Our Trip to Egypt, 1-9 March 1997
Things started badly on Thursday (27 February). As Glenn, his sister
Dee, and her husband Steve (who were going to stay with Dennis while we
were in Egypt) walked into the apartment from Orly, I was getting off
the telephone with an agent from our travel company, Terres D'aventure;
our trip was canceled. Evidently President Mubarak's visit to the very
territory we expected to walk in, the Nile between Aswan and Luxor, would
prohibit navigation for a week--our week. Could we go some other time?
Or how about a trip to Morocco?
As it turned out, Terres D'aventure managed to reconstruct our visit.
Instead of walking in the day from Aswan to Luxor and sleeping on boats
at night, we spent only 24 hours in Aswan and did all our walking from
a base in a hotel in Luxor. (Before departing we returned our sleeping
bags to the Paris camping store where we'd bought them.) As originally
planned, we left Paris Saturday afternoon and arrived in Luxor that night.
I can't begin to tell you everything about this trip, but I can tell
you what struck me with special force. Mostly it was the people, who so
often looked like African Americans, in their features and in their variety
of appearances. For me, looking like a native--looking normal--was a rare
treat. People called me "sister," "cousin," "Nubian,"
"Egyptian," "South African?" "Jamaican?"
"Turkish?" But marketing strategies cured me of Afrocentric
nostalgia, as "sister" and "cousin" usually opened
a commercial appeal. One example: we visited a Nubian village near Aswan,
where a Big Man invited us into his house. We got to see all the various
rooms-- for people, the oven, the chickens--and to go up on the roof for
a bird's eye view of the brightly painted village. On my way down the
stairs, a woman of the family greeted me with "sister," and
indicated that she wanted her photo taken with me. How lovely! Glenn took
the photo of the two smiling Nubian "sisters." Then the woman
asked for money. As they served us tea, the women of the family also pitched
us various trade goods, beginning with a pink scarf to me, which, of course,
I bought. Ah, yes, tourism is an industry, and I am hardly the first tourist
of color with a soft spot for pan-Africanism, which also pays.
My parts of Egypt (towns, countryside, ruins) sounded and smelled. Town
streets smelled slightly of horse manure, which is not so bad, actually,
but still memorable to someone who lives in Princeton in the 1990s. The
horses were pulling tourist carriages (like those on 59th Street in New
York City, and their manure dropped into catchers, as in the NYC carriages).
Dust permeates the countryside, even the green, green countryside of sugar
cane, alfalfa, and wheat, because in Egypt agriculture, which depends
on irrigation, inhabits a more or less narrow band along the Nile. Standing
in the fields, you can always see the desert right near by, and the desert
blows sand on you constantly. The sight and sounds of birds were everywhere
(except in the rocky, barren mountains we climbed up and slipped down
within sight of the Nile). You've seen photos of the temples and tombs
of the pharaohs, monumentally impressive in their mass, color, and art.
You can imagine looking at a mural or an obelisk painted or carved three
or four thousand years ago, but you need also to hear the cries of thousands
of sparrows and swallows nesting in the fissures of these gigantic ruins.
And in the ruins, the sounds of tourists, thousands and thousands of (mostly)
white tourists in shorts and cameras, speaking Australian and English
English, French, and Italian. Not just their whiteness, but also the brevity,
cleanliness, and quality of their clothing, branded tourists. At one point
in one of our walks out in the countryside, we were gawking at a temple
to Isis well off the regular tourist circuit. It was just us and the village
children staring at us until a motor bike roared up. Driving was a handsome
young black Egyptian in Western clothing and sunglasses. Holding in to
him tightly from behind was a tourist woman a good decade older, who wore
a low-cut, sleeveless white dress blown up around her thighs. This woman
looked so big and pink in the context that she could have dropped down
from outer space. But she did look happy.
Egypt is a Muslim, African country, and most of the women we saw wore
long black dresses and veils, so that only their faces, hands, and feet
were exposed. A few women, office workers? teachers? were wearing western
dress, and school girls were wearing uniforms that included a scarf over
the head. Some men were in shirts and trousers, but the majority of working
men were wearing the long dresses (galabayas in our part of Egypt) that
Muslim men and boys wear all over the Maghreb and West Africa. Terres
D'aventure had warned us against shorts, even Bermudas, but many other
tourists were showing a whole lot of skin.
