Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 April 2004
Issue No. 687
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (543)

Going south

Early in its life, Al-Ahram established the custom of featuring the travelogues of members of its staff and other contributors. Most of these were accounts of travels to the north, either to the Levant or Europe. But Professor Yunan Labib Rizk finds one man who took the rare southward route, to Sudan

Click to view caption
Sudan's Wadi Halfa

Perhaps the main reason for the Egyptian preference to travel north as opposed to south was that the writers themselves tended to be of the aristocratic or upper middle classes who had the time and money to set off towards northern climes -- generally to escape Egypt's summer heat -- the leisure to pen their observations, and the connections or the repute to have these accounts published in the press. Of course, Al- Ahram frequently dispatched its correspondents to cover major international events but, again, the locus of these events, however much they affected Egypt, was still somewhere to the north.

This is why Mohamed Ismail's "From Cairo to Sudan" acquires particular importance. In spite of his obvious erudition, it was clear that this "licentiate in education and literature," as he signed himself, had headed southwards in search of a job, having failed to find one closer to home. That, unlike the general run of travel writers to northern destinations, Ismail belonged to the popular classes was also apparent in his observations and sentiments.

Indeed, on the very notion of travel, he put his finger on a fundamental difference between the vast majority of Egyptians and the wealthy elite. In the opening of his account, he observes: "Egyptians are a contented people and are disinclined to travel. This is due to a geographic factor which is their attachment to the land in whose blessings they are wealthy and from which the little they reap with their hands is sufficient. They do not aspire for more as long as they meet their needs, for theirs is not the nature to hoard. The only cause that would compel them to leave their homes is dire misfortune and urgent need."

We can, therefore, understand the reactions of Ismail's fellow villagers when he told them he was leaving to Sudan to work. "Those of my less fortunate acquaintances urged me to look for a job for them. As for the more well off, when I brought up the subject of Sudan they goggled and gaped as though I had committed some offence. Then their regard quickly turned sorrowful out of pity for that person standing before them who had been destined to be ejected from his village towards distant parts where God alone knew what fate held in store for him."

That those distant parts should be Sudan provoked considerable consternation given the commonly held impression of that country. Ismail relates that when he suggested that he take one of the younger servants with him, the girl's mother could not suppress her alarm. It was well-known that the Sudanese tribes kidnapped children and that "the birds there swoop down on bare heads, that tribal magicians can disembowel people without cutting the body open and can turn them into monkeys and cats... that the women in Sudan wear charms and amulets to keep sons from straying from their fathers and men from their families."

"From Cairo to Sudan" was serialised over several months, from the beginning of February to the middle of June 1934. Ismail concludes his first instalment with a poetic description of his departure from Cairo, late at night, on the first leg of his journey: "The lights of the city receded, their radiance gradually dimming as my heart beats followed the progress of the train until it reached the Nile and the pounding of the wheels on the tracks echoed into space, alerting my mind to the vast spaces that lay ahead while Cairo behind me shimmered like a halo or a glowing ember out of the depths of the dark."

In his second instalment, Ismail resumes his description of his trip on the midnight train to Upper Egypt. "The train was so full it could not possibly have accommodated more. The wiser passenger would have reserved a private carriage for himself and those with him so as not to be jarred out of sleep by various disturbances or brutally awakened by baggage tumbling down on him and his children whenever the train stopped in a station... Shortly after one stop I made my way to the washroom. To my surprise, I found heaps of men, women and children piled in an aisle, and blocking the door, shivering from the bitter cold in the middle of the night." This was clearly a delicate situation. He continues: "Their faces were set in a menacing glower, having readied themselves to resist the first person to threaten the place they were sitting. I, unfortunately, was that person. However, I quickly allayed their concerns by offering to give up my place to their women and children while I spent the rest of the night with their men in front of the washroom watching the stars move in their celestial constellations."

And there he must have remained until dawn when the train pulled into Luxor, "that royal city, the font of Egypt's ancient greatness and grandeur, the seat of its glory and might. This was Thebes, whose power extended to Syria, Babel, Assyria and Asia Minor to the north and to the land of Kush and the fourth cataract to the south."

