Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2011
Issue No. 1074
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Feng shui for the soul

Amira El-Naqeeb transcends into the realm of southern peace and calm

Click to view caption
Meeting with the Jidda felt like John Smith in Pochahantas

I have always been a conventional visitor to Aswan, making sure I went to all of the city's key sites while enduring a pleasant heat and exploring history. My itinerary would usually include visits to Philae Temple, the High Dam, maybe sailing on a felucca if time permits, and usually staying on a docked Nile cruiser if not at the iconic Old Cataract Hotel. For some reason, this city never stimulated the vagabond in me -- it seemed too sophisticated for my meandering ways -- until my last trip.

When I heard about Characters of Egypt taking place on the island of Heisa (cheering) in Aswan, the name was cheerful enough to put a smile on my face, but for me to go to Aswan is like wearing an evening gown to a wedding when I would rather wear my loose Punjabi pants. It just felt too formal in comparison to a laidback destination such as Dahab in South Sinai.

However, after spending three days on Heisa Island, I was very reluctant to write a single word about it out of sheer selfishness. I wanted the island to remain as it is -- untainted, virgin, without trespassers. I wanted the people to remain as they are, without corruption or greed or loss of identity that tourism sometimes brings to indigenous societies. I wanted them to remain simple, hospitable and wonderful.

Characters of Egypt

The festival began three years ago and is the brainchild of Walid Ramadan, an expert in eco-tourism. The idea was to invite tribes from different parts of Egypt to showcase their traditions, folklore, laws, history and crafts. The programme of the three-day event was very diverse and catered to all tastes, including lectures by tribe members about their history and tribal laws.

There were also open discussions where the audience could ask the tribes questions and have an open dialogue. The evenings were mostly dedicated to poetry, singing and dancing, where the tribes engage with the audience. There were also open-microphone sessions for everyone to demonstrate their talents, organised by a cultural initiative called El-Mareekh (Project Mars) which is a group of young Egyptians promoting self-expression among Egyptian youth.

The festival started at 10am on 27th of October 2011 on the island of Heisa, as eight tribes from across Egypt arrived by boat one after the next carrying a banner with its name on it. Then each tribe was allotted a time slot to perform their music and dance traditions. Amr El-Ezabi, head of the Egyptian Tourism Authority, led the welcome committee receiving the tribes.

The first to arrive was El-Farafra tribe, followed by South Sinai and North Sinai tribes; we waited atop a small hill, watching the dancing and the folklore singing. El-Basharia and El-Ababda came next, then the Nubians who were the only group with female dancers since other tribes mostly sent men to the festival.

Siwans had distinguished costumes with sirwal ( loose trousers) and a qamees (long tunic) made from a polyester off-white fabric called bisaa. There was also another tribe called El-Shararat, a tribe mostly located in El-Wadi El-Gedid and originates from Saudi Arabia. It has other branches in Egypt's Red Sea region and Giza.

Another very interesting activity at the festival was Art Therapy, where psychiatrist and art therapist Suzanne Radwan gave people of all ages painting tools and asked them to paint at leisure. Later, she would analyse the drawings. On the second day, visitors came from all over the island to participate in this activity, especially the children.

Soon, there were people sitting at every corner drawing and adding more beauty to the splendor of the setting.

The spot Radwan chose for the sessions was in the midst of granite rocks, fringed with verdant and fresh greenery on the banks of the Nile River. The location felt almost sacred, and the placid undisturbed river was inspirational, seducing visitors to open up and release their souls. It was impossible for me not to take the opportunity of the setting sun to lead the group in a guided meditation session to connect with our divine surroundings. This became a ritual for the remainder of the festival, and spread by word-of-mouth among festival goers who gathered at the 'Nation of Peace' area, as I called it.

The beehive of workers behind making the festival successful was the volunteers -- who seemed to outnumber visitors.

According to Rami Tadros, head of the transportation committee, there were almost 100 volunteer. I was curious about the selection process since they all seemed to have the same background and were well-coordinated amongst themselves. "We asked for volunteers on Facebook," Tadros explained. "The reason there is harmony among them is probably because most of them volunteered in previous years or have similar experience helping out in NGOs."

There were many committees inside the festival and every volunteer is allotted certain tasks within a committee and directed by a head for the committee.


There were two types of accommodations on the island; one is camping and the other renting a Nubian house. Both options were well-planned and sponsored by festival organisers who provided camping tents, or visitors could rent tent space which was around LE50, on the campsite and use their own camping equipment. The price for renting a Nubian house, or sharing one of the rooms with a family, starts from LE 150.

This was the first time that Heisa inhabitants rented out their own homes. According to 'Am Seif who has a beautiful blue and white spacious house roofed with palm fronds and furnished in a very simple style, residents who were interested in renting out their homes contacted festival organisers so they can be put on a list of eligible available houses. "Since most of those on the island are relatives, it was easy to move to any of the houses on the island for three days and benefit from the extra income," said 'Am Seif.

