Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From ‘Down the Nile. Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff’ by Rosemary Mahoney

I had been endlessly informed by people ……that foreign women who came to Egypt and dressed in a provocative way (there are, in fact, many who do) would be considered promiscuous, unprincipled, fair game for harassment and disrespect.
And yet, having spent a total of three and a half months in Egypt…I could not deny that, although I always wore long trousers and long-sleeved shirts and conducted myself as decorously and seriously and modestly ……I had never visited any country in which sex had so often arisen as a topic of conversation; had never witnessed more bald nudity (including not one but two men openly masturbating on city streets, dozens of bare breasts proffered at the howling mouths of infants, men and children freely relieving themselves wherever the need struck them); had never received so many offhand proposals of marriage and professions of love from mustachioed strangers, more swaggering requests for a dance or a kiss, more offers of romantic dinners; had never been the target of more wolf whistles and catcalls and distinctly salacious whispers emanating from behind dusty clumps of shrubbery. Nowhere else in the world had a smiling stranger approached me and a friend on a busy street and said, “I want fuck you,” with the idle geniality one might extend in saying, “Looks like rain.”

The Nile was a consisten, stately river that flowed up the continent from the south while the prevailing winds came out of the north, a rare phenomenon that for centuries had allowed easy passage in both directions.

…the Description de L’Egypte, published between 1809 and 1828, an enormous nineteen-volume summary of the country, complete with highly detailed measurements, etchings, and drawings……Thanks to Napoleon’s expedition, by 1820 Egypt was the best-mapped country in the world….The country that had been lost to the rest of the world by a thousand years of Arab rule, which had essentially barred foreign travelers from the Nile Valley, quickly became the favorite destination of explorers, scientists, tourists, and notables alike.

….Egypt …..A country of sixty-two million people whose chief source of income is tourism.

In the early nineteenth century, if a foreign visitor was murdered, every Egyptian within walking distance of the event would, without trial or investigation, be put to death as punishment. If a foreigner complained of having had his money stolen by one Egyptian, some thirty Egyptians would be jailed for a month. …..The foreigner’s word was rarely questioned in Egypt, and the essence of that custom remains even now.

The Egyptian temperament – invariably gregarious, humorous, and welcoming – is also spiked with a heavy dose of intrusiveness. Curious and paternalistic toward foreigners, Egyptians watch over their visitors with elaborate concern – a sweetly self-important trait, as though one could not possibly survive without their attentiveness and advice.

….it is nearly impossible for a foreigner to proceed down an Egyptian street without having to answer the same dozen investigative questions shot from the mouths of six dozen people within the span of, say, five minutes…. In Egyptians, this trait seems derived not only from a wish to try out the few English phrases they’ve learned but also from a particular conviction that they know far better than you do what’s good for you. Confronted with foreign tourists, Egyptians become noisy and nosy, bossy and brash, intrusive and terribly friendly.

…..its southern ethnic region of Nubia, the city of Aswan feels more African than any other Egyptian town….Aswan’s desert air seems to caress the town with warm promise, lending vividness and meaning to manifestations of poverty and human struggle that would elsewhere be considered ugly. The piles of garbage, the heaps of smoldering ashes, the scatterings of broken glass, the architectural rubble, the human excrement, the sun-bleached plastic shopping bags and rusted tin cans that seem to ring all Egyptian villages and besmirch every empty plane between them are, in Aswan, softened by the sheer volume of sun and water, color and air. …..in Aswan even the lowliest laborers always looked recently washed and laundered.

….between the years 646 and 1517 Egypt’s Islamic rulers had closed the country to virtually all outsiders. A few traders and pilgrims managed to enter the Nile Valley during this thousand-year-period, but reliable information about Egypt was scarce. To the average European, the place was as arcane and mysterious as the moon. In 1517 when Egypt fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, it became more accessible to Europeans…..

Far from being an insufferable saint, Nightingale was a woman of deep opinions, discriminating, decisive and sometimes unkind. Her observations could be harsh but were clear eyed and unsentimental. She was also democratic. If she was capable of writing this of the Arabs: “an intermediate race, they appeared to me, between the monkey and man, the ugliest, most slavish countenances”…. she was also capable of criticizing her own beloved Anglican church….Florence Nightingale was so interesting, daring and intelligent…..

….flirting, the favorite Egyptian preoccupations.

A woman came down the street pushing a baby stroller, and it struck me that the women in Aswan who could afford strollers – most women simply carried their babies astraddle one shoulder – were always dressed in the Islamic veil, the long cloth wrapped around their heads and under their chins. No hair showing, no neck, just the face revealed. The veil hung down to the backs of their thighs over a black gown that hung to their ankles. They had noble faces, full voices, and walked with straight backs.

In the center of his forehead he bore the raised and darkened callus that came of frequent prostration in prayer; the unofficial term for it was zabib, which meant “raisin.” The callus was worn proudly as a sign of great piety and devotion. The more you prayed, the bigger the raisin. It was widely known that in an act of religious vanity some men rubbed the spot with a stone in secret, deliberately and falsely increasing its size. On some Muslim men this callus was so large and so dark it looked like a horrible hematoma.

….in Egypt the Arabic word hashshasheen, which meant “users of hemp,” was often applied to “noisy and riotous people,” and that during the Crusades the name hashshasheen (the origin of the word assasin) was given to Syrian warriors who used mind-altering drugs to confuse and disarm their enemies.

The modern Coptic Christians are the descendants of pharoanic Egyptians who had been converted to Christianity by Saint Mark in Alexandria. It is believed that the later pharaohs spoke the Coptic language, a modern form of Egyptian heavily influenced by Greek. Copts now make up only 15 percent of the Egyptian population. ….I asked Safaa why all the tailors in Egypt were Christian. She said disconsolately….when Nasser came to power he stole the important jobs from the Christians and gave them to the Muslims……Florence Nightingale writing in 1849, “Abbas Pacha is so furiously Mahometan that he has just dismissed all Christians from his service ….besides 900 Coptic scribes who are fallen into the lowest poverty thereby.”

Safaa…began to speak with rueful envy….Egyptians were too obsessed with sex and marriage and family. And women couldn’t do anything on their own. For Egyptian women, marriage was the only way you could really get out of your father’s house…..She clucked her tongue in disgust. “Women here cant do anything alone.”

Amr told me that when his parents were young, before the [Aswan] High Dam was built, the river water was extremely sandy because of its great volume and turbulence. When his parents scooped up a jug of water they had to wait half an hour for the sand to settle in it before they could drink. Flaubert, who marveled that the water of the Nile was very yellow because of the soil it carried with it, would probably have appreciated this detail and would most likely be disappointed to learn that now, since the construction of the High Dam, the sand and silt were gone.

The Aswan High Dam, built in 1964 just above the first dam, had radically changed the mood and pace of the Nile; it had brought the natural annual inundations to an end and had altered the style of Egyptian farming. Before the arrival of the dam, the Nile flooded once a year, allowing farmers only one opportunity to plant crops in the rich silt the receding river left behind. Though the onset of the Nile’s flood always remained constant, occurring usually in mid-June, the size of the flood did not, and for millennia predicting the amount of water the flood would bring had been one of the most important preoccupations of Egyptian life. Too little water meant drought, famine, and death, yet too much could be equally devastating. Unable to control or predict the behavior of the river, Egyptians had been utterly at its mercy.
During the nineteenth century, with Muhammad Ali’s campaign to modernize Egypt, the population began to grow for the first time in three thousand years, and at an astounding rate – in a mere hundred years it boomed from four million to ten million. It soon became obvious that Egypt would need a more efficient system of agriculture and a more constant and reliable supply of water…..the life expectancy in Egypt at that time was thirty-five. In 1960, financed by the Soviet Union, Abdel Nasser’s revolutionary government began construction of the High Dam just above Aswan. On completion of the dam in 1970, the Nile flowing up the African continent backed up and spread into the red desert of Nubia, forming Lake Nasser, which now covers an area approximately eight miles wide and three hundred miles long and holds enough water to meet the needs of the Egyptian population for approximately three years.
With the flow of the river under human control, Egypt suffers no drought……….Egyptian farmers have more cultivable land and are able to produce two or three crops a year instead of one; famine has been eradicated; electricity is cheap and widely available; and the once devastating Nile floods are controlled. But with these gains have also come heavy losses. One hundred and fifty thousand Nubian people who had lived for centuries in the desert of southern Egypt were displaced by the High Dam project; their villages – along with many important pharaonic structures – were submerged under the waters of the lake; and much of their ancient and unique culture was destroyed. With controlled flooding, the valuable silt once carried by the river to the floodplain of Egypt now sinks in the still waters of the lake and settles uselessly there. Deprived of the soil that essentially created a garden in one of the world’s harshest deserts. Egyptian farmers are now forced to use toxic synthetic fertilizers, and though their crops are more frequent, the quality and yield of these crops have been reduced.in addition, the present constant irrigation of the soil has caused the underground water table to rise, oversaturating crops. And without the flushing action of the natural flood, the soil has grown increasingly salty, a threat to both crops and the ancient stone monuments.

……..the second-story syndrome, a phenomenon ubiquitous in Egypt: fully inhabited houses with the uncompleted skeleton of a second floor clapped onto the roof. These second floors were always hastily constructed brick walls with rusted rebar bristling out of them …….A second floor was a sign of status; everyone had to have one.

Like most of the cats in Egypt, they looked as though they had slid down a dirty chimney and hadn’t eaten in months.

………I noticed bloody dropping handprints on the doors and fronts of shops and houses. I had seen this same thing elsewhere in Egypt ………. “Means it keeps away the other people’s jealous. When they build maybe new house, they take the goat blood and put the hand on the house. For keep away evil eyes.”
I knew it was an Egyptian belief that other people’s envy could bring a person down. Admiring another person’s infant was considered bad manners, for it represented a threat and a bad omen, and some Egyptians deliberately left their children dirty in order to ward off the evil eye.

