At The Beginning Of The Sahara

We push out from the shores of Aswan, the Nile’s waters foaming at the sides of the felucca. A light spray from the ancient river mixes with our sweat, giving us a welcome respite from the relentless heat. The noise from the maddening crowds on the jetty gradually fades as our Nubian captain grips the tiller and guides us confidently out into the silent current. The surface of the river is rippled by a gentle wind. There seems as if a thousand polished diamonds have suddenly bobbed to the surface from some deep, underwater spring.  The words from Carver’s Near Klamath drift into my mind:

And now we stamp our feet 
on the snow and rocks and move upstream,
slowly, full of love, towards the still pools.

Although it is hardly near zero temperatures, that line ‘slowly, full of love, towards the still pools’, evokes something near to how I feel about the Nile and Egypt and this moment.  It is a reminder that we are never far from the constant rush, the endless honking horns, the drone of everyday life. But that is suspended here. The Nile has a way of cutting us off from the world. It is a moment of fragile contentment, but nevertheless, contentment it is. The engineless felucca brings us spiralling back down to the realisation of something precious that we have lost.

The joy of falling in love with a place.

The noise of the city is replaced by other sounds: the flap of the sail as the wind catches it, the slap of small waves against the wooden hull, the squeak from the unoiled rudder as the tiller rocks back and forth to steady us, the soft chatter of my fellow passengers, the distant wails from the merchants plying for trade from their rowboats, the snippets of songs from the workers cutting grass with long-handled scythes in the fields, or the hypnotic muezzin calling the faithful to prayers from the multitude of minarets that rise abruptly from the mosques that scratch the endless blue sky.

As we slowly move deeper into the rippling mid-stream, a sudden wind comes up and takes hold of us. Our captain, dressed in an immaculately white linen tunic which emphasises his African skin burnt even darker by years of sitting out here under the harsh climate of the river, knows the precise moment when to manipulate the boom so the sail moves into the exact position behind the wind. We skim across the water as if a great hand pushes us along. I glance up at the sail. It has been patched over and over, hand-stitched in places with mismatched material, yet it collects the wind and no one cannot help but marvel at the power with which we are transported. We move on upstream (towards some unseen ‘silent pools’?).  The felucca’s hull takes about twenty of us, all sitting on slat benches bolted to the sides. There is a wide, empty space in the middle, for which reason I soon discover. After a little while, our host opens a small trapdoor under the helm, takes out a bag, and with expert precision lays out a colourful blanket on which he places beaded necklaces, anklets, bracelets, earrings, rings and other jewellery. Without saying a thing, he retreats back to the safety of his tiller, where he squats, takes out a packet of cigarettes, lights one up, and waits quietly. He sits like a handsome statue, a Nubian Othello, never staring directly at any of us, cigarette smoke blowing from his nostrils and from small gaps made at either ends of his mouth.

As some of us take an interest in the goods, I shade my eyes, lean back and look behind us. A fleet of feluccas follow in our wake, their sharp-tipped sails like up-turned quills.  Some lean over with a sudden rogue head-wind. Aswan is now left behind in that smoky, moist-like haze that I’ve noticed smothers the Nile at this time of the afternoon. We pass smaller settlements, open fields, plantations of barley and wheat, orchards of pomegranates. Everywhere there are clusters of magnificent date palms.  Square, clay buildings, their facades painted blue or yellow, dot the shoreline. Domed structures, the windows and doors symmetrically lined up with one another, sit next to blocks of modern apartment buildings. Donkeys languish in the shades of trees. On the shore I catch sight of a woman dressed in a vermillion outfit, her headscarf obscures her face. She reaches out a naked foot and dips her toes into the water’s edge. Another crouches nearby, ankle-deep in the gentle, rolling waves being made by our passing. Her tin washing tub, balanced between two boulders, catches the sunlight. She bashes twisted ropes of laundry against a rock and never looks up. Two barefooted children behind her, however, gesture wildly at the feluccas.  Their heads are uncovered and their thick, dark locks wave with the excitement.

Unexpectedly, our navigator produces a skin drum and, holding it close to his heart, bursts into song. If one puts aside the fact that perhaps he does this as routine for the benefit of the tourists on a daily basis, then you can easily be transported by the beautiful, melodious tune that echoes around the open felucca, keeping the beat going with his thumb that bangs the drum. Does he sing, perhaps, for his wife and children, who he rarely sees because he spends months chartering westerners up and down the river? Or does he sing for his country that has seen (and will see, several months after our visit, the Arab Spring that starts with the collapse of the Mubarak regime) constant political turmoil? It doesn’t matter. We are all transfixed by his deep and hypnotic tone.  For a while the Nile fades and we are caught within his story, a story which touches us all, makes us think of our own lives, our own losses, our own tribulations. For a moment then the felucca becomes a great upturned sea-shell that we press to our lives to hear the histories of ourselves blended intimately with those of Egypt.

