In a few strokes of the oars we three men in a boat are approaching the western shore of Elephantine, the largest of the Nile islands at Aswan. A row of feluccas are moored against the bank and a background of palm trees. Having left the desert fringe on the west bank of the river, this lush island has more the appearance of the African interior. Further along the shore some men are doing repair work on a felucca and building a new motorboat from scratch. As soon as we land the blind boatman takes off again and almost immediately the policeman lays down his machine gun and carrier bags, takes off his shoes, walks to the water’s edge and stoops to wash his face in the Nile, ritualistically, like a man giving thanks for his safe return from the desert.
For my part I scramble up the muddy bank to survey my new surroundings. Before I reach the top I see a big, smiling man bounding towards me. Something about his demeanour suggests that, despite the fact that I know he is going to try and enter into some transaction or other, I feel quite at ease with him from the outset. He starts chatting immediately and unlike many of the touts and hawkers downriver at Luxor, seems genuinely friendly. Before I can raise the slightest objection he has offered himself as my tour guide. The suggested itinerary comes out in an enthusiastic rush: first I should visit the Nubian museum on the island, then over to the neighbouring Kitchener island and finally a circumnavigation of Elephantine in a felucca.
My guide tells me he is from the village here as we make our way through its delightful lanes full of pretty children and young girls in brightly coloured dresses, well-dressed hair and jewellery. Round one corner he points out an old lady asleep on a mastaba outside a house who is apparently his grandmother, a young man outside another house his cousin. He seems genuinely eager to tell me all about his world, not simply for commercial gain. We pass wonderfully-decorated mud-brick houses in “Nubian blue” with turquoise doors and window shutters, diamond patterns and dots. On the side of a dirt street he points out a half-buried seated statue of “Ramesses” which looks very much like a smaller version of the massive statues of Ramesses II which adorn the greatest of the ancient Nubian temples upriver at Abu Simbel.
When we arrive at the museum I tell him that I don’t really fancy it so instead we do a deal for the felucca for fifty pounds, after I haggle him down from seventy, and he turns to take us back to the cove where we first met. On the way we pass an old man with the characteristic fuzzy hair of the ethnic Bishareens of Nubia. When I ask if I can take his picture he is happy for me to do so then adds that it will cost “a hundred pounds”. As I press the shutter button he says in clear English “only joking” and breaks into laughter. I find myself taking an immediate liking to these warm, happy people, descendents of generations and generations of ancestors who have dwelt among the rocks and palm trees of this beautiful island since the time of the Pharaohs.
Stopping briefly on one of the highest points on the island, where goats feed among the palm groves and the sparkling Nile makes its way between us and the sand dunes of the far bank, it seems to me that you would be hard pressed to invent a landscape as appealing as this.