It was the spring of the year 2001. I had started traveling late in life: my first overseas trip was at the age of 48, to Greece and Turkey (except for the year we lived in Sweden when I was 9 years old) In the millenium year, at the age of 53, I had been to Turkey and Greece, and then to Spain and Morocco. I became gripped a fiery desire to travel to Egypt. I had become very interested in Middle Eastern dance and music, and my favorite singers were Egyptian. I found my travel partner, (whom I will call “M, for “Magnoona”, which means “crazy”) through an internet site called the “Middle East Dance List”, a forum in which all sorts of dancers and fans of the dance aired their ideas, their stories, and their comments.
There were several dancers who were planning to take groups, and I was wondering which to choose. But in September, the terrible attack of 9/11 happened, and some of the perpetrators were found to be Egyption. My choice of dancers to go with narrowed down to only one person, “M”. All the others had decided not to go.
I should not have been surprised when, in following spring, when I put a query out on the Middle East Dance List, I found that many of the dancers who had been planning trips had decided not to go after all. So I e-mailed M. and expressed interest in going with her group. She wrote back that there was still room for me in the tour she was leading, 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 hummed Egyptian songs under my breath all day at work.
Members of my family were quite upset that I would go to Egypt at this time. My mom, at 80, was the only one who supported me. She thought that if something else would happen, it would be as likely to happen on a US plane as on a foreign one.
All the negative comments made me so nervous that I wasn’t sure if I would actually follow through with the trip. I started making payments on the trip, giving myself the option of deciding not to go at the last minute, and even if it meant forfeiting my money. One of the issues I was watching was whether Bush would decide to escalate his plan to attack Iraq, (which of course he did within the next few years).
To make things more nerve-wracking, the ticket was sent only a week before the trip. (This was still the era when you needed an actual physical ticket to get on an airplane.) 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 was so nervous that I actually drove to the airport a few days before departure, and found an information desk and asked the nice volunteer there to explain the ticket to me. “DL” meant Delta Airlines; I had assumed because the entire ticket was half in Arabic that EgyptAir flew right out of Phoenix!
And then came a bombshell from M: 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!
At the EgyptAir departure gate at JFK, I felt like I was in a foreign country already. A huge crowd of Egyptians, all dressed in neutral shades of brown and gray and beige, most of the women in long dresses and scarves.
Suddenly someone screamed my name and I looked down at M., shocked at her short flowered dress, jangly jewelry, and wild, long, dyed-black hair. After all I’d read about how to dress modestly in a Middle Eastern country, I couldn’t believe her, (and her sailor’s mouth either!) She pulled me down to the unoccupied chair on her left, ranting about how she feared I would miss the plane. (I had arrived early but mistakenly spent an hour waiting at the arrivals gate instead of the departures.
My assigned seat was not near M’s on the long cross-Atlantic flight, allowing me to concentrate on all the interesting people all around me. The plane was almost 100% full of Egyptians, something which I have never experienced since then, and which I now think was caused by the fall in tourism due to 9/11. Many families were taking little children back to visit family at home, so the little children were all dressed up “band-box” cute, running around the plane, the other adults smiled and indugled them. The adults were dressed in their best also, the women were wearing their most lovely long-sleeved, long-skirted outfits, lovely fabric in muted colors and matching headscarves; the men in sharp suits.
The mud-brown expanse of city below with the Nile running through it, made me catch my breath! Soon we were in a travel-agency van on the way to the Sheraton Gardens Cairo. An excerpt from my journal shows how thrilled I was to be in Cairo:
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! M. said that in all the times she’d been here, she’d never seen that.
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.”
At dinner at the hotel, we were joined by a young Egyptian guy, ruggedly handsome with long curling hair, whom M. had connected with in a chat room on the internet. We had fun chatting with him, but I was taken aback when she told me in an aside that she planned to stay out late with him that night, and informed me that she would be too tired to go out on the next day’s sight-seeing!
It felt wierd that I would be the only one going out with the guide, but I decided that I should see the bright side, wonderful to have one’s own guide. I soon found that the guides from that tour company were so professional and so pleasant, that I was in very good hands, and enjoyed myself very much.)
It took a couple of days for the reality to set in: that this behavior would be a pattern with M. She never actually went site-seeing, she’d seen it all before. What she did while she was in Egypt was to enjoy being pursued by young Egyptian men! The “dancer tours” which she organized were only a ruse, I came to believe, for her to get away from her sick, older husband, and have fun.