But the spell, like all spells, is soon broken. We bump against a set of stone stairs that appear out of the river as if they lead from a lost Atlantis. Suddenly there is once again a hive of activity. Hoards of feluccas flood to the landing like platelets to an open wound. A plank is put across to the stairs and we are invited to depart.

We’ve reached Aswan’s Botanical Gardens, located on Kitchener’s Island. The island’s namesake, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, was given this oval-shaped drop of paradise located in the middle of the Nile as a thanks for his contribution to the Sudan Campaign of 1896 – 98. His is the image on the recruiting posters for World War I, copied and parodied many times over since. A finger menacingly points out from the elaborately moustachioed, poker-faced Field Marshal, with the slogan ’[Lord Kitchener] Wants You’ (or later simply ‘We Want You’), an image that caused thousands of young men across Britain (and later America) to mob army recruiting offices (would that have the same effect in the twenty-first century?). He was doing well to win us the war when, in 1916, his boat the HMS Hampshire, on the way to Russia, hit a storm and struck a mine planted by a German U-Boat.  Survivors all summed up in one word the demeanour of Kitchener as the boat sank beneath the icy waves, taking him with it: stoic.

Luckily for us, by then he had already done the hard work of laying out the Aswan gardens and had imported many exotic trees and plants. To get to the actual gardens, however, is not that simple and reflects Egypt’s complex and multifarious society. You need to walk the Green Mile of hawkers and stallholders, which, as you may realise, is never an easy task in these lands. It is to our advantage that the fleets of feluccas release masses of tourists at any one time. We shunt along with the push of the crowds, doing our best to avoid being plucked, picked and poked at by the frenzied vendors dressed in their long, ashen-grey or white tunics and open-toed sandals, some donning the traditional fez. We pass tables laid out with fake Abercrombie and Everlast t-shirts, fake Red Door and Jessica Simpson perfumes and Calvin Klein aftershaves in boxes with photocopied labels, cheap Egyptian tunics, the material as thin as rice paper, hand-whittled elephants with their curled trunks raised, the tusks like slices of quarter moons against the deep colour of the wood-stain.

We fight to reach the top of winding stairs, where thankfully the crowd thins, and the gardens start.  Suddenly, you could be in any traditional English country garden in Somerset or Dorset. Red-bricked paths stretch out in all directions in symmetrical grids. You’d expect a welcoming sign, but the first sign we encounter is a large red X super-imposed over a picture of a figure aiming a rifle at a bird in flight. There is strangely no English on the sign, only Arabic. But a picture, as the saying goes, paints a thousand words.

We wander the pathways for a while, enjoying the cool of the trees and many palms, dodging the photo opportunists and the many Egyptian school groups, encountering the over-supplied kiosks and Coca-Cola vending machines, until I grow impatient. It is not really the gardens, I admit now, that have come here to admire. What I wish to see is on the far side of the island. I move eagerly amidst the meandering crowds, down a long path anchored by mature succulents until I reach a lookout point.  I stand on the edge. Below us swirls the hungry Nile, gnawing away at the island, a little bit with each year’s passing, the precious debris being carried away and swallowed up in its unforgiving appetite. Across the thin stretch of water is a scene only dreamt of: the beginning of the Sahara. On the far bank, tamarisk, acacia and cypresses grow wild from the silt in the fertile edges. Behind these, the colossal sand dune rises up, like a natural pyramid. It is towards evening now, and the sky is burnt to a crimson hue. There are no clouds, and the earlier brilliant blue is being slowly scrubbed away.

I spot an encampment on a level piece of ground near the river. Turbaned men mix in with camels, loading them with supplies.  A few have already broken away from the group and have started to make their way up the sharp incline, their weak shadows casting long and thin arrows. They leave a trail of ethereal footprints, which will soon be smoothed over by the shifting sands. They each disappear over the top, one by one. On the other side of that sand dune is the unimaginable immenseness of desert, stretching all the way to the Atlas Mountains, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean.  I stand for a long time, until the sun drops lower and the shadows deepen, watching as the rest of the group hitch the camels and quickly follow their colleagues, scared almost of being left behind to deal with the aching loneliness that would easily drive one mad after dark.

Then, when they are gone, lost in the darkness that swallows them up, there is nothing left but to stand, full of love, imagining the still pools—the oases—beyond those slopes, and willing myself to move towards them.

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