my guidebook (and other books on Egypt) writes of, were indeed shrines.
I found him talking to Niran, who was telling him how dissatisfied she was with the dance show. I gave him his tip, which I had wrapped in a paper with his name in written in Arabic. It turned out that I had written it incorrectly, and Magdd being Magd, he immediately begain giving me a lesson in Arabic letters!
I resolved to wake early, for the next morning would be our last morning on the boat.
*not his real name
**I found out later that he is famous, because I watched a Fifi Abdo dance video where she is performing at an awards ceremony for the Egyptian film industry. There are pictures of famous actors of Egyptian classic films on the walls, and his is one of them.
**I found out later that he is famous, because I watched a Fifi Abdo dance video where she is performing at an awards ceremony for the Egyptian film industry. There are pictures of famous actors of Egyptian classic films on the walls, and his is one of them.
The next morning I was up on deck early before breakfast, writing in my journal:
June 8, 2002, 7:25 AM
Well, this is the last beautiful morning I can spend looking out on the Nile, as we fly back today. The noise of the traffic on the Corniche street behind me doesn't diminish its beauty, nor does the fact that I did not sleep well
There is a slight breeze, and the water is the most beautiful rippling blue color. The green of the rushes and the white of the graceful little feluccas (sailboats) contrasts against the golden hills of sand beyond.
Here comes the "Nile Jewel" another cruise boat. At this time of day the feluccas and little covered motor launches are carrying not tourists but workers.
A crew-member came along, polishing the gleaming wooden deck rail with a white cloth. I recognized him as one of the crew who had been sitting with the group in the bridge when we visited; "Sabah Al-Kheer" (good morning), he said cheerfully.
"Nedeef!" I smiled and pointed to his work, remembering the word for "clean".
"NeDHEEF!", he said, correcting my pronunciation, and then said "Helwa!" (sweet, pretty) with a hand gesture indicating the clean railing and the rest of the gleaming boat.
I stopped writing when Malcolm, the crusty Scotsman came on deck. We talked some about the warped portrayal of the Middle East in the U.S. media. He said it made him so angry, in Saudi Arabia where he lives and works three out of every four months, he gets some of the American call-in radio shows from the U.S. by way of satellite, and some of the people are so awful.
Once before, I had asked him why he likes working in Saudi.
Because, he'd said in his heavy Scots accent, "When you want something done, (he snapped his fingers) someone one runs and does it. It's like England twenty years ago."
We went down to breakfast. I had already pretty much packed, so I made arrangements to go see the Nubian museum with Tor and Mette. Before Mette's departure to go back to Norway, they planned to treat themselves to one night at the famous Old Cataract Hotel, which is located near the museum. I would have to take a cab from the museum to the cruise-boat by myself, as Khaled-from-El-Joker-Aswan was coming to collect Niran and me at 1:30 PM (and take us to the airport). As long as I got back before then, Niran said, there would be no problem.
I rode up to the old Cataract Hotel with Tor and Mette in the van which the hotel had sent to fetch them. After they registered, we planned to walk to the museum together.
The venerable Old Cataract, a graceful Queen Anne style building of palatial size, was freshly painted deep-red terra cotta with gleaming white trim. The driveway wound through spacious formal gardens; palm trees, roses and exotic plants were set like individual jewels in the gently-rolling mowed lawns, all under blinding sunlight. We were ushered into a grand lobby, which was dim in comparision. Patterned light filtered through stained-glass wall-sconces; high ceilings gave grandeur to rooms built and decorated in "orientalist/moorish" style, connected by tall arches edged with painted bands of alternating white and dark red. We were invited to sit down and have a glass of juice, which was brought by waiters attired in deep-red embroidered jackets, white shirts, baggy trousers, and tasseled fezzes.
The furniture was of museum quality, dark wood inlaid with intricate designs of white ivory; the chandelier was set with hand-blown colored-glass bulbs of amber and blue, and the ceiling had a border and center medallion of intricate arabesque designs painted in sea-green, dark red, dark blue, black, and cream. The wooden chairs around the low coffee table had an art-nouveau look, square straight backs carved in vertical bands, each inset with a diamond-shaped panel which was stenciled with a stylized flower evocative of that era.
I looked tentatively at Mette and she smiled her bright smile.
"Sit! Enjoy! Why not?"
The lovely place was completely silent, no other guests were in evidence. Tor returned from the ancient reception counter, irritated to have been charged twenty Egyptian pounds for bringing an extra passenger (me) in the van. I reached for my purse, but he stopped me. He said that he was glad to pay it, because they had invited me, "but that was not what was said."
We went to their room long enough to have the porter bring up the bags. High ceilings, an antique, heavily-carved bed and wardrobe, striped carpet, and striped damask curtains. Everything didn't just look old, it
was old! It would be like sleeping in a museum!
She mentioned that she had been disappointed that they did not get a room overlooking the Nile.
"It would have cost one hundred twenty dollars U.S." Tor said, and that I would not have been willing to pay."
But then she opened the heavy Victorian drapes onto a large square balcony. (Actually it could have been called a porch!) Ample wicker chairs with over-stuffed cushions overlooked the rolling expanse of formal gardens, illuminated by sunlight.
"I can live with this!" she said, sinking into a chair with her customary enthusiasm.
Soon we were walking the short hot distance up hill to the museum and going through the airport-style detection system. The museum was well laid-out and well worth seeing.
The first room featured large photos of scenes from the Nubian villages which had originally occupied the land flooded by the Aswan Dam. There were descriptions of the former inhabitants of these places. Large-size models gave a clear picture of both the original path of the river, and the shape and size of the lake which now covers the area.
There was an also an extensive exhibit of Nubian statues dating from the Pharoanic era. These were similar in style to the Egyptian Pharoahnic statues, but had an earthier, more massive look to them.
My favorite part of the museum featured beautifully-done life-size dioramas of present-day Nubian village life. A man was shown plowing, dancers were dressed in the Nubian women's costume of black lace over-dress over solid-colored dress (both dresses long and loose with long sleeves), children were seated on the ground in the shade of a tree listening to their teacher in an out-door classroom, by a white-washed traditional mud house with lacy edges on the top, painted designs in bright colors, and brightly colored plates inset into the walls!
The Norwegians were very good company, as they were as interested in everything as I was. I left the museum before they did, however, as I was a little concerned about getting back to the boat on time. Also, I was a little nervous about the cab ride, which was to be my only venture alone during my stay in Egypt.* My plan was to walk back down to the hotel and ask them to call a cab for me, so that the cabdriver would be someone they knew.
Leaving the museum,I walked out into the bright sunshine, wearing my baggy jacket and my hat, (my usual protection against the sun). I had only gone a little ways down the hill when a cab driver yelled out to me, standing next to his old white station-wagon cab. He was a slender little jovial-looking guy in a blue galabeya, with rather longish hair, with an easy-going manner that was hard not to like.
Taxi, lady? To hotel?" he said wistfully, "It's very hot!"
"To boat, shu shair?" (how much)
(Magd had told me that five pounds was about right, unless they were going to wait for you and take you back, so I just kept walking.)
"It's very hot, lady!"
"Fifteen?" I said.
I kept walking, and I heard him call out, "Okay, fifteen!"
We set off down the hill in the sunshine.
"Where you from", he asked.
"Amrykanaya", I said (with some trepidation, remembering the water-seller).
