All Along the River Nile
Abdullah drove a fifty-year old-Peugeot 504, a smurf blue station wagon, with a Qur'an on the dash and a luggage rack and seats for eight. He was a jolly, grinning man in a moustache and a robe, who picked us up at the Tourist Rest House in Al-Qasr just after breakfast. He drove us through a desolation of crags and dust and powerlines, towards the Kharga Oasis and Luxor.
In Kharga Town we picked up a police escort, on account of the American in the vehicle, and Abdullah told us in his pidgin English not to pay them any backsheesh when they asked. We picked up food and drove it 15 minutes out of town, to a little tea house with a television. Our driver wanted Amelia to dance like the women on television, but she said No and pointed to her anguished stomach—“Baby?”
As it got dark we entered a smoggy world of rubble and canals and palm trees. They still call it the Nile! The lifegiving river no longer floods with the astronomical precision that inspired the ancients. The High Dam prevents it. Irrigation drains it. The cataracts are gone. The trash on the palm-lined banks smokes and steams. The river is a polluted thing, bloated like a corpse, exploited in a slow autopsy by eighty million undertakers.
In benighted Luxor we took a ferry across the river to the east bank and climbed stairs up to the corniche that ran along the illuminated pillars of the Temple of Luxor, massive things shaped like papyrus scrolls. There were five of us, I remind the patient Reader: Denniz, Sven, Jean, Amelia, and myself. We circled the Temple and went straight to the Oasis Hotel, recommended by Yashar for its quality and the cheap food served on its rooftop terrace. The Hotel was full, but the manager laid out mattresses in a lobby and I passed right out on mine.
Jean, Amelia, and I had already been in Egypt for our 30 days allotted, and had to extend our visas. I went into a little photo shop to get passport pictures, and came out with several of those and also a very lame chop job of my face surrounded by Egyptian statues and pyramids. Some filter had cleaned my skin of every blemish so that I looked vaguely vampiric.
Immediately, we decided to return to take a group picture. The wall was coated with inspiration: Babies with Angelina Jolie and Beyonce dancing with them, women with their faces silhouetted in the background, glittering like diamonds. Denniz liked the picture of a toddler Photoshopped in front of a war zone, with a milk bottle grenade at his waist, an M16 over his shoulder, and a radioactive symbol on his diaper, but the photographer told us, “No, it is finished.” What we ended up with was nonetheless satisfactory.
The visa extending process took only two hours, thankfully, and that night we went into the Temple of Luxor, lit up by spotlights and the flashes of a thousand cameras. We meandered through the hieroglyphs and cartouches, columns and statues, until we had seen all the rooms, and then walked down the Avenue of Sphinxes, between a hundred of the riddlers. That road once proceeded for two kilometers to the Temple of Karnak, a structure that would fit the Luxor Temple in its annex.
We walked through the monumental contributions of Seti I, Ramses II, the Nubian kings of Egypt, and Alexander the Great, guided by an old man named Yusuf, who wore a woolen sweater under his shirt despite the heat. He told us of Ramses' love for Nefertari, his first wife, and that even though he married 50 wives after Nefertari's tragic death, none of them could replace his greatest romance. “Come to enjoy your eyes, by the miracle of the—earth,” said Yusuf as we entered the Hippostyle.
One hundred and thirty-four columns, ten feet across and spaced as far apart as they were wide, gave the impression of a redwood forest, but the roof, 120 feet up, was an open arbor of stone rafters. The light they let in cast lined shadows on the carvings on the wall, that staggering accumulation of symbols that meant so much to millennia of high priests and god kings. Some still maintained their original colors: deep blues, sanguine reds, golden yellows, and whites like eyes. The desert started at the edge of this hall, dusty palms and a slope of rubble-strewn strand.
I stopped to ruminate and write about it. “What you write?” asked Yusuf. “You talk to Amon Re? What do the gods say to you?”
“It must be annoying to be an American sometimes,” said Denniz, that night in the Sinbad cafe. The Temple of Luxor was just across the street. “Everyone has an opinion, and they must always want to talk about it.”
This did not stop Jean and I from debating it the next day, in the Valley of the Kings. We rented bikes from the hotel and rode them down to the ferry, on benches between men in robes and turbans and women veiled and hooded. Camels stalked the palmy banks, and the sun buried the clouds. We rode up a long highway through green plantations, past the Colossi of Memnon and the Tomb of Hatshepsut, and up a long winding hill to where the Pharaohs were buried.
Of the fifty tombs, most looted since antiquity but still displaying the painted frescoes that accompanied the dead kings into the afterlife, only a handful were open, and our ticket allowed us into a mere three. We chose Tausert and Setnakht, Ramses III, and Ramses IV. The last of these had Coptic graffiti everywhere, names and crosses and kindergarten depictions of saints, and in the final room a strange image on the ceiling with the sky goddess Mut bent over day and night scenes.
The place was empty except for a few Russian tour groups. Those leggy, light-haired women persisted in wearing short shorts and tank tops in spite of the cultural climate. The older they got, the crabbier they were, until they were hissing and clapping at Jean and I for talking near their guide-lecturer. We lunched on bread and Kiri cheese and honey, and began to speak about the United States. I said I admired the well-meaning naïvete and stubborn persistence that drives Americans to bumbling global crusades, though I despised the wars and those pulling the strings of honest people; and Jean had nothing but contempt for the simple, stupid salt of the earth. Our debate ended as many do, in an agreement to disagree.
“Well,” I said to Amelia, “Jean says that Americans are horrible since we live off resources we steal from other countries, and I said Americans are awesome because...”
“You live off resources you steal from other countries?”
Amelia and I had made three hand massage bets after that first one at the Egyptian Museum, and that night we checked the Internet to see who won; I lost all three. We had all developed a deep appreciation, approaching an addiction, for Egypt's rice pudding—rice soaked in sweet condensed milk, sometimes broiled in an oven for a moment to give it a dark sheen. Jean and I made a couple bets with the desert as the prize. As it turned out, the Nile was the world's longest waterway (Jean 1), and the Roman Empire did not use trebuchets (Me 1). The Frenchman was typically ecstatic over the former, shouting, “Fuck you!” at everyone who voted for the Amazon, and scornfully insolent when he lost the latter bet.
“Okay,” he said, “so I don't know all this technical details about when the Middle Ages started, or Byzantine Empire, or whatever, so it's not a real bet. And China had trebuchets in like 500 BC. Come on.”
Denniz and Sven also owed each other a few rice puddings. “Rice pudding is a new currency,” declared Denniz. Sven offered to just give the Dane the money, but Denniz said, “I only accept rice pudding.”
Denniz was mostly bedridden with some cold-flu, and Sven would send the most piteous, disdainful looks northward toward his neighbor. “Stop looking at me that way Sven!” “It's pathetic, really. Unbelievable. Is this how they do things across the border?”
Amelia got word from a friend's little sister, who bore the monicker of Little Budge, that the girl would have a free day in Cairo at the end of her week long tour. Jean was excited to meet the 23-year-old, but Amelia told him, “I think she's out of your age range,” to which the Frenchman obscenely replied, “I put my tongue in younger stuff.” From his bed, Denniz asked, “Are we still talking about rice pudding here?”
And meanwhile Jean began to realize what Conrad called “the shadow of impending separation”—after two months traveling together, we had three more days. Jean wanted to return to Syria, and his visa expired in ten days. He also had to return to Jordan to sell his motorbike, which would never make the return journey through the Anatolian mountains in the frozen grasp of winter, and he did not know how he was getting back to Paris, or when, or even if he would return home before he went to live in Japan in June.
Our train up the Nile to Aswan, near the Sudanese border, left the next evening. We spent the day emerged in koshary and stuffed falafel and a cloud of shisha smoke, and then bid farewell to Denniz, whose overnight service to Cairo left at 11—godspeed, Sea Lake, thou Viking Turk, on your way home and back to the cacophonous road of possible futures that all the young must narrowly walk—and went to the station for our 5 o'clock train, which ended up leaving at 8. Thankfully and eventually we got seats, and Jean and I talked about literature and things while Amelia and Sven listened to the available iPods.
(Denniz had the tragic luck to sit in a nest of a chair on his overnight to Cairo, and woke up with 200 bites all down his back side. He was still finding more even after returning to Denmark on Friday. His story gave us a sleepless night on our own trip back to Cairo. “If I could chose between no sleep or all these bites,” Denniz said, “I'd take no sleep.”)
One man owns all the feluccas in Aswan, which is kith and kin to all the steamboats in St. Louis. He is a good man, the sailors say, but not a happy one. A homosexual, he made his initial fortune as a boy hustler. His fleet of shallow clippers, their triangular sails billowing in the wind, filled the panorama of the Nile in Aswan, sailing upstream and downstream between the town on the Eastern bank, the long narrow islands, and the barren eastern bank, where a few palm trees gave way quickly to steep dunes and rocky desert, marked by the ruins of noble tombs and a monastery, and overlooked the the Dome of Ali, Father of the Wind.
As we walked down the corniche above the rushing river, the owner's touts aggressively proposed felucca voyages and day trips to our band, which must have seemed to them as four great dollar signs. We took the ferry across the waterway to Gaziret Aswan, which the Greeks called Elephantine Island, and walked through the Nubian village there. Nubians are proudly distinct from the Egyptians who have dominated their history. The ancient race of Kush and Meroe dwell in the south, near the Sudanese border, black-skinned, tall and sinewy, with a calm bearing and dormant intellect.
The Nubians painted the mudbrick walls of their dusty town in bright, earthy colors, and decorated them with simplistic art: the silhouettes of birds and beasts. A woman peeked her healthy face out of a doorway and invited us in for tea. Painted murals decorated the small inner court where we waited for our drinks, and the woman showed us her drooling offspring, Mohammed. We wandered up past the luxury hotels that loom above the marshes on the long, skinny islands northern tip, smoked a shisha at the Nubian House overlooking the island where Lord Kitchener planted an English garden, and then our hunger drove us back south to the ferry crossing, back across to the city to find chicken.
Aswan was cheap—my bed was $3, and a full chicken dinner cost but $2. We four shared a room with a desolate bathroom, and a shower that barely worked. “The cold robinet will not turn at all,” said Jean. “We only have hot water, and it's boiling hot. I was trying on it for like half an hour, like hrrrr. It's stuck man.” Sven went in next and turned the tap immediately. “Come on,” said the German, “what are you, a girl? I turned it right away. Are you a pussy or what?”
The town suffered from a prohibition of shisha, as Egypt attempted to stop an outbreak of H1N1 influenza, aka the Swine Flu, which had claimed 44 lives already and infected thousands. Those corkscrew tailed pathogens dwelt in the water bowl and hose and stand of the hookah, and launched themselves squealing at the Orientals. Thus, none of the restaurants could serve them. Old men sat around small tables looking grim and tired of the world, nursing a melancholic boredom in absence of the usual remedy.
Most who travel to Aswan take the tour south to Abu Simbel, the monument of Ramses II and his beloved Nefertari in old Nubia. Because the monuments lie close to the Sudanese border and three hours from Aswan, the tours leave in a convoy, under military escort, at 5 in the morning. Jean, Sven, and I got up at 3 for this voyage and moped about until the cars were loaded and checked for bombs. Most sites along the Upper Nile have been cut and disassembled and moved from their original locations to make way for Lake Nasser, the serpentine body of water formed by the High Dam. The four seated statues of Ramses look across a space of ground to the four smaller figures of Nefertari. They guard caves with painted scenes of fantastic battles, and more mundane collections of food images.
On the return journey we stopped at the (damn) High Dam, then the Island of Philae, to see the Roman Temple of Isis. Our boat pilot was a 16-year-old Nubian, who told me proudly that Obama was also half Nubian, and half-Egyptian. “Oh,” I said. The temple was a half-caste one, mixing Rome and Egypt. The columns bore different styles: palmy, swampy, Corinthian, and papyrus reeds.
At the Unfinished Obelisk, we three refused to pay the entry, but circled around the fence of the site looking for a free vantage point. We passed through a dirty alleyway onto a street and saw a cluster of women in the street. One pretty young woman came up to us and introduced herself as Lugna. “Obelisk?” she asked in her broken English. “Come, this way.” She took us and her brother and friends into a backyard, where we could not see a thing, and then started giving me her phone number and asking me questions.
“I love you, I miss you,” she said. I didn't know what to say, so I called her, “Yimoza,” which means sweetheart in Arabic. At this her brother took on an expression of red rage, and started asking me for money. “Come on, you are American, you are rich.” We excused ourselves, and the brother escorted us down the hill with angry demands.
On our return we found Amelia still in bed, though she assured us that she was only napping. Together the four of us crossed the street to a little sandwich shop for something like lasagna. Jean went off to use the Internet—he left the next morning!—and Sven, Amelia and I got tea and sorely missed shisha. Were we suffering from withdrawals?
Later, Amelia and I walked down to a koshary place for noodles and rice pudding. Jean found us there, as we knew he would. Two months our triumvirate had been married! Our minds were connected, as Ahmad would say. We gifted our companion, on our divorcement, a pencil case and a drawing pad, with allusions to inside jokes written across the first page. He had been drawing in the blank pages of his copy of Robinson Crusoe, pictures of Egyptians and Scarabs and Vespas and Egrets. “For a long time I had my bike to worry about,” he said, “but now I'm kind of bored,” and in his boredom he turned to his old artistic hobby. Beaming with elation and gratitude, subdued with the worried expectation of the lonely road to come, he thanked us, and sent us ahead on the road back to the hotel while he bought us trinkets.
“Should we go to Cairo tomorrow?” asked Amelia, as we strolled up the boisterous Souq. “There's not much to do here. I'd rather be somewhere with—.” She paused, and together, with the same impoverished, half-dreamy tone, we muttered, “Shisha.”
The next sunrise I got up at 6 with Jean and walked down to the station with him. We muttered a few things to each other on the way and tried to buy rice pudding, but the owner asked us for far too much and we left it. My friend the Frenchman boarded the train to Luxor, to pursue his many extravagant dreams, and I turned back into the street alone.