Below the Monastery of St Simeon, Aswan, Sunday 25th January, 2009
I thank the guardians as I leave the monastery gate and scramble down one of the rocky paths to the sandy one below. I expect the GPS needle to be pointing down this path in its tributary valley towards the Nile. This is the way the camels come, yet the waypoint of the ferry across to the island of Elephantine, which I have taken from Google Earth, is being indicated to the south, beyond the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan. But this seems the natural way back to the river so I ignore the technology and carry on down the quiet little valley until I come across a solitary camel sniffing around outside the wall of an enclosure.
There seems no obvious way of skirting the wall so I enter the compound and see the Nile ahead of me and camels lounging around; some men are attending to what looks like a leg wound on one of the animals and wrestle it, complaining fiercely, to the ground and then administer ointment. I approach the men – they are dark-skinned ‘Nubians’ – and ask them if this is the way to the ferry and they respond by looking me up and down. Another man comes over, with defective sight, and appears to say he can take me across the river in a felucca (a sailing boat) but apparently not right now and I am invited to have some tea while I wait. I think “what the hell, let’s hang out with these camel guys for a little while and have some tea”. The group of men include a tourist policeman with a machine gun.
While I’m waiting for the tea I accept the invitation to mount a camel. The animal has only recently been put to rest after taking tourists up to the monastery and it complains as only camels can. When it is eventually persuaded to rise I really have to hold on as the animal rocks itself into a standing position. Once there it adopts the customary haughty look, apparently ascribed by Muslims to its knowing the 100th (secret) name of God. When I have returned to terra firma I give the camel driver a five pound note as baksheesh that seems to be acceptable. Meanwhile, negotiations continue with the ‘blind’ man for the price of the Nile crossing.
I sit with the men and await the tea. There is some delay, evidently because the man making it wants some money. I hold firm and say I thought the tea was being offered to me as a guest. Eventually we agree that the 15 pounds I pay for the felucca will include a pound for the tea. One of the men explains that the boat is ‘raw felucca’ but I don’t know what he means.
As we sip tea in the shade of the perimeter wall one man asks whether I have children; when I tell him I have two sons he looks a little disappointed and says it is good to have daughters as they will “look after you”. These men are real Nubians – for some reason I can’t explain they seem more honest than their lighter-skinned compatriots downriver at Luxor – and despite the wheeling and dealing I feel quite comfortable with them.
When the tea is finished we descend to the steps at the river’s edge and I see that we are waiting for a man to come over from the island with a rowing boat – the ‘raw felucca’. Unlike the muddy brown water at Luxor, the Nile here is beautiful, blue, and clear and I can see the underwater rocks and plants at the edge. While we are waiting we are joined by a youth, apparently with learning difficulties, who keeps saying something that sounds like “Aston Villa” – my favourite football team – so I say it enthusiastically back and soon the blind man is joining in: “Yes – Aston Villa!”
The man bringing over the rowing boat is very black and solidly built. The oars he uses are like two planks of wood; they are not shaped like our oars and are painted in different stripes of colour. As the boat approaches the blind man calls out to the rower to hurry up. When he gets to shore he jumps out and I go the far end of the boat and the policeman at the near while the blind man takes up a rowing position in the middle; lack of sight apparently being no obstacle to effecting a crossing of the Nile.
As we pull away the scene on the shore we are leaving is enchanting with its golden hill of sand, acacia trees near the water’s edge, and a solitary camel. It seems to me to encapsulate the whole romantic notion of Arabia.
As we move away from shore we are passed by a felucca floating effortlessly in the gentle breeze and when I turn my gaze to the south the water sparkles and the outline of a sail is silhouetted under a brilliant sun. This, for me, is paradise.