The traveller endured much the same circumstances as his overcrowded train lumbered its way down to Aswan. This city, he reminds his readers, was the capital of the ancient princedom of Abu Asoun. "Here, too, lay the southern border of Egypt until the 12th dynasty, which then extended the realm up to the second cataract."

Unfortunately, railway authorities in Aswan rudely dragged the writer back to the present. "The train chose the first class carriages and two of the second class carriages, having decided to proceed to the cataract with only these silver, slender, shiny carriages, and indicated to its workers to detach the rest of the carriages with their cargo of women, children and elderly who were left to stumble with their luggage the rest of the way to the cataract. Yes, they told the rest of the second class passengers to move on to the two second class carriages chosen to complete the trip. I failed to understand the logic. How could those carriages that were already so full take on more passengers? In all events, I did not have the good fortune to be among those who climbed aboard."

Then, a "valorous" man stepped forward, rounded up the remaining passengers and had them cram into the rest of the train which, amidst the ubiquitous cries of children, took off to a destination unknown. "As for myself, I dropped my luggage and called out to a camel driver whose beast carried me through the plain from Aswan to the cataract as I cursed my fickle luck." After a lengthy trek, the camel dropped Ismail off at the dock beyond the cataract, where his journey on the poor people's train would end and his river journey commence -- on the poor people's boat.

There are some people who can make the best of the worst situation and, it appears that our young traveller, standing at the dock, was of that nature as he plunged himself deep into the contemplation of his surroundings. "I was overawed by the muteness of life amidst the silence of death, which inspired a humble reverence as I took in the furrowed escarpment between which the water flowed and lapped around the holy islands. Here were jutting rocks, lofty temples, suspended columns, ragged islands -- time has done its work and the water climbing up their heels has them clinging to one another in terror as they reach to the heavens for rescue. But death is inevitable, for I have learned that the rising water level due to the recent heightening of the dam has condemned them to certain drowning."

Ismail takes this opportunity to furnish readers with some useful historical and geographic information. "The ancient Egyptians once believed that the Nile emerged from these holy rocks. This belief continued as a sacred myth even after they had explored the river's upper reaches and learned that it came from distant lands. One historian relates : "There is a nile in the skies over foreign nations, which waters their land, their animals and all legged creatures. As for the Nile that waters Egypt, it flows beneath the land until it breaks through the surface of the earth."

And on the surface of the earth, Ismail was pained by much of what he saw. The crude huts, with no more than slits for doors or windows and resembling those of the poorest peasants in Egypt, did nothing to protect their inhabitants from the scorching heat of summer or the piercing cold of winter. Yet he was surprised when he repeated this observation to some of the locals by the fervour with which they defended their attachment to this craggy, desolate land. "If you gave them the opportunity to move to a more fertile area, they would still prefer to remain here, in spite of the arduousness of their life. Indeed, this occurred in parts of Nubia threatened by the rising reservoir. When offered the choice to move to fertile land, many preferred simply to move to higher ground in the same barren area."

Once on board the boat, Ismail was struck by how quickly passengers arranged themselves. "The people on the boat consisted of a mixture of diverse personalities and traits, the differences between which became apparent in the way they assembled into groups and factions. It was most peculiar how people recognised common tastes in others who barely an hour earlier had been complete strangers. Over there were the drunks around their cups the contents of which they had poured down their thirsty throats until, in their inebriated ecstasy, they were transported into song, their voices wavering and jarring with one another in a frightening cacophony. And there were the gamblers who had collected where the corridors meet at the foot of the stairway, a red carpet spread between them upon which their coins glittered as they studied their cards, impervious to that passenger standing on the staircase impatiently waiting for permission to pass."

The traveller then turns his attention again to the river through which the boat was cleaving its way southward. Here, he observes, the current was very slow as though the Nile, at this phase, enters a placid dotage after tiring from the burden it had been carrying those thousands of miles from the falls in the Ethiopian highlands. Because of the sluggish current, which was then brought to a near stop by the Aswan Dam, the rate of evaporation was much higher than elsewhere along the river. He notes that the Blue and White Nile carried 191 billion cubic metres of water into Sudan of which only 89 billion reached Wadi Halfa and only 81 billion reached Aswan. In other words, the water lost due to evaporation between Wadi Halfa and Aswan was three times that above Wadi Halfa, "even though the temperatures in the two regions are the same".