My opinion is that, in reality, I don’t believe that she ever did sleep with these young Egyptian men whom she went out with. I sspect that what she enjoyed was the excitement, the excitement that she caused with her flirtacious animated ways and her way of dress, in a culture where such a way of dress, and such animated flirtation, signal a certain kind of woman. The average young man in the United States wouldn’t think she was especially interesting, and besides, at home everyone would know she was married, and know her husband.
I don’t believe that she ever admitted to herself that this difference in cultural mores was the reason the Egyptian guys got so excited around her, she just got a thrill out of it. She would fan their excitement to a fever pitch, and then suddenly find that something really irritated her about them, and she’d get really cross and say good night.
Yes, I know. Wierd, wierd, wierd. But at the time I wasn’t really analyzing anything.
She was with me, of course, two days later when we flew to Luxor. On the flight, a smaller plane mostly filled with European tourists, we sat together. She talked excitedly about the boat we would be on for the next few days, and I also was happy with anticipation. M. 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 and Minya.)
Another excerpt from my journal shows how I loved the view of the Nile at Luxor:
The Sheraton Luxor was right on the Nile, and that great river was narrower here; a lovely sight framed by the shady overhanging branches of the trees. While we waited to meet the guide and the group we would join for the boat, I got a coffee and went to sit in a chair on the outside terrace. Across the blue water, the other bank was bright green with rushes, and date palms of many different heights and sizes, 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.
My enchanted reverie was interrupted by agitated voices. Suddenly M. was introducing me to the guide who would be with us on the next stage of our journey. Maggid was a trim little Copt, with a round face, glasses, and an ernest manner. He wore a baseball cap, polo shirt, black jeans, and new tennis shoes; his eyebrows were wide arches, shaped like new moons. He greeted me with enthusiastic friendliness, but it was soon obvious that both he and the tour company agent were growing more and more agitated, in spite of their outward politeness.
There had been a change in plan, and M. 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.
M. had been up late the night before with Cairo friends, and she had planned 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 thought to myself, “You are being a bitch.” 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 who would be part of our group decided to do likewise, as they had joined our party late, and had seen the near-by ruins with their previous tour-group. Magdi told the rest of us that the hotel would serve us lunch in the dining-room at noon, still a couple of hours away.
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 M., myself, 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!
Another excerpt from my journal:
A short while later, we were on the bus to the ancient temple of Karnak. It was very, very hot; several of us took Magid’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 sinuous 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 hieroglyphics 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 pharaoh, and Magid 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 overcome with awe to see around me, with my own eyes, this architectual wonder that had been built by a civilization with no modern tools, no huge trucks or cranes for hauling and lifting.
palm tree which had found its way through a crack between stone blocks which had been laid three thousand years ago.
After the tour of Karnak, we clambered back into our bus, and were taken to Luxor Temple, a short distance away. The heat was starting to get to me, and I was glad to get back to the boat and to my air-conditioned cabin and take a nap.
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, 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…
In the elegant dining room, 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 M!” he said, pointing me over to a small table where M. was sitting, facing away from the group. The way he said it, you’d have thought M. was a movie star. Slightly embarassed, I apologized for the confusion and went to join M.
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, Omar, was particularly attentive to her; I didn’t notice it then because he was also very chatty with all of the guests, in fact he was a general favorite.
I had planned on an early night, but enthusiastically agreed when M. 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. M. 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, of M.’s lively dance.
“I had a hard time keeping up with her with the videocamera!” I said.
Actually she was rather disappointing as a dancer, a lot of jerky movement but no real grace or style.
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. I sat with the rest of the group, as M. was sleeping in. (I later found out that she had gone out, on shore, with some of the boat staff, something which was not allowed!) Soon after that, we were climbing the steps to the bus, and and the group, sans M., 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 Arabic 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.
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.
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, when my grandfather was director of the YMCA there.
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. Hatsheput was the only female pharoah, and after her death her name was stricken from the historical records! Clearly a woman who “got outta line”!.the historical records. Clearly, this was a woman who “got outta line”!
Our waiter, the tall, slender, good-looking Omar, 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.
That evening at dinner Omar 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 following morning I woke very early. 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.
Our side trip that morning was to Edfu Temple, a temple dedicated to the worship of the god Horus, a monolithic structure was built by the Greek king Ptolemy when he ruled Egypt. He wanted to the Egyptians to feel that he honored their gods. I loved the graceful, clean lines of the solid stone, five-foot high statue of Horus, in the shape of a hawk, in front of the temple. The morning air was still cool as we walked within the massive stone walls.
“These are 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!).
It was while we were in Edfu temple that Magd, a Coptic Christian, 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 thidefacing 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.
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.
At lunch, I arrived early, before any one else. Omar, the waiter who always joked with M, 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 M. 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 M’s drink.