"I like Americans! Very much! Clinton, good!" He paused and looked over his shoulder at me, saying, "Bush, good?" I made a doubtful sound.
He nodded. "Clinton, no problem!! Bush---???"
He shrugged dramatically, with a "Let's not go there!!" expression on his face, managing to convey both the magnitude of the issue and his own good will toward me. We drove on a bit.
"Inta ---min Aswan?" I asked.
"Aswan!!" (big smile).
"Aswan gamiil", I said.
He grinned and said something amiable which I didn't understand. I really liked the little guy and determined to give him the whole twenty anyway. As it turned out, he earned it; when we got back to the shore, the line of cruiseboats moored there was incredbily long, that it took a couple of passes back and forth along the entire corniche road before I recognized our boat! I handed him the bill gladly, saying "aishriin" with a smile.
What does it matter if you pay more than the going rate, when you have so much more then they do? And my one foray out on my own in Egypt had been made very pleasant by the taxi driver's good humored manner.
When traveling in other countries, I always had traipsed around by myself alot, but had made the decision not to do so in Egypt, due to possible anti-American feeling
While waiting for the plane at the Aswan airport (large, drafty, and linoleum-floored, with rows of built-in plastic/aluminum chairs), I saw a young woman sitting alone, slender with dark eyes and eyebrows, her hair pulled back in a sleek pony-tail. I'd seen her before, at the Cairo airport when we had been waiting for the Luxor plane. Then I had seen her again, at Kom Ombo temple when our group was there. That time she'd been accompanied by a young man.
I went over and asked her, "Atkallim Ingliizi?"
"Espanyol*," she said with a smile.
"Ah, de Espanya*?"
It seemed so amazing _to see another woman from the western hemisphere, traveling alone! She was from the Distrito Federal (Mexico City), and had flown all the way by herself, ("de vacaciones", she said.) ("de amor!", I thought!) I invited her to sit with us, and she accepted. It was fun practicing my Spanish with her.
The short flight went quickly and soon we were back to the Sheraton Gardens. Our rooms were on the fourth floor, this time, which I prefered as it was great for stringing clothes on a clothesline outside and allowed me to leave the drapes open.
Niran was not happy because she had asked for a ground-floor room, and they told her she could switch the next day.
After a rest and another great old Egyptian movie with subtitles, I had a bath, washed out clothes, and then went up to the "business office" to fax Mom. (I had not been able to do so while were were in upper Egypt.)
Hisham, the "meeter and greeter", was supposed to return at 8:30 to take us to a dinner cruise. I got all ready, and lay down for a little nap and fell deeply asleep. I was awoken by a phone call from Niran, saying she was so sorry, she had overslept and was not ready, she could not go.
"But who will eat with me?" I wailed. It hadn't mattered on the boat, as the group was always there, but I suddenly felt abandoned.
"But the guides don't usually come in to eat." **
"Well, give me five minutes then," she said.
When I got downstairs, Hisham was there, urbane and kindly as always. Niran suddenly appeared, looking barely awake and very disoriented. It was pretty obvious that she was not going to be able to go.
I did feel rather strange being the only one escorted by Hisham, but I determined to enjoy myself anyway.
The cruise, designed for large tourist groups (some of whom were on a very large cruise ship going around the Meditterranean; all these people saw of Egypt was a quick tour of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and this dinner cruise; he said it was called a "short stop".) It was glamorous, glitzy and overproduced but fun. Almost all the tables were filled, and the large groups were sent to the sumptous buffet one by one, me being a group of one. (As I'd predicted, Hisham sat at the table with me but did not eat.) The lights refelcted in the rippling waters of the Nile, as the boat traveled up and down both sides and past Giza island, were breathtaking.
Unfortunately, being so sleepy when we left, I'd forgotten to bring my camera!
I apologized for taking him away from his wife, and he said that she was mad at him for forgetting their anniversary any way.
"Oh no!" I said.
"It's okay, she'll stay mad at me for five or six days and then she'll be all right." He said that she had taken the kids to a swim meet "at the club" anyway. I found out that his wife doesn't work outside the home, but is able to stay with their kids.
I commented on the fact that Hisham did not smoke. It seemed all Egyptian men smoked. He said that he used to, but he had developed a cough which would not go go away, and he'd made the decision to quit, and never smoked again.
"Good for you!", I said.
Hisham said that next time I come to Egypt, I should bring my husband. I felt a slight censure in Hisham's remark. "Yes, I thought, there are parts of this that Dale Sr. would enjoy." Though, like most people throughout the world, my husband (a wonderful guy to whom I've been happily married for more than 25 years!) does not have a great curiosity and intense interest in cultures very different than his own. And, to my credit, he spends as much $$ on his boat,his truck, and his hunting trips, as I spend traveling!.
My mood improved greatly when the entertainment started. There was a really good Arabic band, a mediocre belly dancer, a wonderful folkoric band, and an absolutely incredibly unforgettable male folkloric dancer, with two big multi-colored dervish skirts and two swords. Spinning round and round, he did incredible feats with the swords and the two skirts, never wobbling and never losing his slight smile and his theatrical eyebrows!
At one point we went up on deck and watched the lights reflected in the water from there. Hisham pointed out which of the buildings were which, glamourous and showy, and their rippling reflections in the water as the boat moved along. It was a wonderful feast for the eyes, and I would definitely put it on a "not to be missed" list. But I don't see how people who get off their ocean liner spend a few hours at the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and then have this dinner cruise, could say they'd experienced Egypt. But then, I'm sure I have only experienced a small part of Egypt also.
* As my keyboard does not include an "enya" I have chosen to stick the "y" in as the least objectionable alternative.
** When tour guides take a group to a grand restaurant for dinner, their dinner is not usually covered by the travel agency; thus they wait outside while the group eats. When invited by the group to join them, they graciously accept, but from what I've seen, they actually eat very little.
The next morning I rose and breakfasted early, and was standing at the hotel money-changing window when Atef, the driver, arrived. Again I had difficulty when using the English word "some"; when I asked for "some" twenties and five-pound notes after handing over several hundred dollars in traveler's checks, the bored-looking man with the superior expression sighed wearily, stood up, and proceeded to count out hundreds of small bills! I didn't have the heart to say anything, but just stood there stupidly.
Muhammad arrived, and greeted me with a happy smile and handshake, many degrees warmer than his courteous professional manner on our first meeting. I followed him out into the little alley. He had an easy, self-confident walk with a slight swagger, and (of course) he stopped for several enthusiastic greetings between him and the several friends (guards, doormen, etc.) whom he met during the thirty yards between the hotel door and the El Joker van! I was amused by the way Egyptian men shake hands with each other: both guys draw their right hand way out to the side and bring them dramatically in, meeting in a hearty handshake which is almost like slapping hands (and always accompanied by smiles and warm exclamations).
When we got into the van, Sheriif, the guard, again dressed spiffily in his camel-colored blazer, was seated in front seat with Atef.
Mohammed climbed into the middle seat. "Niran is not coming?" he said.
"No, I think she was out late," I said, thinking ruefully to myself that they'd miss her boisterous personality.
"She has come to Egypt many times, hasn't she," I said, and Muhammad nodded.
"She's such a fun person", I continued, "It's hard to believe that I only met her June first!"
"You only met her June first?" he said with raised eyebrows.
"Well, we had corresponded on the internet."
"Oh, you met her on the internet," he said as if that explained a lot. (True, I was probably a different type of person---older, less glamorous!---than the dancers she usually brought with her on these trips!)
"If it hadn't been for her," I said, "I wouldn't have been able to come to Egypt, and I'm very thankful."
The guard in the front rode silently, Muhammad and Atef carried on a conversation in Arabic, and I began to realize that Atef and Sheriif actually knew very little English. (Why do we English speakers sometimes make the assumption that everyone in the world knows English?)
I didn't mind that I could not understand their conversation, as the busy streets of Cairo provided constant entertaiment. The mini-bus vans full of passengers, the little kids selling strings of fragrant jasmine flowers,and the groups and individuals trying to cross the street (including groups of several women holding babies with little ones walking along hanging on to their long skirts)... Again I noticed the constant mix of old and new: little compact cars zipping past mule-drawn wagons driven by men garbed in galabeyas* and caps, an old flat-bed truck with a fence around the truck bed constructed from little sticks all woven together. There were constant seeming near-misses between our van and other vehicles...again I was very glad of the seat-belts and also of Atef's calm, careful driving!
I asked Muhammad how he'd been doing for the last few days. He said things had gone fine, he'd taken out some groups. I told him that I'd gone on the dinner cruise the night before.
"Did you see the Darwiish?" he asked.
"Oh", I thought, "that's what they call that kind of dancer". "Yes, I saw the Darwiish, he was great!"
"He's very good."
It wasn't until later that I realized that Darwiish, of course, is the same word as "dervish". It was true that the dancer had had the big circular skirt and was constantly spinning, but his manner was much more theatrical than meditative!
Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum. Sheriif, the guard, stayed with Atef in the mini-van, and Muhammad and I went in through the airport-style security clearance. I did not purchase the extra permit to take photos; instead, I stopped at the bookstore on the way out.
It is said that if a person were to view everything in the Egyptian Museum it would take several weeks, at least! We were only there for about an hour, Mohammed took me to some of the most important items. The most memorable were not necessarily the most priceless. A life-like statue with inlaid eyes that look right out you, a particularly expressive face: these things bring the ancient past to life! Of course Muhammad exchanged enthusiastic greetings with a dozen or so very good friends among the guards in the museum, one of whom he even kissed on both cheeks and said "I love you" in Arabic, and to me by way of explanation, "I love him" in English.
I could spend pages describing the items in the museum, but won't do so here---there are beautiful books available, and of course I hope that you, the reader, can someday see it for yourself! The most valuable items, such as King Tut's gold-and-lapis sarcophagus and other priceless treasures, were in a special guarded room with special lighting, and, if I remember rightly, each of these world-famous ancient masterpieces had it's own armed guard and its own glass case. The guides did not go in to this special room with the tourists. Mohammed said that this was because tourists do not tend to stay as long if the guides are not talking to them.
It was interesting to find out that the world-renowned treasures of King Tut's tomb were just shoved in to the tomb in a great hurry, after his unexpected death! An old black and white photo on the wall showed what the European archeologists found when the tomb was opened, everything piled together like someones old attic!
At the little bookshop on the way out, I bought a very nice book called "The Egyptian Museum", some beautiful nineteen-century prints, and a gorgeous nineteenth-century photograph of palms by the Nile. When I went to the counter to pay, the myriad small bills in my wallet confused me, and Muhammad had to help. "You have some twenties," he said. I just held open the wallet and let him get the right bills, saying ironically to the three men behind the counter, "He's in my wallet," at which they all broke into grins.
When we got back into the van, I asked if Atef could change the station (it was playing European classical music) to the one we had listened to the other day, older Egyptian music. Or, I told Muhammad, I also liked modern Arabic music.
"You mean A3amr Diab and stuff like that?" I thought I could hear a slightly disparaging tone in his voice.
"Yes, I have some CDs of that type of music."
He said something to Atef, and the station was changed to the one we had listened to on our first day of sightseeing. Muhammed was singing along at one point.
"You like to sing?", I asked. "Me too."
Our next stop was at the imposing walls of the Citadel, a fortress built by Salah al Dunya al Din (referred to in the west as "Saladin"). It was built as protection against the Christian crusaders, and completed in 1184. It commands a projecting spur of the Muqattam Hills, the highest point in Cairo. After the castle wall was built, the rock was dug away around it, forming a cliff which made the fortress walls impenetrable by the artillery of the time.* The massive Citadel looks much like the castles of Europe, except that it's built mostly of smooth tan limestone.
I don't know why, but I love castles, and the Citadel was no exception. The stone gun holes running all along the ramparts in beautiful symmetry, the bold outlook over the city....The tallest tower was round, very wide in diameter, with widely spaced rows of tiny arched windows, and a ridge around the top with gun-holes through which one could see the sky. There was a little stone lion sitting guard-duty on the corner of one of the buildings, walls, its mane a cascade of lovely stone curls. I snapped a photo of it with the Egyptian flag flying behind it.
Inside the walls of the Citadel is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, who conquered Egypt and ruled in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is a large mosque similar to the ones I'd seen in Istanbul and Bursa. But the interior decoration is all rococo, and was rather disappointing to me. Mohammed said that Muhammad Ali had brought over the same architect who had built the Blue Mosque in Turkey, to build one for him. If you have seen the Sulemanye Mosque and other large mosques of Turkey, it is very similar: large building domes cascading up from domes, and slender minarets, but the interior is, to me, not as beautiful.**
I asked Muhammad and Sheriif if I could take their photo, and it makes me smile to look at it now, because they were both such nice guys; two very dapper looking Arabs in their black slacks, black dress shoes, sunglasses and mustaches, Muhammad in his open-necked short sleeved shirt and Sheriif in blazer, shirt and tie.
As we walked back down from seeing these sights, I heard a wild friendly yells. It was the Washington DC bunch who had been on the cruise-boat, all waving hello from a small car. Later I saw them in the distance, being lectured to by their guide.
The traffic was extremely stop-and-go on the way back from the Cidadel. We passed the ancient aqueduct and the beautiful monuments of the cemetary, large domes with intricate arabesque carving, breathtakingly beautiful even when seen from a dusty road behind a wall plastered with billboards....
I later found out that the traffic jam had probably been due to the return of President Mubarak from a visit to the United States!
Earlier, when we'd come out of the Egyptian Museum, Mohammad had gestured toward a very westernized looking fast-food place across from the museum, and asked me if I wanted to stop for a drink or snacks. I'd told him that I wasn't hungry then, but that later I would prefer to go somewhere more typically Egyptian.
So, after the Citadel, we went for Kosheri, a favorite local dish, in a very "local favorite" type of place located near the hotel.
Atef pulled up in front of a glass-fronted shop on the ground floor of a tall apartment building, on a street which was all tall apartment buildings with ground floor shops. Mohammed and I got out and went in. I was pleased when, after a few minutes, Atef and Sheriif also came in.
At first Sheriif wanted to sit at another table, but we motioned him over. Our table was by a pillar near the center of the place, and and from my seat facing the door, I had a great view of the comings and goings.
"He says he's shy," said Muhammud as Sheriif joined us.
"Tell him", I said, "that I am shy also, because I am in a strange country and I don't know how things are done here." (how true that was!!)
Muhammad spoke to him and then translated, "He says, feel free."
