Travelmag Banner

Different dramas on Egypt’s Nile

My fingers lightly run over the hemp necklace on my neck.  Standing on the concrete bank of the Nile I look out over the tall reeds to the dark flowing water.  Egypt is the Nile.  Almost every Egyptian lives, works, marries, and raises children along the Nile.  The Nile is life, and beyond it is the open desert sand.  I don’t care who you are or how much you’ve traveled, the Nile impresses you if, for no other reason, everyone had a week on Egypt in school and at the time it seemed a million miles away.  Egypt is a place in a book; it’s a place you’ll never go.
 I stroll along the bank of the river and look out to the slow moving water; it looks like the Mississippi.  My mind moves to a map of the world and my finger points to Tempe, Arizona.  “Normally, I live here,” I think to myself.  Then my hand slides over to the middle of Egypt.  “But now I am here, and it is very far away.”
 An Egyptian man comes along side me.  “You want a boat ride on the Nile?”
“Well now,” I think, looking out over the water, “that’s not a bad idea, maybe I’ll do that later today.”
“No,” I reply with a nod, “but maybe later.”  The man gives chase.
 “Only $20, very cheap.  Take a ride.  Everyone loves the Nile,” he says with a forced smile on his voice.
 “No thanks,” I reply and walk faster.  He picks up the pace and follows.
 “Okay, okay, my friend, $15.  My boat is right here.”
 “No.”  I turn my head down and lean forward into my stride.  He follows and keeps talking…and talking, and talking, and talking…
 “Buy, buy, buy.”
After walking with me for 150 yards I pass an imaginary line; a demarcation line that marks the province of the next boat owner.  Like clockwork the first boat owner rolls off and the next boat owner picks me up.  “Buy, buy, buy.”  150 yards later he rolls off and a new starts.  “Buy, buy, buy.”  For two miles I’m followed and hounded without pause and without mercy.  Saying no doesn’t matter.  Being polite doesn’t matter.  Being rude doesn’t matter.  They’ve heard it all before.
“You want to ride a boat, only $20.  Very cheap.  Everyone in Egypt has a boat ride!”
In an effort to ditch the 12th boat owner I turn into a public restroom.  And there, at the urinal, it continues, “Why don’t you want a boat ride, only $15 my friend.”
“I’m peeing…”
“When you are done peeing perhaps.”
I leave the bathroom and turn into a restaurant to hide and eat.  45 minutes later when I leave the restaurant the same guy is waiting for me, “Buy a boat ride, mine is the best boat in all of Egypt.”
 “I don’t understand you.  I don’t understand why, after I say I don’t want a ride, you keep following me?  I will never buy a boat ride from you, even if I want a boat ride.  I won’t buy it from you.  So, how can I make you go away?”  There’s a pause.
 “Okay, $10.  My best offer…”
“Ahhhh!” I yell.  “I don’t understand!  I don’t understand why you won’t leave me alone!  Why after an hour of walking, I haven’t been given a minute’s fucking peace!”
“I can’t go lower than $10.”
I walk off and he follows, hounding me.  I mutter to myself in a fury as I walk… Dear great demagogue George Bush, why oh why don’t you bomb the hell out of Egypt?  Bomb Egypt!  Please, bomb Egypt now!  Take me with them, but for the love of God, bomb Egypt!  Lord knows we’ve bombed for less!
In a snap I stop, turn to the man, and point to an island in the middle of the river.  “That island,” I ask.  “Are there Egyptians on that island?”
He pauses, surprised that I spoke.  Slowly, he looks out to the island and then gives a serious frown.  “You don’t want to go to that island, that’s where the Nubians live.”
I’d heard about Nubians in my African Art class.  Egyptians are sort of Arabic looking.  They identify themselves as being from Egypt.  They are the people of the pharaohs.  Nubians are black and are what you would traditionally think of as African.  They live in southern Egypt and Northern Sudan but don’t call themselves Egyptians or Sudanese.  They’re Nubian.
 “How much to go to the Nubian island?”
 The Egyptian gives me a strange look and waves off my suggestion.  “Why do you want to go there?” he asks.  “It’s not safe.  Take my boat, cruise the Nile.  I’ll bring you back safe with no problems.”
