When I flew into Aswan, a sun-drenched Nubian city on the island-dotted Nile, I knew I had to get away from my tour group. I was used to being a woman alone, choosing my own itinerary. But we immediately changed planes to go to Abu Simbel.
At the impressive and intimidating temples, I slipped away to commune with ancient Nubia, in solitude. These temples were built by Ramses II to notify anyone attempting to invade Egypt from the south, that they had better be prepared to take on a powerful, well-organized society. That and the fierce Nubian warriors at Aswan seemed to do the trick for a few thousand years.
Back at Aswan there was no escape as we were herded aboard buses complete with armed security escorts taking us to see the infamous Aswan Dam. Damn all dams to perdition. I am generally not fond of dams and I was especially biased against Nasser’s monument to his ego.
Nubia, which had never known rain, now has even summer rains due to Lake Nasser, hundreds of miles long. The Egyptians, who love to eat, complained endlessly that their fruits and vegetables no longer had any flavor since artificial fertilizers have replaced the annual replenishing of soil by the inundations of the Blue Nile. The dam destroyed or forced the relocation of ancient temple sites, not to mention whole Nubian towns and villages.
“Lake Nasser can supply all of Egypt with electricity for eight years even if there is no rainfall,” our guide told us. I pouted. He went on to say how many Egyptians had been killed building it. I said that was because the great workers’ experiment, the USSR, that had built the dam, ironically didn’t give a damn about worker safety, only deadlines. I DEFINITELY needed to leave the group. It was my first time with such an organized tour group and I was not at all happy.
Our buses finally disgorged us at our riverboat where we were to start a leisurely cruise down the Nile in a day or so. We had 45 minutes to settle into our cabins before we were taken to visit a papyrus factory. No way, I decided. I had no interest in papyrus, but I was out of money and needed a bank with an ATM. I really wanted to ride a Nubian taxi – flimsy vehicle with men, gelibayas flowing in the wind, clinging to the outside when the seats were full. Nothing doing, my guide said. There was a law against tourists riding them, so he summoned a “tourist taxi” for me. I ungraciously yielded.
Once dropped off, free at last and with money in my pockets, I set off on a jaunt down Aswan’s beautiful esplanade. It was Bayyam, a Muslim holiday celebrating Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb instead of his son. Muslims consider themselves descendants of Hagar and her son Ishmael by Abraham, who had to wander in the desert.
Muslims kill a lamb and give one third of the meat to the poor, and another third to extended family. There were grinning women everywhere carrying buckets of meat home. A lot of Nubians are poor since their enforced relocation. On Bayyam, kids get new clothes and toys. It was the equivalent of Christmas or Easter in Egypt. People were having picnics, crowding the restaurants and outdoor cafes, strolling around in their new finery.
I stopped at an internet café to drop a line home. I wasn’t hungry because we had been relentlessly fed, but I bought street treats because it was my choice. I quickly attracted an entourage of little boys. My broken Arabic phrase book caused them great amusement as we chatted. The Nile flowed sweetly by. Egyptians smiled and greeted me until one of the boys asked for money. He had a video game in his pocket and was well dressed. Before I could say no, a man who overheard the boy, stepped up. He berated the boy and then checked with me to be sure the children weren’t bothering me. He asked me to not give them any money. I assured him I would not. The boy, abashed, apologized but immediately cheered up and continued chatting as the children and I strolled on.
I am fond of Nubians. They are high-spirited and proud. They like joking around. All Egyptians do, but none more than the Nubians. I concluded that the Egyptian mirth flowed south from Nubia, like the Nile itself. The boy had been chided to remember his pride and even when I bought some Bayyam sweets to hand out to the kids, he refused it with a big smile. Before long I realized my parole had run out. I had promised our guide I’d be back at a certain time. I wasn’t sure how far I was from our boat. I wanted him to feel secure about future escapes I was planning.
There were numerous “calashes” – horse or mule drawn buggies – along the esplanade. I chose one with a healthy looking mule (Missouri mules are a popular import there) and struck a bargain with the driver. The boys and I waved good-bye; I trotted back to join the group exactly on time. I was in a much better humor. Besides, our guide had arranged a sunset sail on an Egyptian felucca below the Aswan Dam. Not everything on a tour is bad – some of it is dam good.