I nodded gratefully to Sheriif (remembering to keep the nod quick, polite, and without much eye contact***); I thought it was such a nice thing for him to say!
I loved this place. In an old building that appeared to be built around 1890, it had very high ceilings, tall narrow Victorian style windows, and a real marble/granite floor in an inlaid pattern. The front door was always open (it was necessary to brush aside a few flies) and there was a constant stream of people, male and female, lining up for to-go orders of kosheri, which were rapidly dumped into plastic bags by employees from behind a high counter right inside the front door. The females were all wearing headscarves, and their voices were as assertive and loud as those of the men.
Our kosheri was brought by a waiter (who set everything down efficiently and left without small talk): layers of rice, noodles and a top layer of deep-fried onions, all in a shaped mold. Two bowls of sauces also came to the table, one tomato and one very hot. Atef immediately took a lot of the very hot one.
It was very good with the tomato sauce, very basic food, very hearty, very Egyptian. I decided to try some of the hot sauce also, and since my spoon had already been in my mouth, and there was no serving spoon in the side sauce, I picked up the small bowl in which the hot sauce was served, and started to pour some on my kosheri. All three of the guys exclamed at once, Muhammad the only one in English, "Use your spoon!!" and dissolved into giggles.
Before I even took a bite, someone reached over and poured more bottled water into my water glass(more chuckles). The sauce was very good, but very hot. A bit later, Muhammad held the hot sauce out to me again, and I made a pushing-away gesture with my hand and said, "khaalas!" (enough in Arabic), at which they all erupted in laughter, including Sheriif.
During the meal they were all joking with eachother in Arabic, which I didn't mind....on the contrary, it took away the need for me to "make conversation".
"Go ahead and smoke if you like," I said to Muhammad. He went to the adjacent table, against the wall by one of the tall narrow nineteenth-century windows, to do so, and soon Atef followed. Sheriif looked uncomfortable and I motioned him over to join the others.
"Join the club," said Muhammad.
During the short ride between the kosheri place and the Sheraton Gardens hotel, Muhammad pointed out the apartment building where he and his family lived, very similar to the other apartment buildings in that area,many-storied modern balconied apartments above street-level glass-fronted shops.
When they dropped me off at the hotel, he asked that I tell Niran to check for mesages from Khaled, as the program for the evening had not been formulated yet. When I got in, I remembered that she'd changed rooms and I did not know which room she was in; so I left a message for her at the reception desk.
I'd had such an interesting day, but I was glad to have time for a nap. I fell asleep so fast I did not have time to wonder what the evening had in store.
*Andre Raymond's book "Cairo" a history of the building of the great city, over the centuries
**According to Andre Raymond's book, when Muhammad Ali moved into the Citadel, he destroyed a large number of beautiful buildings of the Mamluk style. His mosque, though inspired by the mosques of Istanbul, Mr. Raymond maintains was actually built by an anonymous Armenian architect, and is not generally considered to be a good example of its style.
***I have a book called "Culture Shock: Egypt" (one of a series which aquaints business travelers and tourists with social mores of various countries); it says that a woman should use minimal eye-contact when interacting with a man whom she does not know well.
That afternoon I woke from a nap feeling somewhat disoriented. I wrote in my journal:
June 9, 2002, evening:
This is the first time on this trip that I've felt a little strange. Niran was not along for the planned activity either last night nor today, and though I'm usually quite independent, it's kind of strange not knowing what is happening tonight. For the first time on the trip, I feel a little teary and lonely. But the old Egyptian movies on a channel called ART are helping a great deal.
Unfortunately I am rather loath to try calling Niran because I fear waking her from a nap. I guess in a half-hour I will try ---I guess.
Also I don't know what room she's in now!
A half hour later I wrote:
Well, I got the nerve to go down to reception and I've actually talked to Niran on the phone. Good thing, too, because she hadn't received the message!
We are supposed to meet downstairs at 9:00 P.M., and as I write I'm watching a modern Arabic movie with English subtitles. An undercover cop has become a drug-dealer as his "cover" . He's been a drug dealer so long, and he never knows if the reports he sends in make any difference at all, meanwhile he's finding himself becoming degraded psychologically, though gaining monetary success, by the drug-dealer lifestyle...
I was down in the lounge waiting by 9:00 PM, wearing my black rayon skirt and dark blue top; I'd dressed the outfit up a bit with black and silver striped scarf, dress shoes, a little black bag, and my large sterling silver hoop earrings, as I'd found out that we were going to a nightclub. Niran came down, and we had coffee together---and I was so glad to have her company! Much as I looked forward to the evening, I almost felt like I would rather have stayed at the hotel rather than spend another evening where it was just me escorted by a guide, no matter how pleasant and capable! Sometimes my usual courage just fails me!
At 10:30 PM, the person who arrived was not Khaled, but Muhammad, looking very handsome in a very white pressed shirt, dark tie, dress slacks, and a dark suit with his jacket thrown over his shoulder. He seemed in a very good mood, and said that it was only the second time that he had been to this particular nightclub.
When we got to the van, the driver was not Atef but a younger guy, who turned ut to be Atef's son Methaf*. Methaf looked like an Arab teen idol, and was a very nice boy (which wasn't surprising, knowing his father!); and he was just as calm and careful a driver as his father was. Also still with us was Sheriif, still sitting silently in the front seat, but more at ease than he had been at lunch: chuckling often to himself as Muhammad and Atef talked and joked, mostly in Arabic.
We arrived at the nightclub around 11:00 PM. It was difficult to see what the outside of the building looked like in the dark--- from what I could see, it didn't look that imposing. We entered through a long curving passageway with sculpted arches and huge framed promotional portraits of the featured entertainers.
This passageway led to a huge low-ceilinged room, filled with tables covered in red cloth tablecloths, (with white linen napkins), and chairs covered with red vinyl. The room was rather dark, except for the highly-polished, parquet circular dance floor at the front, and the space for musicians' behind it. Track lighting here and there illuminated large paintings of the "King" playing card. This theme went along with the name of the place, which I think was "Cafe L'Roi" or "cafe of the king" in French.
There were no other customers, and about ten waiters stood around, all in dark suits. We chose a table near the front. Although we were welcomed effusively by the waiters, (who treated Muhammad as though he were a VIP!) we were there for a good hour before anyone brought any drinks---the third time Muhammad went to ask, he was told that the guy with the key to the drinks cabinet wasn't there yet! We all regarded this as a huge joke!
In spite of the wait, everyone seemed to be in good spirits. Niran's silliness, as always, added comic relief. I was so pleased to be there; I had wanted to go a night-club which was primarily for Egyptians rather than tourists, but I hadn't expected that I would get to do so.
Niran and Muhammad were very sorry that the place was not full. "I wish you could have seen what it's like when it's full of people and energy," said Niran. "Also," she added, "if the place doesn't get a good crowd, the featured entertainer might not show up!"
Our drinks came around midnight, and a very good dinner at 1:00 A.M, but by then the entertainment had started and I didn't really notice much else!
The first band started out rather disappointingly, playing some European numbers in a mediocre manner. But then their vocalist came out, and she was fantastic, and they performed Arabic songs from then on, and performed them excellently. A rather simple shoulder-length hair-cut, very high heels and a skin-tight dress, she did not show much "attitude" or stage presence. She just sang, and her vocal ability just transported me into delight, so muich so that I did not even take a picture of her, nor ask what her name was. It was the first time in my life, that I had heard a really good Arabic vocalist live.