 “I’ll give you $10 to take me to the Nubian island.”
 “No,” he replies firmly.  And then he puts on a, “this is for your own safety” kind of voice and leans into me.  “You don’t want to go there.  That place is dirty, the people are poor. They’re all thieves.  They live like pigs and they have so many children no one knows who their parents are.”
 A knowing smile widens on my face.  Racism.  Racism I understand.  So I play along with wide eyes.  “I think I know these people.  They are dirty.  And they do have too many children and they do steal.  I also heard from another man they work for too little money and take jobs away from Egyptians.”
 “Yes, yes,” he replies enthusiastically, “So, you understand.”
 “Yes, of course I understand.  Where I live in America, we have the same people.”
 “You have Nubians in America?”
 “Yes, there are Nubians everywhere.  In Germany they’re called Turks.  In China they’re called North Koreans.  In Romania they’re called Gypsies.  And in America they’re called Mexicans.”
 The Egyptian looks at me, confused.
 “The same phrases are used for all of them, my friend” I say as I pat him on the shoulder in a knowing way that makes him nervous, “because racism has a very small vocabulary.”  He gives a confused smile as I turn down a concrete walkway to the public waterbus.
 At the bottom of the walkway is a flatboat with an outboard motor.  A sign on the boat says “Waterbus:  Route #7.”  Twenty people sit in the boat with groceries and children waiting for the boat to leave.  The waterbus driver has sort of a dirty government issued outfit on akin to the blue clothes you’d see at the post office.
 “Does this waterbus go to the Nubian island?” I ask.
 A strange look from the driver.  “Yes.  25 cents.”
 “25 cents?”
 “Yes,” he replies, more sure than before, “25 cents.”
I hop in the boat.  It slowly pulls away from the dock and I sigh.  The muscles in my chest relax, just a bit.  I’m riding on the Nile.  A map of the world as my finger points to the map.  “I should be here, in Phoenix, but I am here, in Egypt, and it is very far away.  We talked about the Nile in school, and now I’m riding on the Nile.”
The smell of leaking gas fumes rise from the small outboard motor.  “Third stop, Nubian island.”  I hand the driver 25 cents and start to walk off the boat.  He stops me with a thick hand across my chest.  “25 dollars, not cents.”  I glance back at the rest of the boat to see if anyone’s going to speak up on my behalf.  A young woman who looks educated enough to know English gives a nervous smile and turns to the water.
“You said 25 cents.”  I say.
“I said 25 dollars.  Okay, 20 dollars,” he replies. The anger rushes to my body and flows deep to my clenched fists like sledge hammers waiting to be swung.
“I’m not paying you 20 dollars for a 10 minute boat ride on a public boat.  How much did that lady pay?” I ask, nodding to the young woman.
The boat driver pushes closer to me.  “You will pay.”
“Do it,” I think, “push me a bit more.  I’m ready to kill.  I’m ready to die.  I’m ready to spend my remaining days in an Egyptian jail just for the brief glorious moment of channeling a thousand years of rage out of my body.  It will be beautiful.”
“10 dollars,” he says.
“I’m here.” I answer, jumping up and down on the chipped wooden planks of the boat.  “What are you going to do, take me back to where we started?  I’ll give you a dollar, and if you don’t want it, you can take me back right now.”
The man thinks for a moment, “Okay.”
I reach into my pocket for a wade of tattered money.  No small change.  All I have is the equivalent of $10.  I show the man the money.  “Do you have change?”
“Of course,” he replies, as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of bills.  I hand him the bill.  He adds it to his wad and puts it into his pocket.
 “My change?”
“No change.”  The man says as he jumps into the boat and starts the motor.
The thought occurs to me, it actually occurs to me, to run into the water, to climb into the boat, and to kill him.  No kidding, it actually occurs to me.  And then in the distant recess of my mind a phrase comes to me, the same phrase I’ve used for years to keep myself from killing locals.  “You’ll leave here and go back to America and he has to stay.  This is his life, and it’s worse than anything you could ever do to him.  He has to live here and you get to go home.”
