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A trading guide to Nile life

Tipped off as being pickpockets and persistent vendors, the locals of Upper Egypt are diverse and temperate, but you need to communicate on their level to appreciate that they are only trading in ancient and unsophisticated methods.

Picture by Malcolm Horner

The Nile cruise between Luxor and Aswan was a journey of cultural discovery, not just in ancient history but also in humankind. Along the banks of the Nile, arid earth stretches to the great desert of North Africa and to the Red sea. Palm trees spring where the water reaches and brown turns into green only a few kilometres nearby where the water is free to penetrate. Colonies of farmers living in mud houses work the agricultural land and are served by animals that can survive the harshness of the land. The heated silence of the neighbourhood is broken by the soothing sounds of lunchtime prayers echoing from the occasional minarets. Although looking primitively rural, the area is rich with ancient Egyptian treasure that will pound your heart with pulses of admiration and disbelief.

In the major towns, trade is the feature of survival. Everyday, as the morning breaks, young enthusiastic shopkeepers start pulling their stock out on the street. They are on the lookout for tourists who have just landed from their Cairo connecting flight and are awaiting check-ins at cruise ships or recently built fancy hotels. Outside the shops are bags of spices and dried flowers of medicinal value. Inside are rows of alabaster figurines, pyramids and stacks of silk scarves and other fine cotton clothes. None of the items carry a price tag as prices are negotiated in British Pounds, Euros, US Dollars and Egyptian currency depending on the market value of the day. Known for their annoying perseverance to sell, and items frequently changing value, some shops are starting to display “here no hassle” signs in order to be more inviting.

In a small group we walked by discovering the streets, we were greeted with different languages matched to our complexion: “Hello”, “bonjour”, “bonjourno”…  Any nod or a shrug was clearly going to start a conversation.  As we felt more relaxed to mingle, we became part of the cultural manifesto and prices started to drop as I uttered a few words in Arabic. But showing no intentions to buy, the focus then became on the next passers by with a rebound rise in items value.

Much smaller than Khan el-Khalili of Cairo, are the souks of Luxor and Aswan. Stretches of side-by-side sheds are mostly run by young men who have just returned from their army duty. Without high education, they learn from their elders the tricks of the trade. Colourful displays of papyrus prints, and aromas of spices and essences paint the atmosphere. Copper is imprinted with artistic drawings and religious scripts to the beat of Arabic music.

Young children wonder around picking up on the different spoken accents as they imitate sounds and register information. They learn to communicate on a primitively personal level.

While on land, the merchants sat around waiting for the strolling tourists; on the Nile they created miniature mobile markets. Relaxing on deck as the sun tried to set in the hazy horizon, I get woken up by a noisy kafuffle on approach to Edfu dam. All of a sudden, dozens of cruise ships congest the canal as they made their way through the bottleneck. Before I could make the next blink, a spectacle emerged of desperate merchants struggling to make a sale. Factions of feluccas approached the ships, each with a handful of rowers and throwers. Breaking the routine of sleep, sunbaking and site seeing, everybody got excited by this boat-to-boat bargaining.

Picture by Malcolm Horner

As the feluccas got closer to the cruise ships, the tourist police kept them at a distance. Young vendors started throwing their goods onboard and negotiating prices through yelling words from different languages coupled with hand gestures and stressed with facial expressions. Once the price was agreed on, but more impressed by the spectacle, buyers replaced the commodities with cash in a game that looked more like international volleyball. 

Back on land at the next stop, I again attempt a badly broken Egyptian dialect. My crack at communicating made me warmly welcomed by the locals. Smiles stretched on their sun beaten faces, strong handshakes and an invitation to their private homes followed. Like the rest of the people of the world, young ones want to know of the latest celebrity scandals, others wanted to discuss politics.

As the acquaintance added on, tea was offered and a self-guided tour of the area became on the house. Prices dropped further and top quality merchandise was uncovered. As the friendship flourished, gifts were offered and mobile numbers exchanged to help with any needed tourist information. Although many of us were still wary of pickpockets and deceiving locals, this motion was nothing but genuine Arabic hospitality that remained alive in rural settings.

Picture by Malcolm Horner

The children were as a lovable and innocent, but sadly disadvantaged. They roamed the streets pressured to make a sale. As I wondered why they are not at school, speaking to them in their own simple language gained me their hearts. When I asked about his age, a little boy trying to sell papyrus bookmarks squeezed them under his arm to free both hands and extended six fingers. He then attempted to iron the creases with his hand, a gesture enough to make me want to buy them all. A group of school kids became keen to offer their guidance, grabbed my hand and showed me how to get to the place where I can buy an English newspaper. This was in return for a minute of kicking a football around with them and watch them laugh and wrestle in joyful play.

As tourism becomes restricted to guided tours, stern security and hotel comforts, many may be missing out on the added cultural value of the people, their kindness and human nature. News normally covers the bad, brutal and acts of anger and frustration, but goodness is hardly a headline. So before you become overwhelmed by Cairo’s charisma with it’s million busy bees, get a feel for the real Egypt down south. It is sizzley and sluggish, but culturally enriching.

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