Egypt is perhaps best known for the Nile River and the country’s ancient temples and tombs, places like the Valley of the Kings in Luxor and, of course, the Pyramids of Giza. The Pyramids were a must for me, as was a short cruise along the Nile. I spent two days on the river from Luxor to Aswan. It was touristy, yes–think “galabeya night” in the lounge complete with games on the dance floor led by a German tour guide. Still, for me there was something special about being on that river–a source of life with a rich history–and passing farms and villages along the way.
Beyond those tourist draws, though, are people living regular lives. Like many travelers these days, that is often what I am most pulled to in my wanderings. Some of the best days in my travels are the ones where I do little other than to live someplace very different from where I come. I walk the streets and observe everyday life, interacting with people with bits or more of conversation or smiles. Fortunately, I got glimpses of “regular life” in all of the places I visited in Egypt, even the most touristed spots. These are some of those moments:
A Festival in Cairo
I arrived early for a Sufi dance performance at Wekalet El Ghouri in Cairo and took the time to explore the packed alleys of Islamic Cairo. “Walk like an Egyptian,” I heard a man say next to me more than once. I got the joke but pretended not to hear. Eventually he was beside me, though, and soon we were speaking in French. His name was Erek. He said he lived in France but had an Egyptian father and spent time on holiday every year in Egypt. He told me there was a street festival that night, and he could take me to it after the Sufi dance performance. There would be Sufi dancers at the festival, too, he said–not performers but just regular people experiencing the music.
We met up after the dance performance. He sat with me as I ate a dinner of chicken, beans, rice and salad at a tiny restaurant in which we shared a tiny table with a couple and their young daughter. After dinner, we walked to the festival. Along the way, Erek warned me relentlessly about keeping my bag closed and hiding my camera before we got to the festival, insisting there were people who came there just to steal from people. Erek liked to be the protector. In the alleyways, he walked behind me with his arms literally straight out along my sides to keep potential grasping hands at bay. I never had any sense of danger at the festival, though Erek insisted that was because he was there.
As we walked through the packed, narrow streets, music blared from every corner. There were Sufi singers and dancers in one pocket of a street. We turned a corner to find Egyptian wedding singers. A short walk away were DJs playing Egyptian hip-hop music. There were carnival rides, including a stand-up swing that left people literally hanging upside down in mid-air with only the sides of the swings to hold. It was the kind of ride I could never imagine passing safety or legal concerns in the U.S., which made me enjoy it all the more. Some people sat along the sides of the alleys on mats or in houses eating food they brought with them. Erek said many people had come from villages far away. Many people smoked sheesha. Others smoked hash. It was a festival for the birthday of Fatima al-Nabawiya, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Erek seemed to know everyone and introduced me to his friends along the way. It was mid-January, close to the anniversary of the 2011 revolution, and Erek pointed out barricades that had recently been erected around a police station to prepare for the anniversary, as well as police hassling a man who Erek believed had not done anything wrong.
We met again the following day, mostly wandering through Islamic Cairo, where we ate koshary and climbed a minaret for hazy sunset views of the city and spotted kids playing soccer on a nearby roof. On our way through the streets, we passed a woman lowering a sand bucket covered in purple faux fur from her top floor apartment window. A snack seller below deposited her purchases for her to reel back upstairs. We returned to the mosque for Fatima al-Nabawiya at the evening prayer time. One man gave me a sweet bread as a welcome and others smiled at me. Men and women were still at the mosque celebrating her birthday, some taking naps on the rugs and some praying as a man sang the Quran over loudspeakers.
A Home in West Luxor
After many days of exploring tourist sites in Luxor, a friend and I asked the front desk person at the hostel where I was staying how we could get a taste of regular life there. A man named Ali who worked there offered to take us to his home, and we met up with him the following morning. We took the ferry across the Nile to West Luxor, an area housing many of the tombs people come to visit, as well as villages and farms. Ali lived there with his wife, mother and three young children in a home with two small bedrooms, as well as a kitchen and living area on the ground floor. All of these rooms together were smaller than many studio apartments I have seen in New York City.
As we walked past farmlands on the way to his home, Ali described the community life in his village, Ezba, saying that it was a place where everyone knew each other and would help each other when needed. His daughter and son greeted him before he got to the door, rushing up to hug him. We went upstairs to meet his wife and mother, who were sitting on the roof of the home preparing dough to be baked in a domed oven. His mother had silver hair that peeked out from under her black abaya, and and his wife wore a faded shirt-dress. Ducks and chickens lived in a small coop that resembled kitchen cabinets.
Ali’s daughter helped by carrying the round pieces of dough to her mother to slide in the oven. She was learning English in school, and we sat together reading her books. I corrected some of her pronunciation, and she quickly picked up the corrections. Later, we sat in the bedroom she and her brother shared with their grandmother and watched videos they used to supplement her English lessons, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” together. As I heard from many people in Egypt, the schooling kids are getting is not enough. People who can afford it pay for private schools, hire tutors or find other ways to boost their kids’ education.
We returned to the roof to paint our nails–each of us one nail in black–before Ali’s wife offered us a plate of mahshi, a finger food made of a cabbage leaf stuffed with rice and tomatoes. She gave me and my friend a loaf of the freshly baked bread before we left. We walked back to the ferry, passing fields of banana trees and women hanging laundry to dry in the beating sun. As we neared the river, we saw apartment buildings made for the foreigners who have come to live there–larger, more modern and more expensive. West Luxor was a marked contrast to the traffic and noise in the eastern part of the city across the river. It felt like someplace I could call home for a time.
