Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 March 2009
Issue No. 938
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Aswan -- what Cairo once was

Alaa Abdel-Ghani visits the Upper Egyptian city where time often stands still

Click to view caption
A view of Aswan from the rooftop of Basma Hotel; the tomb of Aga Khan atop sand and rock hills; the vastness of the High Dam; on the Nile; inside Philae Temple

The moment I leave Cairo, heading anywhere inside Egypt, I am constantly reminded of the hugely successful 1980s Egyptian comedy play Shahed Mashafsh Haga (The Witness Who Saw Nothing). During a courtroom break, star Adel Imam indulges in light-hearted banter with a lowly clerk who tells Imam he has seven children.

"The kids, my wife and I, and my mother-in- law, we all live in one room."

"All in one room?" a bewildered Imam asks. "You leave all the other rooms in the house and stay in one room?"

"Sir," the clerk replies with similar befuddlement, "the house is one room."

That's Cairo... almost. Egypt actually has many, many rooms, but many of them have been abandoned by their inhabitants in search of better job opportunities in Cairo. In the process, they have crammed the capital to breaking and boiling point, leaving behind endless stretches of both greenery and desert, vastness so great and so under-populated you cannot but wonder how totally better Cairo would be if its wall-to-wall people were to spread out and evenly occupy all that empty territory available elsewhere.

This haphazard migration has tilted Egypt heavily in Cairo's disfavour; too much in the capital, few and far between everywhere else. Sometimes, we in Cairo fight back the only way we know how: by leaving it, if only temporarily. I left my wife and three teenage children to brainstorm where this lucky spot awaiting us for a brief holiday would be. They took aim, fired and, bullseye, they struck Upper Egypt. Aswan to be exact.

Even though this was the end of January, during the mid-year school and university holidays, and the two biggest and most famous hotels in Aswan, the old and new Cataracts, were closed for renovation, we still were able to book a hotel when it would normally have taken at least a month in advance to do so. Our tourist office said we were fortunate because the global economic crisis had started to take its toll. More and more people, here and abroad, were deciding to stay home for the holidays to save pennies and piastres.

We weren't so lucky with the train we wanted to take. Berth trains had all been booked; airfare was LE1,300 a head -- too expensive, we thought, for a four-day trip. So we grudgingly settled for a train without beds.

The seats on board the bedless train were comfortable enough, with ample leg room, but this was to be a 14-hour trip, and on such a marathon, even Lazyboy recliners would not suffice. As we pulled out of Ramses Station, we knew the start of this 680-kilometre odyssey would not be a joy ride.

For me, in particular, such a long-distance journey could have serious repercussions. Being a former blood clot victim suffering from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), inflicted by sitting too long in cramped quarters, another clot could not be ruled out. The avoidance of a second unwelcome clot would mean getting up from time to time, doing Jane Fonda stretch exercises, pacing the aisles every once in a while, and drinking plenty of water.

I did nothing of the sort.

It was the start of night and the monotony of the choo-choo helped me to snore off at regular intervals. Besides, it was dark, and although the diesel made stops at Beni Sweif, Minya, Sohag, Assiut, Qena and Luxor, these cities all looked alike because in the dark everything looks the same. Eerie after eerie scene replicated itself -- dusty, empty roads, greyish shuddered buildings a few storeys tall, and the streets lit meekly by rows of weak street lamps emitting yellowish dull light, incapable of doing the task they are intended for.

In Aswan, we stayed at Basma, a four-star-plus hotel (didn't know hotels had plus and minus categories). But just like I never heard of a plus hotel, I never saw a receptionist escort a patron all the way to his hotel room, and from the Basma lobby to our room stood a daunting 119 steps in the middle. But that's exactly what our kindly receptionist did. And because my wife was nowhere to be found when this extreme courtesy was taking place (she was -- surprise, surprise -- scouring the shops nearby), when she finally appeared, the receptionist made the 119-step trip again. But he took the whole thing in stride, literally, and his smile was genuinely friendly.

Basma was approximately a half hour walk from the city centre. Perched atop a hill, the hotel's venue provided those picture postcard views of the majestic Nile. The bad news was that Basma is situated on a hill so steep that drivers of horse buggies cannot take you all the way to the hotel. They have to drop you off once the gradient becomes too acute for the horse. If horses can't make the climb, you can imagine what it must be like for humans.