“If you’re asking us to visit your mother….” I started to say, when M. 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 Omar’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 Omar had risked losing his job.
This upset me very much, to the extent that I lay awake at night thinking of it. M had not behaved any differently than many other female foreign tourists,” I thought, “How could he have been so stupid?” Then I thought, ‘Well, did other female tourists sneak off the boat in the evening with some of the crew?”
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.
Suddenly M. 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 I remembered that the Norwegian couple had mentioned that they had been invited down there and they had enjoyed it.
“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.
Before I came to Egypt, I wondered about the full sleeves of the galabeya, (the long, floor-length shirt worn by the 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.
(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 uncom
fortable. 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, but I fear that he was asking her if I went out with the crew also!)
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”.
(Meaning that the names of the buildings were in correct Arabic as well as English).
When they handed the book back to me, I motioned for them to keep it. The guy who was holding the book 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.
M. 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”)
That afternoon, we toured the Kom Ombo temple in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. 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 next morning I still felt unprintably awful, and went down to breakfast just long enough to tell Magdi 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. M. 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 Omar the waiter, and seemed not at all affected by my discomfort.
“Have Omar 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 M’s suggestion that I ask Omar 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. The classic Egyptian film enchanted me. In the years since then I have purchased many DVD’s of films of that era, including the very one I was watching that afternoon.
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.
Before the Nubian show, I saw M. talking intently to a couple of strange men. Then she went rushing past me, speaking to me, and as her words sunk in, my spirits did a downward tailspin.
“You’ll never believe what happened to me…I got attacked twice in two days…it’s never happened to me…I’ll have to tell you all about it later. I’ve been talking to the sheriff.”
I felt like I was drowning, thinking, ‘It better not be Omar, it better not be Omar.”
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 and an old guy who blew something which looked and sounded like a Turkish zurna.
I was tring to figure out a time to slip Magdi his tip, hoping to catch him alone after the show, as he was always surrounded by members of the group. I really liked Magdi 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.
When I found him, M. was sitting with him ranting and raving about her recent ordeals. It was soon apparent that Omar had been the guilty party, and I begain to be overcome with rage, at her, not at the waiter.
“Why would he want to hurt me, why would he want to hurt me?” she wailed.
“Why did you ever come here with your outrageous flirting, and ruin that boy’s life?’, I thought. For Omar had been sacked, probably most likely also black-balled from all the cruise ships. Hopefully he could still get a job in one of the hotels.
She then related the story, which was that she had asked him to bring some peppermint tea to her room (it is against regulations for male staff to come into a female tourist’s room, so he probably thought this was the invitation he was waiting for) and then he pinned her down to the bed and tried to kiss her. For this he lost his job.
I resolved to wake early, for the next morning would be our last morning on the boat. As I came down the stairs, I thought to myself, “The friend of the whore is coming down the stairs.”
I heard one of the guys behind the reception desk say to the other, “Feyn Omar?” (where’s Omar) The other man muttered something.
It was the last morning to look out on the Nile, from a boat in upper Egypt. There was a slight breeze, and the water was the most beautiful rippling blue color. The green of the rushes and the white of the graceful little feluccas (sailboats) contrasted against the golden hills of sand beyond. I looked over at the shabby little town and thought of Omar, maybe sitting in his mother’s little house, disgraced and without a job.
The tourist company agent was not due until noon, so I visited the wonderful little Nubian museum with the Norwegians. I told Mettye about Omars actions and his being fired.
“That is very bad,” she said with vehemence. Like me, she blamed M.
That afternoon we flew back to Cairo, and I spent another couple of days with M. and the two guides. We went climbed the Bab Zuwayla gate ramparts, where the rulers would watch the yearly pilgrimage start off for Mecca. We went to Muhammad Al Gaffar’s three story belly dance costume emporium, to a traditional restaurant, to the Muhammad Ali Mosque, and to a nightclub where we heard some wonderful singing until five in the morning (the show had started at 1AM). At my request, we went to visit the beautiful mosque of the Al Ghuriya complex. Our guides told us that Islamic sights are not usually included in the tourist program, with the exception of the Turkish-style Muhammad Ali Mosque.
I had a great time doing all of this, and during those wonderful days, I didn’t often think of Omar and how he got fired. But I have thought of it many times since, and still think it is one of the most striking examples of what a misunderstanding between cultures can do. Of course Omar was stupid; other employees must have warned them that one can never trust the way foreign women act. But I do believe that M’s way of acting with him did cause him to believe that she wanted a sexual episode with him. I still cringe when I think of the incident.