At Kalabsha, the width of the Nile narrowed to 300 metres. "It is thought that this rocky stretch of the river had once been a cataract but has long since eroded," Ismail notes, before informing his readers that Kalabsha fell precisely on the Tropic of Cancer and that it was the capital of the ancient Balmiz . At Kalabsha stood the remains of two great temples that had continued to function through the Hellenic, Roman and early Christian eras. It was here, too, that Ramses II was victorious over the Nubians.

Further up river, on the east bank, the boat passed Korsika, the juncture of the overland route to Sudan and, from the other side of the river, of the caravan route westwards towards North Africa.

Soon afterwards, the boat approached Abu Simbel on the west bank. "On this site there was once located a populous city called Abu Kis in which stood the Temple of Hathor. Carved into the cliff. This temple was constructed by Ramses II and his wife Nefartari whose statues and those of their children ornament the façade." As for Abu Simbel, "This is the largest Egyptian temple in Nubia. Its façade displays four statues of Ramses II sitting on his throne, his name etched on the chest and arm of each statue. Each statue is making offerings to the gods." The boat had obviously stopped to allow the curious to go inside. Ismail was not about to pass up the chance and briefly relates what he saw in the interior: a large hall, populated by statues of Osiris, flanked by eight chambers, two other halls, off of one of which was a chamber whose walls were covered in reliefs portraying Ramses II in battle.

The boat's next stop was Fars, the southern most point in Egypt in the age of the 12th dynasty. Soon afterwards, Halfa, the boat's final destination, appeared in the distance. "The passengers began to round up their children and collect their belongings. Many went to the front of the ship and others stayed back to appreciate the beauty of the scenery, the trees and palms overlooking the river, the minaret supervising the rows of colourful one-storey buildings."

On shore there stood a line of dock workers and porters "resembling the offspring of genies, with their wide eyes, their naked ebony arms and legs, muscles bulging with power and strength". As soon as the ship docked, the workers began to push a heavy steel scaffolding towards the ship, their leader encouraging it forward with regularly spaced shouts. Then a doctor came on board to examine the general state of health, after which the passengers descended to the passport controls where the arrivals' travel documents would be scrutinised before they were passed on to customs.

Customs was situated under what seemed like a makeshift corrugated iron covering. "And beneath that burning roof officials inspected one bag after the other, their owners watching in alarm as the inspectors opened their bags, rifled through the belongings that they had spent so many hours arranging, bundling up and packing, and then left the owners gawking helplessly at the resultant disaster with no-one to turn to for help." Ismail proceeds to relate his own experience:

"The inspector asked me whether I had any prohibited items with me. 'What's prohibited?' I asked. 'Sugar, perfumes, contraband.' I told him I had none. 'How much are the contents of this bag worth?' he asked. 'Three pounds.' 'A bag this heavy and only three pounds, you say? What's in it?' 'Some fabrics,' I informed him. 'That would up the value, don't you think? Open your bag.' I opened the suitcase and beheld lengths of costly coloured material. I had had no idea it was in there. The inspector said, 'If you lost this you'd only ask for three pounds compensation? You are not a cunning man.' Then he affixed his mark on the suitcase and on the rest of my bags without opening them and dispatched me. May God ease his heavy burdens."

Ismail was thus free to complete the last leg of his journey, by train again, the Sudanese version of the poor people's train this time. Although Sudan rail did not have the most glorious reputation, it did boast a unique fourth class vehicle, a wheeled platform that would accommodate one's pack animals and the owners mounted on top. Its trains were also famously slow, perhaps because of the hazards of the desert topography they had to move through. The young travel writer, however, was delighted. All passengers had seats reserved in advance and it was not crowded, unlike the midnight train to Upper Egypt that began full and acquired more passengers at every stop. Judging from his description of the interior of the train, Ismail was clearly not in fourth class. Passengers sat in closed compartments and could sit, sleep, eat and drink in privacy. He relates, "No sooner had I stored away my bags and took my seat than I saw a boy coming down the corridor selling what they call here 'jabana', which is coffee brewed in the Sudanese fashion in a clay vessel." There was perhaps another reason for Ismail's admiration of Sudanese trains, although he did not state this explicitly. He had spent a portion of his youth in Atbara, the headquarters of the Sudanese railways.

