Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 34

Up the Nile

Egypt is a narrow strip of ancient black dust that becomes fertile if it is wet; hard as stone if lumps are left to dry. The railway line isn't wet, so interminable hours later, black with dust, thirsty, hungry, and exhausted I joined Duff on the platform at Aswan. The edges of the old town were disfigured by featureless concrete apartment blocks built for Russian workers constructing the High Dam.

After cleaning up at the youth hostel we visited the construction site and my heart bled at the sight of kids as young as five or six carrying loads of stones, cement, concrete, steel… in baskets on their heads in suffocating heat. We were warned not to pick up anything metal that had been lying in the sun because it would cause blisters and burns.

Duff didn't share my horror, he was too impressed by the magnitude of the work. I agree it was impressive, but it's now silted up causing the delta to sink because it no longer receives its annual top-up of silt. Humans aren't very bright.

Back at the hostel I became delirious. Couldn't cool down. Kept taking showers. When I collapsed an ambulance was called. At least that's what I was told – I remember nothing. Wearing only pale blue bikini underpants I was roused by a slap on the face administered by a Russian doctor who, after a cursory examination, pronounced me fit. I wandered out to a foyer teeming with men and women draped from top to toe in voluminous garments, men pale pink and blue, women in black. Fortunately, my abbreviated costume caused them to draw back in alarm, for I blacked out and crashed to the concrete floor.

The heat, when I awoke, was so suffocating I thought I'd gone to hell – an impression reinforced by the presence of a nun shaking me. I was lying on a sheet on a mattress on an iron bed in a bare room. The nun was dressing me in a long white cotton gown to hide my shame. The three-year-old, Russian-built hospital was already terribly run down. There was no trained staff and because Muslim men refused to allow Muslim women to nurse them, all nursing was done by a dozen nuns clad in their traditional medieval garb despite daytime temperatures that usually rose above 110°Fahrenheit. (45°C)

Despite enormous obstacles, those hard-working and admirable Sisters of Verona never lost their calm patience. My favourite, Sister Adèle, spoke French and explained that I was in one of only four private rooms because I would not survive visiting day in a ward when the families arrived. She sacrificed her daily potato to me as I could no longer stomach the staple food of Egypt – foule and falafel (red beans and fried vegetables).

Unused to European toilets and unable to find the usual more sanitary hole-in-the-floor type, desperate Egyptians squatted in the showers and left them filthy.

It was unbearably hot and smelly and noisy and after three days I was healthy enough to be ejected into a mass of keening, mud-plastered women tearing out their hair to mourn a death. I had no money, no passport, no clothes, and no idea where the hostel was. Bikini-clad, barefoot, and dizzy, I wandered for hours: my unshaven, unkempt, almost nudity attracting less attention than you'd expect. I was taken for just another sun-crazy Arab lacking food and shelter. Not that uncommon.

Duff had gone north to Luxor, payback for me leaving him to his dysentery in Tunisia. The young assistant at the youth hostel had gathered my things and stored them in his room – a bare cell out the back with a sleeping mat. Nothing was missing. How could I thank him for taking such care? He was poor, having come to Aswan from his village to make money, and had delayed his regular visit home until I returned. He could have sold my passport for a good sum and taken off with more than two hundred American dollars carefully stashed in my money belt. It was a fortune - all the money I had in the world! But he hadn't. Not a dollar was missing!

He was twenty-two, powerfully built with dusty black skin, and his name was Kanu. When I asked about his background he invited me to return with him to his village; it would give him kudos to arrive with a foreign friend. I was curious so accepted and paid for a large basket of tinned food and our tickets on the heavily laden, ancient Nile steamer that transported the poor and other cargo up and down the river.

In my determination not to look like a tourist, I wore one of his shifts: a loose, sleeveless, collarless garment of rough white cotton that slipped over the head and came to just below the knees. With no buttons or fastenings and nothing but bare skin beneath, it felt both liberating and cool with the breeze able to circulate everywhere; ten times cooler than shorts and shirt. In my cheap scuff sandals with car-tyre soles, he reckoned I looked like a poor Arab, which pleased me enormously. He had soles as tough as car tyres so didn't need footwear.

I imagined we'd be going just a few miles up-river, but the boat chugged on and on all day. When we passed Abu Simbel temple, at that time still standing beside the river, I began to get nervous. Wadi Hafa and Sudan were not that much further south! When the light faded, the steamer moored at a jetty. Like all the other passengers we ate our meal of flat bread and boiled eggs and slept on deck, sucked dry by mosquitoes.