That makes me feel a little better, but not much.  I walk down a red sandy path muttering to myself.  Fucking Egyptians.  I fucking hate fucking Egyptians.  Stupid, small, little people.  A whole country of people that make their living showing you things that they don’t know how to make, aren’t rich enough to maintain, and weren’t smart enough to find.
It’s like if in 2000 years a British guy comes to America and digs up a 1968 Ford Mustang.  Then the people who live in America put it on display and charge other people to see it, even though they don’t know to make it anymore, they don’t have the money to maintain it, and they didn’t find it.  That’s Egypt, a country of people who make their living showing other people stuff they are now too stupid to make.
“Snap out of it,” I say to myself.
I stop, take a deep breath, and scan my surroundings.  I’m standing on a narrow path, maybe a yard wide.  The houses around me are made of painted mud with tin roofs.  Crude wood that looks like it’s been stripped off a fence has been nailed together, precariously attached to each mud frame, and used as a door.  The houses have side yards that are separated by thorny hedges planted in rows like a fence.  Chickens wander in a yard and peck at the dirt.  Barely clothed dark skinned children chase each other and the chickens.  Smoldering trash burns in a pile and fills my nose with happiness as if it were the smell of fresh brownies in the kitchen.
I smile and take in a deep breath.  I am Turkish.  I am a Gypsy.  I am Mexican.  Everyplace else I’m just pretending.  Here is where I feel at home.
My inner Buddha peace is broken by the sound of one hand clapping.  Not metaphorically, but actually.  Just off the walkway is an elderly Nubian man who sits on the concrete step of his mud house and claps one hand closed to get my attention and call me over.  I oblige.
“Arabic,” he says in Arabic.
“No,” I reply in English.
I count out the languages I half-speak on my fingers.  “English, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish.”
He shakes his head no and counts on his fingers.  “Nubian, Arabic, Francis.”  We smile at each other in the realization that our languages don’t overlap.  He gestures for me to sit down so I do.
Some things you don’t need language for.  Names, family members, occupation, things like that; we talk about those things.  I point to the mainland and pantomime the pushiness of the Egyptian vendors.  I hold out my hands like I’m pushing a product on someone and repeat, “Buy, buy, buy.”  He laughs and nods his head in agreement.
About this time his Nubian wife comes out of the house.  There are heavy lines of age on her black face.  She looks at us and says something to her husband.  He says something back and gives a warm smile.  She smiles as well, responds, and goes back into the house.  In my mind the conversation went something like this,
“Who’s this?”
“I don’t know, he just showed up.”
“Are you going to do the chores?”
“Yeah, I’ll get to it.  But bring us some tea off the stove.”
“Okay, but don’t sit too long, you know we have company coming over in a few hours.”
A few moments later the woman reemerges with two cups of tea, hands one to each of us, and heads back into the house shaking her head.  The elderly man and I smile at each other and look across to the chickens in the neighbor’s yard.  And we sit, not really saying a word, not needing to, just drinking our tea.
After 20 minutes the elderly man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.  He takes one out, puts it in his mouth, and lights it.  He hands me a cigarette.  I don’t smoke, I’ve never smoked, but I know in other countries, particularly in poor countries, everyone smokes.  I also know it’s the social thing to do, so I take the cigarette and smoke it the best I can.
 And so we sit silently, smoking our cigarettes and watching the chickens scratch at the dirt.  And the last of the anger flows out of me like rain.
 As I near the end of the cigarette a teenage Nubian boy, dressed in second hand American clothes, walks up.  He is taken aback when he sees me and says something to the elderly man.  The elderly man responds and the boy turns to me.
 “I’m going to help my friend move a washing machine to his new house, would you like to come and help?”
 “You speak English?”
 “Yes, a little.  A Japanese man stayed with my family for six months and he spoke to me in English.”
 I turn to the elderly man and raise my eyebrows as if to say, “What do you think, is it okay to go?”  He smiles and nods his head in agreement.
 I put my hands on my knees and push myself up.  I turn to the elderly man, take off my hemp necklace, and hand it to him.  “Please tell him my girlfriend gave me this necklace, and she said I should give it to the first nice person I met.  I want him to have it.”
 The boy repeats the words to the elderly man, who takes the necklace with both hands, and nods his head in thanks.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines