Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Shukran" means "Thank you" - Day Four

Abu Simbel - Temple of Ramesses II
Abu Simbel is in the southernmost part of Egypt, in Nubia

We've set port in Aswan. No more sinus washes for me for the remainder of the trip. I've learned my lesson about Egyptian tap water.

Wake-up is earlier than ever, at 4:30 am. We will be boarding a bus at 5:00 for a three-hour ride through the desert to Abu Simbel, just 20 km from the Sudanese border. Abu Simbel, situated on the shores of Lake Nasser, is one of Egypt's most important archaeological sites - the temples of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great), and the one next door he had built to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. I decide to join the group. My stomach feels much more settled and will probably be fine if Iwatch what I eat and take the medicine the receptionist promised to provide.

The kitchen staff has packed boxed breakfast/lunches for us. Peter bites into a sandwich. M-m-m! Chicken marinated in cumin-infused yoghurt. I hand him my chicken and marinated beef. I'll have to be content with dry bread for a while.

Mohammed points to the Nubian homes and buildings as we pass through Aswan. "See how the roofs are curved, with domes on some of them? That is a very clever construction method which reduces the heat in these buildings considerably." The high predicted for this day, late in October, is 28° C, over 80° F. Because of the intense heat, we have to make this trip so early in the day. Security is an issue, traveling so long through the desert, where there is very little traffic. We have to make a stop at the police station, where an armed policeman joins us for the remainder of the excursion. He and all the people we see for the remainder of our time in Aswan are black. I ask Mohammed if there is a problem with racial discrimination in Egypt.

"Not at all," he says. "In fact, racial discrimination is forbidden in the Koran." That may be true, but the fact is that hundreds of thousands of Nubians were forced to relocate when the Aswan High Dam was built, since their homes would be flooded out. They were haphazardly, randomly moved, with no attempt made to give them homes near their loved ones and former neighbors, or to use Nubian construction methods in building their new homes. Since then, much has been done to correct this.

Most of us sleep all the way to Abu Simbel, then awakened by Mohammed, who wants to tell us about Ramesses and the temples. When it was decided to build the dam and reservoir that is now called "Lake Nasser", it was clear that this temple as well as several others would be flooded. They decided to move both temples, block by block, 65 meters higher and 200 meters further back from their previous locations.

The result is magnificent. One would never guess that a mammoth move had taken place. The temples, facing gigantic Lake Nasser, are impressive. That, says Mohammed, was Ramesses' objective. He wanted to impress the Nubians with his power. We are still impressed, almost three thousand years later, by his massive ego. Ramesses all over the place - in fact, there are four identical Ramesses statues flanking his temple, and more guarding Nefertari's. I decide, after looking at the bas-reliefs inside Nefertari's temple that he loved her because she stood by her man, serving his every need at every opportunity. She was also beautiful. Nefertari means "Beautiful Companion".

For the bus ride back to Aswan, Mohammed decides to play a CD of Egyptian music for us. As soon as the music begins, Peter exclaims, "That's Om Kalthoum!" Mohammed is impressed that one of us should be familiar with her music. We listen to her pour her heart out, song after song. If you give yourself to the music, it touches with its passion and reverence. She's been dead for over twenty years, says Mohammed, but she's still revered by everyone, young and old, in Egypt and surrounding countries. Here is a link so you can get an idea of what we heard on the bus.

After a while, the music is practically inaudible. Someone must have complained. Too foreign. But I like it. I seem to like everything about Egypt. Mohammed wants to know what we think of the music, so I tell him how dignified, how serious it sounds. "That's right. She doesn't sing stupid music," he replies.

By now, he's calling me "Nanzi", which sounds almost like "Nancy" when he says it. I tell him that as a child, I never liked my name, since I was the only Noreen in the whole world. I wished I had another name, something like "Nancy". Everyone laughs.

We return in the middle of the afternoon, but there's already something else on the program - two boat rides! First a motor boat will meet us at the ship and take us to a falouka, where we will sail around Elephantine Island. The driver sells us Nubian jewelry. The prices are great, and the jewelry is so beautiful it's hard to stop buying.

We glide in peaceful, warm afternoon sunlight, watching the herons and egrets on the shore. There are two men manning the sailboat. One of them makes mint tea for us.

Our falouka

We pass the Old Cataract Hotel, the elegant setting for the beginning of Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile". It's now, unbelievably, owned by the Sofitel Corporation and has a French touch. We sail, drifting around Elephantine Island, whose rocks resemble elephants. A young boy paddles up to us, singing as he holds on to the boat. He wants bakshish, but nobody gives one. We've been instructed not to give money to children.

The sun is setting and it's quickly growing chilly. We sip a second cup of tea as we listen to the voices of various men calling to worship in the surrounding mosques. I ask Mohammed if the voices are recorded or live. They sing live. And they all inspire. My soul and body open to receive the divine healing these prayers remind me of, as they have soaked in the dry heat of the day. My sinuses and lungs need this so much! Aswan is a popular "spa" location. Aga Khan III often came here to recuperate because the dry, hot air was so good for him. We pass the mausoleum where he is buried. His Swiss wife, Begum, is also buried here. The villa is often frequented by members of their family. By the time we return to our ship, it is already dark. The sun sets quickly in Africa.