A couple of hours further south the next morning, we joined about a dozen other passengers disembarking into waiting dinghies that took us ashore to a small, dark-grey village of mean, mud-brick dwellings, with a tiny store selling dates, several varieties of dried beans, lots of other dry stuff I didn't recognise, and a few eggs.

A two-hour walk towards the mountains gave Kanu plenty of time to explain that although we were in Nubia, his family weren't Nubians, they'd been dispossessed from their home in the south by the British, generations earlier, and resettled here. When pressed as to my religion I bravely admitted I had none. He smiled and admitted his people were neither Christian nor Muslim, but didn't elaborate.

I admired the pride he took in his ancestry; I'd never had the slightest interest in mine. Why my great-grandparents had emigrated to the colonies and where they came from, I had no idea; economic refugees I suppose. There are displaced people everywhere; torn from their roots by war, poverty, famine… and frequently they're the most friendly and generous. In reality I too was a displaced person, unwelcome in my homeland, wandering the planet looking for love. The difference being that as a white European male I could live and travel freely throughout a planet that had been cruelly conquered and partitioned between a few rapacious colonial powers. For the billions of humans not of Western European descent, their country's borders are a prison and the chance of improvement in their lot approaches zero.

We were by then so far from civilization I'd given up worrying that I was going to be cooked and eaten by savages. More pressing was my imminent physical collapse. Then around a bend, a cluster of date palms and a village of reed-thatched, neat mud-brick dwellings that were clean, spacious, and surprisingly cool. I stayed under the shade of a tree while laughing naked kids and about two dozen women of all ages welcomed Kanu with noisy joy, especially when he produced the basket of tinned food from Aswan.

When he called me over smiles were replaced by suspicion until he explained I wasn't an Arab, but a European. Then I, too, was accorded smiles and words of welcome. Of course, I understood nothing. No one spoke English, but it mattered not. Too frequently words get in the way of friendship and understanding. Kanu translated anything essential.

The men were fishing half a mile away. They had powerful, hairless bodies and mud-spattered black skin from making dams to herd fish into shallower waters of what I supposed was a tributary of the Nile. We dropped our shifts and joined in the chase, with much laughter at my pale skin, three-day old beard, and hairy chest. There were only a few men of my age because, like Kanu, the others had left to find work, preparing for the flooding of their land and livelihood when the Aswan dam filled.

I think the men were pleased to have another body for a few days to help carry posts and hammer them in for a goat enclosure, assist in cleaning out the well, and other physical activities that, together with the simple food, completed my cure and restored strength. There were no expressions of thanks. According to their reasoning I was an adult doing what I wanted, so to thank me for it would be patronising. If I didn't want to do it, why was I there? I felt profoundly moved and deeply honoured to be accepted, because I couldn't help thinking they were superior to me in all the ways that counted.

The days were very hot, the nights cold, and I fretted that I wouldn't be able to sleep without a cover, but I was always tired and the bodies of eight other men sharing the space soon made the air quite warm. I'm pretty sure I heard a couple of the guys taking pleasure in each other, but fortunately Kanu showed no such interest. I liked him, but his face was ugly, and his breath smelled of dried fish.

By the time I left I'd decided my previous life had been vacuous, vain, and pointless. A simple life does not mean one is simple. These people seemed wise and introspective. Their days were spent ensuring survival, and communal leisure activity in the short evenings left no time for boredom. They suffered from no delusions that they were owed a living, nor did they owe anything. When Lake Nasser filled they would own nothing. Such was their tragedy.

Luxor today is awash with tourists; then it was awash with poverty and flies that filled the mouths and nostrils of homeless boys sleeping on the street, and settled in great black swarms on clothes, yet didn't torment those who were awake, unlike Australian bush flies that can drive strong men insane by invading eyes, nostrils and mouths.

After exploring the scant delights of Luxor town, I wandered along a lengthy avenue of sphinxes to the impressive Luxor Temple, then further on through dusty lanes until another, even vaster temple reared above the palms.