While on Heisa, I made a new friend. A beautiful 23 old-Nubian girl called Awaada who was my guide for two days. Awaada's smile and bright eyes were my gateway to all the beautiful souls I met on the island, who opened their homes and hearts to me. We were like carefree children, walking all day long on the island through narrow winding streets, occasionally catching our breath on a cliff with a majestic view that literally took your breath away.

According to Heisa inhabitants, the island is not on the tourist map and rarely do tourists make their way here. However, their openness and warm welcome of outsiders made it seem like they have done this all their life.

The houses on the island are mostly made of silt and coated with lime stone. Some are white-washed with blue doors, typically found on some Greek island or in Sidi Abu Saeed in Tunisia. There are also houses painted in sunny yellow, burgundy, aqua or raw sienna, making them seem from a distance as if they were made out of Lego blocks.

The houses are comfortably spaced out and only rise one or two stories high, which makes the island seem very spaciousness. One of the astounding views is a combination of granite rock formations in random shapes with greenery sprouting at their feet, and glistening sunrays bouncing off the water surface making it look like a surface made of mirror.

Meeting the Grandmother ( El-Jidda )

Remember the scene from the movie Pocahontas when she took John Smith to meet Grandma Willow, and he was surprised to see the tree starting to have features as she began smiling and talking? When I saw El-Jidda, I felt I was meeting a character that did not belong to this world. I felt a cloak of tranquility emanating from her and engulfing me; it was a rare sensation.

She looked in her 70s and had a smile that lights up a room. The thin lines grooved around the corners of her mouth when she smiled revealed the wisdom of the years, and a promise of many stories to tell. She received Awaada and me at the door. As soon as I saw her I wanted to hug her, and she let me. I sat on a straw mat in her beautiful light blue house, while she went to make tea for us and shooed some wandering goats.

I was only there for about 30 minutes but that was enough time to recharge my aura, and leave me pulsating with serenity. After drinking the tea, Awaada and I left to continue our tour of the island and go back to the festival before it became too dark.

Although Heisa was never a tourist destination, most of the men on the island work in the tourism industry, essentially at Philae Temple as boatmen transporting tourists. Some of them own the boats they sail, while others only work on them. Another source of income is selling handcrafted souvenirs to tourists made by the Nubian women in the village. Another career option is only open to those with an education, namely a job with the government.

"This is like a backbone for us to be able to sustain our families when tourism goes down," explained Abdel-Sabour Demerdash, who works in the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation. "We have been living hand-to-mouth after the 25th of January Revolution since there were no tourists coming at all."

I asked Demerdash about sightseeing in the area, and he suggested a valuable tour would be of the Nubian villages. Tourists and Egyptians staying on Heisa or just visiting there can go to see Awaad's village, the closest and just across from Heisa and can only be reached by boat. There are also other Nubian villages that are worth seeing like Biga, Tingar and the more famous Gharb Soheel, where the famous Nubian Hotel Anna Kato is located. He suggested that this tour should be included on the itinerary of tour operators in order for Egyptian and non-Egyptian tourists to sample Nubian Culture and way of life.

Another remarkable feature of the island, according to Hag Ahmed El-Maged (aka Ahmed Heisa), is that Heisa was never evacuated before or after the High Dam was built. Many Nubian villages had to be evacuated after building the dam because of rising water levels. "I'm 60; my ancestors lived here and never left," El-Maged said.

I came back to visit the next day and tasted traditional Nubian bread called Sanasel. It's made out of corn flour and water, and the dough is left to ferment; it was too sour for my taste. One thing I learned was that I should cut down on drinks before visiting the island since in every house I visited, I was offered something to drink and it would be rude to turn down the generous offer. Also, you don't want to miss the homemade karkade (hibiscus) drink.

Nubia has always had a separate identity; it was the third star on the old Egyptian flag that represented Egypt, Nubia and Sudan. Nubia declined with the fall of the Ancient Kingdom of Kush that was a Nubian state and one of the greatest civilisations that ruled Egypt for 100 years during the third Intermediate Period. "Nubian land is formed from Nubian granite," revealed Mohamed El-Tedawi, a researcher of Egyptian history. "The geological terrain of the region is what gave it its reputation."

The first documented mention of the island of Heisa was during the Sixth Dynasty ruled by Merenre. They were using the island to extract Nubian granite to make royal coffins, and the granite is famous for its Herculean durability. "It is the oldest site where Nubians were not evacuated after High Dam water levels rose to 186 metres. Another area that was not relocated is the region of the clan of Nubian Kenooz," El-Tedawi added.


If you are staying in Aswan itself (inland) you can take a taxi for LE20 to the dock for the Island of Heisa, and from there take a boat to the island for LE50. From the island itself, you can take a boat to Philae Temple at a cost of LE40 for Egyptians and LE60 for foreigners.

El-Soug (the market)

Aswan is famous for many goods including hibiscus, peanuts, Sudanese henna, and a variety of herbs and spices, so visiting the local market cannot be missed. My newest discovery was hand-crafted Nubian coasters that come in different sizes and a combination of very bright beautiful colours made from straw and colourful thread. Make sure to bargain with vendors because prices vary from one shop to another. Although they are originally made to be used as coasters, they can also be used as wall art -- at least that's what I decided to do with mine.

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