Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

My home is yours

Gharb Soheil village is rediscovered through Sherif Sonbol 's lens

Click to view caption
Ana Kato Hotel, the jewel in the crown of Gharb Soheil

In 1995, I went to Aswan with a colleague on a serious political economic mission. My colleague only does politics stories while I do photography, and mostly enjoy to take pictures of beauty. On the road from Aswan International Airport to the city, we always cross the Aswan Dam; it is a beautiful construction that does not actually look like an ugly concrete dam. It is also heavily guarded by the military.

Cars are neither allowed to stop nor make U-turns there, which is very good for security and traffic but no good for photographers who always seem to get in the way. I looked to the left and saw a beautiful scene, and naturally wanted to take a picture, but it was impossible to stop or park or make a turn. We had a brief discussion and after a quick glance at her watch and the scene, she agreed that we should turn back so I can take the shot.

A few metres south, my eyes had fell on the stunning yet completely unknown Gharb Soheil village, with its beautiful architecture of very basic lines and no tourists at all. Taken by its beauty, we stopped there for a few minutes. I have seen the Nile everywhere in Egypt, but here it felt different. It was alive with sound and movement, lapping against small cataracts. In contrast to the Nile, the village seemed deserted with only Nubian children around.

In 1999, Khaled Wagdi, a pharmacist, went with his Nubian friend Mahmoud Hamed to visit Gharb Soheil. He too was mesmerised by the charm of the tiny village on Aswan's West Bank, going back several times over five years to live with his Nubian friends in their homes. Ibrahim Abdeen, Yehia Taher and El-Rayes Abdel Hareth were his hosts, and Wagdi developed a passion for the place.

I myself had been visiting Luxor and staying at the Gezira Hotel on the West Bank to work on a book project, and was accompanied by a close friend who closely inspects details in Pharaonic tombs while I am busy with technicalities. The hotel manager was a Nubian man called Ustaz Ibrahim who shared with us his dream of returning to his home village to build a Nubian house with friends.

I called Ustaz Ibrahim once to say hello and he told me the good news; he had finally moved back to Aswan, to Gharb Soheil. It turns out that Ustaz Ibrahim is Ibrahim Abdeen, one of Wagdi's three Nubian friends and they started a project known as Ana Kato Hotel.

It seems Wagdi was so taken by the location that he kept returning to this dream spot and walking on the sandy beach with his friends; there is no television, no satellite, no intrusions here. He finally asked Taher's permission to build a house on his land on the Nile, where he can stay and spend holidays with friends. Taher talked it over with his childhood friend Ibrahim and it was a tough decision.

Historically, Nubians are the natives of northern Sudan and southern Egypt dating back to the dawn of civilisation. Nubians first settled along the banks of the Nile in Aswan and from there carved one of the oldest and grandest cultures in Africa. Their civilisation was the only one that equalled that of Egypt until five centuries ago when they lost their last kingdom.

In Sudan and Egypt, Nubians were forced to relocate due to flooding and inundation of their homelands by dams constructed south of Egypt. In the 1930s, a large number of their villages were entirely submerged; while some of them chose to move farther north into Egypt, the majority stayed in their countries and rebuilt their homes on higher ground above the new shoreline. In Egypt, they live on Soheil Island, Gharb Soheil village, and a handful of islands around Philae Temple.

When they were first evacuated, Nubians were promised new land on the Nile but never received anything except ugly houses far from the Nile, and thus they lost their land and homes among many other things. Today, those who still live by the Nile never even discuss selling their land.

They are a closed community; you can visit, enjoy a meal at their home, sip on tea, but nothing more than that. For almost 6,000 years they have remained closed to outsiders except for a few. After long negotiations, Wagdi reached an agreement with Taher to build a house on his land, relying on word of honour without a written contract.

My friend and I decided to visit Ustaz Ibrahim at his home island, and he was waiting for us in traditional costume, looking like splendid Nubian royalty.

One of Aswan's rarely visited attractions is the Noble Tombs and churches on the West Bank close to Gharb Soheil village. The less trodden path needs a boat ride from Aswan followed by a camel ride along the shore leading to the Nubian homes where they host guests for tea and maybe a meal, as well as a small Nubian market.