I had no idea what it could be. A massive stone gateway fully five stories high led into a veritable forest of gigantic columns, each fifteen metres in circumference and twenty-three metres high. At one side of the vast temple behind some rubble, a series of rickety ladders led up onto the flat capital of one of the gigantic columns, large enough to hold seven elephants I later learned. An exultant paean to the skill and artistry of the builders escaped my throat unbidden. My skin prickles still when I recall sitting there, alone apart from an Arab so far below he looked like an ant beside immense statues of Ramses.

I had discovered Karnak!

The following day I crossed the Nile with a pleasant Dane and we hired horses to ride to the Valley of the Kings, where we were among the few visitors to those extraordinary galleries of the dead. On the way back, we explored Queen Hatsheput's tomb – unfenced, open to the desert as it had been for over two thousand years. Shouting and laughing we raced up and down the ramps and into the inner sacred chambers hollowed out of solid rock; senses numbed by overwhelming grandeur. Two-thousand-year-old frescoes were clear and uncovered on walls facing the river, the incredibly dry air protecting them from moulds.

I recently Googled Hatsheput's tomb, and in a photo counted eighteen tour buses parked in front, five souvenir outlets, and noted the price of entry the long queues of visitors had to pay – about twenty dollars!

A pair of vast statues of an enthroned pharaoh and his wife stood unremarked in the middle of a ploughed field. We took our photos standing on the base, barely coming up to their ankles.

Ancient Thebes was too grandiose, too wasteful, too ridiculously pretentious after the serene simplicity of Kanu's village. I could marvel at the works, but not admire the mentality of the builders.

After another nightmare train trip, I arrived back in Alexandria with its canals and swamps, where a charming Lebanese took me by the hand and we wandered the city, drinking sherbets. A handsome young Arab tried to pick my pocket, but my purse was tied to my belt. His look of terror when I put my hand over his was shocking – understandable if you've heard about Egyptian prisons. Before I could tell him not to worry, he'd disappeared; a pity as I'd willingly have given him the few Egyptian pounds it contained.

I took a room in an elegant apartment belonging to an ancient Greek lady, emotionally stranded in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria. 'If you bring a boy or girl home,' she said sweetly, 'please introduce them to me so I won't worry they are criminals.' If only! I was lean, fit, and randy, but Egyptians were insanely excitable; not as beautiful as Moroccans – except for the pick-pocket, and I was pretty sure anyone who ate crickets and sparrows and other small birds couldn't be trustworthy. No meat was sold on two days a week to save foreign currency. The unavoidable foule and falafel were sending my bowels into panic mode. The gulf between obscene wealth and nauseating poverty was so vast, so obvious, I had to get out of Egypt or go mad!

At the port, Robert, an Englishman, and Mike, a blond Californian with a mouthful of perfect American teeth, were also buying tickets to Beirut. We decided to spend the day together until the ferry sailed that night. While eyeing delicious but very expensive cakes in a shop window, an Egyptian in his thirties approached, glanced at the bulge in my shorts, gave me a smile and offered to shout us whatever we wanted. He was a Suez Canal pilot – one of the incredible young men who seven years earlier had piloted boats night and day with no mishaps; proving to the world that Egypt did not need the British to run the Canal.

An ancient Buick transported us and our perfectly wrapped goodies to his flat where he made coffee while I arranged the cakes on a low table. Before I could get stuck in, however, he invited me into his bedroom, there to unveil a lean brown body decorated with gold chains. He slapped my bum and demanded access. Apparently, I had to pay for the cakes, but he had to settle for a blowjob. Mike and Robert never questioned why a total stranger would shout us expensive cakes, nor did they wonder why we disappeared for ten minutes, leaving them to eat most of the cakes. Heterosexuals are sometimes very thick.

My Lebanese visa had expired two days before I arrived, so I changed the 1 to a 2 on the date – making 13 into 23. Unfortunately, I wasn't as smart as I thought, and my Arabic 2 apparently looked like a 3 to the port immigration officer in Beirut who took one look, glowered and asked if there were thirty-three days in a month in my country. Speechless with shame I was hauled before the chief – a breathtakingly handsome, youngish man in an impeccable uniform, scathing and furious. I cringed and quailed and stammered abject apologies, careful not to challenge his sense of importance and masculinity.

Lebanese superiority over cringing British wimp having been established, he could afford to be generous and waved impatient dismissal. I should have been thrown in gaol or sent back to Egypt. Tampering with visas is a criminal offence! Today I'd be incarcerated and tortured as a terrorist suspect.

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