One of the songs she sang was the Umm Koltuoum song, Fakkerouni, whcih I believe means, "thinking of you".
I was really impressed by the fact that, although there was hardly any audience in the club, the vocalist and the band were going full-tilt. The third song she performed was punctuated with a dramatic cascading vocal line which also was the ending of the song, and her vocalization of this line was so incredible that I couldn't help but say, "Wowwww!"
Muhammad smiled broadly and said, "This is my favorite song." It is about two people who are far apart and they are wondering how the other one is doing." He was drinking cokes, and aside from a little of the appetizer, he did not eat. He said (to make us feel better, I think) that after a certain hour he could not eat or it was bad for his stomach. Whenever he or Methaf pulled out a cigarette, a waiter was immediately there to light it for them.
(Editor's note: Guides (at least guides from a big agency such as El Joker) are treated like "bigwigs" every where they go, I've noticed. This is not surprising, because the guides can influence where to bring the tourists' lucrative business. Also, due to the nature of the job, they tend to have gregarious personalities, and with their repeat appearances, build up friendships among the employees at the places they go.)
Niran suddenly asked, "Where's Sheriif?", and Muhammad pointed him out, sitting at a far table near the wall. His job required, of course, that he sit in a place where he could survey the entire room. Niran and I waved wildly at him, and he waved cheerfully back, smiling with an ironic shrug at the joke.
Suddenly the singer left, and I ran up and asked the musicians to give her a tip from me. They didn't understand until Muhammad explaned to them. A little later, I found out the polite way it's done in Egypt(!): you give the tip to the waiter, preferrably in many small bills (or many large bills, of course!) And the waiter goes up and dribbles the bills over the performer. (She never actually picks them up; someone from the band comes out and does that.)
The second singer and band came on (Muhammad said that the acts were each on for an hour) and again the band was excellent. Though the vocals were not as exceptional as the first singer's, they were still very good, and this girl's whole presence communicated a joy and happiness to the audience. Very fair-skinned, hee had long brown hair down her back, bouffant around the face. A form-fitting gold sleeveles dress showcased her body, generous hips and bust and a little bulge at the stomach which an American woman would have regarded as a defect. Her pretty face lit up every time she smiled, which was often, and she would punctuate her singing with tasteful hip moves and tasteful little shimmies which were executed with precision, ease, and finesse.
"Her vocals aren't as good as the first girl's, but she communicates so much joy and happiness that she is fun to watch," I said to Muhammad. (Niran was out of the room, gone to try to phone her friend Magd, the goldsmith's son, who was supposed to take her to "Alex" (Alexandria) the following day.)
"She could be a very good dancer, I can tell by the way she moves," said Muhammad. "I don't like all dancers. I don't watch the body, I watch the way they move. I saw a dancer in Aswan once," he said, "who was better than all these dancers in Cairo---and she never got famous."
"And you never forgot her performance," I said.
When Niran returned, the singer pulled Niran up to dance. I called the waiter over and asked him to give the singer a tip (five five-pound notes, worth $5 U.S.) She walked right over to our table and asked where I was from, then announced to the room that they welcomed the lady from America. She did something similar whenever she received a tip from someone.
"I love it," Niran said as she came back to the table and sat down. "They keep pulling me up to dance, and they don't expect that I can really dance, and they always act so surprised."
A table of people came in and sat down on the other side of the dance floor. (There were only about five tables of people in the room.) Mohammed said that one of the people at this table was a famous actor.
As Niran had predicted, the most famous act which was scheduled didn't show up. Niran told us how it goes: the famous performer will call, and if there are not many people there they won't come to perform. In spite of the fact that the big name wasn't performing, I thought the quality of the entertainment was fantastic.
During the breaks between acts, music would come on the P.A. system, and there was one song that everyone in the room was singing along with. Niran told me it was an anti-American song, which aroused my curiosity. Later, after I got home to the States, I found it on the internet after Niran e-mailed me the title and the author, and I paid Adel Abdalla of New Orleans to do a translation summary of it. Adel said it was not an anti-American song, but rather it asked American to work for peace.**
The next band had a dancer. They also had a dynamite rhythm section: two doumbeks, three large frame drums (played with one hand each) by three guys who stood in a line the back and played only the basic rhythm, and a gigantic tamborine. The main doumbek player was just incredible. As soon as this group of drummers started to rock out, the room was charged with energy. (They also had a male singer and other musicians.)
The dancer was very pretty, very technically profficient, but seemed a little stiff. Perhaps it was her very very high platform heels. She wore a dark pink costume, a slim skirt which fanned out at the bottom slightly, large cut outs on her thighs; she had long brown curly hair, not much of a smile.
Muhammad said that he thought she was good at dancing to the slow parts of the music, but not that good at the fast parts.
Again, Niran was pulled up to dance. After she returned to our table, the dancer sashayed over to the movie star's table, and, to my surprise, pulled a girl up onto the dance floor who was in conservative Islamic dress, covered from head to toe (quite fashionably!)and wearing a headscarf (a shimmering silver lamee headscarf pulled closely around her neck and throat). This very pretty girl danced for a couple of minutes, in a swaying graceful manner, with the dancer as a partner.*** (The other two women at the movie star's table where dressed casually, in western-style pants and tops.)
By now it was about 3:30 A.M., but I was enjoying myself so much that I was wide awake. (I had had several turkish coffees during the evening, which also helped!)
I ran up and tipped the doumbek player, (the older guy who was driving the rhythm section), and I also took their picture. After that, whenever I looked their way, they all seemed to be beaming at me!
At one point during the evening, I needed to use the restroom, and Methaf accompanied me as far as the hall. The bathroom attendant was a tiny boy, (six years old at most), in a very white pressed dress shirt and black pants, who stood outside the rest-room doors. I opened my little bag and gave him a tip.
As I came back, Methaf was waiting with a couple of men in suits, and he motioned to me and murmured something to one of the men. One man, dressed in a nice suit and wearing his hair in an Afro, came forward. His air of authority led me to believe that he was the owner, or at very least the manager.
He extended his hand warmly, saying grandly, "Welcome to Egypt!" I felt like the lady ambassador!
The next band featured a male singer from Lebanon, resplendent in a bright red shirt and cream-colored suit. He was an excellent vocalist, as wonderful as the very first girl had been, and his band accompanied him superbly.
It was such a delight to hear these live singers perform with ease, accuracy, and emotion, especially when I had not had such an opportunity before. The various notes of the many complicated Arabic music scales were infusing my entire being with layers upon layers of beautiful sound.
"It makes me happy to see you enjoying it so much," said Muhammad.
I told him that I had only seen one Arabic band live before,and that time I wasn't able to stay and hear the featured singer because my husband does not appreciate Arabic music and wanted to go home early!
This band, as well as the others, got Niran up to dance. She was having a great time also. She asked Muhammad if he could talk to the owner of the club and ask if she could perform there.
"You know I'm better than most of these dancers in the clubs!" she said. "I would already be a professional dancer in Cairo if my agent hadn't screwed me over!"
One of the musicians came out and told Muhammad something, and Muhammad erupted in laughter. He leaned over and told us, "He says that their cymbals player is called "Fufu", and he is a better dancer than any woman!"