The Nubian Museum was located opposite the hotel, providing our first official taste of Aswan's history.

We took a motorboat on that first day, a sailboat the following day. The trips were two hours each, LE85 for the motorboat and LE80 for the sailboat (the extra LE5 was because petrol power is more expensive than wind, which is for free). The "captains" would point out places of interest, mostly what interested them, including a house belonging to folk singer Mohamed Mounir who hails from these parts.

We ventured into a park with plants that had all sorts of unpronounceable scientific names written on affixed labels. We visited what was billed an alligator island, but which was really composed of one lazy, small croc who appeared -- or was it just our imagination? -- to giggle every time its owner prodded him with a stick to his side.

Upon chow time, a taxi driver recommended Masry. The food was nothing special, but the service was astounding in terms of speed. I had never seen food and drink come to us so quickly, almost as if the waiter knew what we would order in advance (maybe he did because the variety on the menu wasn't too much).

Whatever the explanation, it was fast food.

Back to sightseeing. Philae Temple, built to honour Isis and the last ancient temple in the classical Egyptian architectural style, would leave you a tad disappointed if you're looking to compare with the giant rock art found at Luxor Temple -- the large ancient Egyptian temple complex. There are people who within their souls, passions stir when they are in the sacred presence of ancient, sacrosanct tombs. To me, today, I'm in the presence of just some old rocks. Yet I tried mightily to show awe, at least in front of the children.

The children had all taken the High Dam in their school textbooks but had never seen it, not even in pictures. They weren't all that impressed when they eventually got a close-up, the littlest one saying he had thought he would see a waterfall. Instead, the dam is still. I knew it would be so, and was given added information by my scholarly family that the High Dam was this quintessential water project meant to prevent the River Nile's flooding, generate electricity and provide water for agriculture. The dam is not the Pyramids, but remains one of the biggest edifices ever built in Egypt, the pride of the Nasser era.

By now I had noticed a few things about Aswan which didn't quite gel. Many of Aswan's 275,000 population were not as dark as I had presupposed. The darker pigmentation permeates more their cousins in Luxor. But Aswan is closer to Sudan (where ebony rules) than Luxor, so the logical conclusion is that folks born in Aswan should be of a skin hue darker than the residents of Luxor. Not so.

Just as mysterious is why the southern part of Egypt is called Upper Egypt. How can the region be up when it's down? Consulting with an Atlas, I found the reason why: the Nile flows from the highlands of East Africa (upstream) to the Mediterranean Sea (downstream).

I had no trouble figuring out the biggest problem in Aswan: if you're an Egyptian tourist, the locals charge you the same prices as foreigners. That might seem egalitarian, but $20 for a Westerner, citing an example, is but LE20 for an Egyptian, whereas the same amount of money ($20 is approximately LE110) shelled out by an Egyptian could put him in intensive care. For sure, the sellers of Aswan realise this but care not a fig.

The marketplace or souk provided our night entertainment. The hawkers are busy at work loudly promoting their herbs, nuts and other famed Aswan items. They do so in several tongues; they appear to have a good command of German, Italian, French and English. They seem so fluent that they could make it as simultaneous interpreters at the UN. They have, in fact, been practising since childhood the art of selling to foreigners. But we did not hear them speak any Asian dialect, making them unable to connect with the large portion of customers from Japan and South Korea.

During three separate visits to the souk, I saw not one foreigner part with even one pound. They would walk around in groups, shepherded by a guide who probably forewarned them to either bargain to get rock bottom prices or buy nothing at all, and above all else, not to be cowed or rattled in the face of pushy shopkeepers eager to make a kill.

Foreign tourists in Aswan range generally from middle-aged to elderly. They are not the teeny- bopper bikini crowd roaming the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada. Aswan is not modern, glitzy or glittering. Aswan is staid and unpretentious. Its present is its past and it's not embarrassed to show it.

The best way to describe Aswan is to hark back to Cairo in the 1960s, when life was simple and relaxing, when there were, oh, about seven cars on the street, when the metre-to-man ratio was more than acceptable, when the weather was nice all year round, as were the people. Aswan is serene, blissful, calm, quiet. Choose any similar adjective and you would be correct.

Blithely strolling Aswan's Nile corniche, you cannot help but remember yesteryear. But you are also quickly jolted by the reality that if you follow the same waters of the Nile long enough, you will ultimately land up in the court clerk's sardine-packed room.

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