As the train left the station, "the clusters of palm trees and the shore of the Nile receded and the approaching desert emitted gusts of heat that seared one's face." He continues, "Wherever you looked you beheld two things and no more: the yellow sand and the blue sky, with not a single creature walking or flying in either." In the distance there shimmered what he referred to as a common sight to those familiar with the desert. Those distant lakes surrounded by trees were an illusion, "a mirage that the thirsty wanderer imagines signifies water but that always remain in the distance, as determined to recede as the wanderer is to reach it."

The first stop in Sudan was Dongola. An urban centre since pre-Christian times, "in the sixth century AD, the Christian King Suluku took this city as his capital, and the Arab historian, Abu Saleh, describes it as containing tall buildings similar to those in Iraq at that time." He adds, "These buildings were renovated by the Christian Nubian King Rafael in AD 1002."

The train continued on its way to Berber, a segment of the trip that inspired another lyrical passage in Ismail's account: "The jet-black night cast a dark heavy pall on the desert and in that darkness faint lights would come and go. As the train approached these lights, you could just make out a local man with a lamp in his hand, who was alone, with no more than one other of God's creatures with him. Cut off from the rest of the world in those remote stations, one of those men was the station inspector; the other you may call as you wish. There are 10 such stations in the midst of that vast expanse, their sole purpose being to supply the train with water." The train stopped at station number six, which was larger than its peers, as in addition to the customary huts, it contained a depot as well as a pumping station. The station master was reputed for his generosity, his home having become something of an inn for camel drivers coming from afar to fill up on water. Berber, the next stop, was an ancient juncture for caravans on their way to and from the Red Sea, but fell into decline after the railway was built connecting the Nile with the ports of Souakin and Port Sudan.

Finally, the train reached Atbara, where the Nile meets the Atbara, "that youthful river that flows from the Ethiopian heights and that starts from a volume of nothing and suddenly swells to 2,100 square metres a second." The city itself consisted of two halves divided by the railroad tracks. On one side, one found the various administration buildings and warehouses of the railroad authority, the homes of its mostly British functionaries, and expansive gardens, all tidily linked together by paved and electrically-lit streets. On the other side lay the native quarters, "its homes similar to those in rural Egypt with the exception that these stand on a small, walled-in plot of land even though they generally consist of no more than a single room." He adds, "This is because the native Sudanese really have no need for a lot of rooms because they sleep in the open air, the room itself being used to store the family belongings."

A large Christian community resided in Atbara, the reason being that Christians made up the largest portion of railroad workers. The community had a church and its own school that taught what was taught in Egyptian schools. Some students were sent to Aswan for the intermediary exams.

Residents of the city were, according to Ismail, dark-skinned, close to red in fact, and had Arab features. Their attire consisted of long cotton pants, shirt, vest and galabia, all white. Headgear was a lengthy cloth winded around and around. Women had their entire body swathed in cloth; only the bridge of the nose could be seen.

Following a relatively long stay in Atbara, Mohamed Ismail resumed his journey by train, again bound for Khartoum. After crossing the bridge over the Atbara, the train soon reached Shendi, "a large, old city, with gardens teeming with all sorts of fruits and vegetables". Shendi, he informs us, was the capital of the Shendi Kingdom at the time Mohamed Ali conquered Sudan. It then served as the base for the elite of the Egyptian army in Sudan and now as the base for the elite of the Sudanese army.

On this stretch of the journey, the writer observed how dramatically the colour of the earth had changed. It was now a rich black and home to numerous recently established agricultural companies. Here too, the view of the Nile was now obscured by "a broad ribbon of large succulent verdant trees interspersed by many ponds and inlets". He also noted that whenever the train passed a small hamlet, the village dogs would run, barking after the train and naked boys and girls would run up and shout out for loaves of bread. Although he had no cause to doubt the dire poverty of these villages, he tended to believe that running out to the passing train was more in the order of a form of entertainment for those children.

In his final instalment, which appeared in Al-Ahram of 16 June 1934, the author of "From Cairo to Sudan" describes the approaching "palaces and buildings of Khartoum". Although he promised to resume his account "in my next article", that article was never fated to appear. We will just have to assume that either the Al-Ahram management or its young travel writer thought that Khartoum was a convenient stopping point.

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