Nell Irvin Painter


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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