Of course I looked around to see which band member he was referring to, and there was "Fufu", playing the cymbals gracefully held shoulder high, making comic expressions at us, while his hips executed an easy effortless micro-shimmy!
After the next song, they brought "Fufu" and his lovely micro-shimmy center-stage, and his smile communicated a love of dance and music to the audience. He pulled up Niran to dance, then, for a short time he pulled me up despite my protestations, and Muhammad took a picture of me, dancing, arms extended in finger snaps and a smile on my face. I am more a student of dance than a performer, and I kept the dance moves swaying and, and, I hope, lady-like.
At five in the morning, a group came on that was less than excellent: the band was so loud that they drowned out the singer, and she was no more than competent. My energy seemed to fall with a crash: Niran had left the room with Muhammad to see if they could talk the owner into letting her perform there at a later date. Methaf was still at the table, but neither of us spoke the same language, and it was getting difficult to stay awake. The following quarter hour seemed to take longer, and when it did come time to leave, I was more than ready. All we had to pay for were the drinks, as the dinner had been included in the El Joker program for the evening. For all that wonderful entertainment, all I had to fork out was fifty-five Egyptian pounds, (About $ll.00 U.S.)!. (not counting, of course, the tips I'd lavished on the performers, who were so worth it!)
* pronounced "Met-haf"
** The the link to the translation of the song can be found on the Index of Translationspage of this website, listed alphabetically by its name, "Amriika".
*** Since my trip, I have shown the photograph I took of the conservatively dressed girl dancing with the belly-dancer at the nightclub to several people, among them two Islamic women who dress conservatively themselves. They were both amazed that someone dressed in this manner would dance at a nightclub. Perhaps the fact that there were so few people there, most of them from her own party, had something to do with it.
After sleeping all morning, I rose to pack my bags, figure out tip amounts and put them in in envelopes for the guides and for Atef. I brought my bag downstairs and was waiting in the lobby when Atef came to get us. We drove through Cairo and picked up Khaled on a busy street corner. (But then every street corner in Cairo is busy.) Niran said we would park at the Khan el Khalili.
"You can park at the Khan el Khalili?" I asked.
We entered the market, going down a street which had little shops filled with crafts. Guys sitting outside the shops called out to us but we walked on, and I followed the others, though I would have liked to stop and have a look.
We turned down a little alley, went through an unobtrusive door and up some stairs. At first the only fact that I could take in was that we were in a room with ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall bellydance scarves, veils, and costumes! Actually there were four floors of them! We were at the famous Mahmoud Guffar's shop, which is known to dancers the world over.
I brought a black beaded hip scarf for around $20 U.S. which goes for three times that at home, a coin scarf that I would pay $40 for at home(for $10 U.S), and also some black fabric with metal designs woven into it.
Niran immediately went into a frenzy of shopping. She'd pull things off the racks, take them to the mirror, put them in a crumpled pile on a chair, and grab some more.
The shop was in an old building with an inlaid, patterned granite floor; the windows were colored glass in little geometric patterns set in a wooden framework. Khaled and I sat on a leather bench by the windows, and he opened one to let some air into the hot room, revealing a dusty littered section of roof and the close-by wall of the next section of building.
He asked how I became interested in middle Eastern dance. I told him that I had bought a tape of Middle Eastern music out of curiosity, and found that I loved it, and later took a class; that it was a hobby of mine but I was not a performer.
"By the way, I have some tips ready that I would like you to give Mohammed and Atef," I said.
He said, "You can give them to them yourself, Mohammed will be joining us."
"Mohammed will be joining us?! He should go home to get some sleep!" (For Mohammed had worked all day guiding a group, after staying up all night with us at the nightclub.)
"I feel embarassed to give them to them myself."
"But that is how we do it in Egypt," he said with a smile and a shrug.
"It is difficult to know the correct amount."
"But it is...as you like." He didn't seem to see why one should give the subject much thought.
I changed the subject. "Did you know that the nightclub would last all night?" I asked.
"Yes," he said with an amused smile.
"I really liked it, because I'd heard the best shows were late at night, but I didn't think there was any chance that I would get to see such a show. It was great to see so many different sides of Egypt...from the dinner cruise on the Nile, to the ancient monuments, to something like the nightclub show."
"But this is what I have always thought," said Khaled. "I thought this even when I was a guide, you know, doing what Mohammed is doing."
I told him that I thought there was a real difference in what different types of tourists want. For instance, the British and Irish groups I had seen on the boat, for whom it wasn't that big of a trip. Their main concern seemed to be the luxuries and amenities they would find. Compared to someone such as myself who had come so far and had wanted to see Egypt for so long.
He said that he felt it did not make any difference. No matter what sort of tourist, it was good for them to see many different kinds of things, whether they were looking for that kind of program or not.
I thought to myself, "You're quite a guy, Khaled Ghoneim."
There was a commotion and Mohammed came into the room like a whirlwind and greeted us all effusively.
"You should be asleep!" I said. "How can you stay up all night with us, take a group out, and be ready to go again!" For it was already late in the afternoon.
"Oh, it's nothing," he said with a shrug. "I just have some coffee, read the paper.."
After Niran had decided on a couple of costumes (she chose some skirts and a zebra-striped bra and belt set, though Khaled and I had both voted for a gown beaded in orange, blue, green and purple), we headed for the music shop. Going down a narrow passageway and around a corner, Muhammed opened a glass-windowed door and we crowded into a tiny air-cooled space little bigger than a closet. From its floor to its high ceilings were wall-to-wall shelves of CDs, tapes, and movies. I told Khaled I loved the old movies from the golden age of Egyptian film, and he helped me select three.* Mohammed found me a CD of the song I'd enjoyed so much at the nightclub ("Alli Garra"), and also suggested some CDs of Oum Kolthoum's songs. (I'd hummed a line of "Inta Omri" once in the Al-Joker Travel van.)
Then we were out on the narrow streets again, walking in the late-afternoon shadows cast by the two-and-three-story buildings of the Khan el Khalili neighborhood. At street level, the little shops and restaurants crowded side-by-side, signs and displays vying for the attention of the passers-by. The stream of people was increasing in density and liveliness at this time of day. ("You should see it at night", Mohammed said, "Then, it is really nice.") Waiters called out to the crowd as they busily set out cafe-tables in front of the various eating establishments. We were walking along the side of the street which bordered Husayn Square, which is the large grand square between the two holiest mosques of Cairo, El Husayn and el Azhar.** As we walked, from the right side and from the left, friends and aquaintances greeted Mohammed with boisterous affection.
"You have such a great personality", I said. "Everyone warms to you."
We continued around the corner, bound for the near-by Mosque of the el Barquq complex, which Mohammed had added to the afternoon "programme" (after I'd commented that I regretted not having seen any Egyptian-style Islamic architecture.)
To cross the street one climbed a high foot-bridge, up stairs on one side and down on the other; the walkway on top of the footbridge was wide, with vendors standing here and there (of course).
Before entering the mosque we took off our shoes, soles together, and gave them to an elderly man, who gave us a token and put the shoes into one of the network cubbyholes beside him on the wall. My long skirt and long-sleeved top were deemed modest enough, but Niran was given a scarf to cover her shoulders. You could tell she cringed a bit to put on something which had been touched by who knows how many others.