Experiencing Nubian Life in West Aswan
“I want to make you happy,” Mahmoud* had said to me multiple times since I met him the day before, gazing at me with his glassy, slate blue eyes. I had first called him about staying at his guesthouse and happened to mention that I was going to the visa office. His brother worked there, and Mahmoud offered his help. His brother translated a bit, but in the end I could not get the visa extension. “The office used to turn things around in one day, but now it takes two or three weeks. We don’t have enough people to handle it anymore,” the woman at the desk told me. She was friendly but said there was nothing she could do. Mahmoud’s response: “You need to get out on the water, get away from this place,” he said, gesturing to the congested, dirty streets with constant beeping horns.
I told him I would think about it, but after a morning of two failed visa attempts, I had to agree that the river could do me good. I met him later, and we took his boat to a small beach near the Tombs of the Nobles where a grey heron stood on a pile of rocks in the Nile. The sun glittered off the water, and tall grasses swayed in the light wind. Mahmoud made me ginger tea and lit up cigarettes and joints in succession. “I love a smoke,” he said in a deep, sincere voice. He told me he was married to a German woman he had met while she was on holiday in Aswan many years ago. They had two kids. He spent the winters in Aswan running the guesthouse. He also mentioned that he would be going to a Nubian wedding that night. And, he said, two days later would be the final day of the three-day wedding. A well-known Nubian singer would be traveling from Alexandria to perform at the party. Would I like to go? Definitely.
I soon moved my things to stay at his guesthouse in West Aswan, a quiet area of Nubian villages across the Nile from the busier and dirtier part of Aswan–“mini-Cairo” as Mahmoud called it. Unlike the nondescript multi-story boxy apartment buildings across the river, the mud and brick Nubian homes here had domed roofs and were painted in shades of mustard and lavender. They were connected by narrow alleys on which you might see chickens, sheep or stray cats, and some had large courtyards with a thin layer of brushed sand.
The day after I checked in, we took the local ferry boat to go to the wedding party. As we arrived at the hall where the wedding party would be held, Mahmoud told me I could sit in the room where the band would play. He stayed in another room to talk and smoke with his friends. The party room had wooden benches where people sat waiting for the bride and groom, multicolored tinsel dangling from the ceiling and a throne on the stage also awaiting the bride and groom.
Immediately, a group of kids and adults invited me with excited smiles and giggles to sit with them. They asked me to take photos of them and with them. We communicated with broken sentences, pointing, nodding heads and smiles until we tired and sat in silence. Around 11 p.m., the bride and groom arrived behind a drum procession. And soon after that, the Nubian singer, Hassan el Soghayar, performed. The music had a smooth groove, and the dance floor filled with people grooving in an easy hip movement to match it. Kids tugged at my arms to dance with them. One of the women I had sat with earlier repeatedly used a tissue to wipe away joyful tears as she danced. Mahmoud and I stayed until 12:30, stopping to buy some bananas before we got a taxi to the guesthouse. The next morning Mahmoud checked on me and my happiness, still working to show me all things Nubian. “Have a Nubian banana,” he said.
Later that morning, we took his boat to a Nubian village called Garba Sehel. I then rode up dirt roads on a small truck-bed attached to a motorcycle to reach the home of some of Mahmoud’s friends. Mahmoud set up a chair for me in the sun and told me to talk with a woman in the kitchen while he sat with the men in the living room. I asked the woman if she needed help, but she ushered me back to the chair in the courtyard with a cup of my favorite mint tea. It was nearly an hour before I gathered with the men at a chest-high table to eat the meal of tender chicken with potatoes and onions; rice; salad; and mixed vegetables in a tomato sauce. One of the men piled food on a plate for me, and I waited for the others to fill their plates. “Go ahead and start,” another man said with a smile. “No matter when you start, we’ll finish before you.” He was right. Within 10 minutes, the others had left the table. I sat by myself amidst plates with chicken bones and leftover scraps of rice and vegetables while I finished my meal. It was nothing personal. Many Egyptians simply tend to eat quickly and do not linger after meals. “They say it takes us a half day to prepare the meal and five minutes to eat it,” one man joked. Mahmoud talked about how his wife gets angry with him for leaving the table so quickly. After lunch we walked toward the car. The past two days, Mahmoud had continued to check in with me regularly. Every time he saw me smile, he said how happy it made him and reminded me how stressed I was at the visa office. As we got in the car, someone made a joke, and I laughed. “I am happy,” Mahmoud said. “Do you know why?” “Yes, I do,” I said. “Okay,” he said, “We are getting to know each other.”
As Mahmoud and I made our way back to the guesthouse, we decided to stop at the beach we had gone to the first day I met him. He told me a bit about his growing up. I learned that he helped to raise his brothers and sisters. I learned that he has been working since he was a young boy. I pictured the face of an Egyptian friend who had also told me he had been working since he was seven. In Luxor, I was approached by boys who looked to be seven or eight and were already practiced in how to talk to foreigners. It began to make sense why Mahmoud was so focused on taking care of people and why he could not sit still.
The next morning I came up to the roof for breakfast. Mahmoud was talking with friends and checking on guests. As I got ready to check out, others were arriving. I recognized the faces as some of the men I had met at lunch the day before. Mahmoud motioned to the pasta and salad that his sister and sister-in-law were preparing to show me what I would be missing. I told him I recognized the men from yesterday. “Yesterday, we went to their house…today, they come to mine,” he said. “This is how we live.”
*I have changed his name to protect his privacy.