The Egyptian mania for tea is matched only by the Irish mania for it, and if you refused an offer of tea, the Egyptian host would react with disappointment and disbelief.

The women had to be isolated, contained, and controlled; it was a longstanding matter of pride and power among the men. Florence Nightingale had been horrified by the state and status of the Egyptian women: “She is nothing but the servant of a man…the female elephant, the female eagle, has a higher idea of what she was put into the world to do, than the human female has here.”…………Flaubert wrote …….. “The oriental woman is no more than a machine: she makes no distinction between one man and another man. Smoking, going to the baths, painting her eyelids and drinking coffee – such is the circle of occupations within which her existence is confined.”

No one executed pranks and jokes better than the Egyptian men.

Like most Egyptians, Amr swam in a hectic, slapping way, not fussily cupping his hands…….but kicking and thrashing, as if sheer motion would keep him afloat……..

In all my time in Egypt, I had only once seen a woman swimming in the river. And never had I seen a woman operating a boat, large or small. But that was nothing so new, for its generally true that just about anywhere in the world watercraft are operated chiefly by men……..Perhaps its because women don’t know that its fun. Perhaps its because they don’t know that they can.

When Napoleon’s soldiers, who had never seen a photograph of any kind, rounded a bend and caught sight of the Temple of Karnak for the first time, they were so moved by the marvelous sight that they burst into spontaneous applause.

……..of the one million people who lived in Aswan, only twenty thousand were Nubian……In the 1970s, Nubia, which was once a string of small villages stretching up the narrow banks of the Nile …..was buried forever under Lake Nasser, its displaced people scattered throughout Egypt and the Sudan. For centuries Nubia had been a source of slaves for the Arab world…….Because of that association with slavery and domestic servitude, Egyptians tended to perceive the Nubian race as ignorant and inferior. Dark-skinned, culturally more African than Egyptian, Nubians had once been the object of considerable prejudice and disrespect in Egypt, and vestiges of that still lingered. Nubians, said by many to be the true pharaonic people, were Muslim, were Egyptian citizens, and yet they would never feel that they were truly Egyptian.

Egyptian men seemed inordinately attached to the official documents they carried.

By the time the nineteenth century rolled toward its end………foreigners….commented in dismay on the huge number of one-eyed, nine-fingered Egyptian men…….. “Sooner than serve as a soldier,” Hopley explained, “a man will cut off his finger or pluck out his eye.”

Wherever you were on the Nile, whatever you saw along the banks, the ever-present ridge of the desert loomed beyond the greenery, walling the floodplain on either side….

Egypt occupies an area of one million square miles, only 5 percent of which is habitable, which means that these narrow banks of the Nile…..have been among the most densely populated places in the world.

The lenses of his glasses were so thick they were almost opaque; they refracted the sunlight in a distracting, prismatic way. Many older Egyptians wore these government-issue glasses, and their clunkiness, their utilitarian crudeness, always made the wearer look vulnerable and weak and a little bit wounded.

I asked the guide if he would kill his sister if she lost her virginity.
Without a pause, as though this was a reasonable and even a common question, he said, “I, for myself, would not kill my sister. But I would put her out of the house and disown her because she had shamed the family name.”

Egyptians drove in a fashion that could only be described as chaotic. They seemed compelled to position their car in front of the one ahead of them at any cost. At night they drove with their headlights off until an oncoming car approached, at which time they helpfully blinded the opposing driver with a sudden flash of the high beams. And Egyptian highways were minefields of disaster. There were always skinny figures leaping across them at just the wrong moment, entire families sitting down to picnics in the middle of them, cars speeding along them in the wrong direction, men stopping their cars to pee in the fast lane, sudden pointless barriers stretched across the road, or wayward oil barrels, or boulders, or a huge herd of hobbled goats. Every ten miles or so the hideously crushed hull of a truck or car would appear …….

Egyptians as individuals have a great genius for fixing things. They are capable of repairing anything at all with whatever happens to be at hand.

After a long silence he said to me, “You are very beautiful.”
Nice words, those – words that anywhere else in the world one would be pleased to hear, but in Egypt you hear them and your heart sinks a little in boredom and apprehension. Exactly twelve Egyptian men had said the same hollow thing to me that day. I told Adel that. He didn’t seem to care. He stepped closer.

….in Luxor, the trickery capital of Egypt, where the shopkeepers, sailors, and carriage drivers skillfully seduced the custom of tourists with elaborate schemes and stories.

…….in Arabic there is little distinction between the words like and love.

“Travel does not make one cheerful,” Flaubert wrote …..Travel never makes one cheerful. But it makes one thoughtful. It washes one’s eyes and clears away the dust.

A conversation with the author……….
Its also true that Egyptians are incredibly friendly. When they see a foreigner in an unusual place, they all come flocking.
……I found it depressing, the way women are forced to live in Egypt. They are basically not respected. They are treated like children and not allowed any independence……It’s the sense that women are property of the men. Therefore it’s a man’s job to control and protect them. It’s a matter of education. And its tradition. A lot of Egyptian women don’t know there is another way of life. The poverty in Egypt is quite serious.

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