The interior of the mosque was aboslutely breathtaking in the semi-gloom. My eyes (and my emotions) were carried aloft, to the vaulted roof, shafts of soft light from sky-lights far above us, intricately-carved stone arches creating lyrical poetry of stone, a beauty of line displayed through the medium of varied dark grey tones of the shadows in the dim light. I could sense the massive solidity of this centuries-old holy space, and yet its grace and beauty seemed to permeate my entire being. Streams of beautiful Arabic calligraphy along the walls in black and cream-colored marble inlay, striking patterns in black and white marble created rug shaped patterns on the floors.
Several men slept peacefully in the corners; there were no other tourists. Even the white-uniformed tourist-and-antiquities police who was on guard seemed almost asleep, slumped in his chair, head resting against the wall. A tall, slender pale young man, in slacks and a print shirt with an easy going manner, come up up to us. Mohammed said that while we were in the mosque we would listen to this guide, as he was the official guide.
But everything that the guide said, in his excellent English, Mohammed and Khaled would elaborate on it! Mohammed especially did not let the guide get a word in edgewise. After a short while, the guide and I grinned at eachother and just let Mohammed talk.
I was overcome by this beautiful building, the first building in the Mamluk style*** which I had visited. We went up stone steps to the second level, where you could look down on the main room of the mosque. On either side, there were little rooms; they had large windows with a criss-cross pattern of metal bars, through which one could look out on the busy market street. Mohammed said that these side rooms were for the instruction of children in the Qur'an, one instruction room for boys and one for girls. Here the stone floor was rougher; our shoes had been returned to us for the upstairs portion of the tour.
When we got to the second floor, Niran began to feel dizzy, she said that the air in the ancient building made her feel faint. (I myself found it cool and calming.) The guide and Khaled accompanied her back to the entrance and we waited for the guide to return back up.
I asked Mohammed about the men sleeping on the mosque floor below. He explained, "We feel that a mosque belongs to God and it is for everyone. It does not belong to the one who built it."
We went quickly up a long series of stone steps to the roof, and emerged out onto a flat terrace. Breathing a bit heavily from the effort, but overcome with delight, I leaned over a broad wall and contemplated the view of Cairo which extended out on all sides, from the distant Muqattam Hills on the left to the setting sun on the right. I felt a wave of emotion, thinking of the history of this great city. There before us were the centuries-old minarets and the massive, carved-stone domes of shrines, the breath-taking beauty of their forms illuminated and outlined by the soft dusty golden light of early evening. Below them, modern lines of newer buildings, slightly crumbling roofs of the older, shabbier ones, and every style in between, all the different levels either jutting up into the light, windows blazing, or disappearing into the shadows. Looking out at all of this, I realized with a pang how sad I was that this was my last night in Cairo.
"The city of a hundred minarets," Mohammed said. We walked around the tower, and in the other direction Mohammed pointed out El Masry street, the oldest street in Cairo, most of it in shadow at this time of day. How great the talent of Naguib Mahfouz****, that it was exactly as I'd pictured it.
Then we climbed even higher, all the way into the tower of the minaret. The circular stone steps had no rail, but both walls of the passageway were so close that you could easily brace yourself. It was pitch dark!
When we got to the top, I braced myself against the doorway. Mhammed and the mosque guide went out on the narrow promenade which encircled the minaret, through the wooden railing looked very rickety.
Knowing the Egyptian proclivity for practical jokes (twice during my trip, waiters had pretended to spill coffee on people as a joke, for instance!) I warned, "No jokes!" as I took a photograph of the skyline. How amazing to stand where, for centuries, mullahs had sung out the call to prayer.!
When we got back down to the main floor, Mohammed asked if I'd like to see the prison. This was a surprise; a flick of a switch, and bright electric light illuminated an underground hall with small stone rooms, small barred windows high up on the wall. Mohammed mugged for the camera, pretending to be a prisoner trying to get out.
When we got back to the main area of the mosque, I forgot and started to step in with my shoes still on. As we left, I
I gave the guide a good tip, even though he had not been able to say much. It wasn't his fault!
We rounded the corner and crossed the footbridge over the street. Mohammed pointed out, as we came down the steps, the large picture windows of a very famous old shop, which has, for decades, sold clothes for pilgrims making the "hag" (In Egypt the letter "giim" is pronounced with a hard "g") to Mecca: the white clothes of the women pilgrims and the long white cloth worn by the men.
He had arranged that we meet Niran and Khaled at the world-famous El Fishawy coffeehouse, which was crowded with people. Mohammed found me a seat in one of a row of chairs along a wall,and went to look for Niran and Khaled. The clientele was evenly divided between men and women (The women were almost all wearing head scarves.) With its polished wooden walls and chairs, the place could have been used in a scene for a movie from the 30's. A series of little rooms, each full of chatting patrons, opened off of both sides of a narrow stone-paved alley, which was open to the sky. Waiters rushed here and there with tea, coffee and shiisha pipes (waterpipes). Happy to be surrounded by so much atmosphere, I looked around surreptitiously, absorbing the scene without looking at anyone directly. The place was full of animated conversation.
Mohammed returned, saying that because El Fishawy was so crowded, they'd gone to an outdoor cafe around the corner. Arriving there, we sat at one of the many small tables; men in red and white uniform shirts were loudly yelling at passers-by to come sit down and the tables were filling up fast. This cafe was located right across a narrow alley from the massive corner a large building: "El Azhar university", Mohammed said. I was very pleased because the El Azhar was one of the buildings I had wanted to see.*****We had some tea at the outdoor cafe, and it was fascinating watching all the passers-by: boys with trays of bread on their heads, vendors set up all along the wall, long lean guards in the white antiquities-police uniforms, women in head scarves and long dresses (often quite form-fitting dresses!) energetic shoe shine boys in brown galabeyas, men in slacks and shirts or in the light blue galabeya and white cap that seems to be standard dress for country men who have moved to Cairo. Entering and leaving the mosque were Muslims from many different lands (one could tell from the different styles of dress). Mohammed said that the people come from all over the world to get the advice of the clerics.
I had asked if we could have dinner in a traditional Egyptian place, and Mohammed said he knew just the one. We walked down a little ways, turned in a door and went down some wide marble steps. We were in a series of brightly-lit, white-painted large rooms, with inlaid black and white granite floors. A wide, sparkling-clean glass-covered counter displayed tempting platters of colorful food.
"These are for show", said Mohammed. We went up into a large side room. There were a couple of of other groups seated there; all of these groups included women, so I surmized that this room was especially for "family" parties...(my guidebook had mentioned that some restaurants welcomed women patrons and some did not, and that those that did often had special rooms for women and mixed parties.) When the waiter came over, Mohammed suggested we get a lot of different dishes and all share, and that is what we did. The dishes were hearty fare: stewed roast lamb on the bone, vegetables, rice, a broth for pouring over the rice,(the broth had fat floating in it) rolled grape leaves and a yogurt sauce, and bread like puffy pita bread.
Mohammed fixed my plate for me and it was all good.It wasn't particularly spicy or heavily seasoned or fancy, but I liked it very much. Even Khaled ate quite a bit (for him) between rapid fire cell-phone calls.
"Arabic is supposed to have long vowels, and short vowels," I chided him, "and yours only has short vowels!"
Niran refused to eat most of the food, as she found it too greasy.