A falouka passes one of the mosques on the shores of the Nile in Aswan. Aswan is, to me, the most beautiful city on the Nile. It's a popular holiday site, and new buildings are always going up.

There is still more on the program for the day - belly dancing in the evening. It's our last evening on the ship. Claudia has become our best shopper, and she's discovered that the best prices of all are to be had on the boat. I decide to do a bit of shopping after dinner, and we'll see about the belly dancing. Besides, I'm not that sure I want to see a belly dancer. The ones I've seen in Germany border on lewdness, in my opinion. Peter couldn't agree more. He has wholeheartedly decided to spend the evening reading. I ask Mohammed what he thinks of belly dancing. Will he attend? Probably not - he's tired. He says, "Good belly dancing is not lewd. It doesn't provoke. And a well-bred Egyptian woman would never do belly dancing professionally. She would only dance for weddings and family parties. But almost every Egyptian is a fantastic dancer."

I don't eat much for dinner, trying to keep from getting sick again. I rush off to the shop, where the shop owner, greets me. He has purchased a book I ordered - an Egyptian cookbook in English. These Egyptians are master salespeople! He tries to sell me jewelry. I wonder how he can discern the quality of the gold he sells - his right eye is clouded by a cataract. What a nice guy he is! We chat, and he sells, and sells. He tells me he met Roger Moore while working on another boat. I leave the shop with gold jewelry, an inlaid box, a cookbook, more jewelry, and presents from him. One of them, an onkh necklace, I will pass on to Peter.

By the time I get down to the lounge for the belly dancing, the dancer's leaving, but the evening isn't over. There's a young guy dressed in brightly colored skirts! I see Mohammed, but he's just passing through. Did he watch the belly dancer after all?

There is only a handful of people in the lounge. Disgraceful! There are only a few people anyway on board - we fifteen and another party of six. Egypt desperately needs tourists! They all got scared away after the January revolution.

I join Claudia, Burkhard, and Gottfried, a sweet elderly gentleman who is traveling for, who knows, perhaps the last time, he says. A keyboard player plays an exotic melody as two men beat acoustic rhythm instruments. The boy twirls around and his skirts fly at a 90° angle to the ground. He seems in a world of his own. I later learn that I have seen El Tanoura dancing. Here is a link so you can see what I am talking about.

The dancer leaves, as do almost all the remaining guests. I am left there with a full glass of wine and no dancers. Burkhard asks one of the waiters if he has any music by Mohamed Mounir. Yes, he has. He walks over to a laptop and checks the playlist. The music is quiet - not the kind of music he has in mind. Burkhard has heard Mounir sing in Germany. He's great! Here's a link.

The waiter plays another piece and beckons to Burkhard and Claudia to dance. "I can't," protests Claudia. "I have a stomach ache." Oh, no! Not another one sick. But no, it's not that. She simply doesn't feel well. Burkhard walks up alone to the dance floor, even though, he says, his sport shoes aren't suited for dancing. Two of the waiters join him. Three men dancing together! They sway their hips, twirl their arms in time to the music. Mohammed is right. They're good! One of them walks up to me, takes my hand, leading me to the stage. I join them. Now they're really excited. They laugh, smile broadly, snapping their fingers, clapping, even shimmying to each other. One of them, the best dancer, tries to get me to shimmy. I try to, remembering that I never could get the hang of it. Besides, isn't this erotic?

He teaches Burkhard to jerk his hips in a more pronounced manner. Is this erotic? I don't know, but it looks good, and the waiter and Burkhard are both pleased. I grab my scarf and a waiter ties it around my hips. By now, two more men have joined us. At one point, I am dancing with Burkhard and four waiters, and we are all in a place of pure joy.

It's a shame that I have to confess shame at erotic feelings, but I do. I am an uptight ex-Baptist, still a fervent Christian pilgrim on the search for more of God. I think I've found God's joy here. There is nothing indecent in what we are doing. It is pure, wholesome, healthy, and entirely enjoyable. Even the shopkeeper joins us for a few minutes. We are all one, the waiters, Burkhard, Claudia at her table, and I. These waiters have taught me something profound. I am beginning to learn that enjoying my body and movement without shame is a holy thing. We dance until we are too exhausted to continue. For the second night in a row, my heart swells in deep gratitude to these Egyptian men, who are giving parts of myself I had lost, back to me.


Unknown said...

Well done, well written and a good combination of facts and personal touches

Unknown said...

Well done, well written and a good combination of facts and personal touches

Unknown said...

Great story! Egypt sounds like a wonderful, exotic, and friendly place. You've made me more curious about it. I like the fact that you were so open to new experiences.