Had our trip not been rearranged, we would have spent a good deal less
time visiting ruins, but they were magnificent, even in the company of
masses of other tourists. For me, the images brought much aesthetic pleasure,
but I also naively relished the sight of brown and sometimes black people
from antiquity. In the temple of Luxor, I photographed bas reliefs in
which the pharaoh lined up on one side his defeated Asiatic (bearded,
long-haired, big-nosed) enemies and, on the other, his defeated African
(short-haired, clean-shaven, short-nosed) enemies. Temples like Luxor
and Karnak depict a variety of bloody tortures the pharaohs inflicted
on their victims, which I think explains the elaboration of their tombs.
Pharaohs must have feared retribution after death, and they knew from
experience just what torture failure could entail. Tombs illustrate manuals
on how to get across to paradise without succumbing along the way to bad
gods or wrong roads.
Our trip was gratifying and psychologically relaxing, though physically
kind of strenuous--we did a lot of walking and climbing in addition to
standing around ruins in the sun. Egypt was already hot, but extremely
dry, so the heat baked rather than oppressed--more California than North
Carolina. Our guide, Guy--our age, gay, French, accustomed to life in
Muslim countries and, after thirteen years in Luxor, actually Muslim himself--told
us a lot about where we were, including the villages we walked through
and ate in. Guy lives on a falouk (traditional sailboat) with an Egyptian
boy he said was fifteen but who looked twelve to us, surrounded by Egyptian
men of various ages. I suppose Egypt is a perfect society for homosociability,
because places that aren't home belong to men. We saw women and girl children
in the villages we walked through, but they were always close to home.
Men were doing all the public work, assisted by tough young boys of school
age. One such boy worked the sail in a falouk we used several times. At
one point, as we were docking in Luxor, he climbed ten meters up the mast
and curled up the main sail by hand, steadying himself with only his feet
and the other hand, which also held the rope to tie the sail.
Although Upper Egypt seems quite African to me, much was different from
what I remember of Ghana more than thirty years ago--and Glenn reminds
me that Ghana, too, is obviously much changed by now. First, of course,
is the climate: where West Africa is humid and life sprouts everywhere,
Egypt is desert, relieved only by water brought in express. Water entails
two other striking differences, which may no longer hold, of course. All
the villages we saw were electrified with power from the Aswan high dam,
whereas in the 1960s the Akosombo dam in Ghana had not yet brought electricity
everywhere, even to villages along the coast. But if there was a contrast
in the availability of electrical power in the two places in the two times,
water for bathing and clothes washing was taken for granted in Ghana in
a way that it seems not to be in Egypt. I was struck by the dirty unkemptness
of the children we encountered; in Ghana, children seemed to have been
washed, dressed, and combed three times a day, in basins of water that
women had had to pump by hand.
The main point of our trip was visiting Egypt, but it also taught us
something about our French fellow travelers. Glenn and I realized that
by spending a long week with the same French people (we were the only
non-French), we were getting to know them more intimately than would otherwise
be possible. They were two couples our age from Marseilles, Françoise
and Yves, Jacqueline and Hubert, who had traveled a lot together, often
in their boats; a single woman in her early thirties from Montpellier,
Magalie; Catherine and Damienne, two Parisian women in their early thirties
in who often travel together; a quiet couple our age from Dieppe, Daniel
and Suzanne; and a Parisian couple in about their late thirties, Patrick
and Marie-Pierre. We learned, mostly from our inquiring, that Françoise
is a bureaucrat, Patrick a stockbroker, Hubert a sailor, and Catherine
and Damienne a cadre and a producer in TV and video. But that's all we
know of their vocations. On this trip, the first question was not, as
in the US, "what do you do?" People talked about what they liked
to do in their leisure time, what they read and think, politics, how they
were seeing Egypt, what they thought of our guide Guy and his social relations,
families in general, and women's issues. With the exception of the silent
pair from Dieppe, we have a good sense of the characters and views of
our fellow travelers without much knowledge of their professional lives
and no idea whatever of their educations. Very interesting to us. When
we remarked on this French/US difference in making acquaintance, some
responded that this was French, others said that this was vacation, when
people wanted to get away from their work. I, for one, am coming to think
that Americans practically ARE their work and that not talking about it
all the time is an excellent good idea.
All in all, it was a fine trip that bears repeating when we can walk
down the Nile. I recommend Egypt to you highly. But don't go after mid-March
or early November. You really will bake.
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