After the meal, which Khaled paid for as "part of the program" we went back to the cafe and had some more tea. The lack of sleep was beginning to tell on me. Mohammed at one point looked at me and then at Niran, and said "tired eyes".
As evening fell, the minarets of Al Azhar across the square from us were lighted, tall graceful spires that I never tired of gazing at, a peaceful serene backdrop which seemed to hang in the dark sky above the traffic lights, Shop windows, headlights of cars and busses. The fatigue I felt made it difficult to control my emotions, I felt quite despondent that my magical visit to Egypt was soon to be over. It would be soon time to return to the normal routine, to Arizona where there were few beautiful buildings to speak of.....where everything was plain and predictable, compared to this exotic foreign land.
I didn't talk much as we rode through the night, stopping first to drop off Khaled and Niran on a street-corner (he would take her in a cab back to the hotel, as she was going to spend a few more days in Egypt, gallivanting up to "Alex" with Magdi the Goldsmith.)
We rode on, rushing to the airport. From where I sat in the third seat of the van, I tapped Mohammed on the shoulder, wanting to say a few words. prior to giving him his tip. I started to mumble something about how I hoped it was enough for all that he'd done, but he made a dismissive hand gesture as if to say "enough of that". Soon we were dropping him off, and he shook my hand and said goodby and that he hoped I enjoyed my time in Egypt. I smiled and nodded but was unable to say much.(To a guide, the tourist is one of a multitude of tourists who pass through their lives as part of their job, but to the thoughtful tourist, the opportunity to spend some time in a foreign land is so special, and guides such as Khaled and Mohammed do so much to make that special experience as rich as it can possibly be....)
* The movies were Abdel Halim Hafez' "24 hours in a da"y (With Zubayda Tharwat) and two movies based on Naguib Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy. When I got back to the States I had to have them changed to the VHS format which is used here, but it was well worth it, as I've enjoyed them many many times. (These movies can be ordered in the U.S. from AraMovies.com
* * The Mosque of El Husayn is one of the most important mosques in Cairo, it is one of the ones in which tourists are not allowed. El Azhar (first syllable stressed) is the world-famous mosque and university since ancient times a center of Islamic learning and study. On Friday mornings the entire square is filled with the over-flow of worshippers and sermons are broadcast on loudspeakers so that all can hear. It was recommended by my guide on my 2004 trip, that tourists wait until about mid-afternoon on Fridays, to enter the neighborhood.
* * * If you are interested in the architecture of Cairo, I recommend Andre Raymond's book, Cairo, An Architectural History. It contains history and also beautiful line drawings (many done in the 19th century) of the rich architectural treasures of Cairo.
* * * * The Nobel Prize-winning author. Much of the activity in the first two novels of the Cairo Trilogy takes place in a house on el Masry street, if I'm not mistaken.
* * * * * I have since been puzzled by what he said, because I now believe that the cafe was next to the Mosque of El Husayn, and across the square from El Azhar. Perhaps Mohammed said it was the University because non-Muslims are not allowed in El Husayn Mosque, and he did not wish to bring up the subject.
* * The Mosque of El Husayn is one of the most important mosques in Cairo, it is one of the ones in which tourists are not allowed. El Azhar (first syllable stressed) is the world-famous mosque and university since ancient times a center of Islamic learning and study. On Friday mornings the entire square is filled with the over-flow of worshippers and sermons are broadcast on loudspeakers so that all can hear. It was recommended by my guide on my 2004 trip, that tourists wait until about mid-afternoon on Fridays, to enter the neighborhood.
* * * If you are interested in the architecture of Cairo, I recommend Andre Raymond's book, Cairo, An Architectural History. It contains history and also beautiful line drawings (many done in the 19th century) of the rich architectural treasures of Cairo.
* * * * The Nobel Prize-winning author. Much of the activity in the first two novels of the Cairo Trilogy takes place in a house on el Masry street, if I'm not mistaken.
* * * * * I have since been puzzled by what he said, because I now believe that the cafe was next to the Mosque of El Husayn, and across the square from El Azhar. Perhaps Mohammed said it was the University because non-Muslims are not allowed in El Husayn Mosque, and he did not wish to bring up the subject.
23. Two Women in Headscarves
On my trip home, I happened to end up conversing with two different Muslim women in headscarves. Their ways of looking at life were so different, that it really made me think.
Hisham (the "meeter and greeter" for Al Joker Travel) had met me when Atef dropped me off, and he'd had left me to sit and wait while he took care of business. This part of the airport seemed sad and dreary, vinyl tile on the floor, a vast drafty room with hard plastic seating in rows, fixed to the floor. She was the only other person sitting there, a lady of fifty or so, who had been dropped off with her large bags by a young man who seemed to be family. Dressed in a long, long sleeved dark dress, she wore a black head scarf of delicate material, almost sheer, with an edging of lace roses, also black. Though the scarf covered her shoulders it did show some of the graying hair around her face.
Glancing around briefly, I noticed that she was rather tearful and that her one Kleenex had become quite ragged. I fished around in my bag for a packet of un-opened kleenex (purchased from a street-seller who had looked particularly pitiful), and offered it to her. She beamed at me and we got to talking. She was going back to her home in Canada, after her yearly visit to her family in cairo. She was sad to leave her mother, who was not well.
In our short conversation, we touched on many subjects, and I found that there were strong similarities in the way we both look at various issues. She said she loves Cairo, but that there are things she likes about the West (she lives in Montreal): orderly lines, people working all of the hours of the work day, and regular elections, aomong other things. She feels connected to both the East and the West, and she said that she believes that Islam and Christianity share many things, including the same God. When I told her that I wanted to learn Arabic she was very encouraging.
We became separated in the crush of getting through security on the way out, I was waiting at the gate, again in rows of plastic seating, crowded with so many people waiting to catch the plane to the U.S. There were also some waiting to transfer to other flights, including people from Africa in national dress, one thin man in a suit who was the blackest person I have ever seen, he looked almost blue he was so dark.
I got to talking to a woman beside me, a strong, forthright-looking person in pale gray long skirt, a slong sleeved light-blue blouse, and one of those shaped headscarves of thick cotton which covers every bit of hair most of the forehead, and ends with a band of beautiful crocheted lace around the shoulders. She had been to visit her family in Jordan. She was a substitute teacher in Texas, and felt a lot of prejudice there, especially since 9-11. "You can imagine," she said, "what the reception is when I come into a class with my headscarf." This trip was the first time she'd been home to visit her family in many years, and she'd been rather disappointed (in her family in Jordan) because they had become less religious than she had remembered.
"My brother and I live in Texas and we are more Islamic than they are at home!" she said.
Sometime in the conversation I asked her how she felt about westerners who convert to Islam, as she had mentioned that there were some in her mosque in Texas.
"But of course it is better, for they are not going to hell," she said matter-of-factly. I nodded calmly, though inwardly a little taken aback. I felt that her fundamentalist interpretation of her religion was similar in many ways to the fundamentalist Christians who are so common in my home state of Arizona.
I continued to talk to her about other subjects, but on the plane on the way home I considered the two women, both Muslims both rather conservative in dress, but with such different ways of looking at their religion. Talking with them was an interesting post-script to my fascinating time in Egypt.
Also, if you have enjoyed this account, perhaps you'd like to read my travel accounts of my trip to Spain and my shorter account of my second trip to Egypt, you can find them by going back to the home page of this website.