The trip is a good opportunity for tour guides and Nubian camel owners to make money, yet the two sides often quarrelled about how to divide revenues, with guides insisting on taking the lion's share of the modest tour. The unfair division and stubbornness of Noble Tomb residents during negotiations provoked tour guides to move their business one kilometre to the north, close to Gharb Soheil village to a place known as The Beach.

The Beach is also known among Nubians as BerBer. Oddly enough, it is a sand beach on the Nile and is also famous among tourists as the Mausoleum of Agha Khan. Tour guides struck a new deal with the Nubians: take the boat to BerBer then a 30-minute camel ride (Run by the Gharb Soheil Nubians) to the motor boat port and back to Aswan. Nubians at the village, as always, invited tourists into their homes for tea and even a small meal. In turn, tourists would make a monetary donation as they saw fit. Naturally, the Nubians did not negotiate the amount and did not complain if no money was given. As business started to pick up, the locals decided to grab the opportunity and opened a special handicraft market selling African and Nubian products. A couple of carpet makers started weaving patterns on a loom in the street in front of their houses, and gradually the market became a symbol of Gharb Soheil. Shopping at this very friendly market is a true pleasure where you can buy, bargain or visit a home for tea and a quick meal with minimal hassle -- so far.

The only problem seems to be the tour guides who are always in a hurry, rushing their guests to quickly take the camel tour and leave for other sites in Aswan -- understandably since there is so much to do around town. Between scheduled dinners, the sound and light show, and other key attractions, no wonder they don't allow guests more time to admire and enjoy Nubian beauty. By sheer chance, Wagdi's and Taher's project lay in the middle of the camel route.

Since revenue from camel tours on the BerBer was not enough, Wagdi and Abdeen thought of a new project that would help locals earn more. In their attempt to make the village more profitable and have tourists stay longer -- and hence spend more money -- they decided to transform their existing house into an Ecological Hotel.

Ecological hotel is a term to describe a hotel that has made improvements to its design in order to match the environment. Fortunately, they did not have to make any improvements since their house was already built to match the environment. They called it Ana Kato which means 'Our House' in Nubian.

Gharb Soheil village is not overrun with tourists and is home to only two hotels -- Ana Kato I and II, with a handful of rooms in each, which keeps the number of tourists in Gharb Soheil low. The owners have very strict rules, such as all the staff must be from Gharb Soheil, the driver is Shazly, son of co-founder Abdel-Hareth who lives next door, the boatman is from the village and so is the cook.

Ana Kato I, the first phase of the project, has eight rooms, four on the ground floor and four on the first styled as colourful traditional Nubian homes. All the rooms are very clean; the four on the ground floor are relatively spacious, some with two beds, others with one large bed. The upstairs rooms are smaller but with large terraces that eclipse the space indoors.

The hotel has many small stairs and two open-air restaurants with a view of the Nile a few metres away that only a poet could do justice. Even artists go there just to paint. The weather in Aswan is best in winter; sunny and clear. At noon it is warm for lunch but at night it can get a little chilly. In summer, open air lunch is still a good idea but requires an umbrella to avoid sunburn and heat stroke -- or at least a high SPF sunscreen.

When I was a child, we called small row boats felucca but today tour guides take their clients on big sail boats and borrow the name of the smaller boats to make it seem more romantic. I was delighted, however, to find a few people in the tourism industry who still use the proper name for the small boats. Ana Kato has long stairs leading to the boat wharf where there is a simple (small) felucca or a motorboat that you can use in the morning for breakfast in the middle of the Nile. You can actually enjoy this treat at all three meals if you so desire.

Ana Kato can also be categorised as a boutique hotel, but whether boutique or ecological I think it is the most romantic hotel I have ever seen. The hotel manager, and his secretary are an important part of the team who are very helpful and available at any time. They do not bother you with unnecessary smiles, but give you their cell phone numbers so you can call them at any time of day or night.

Ana Kato is expanding with Ana Kato II and III. It also has rooms in the village, making local villagers regret building ugly concrete houses. In fact, some of them are now rebuilding their collapsing houses and in their stead constructing ones with vaults. and decorating them in traditional style, and even renting rooms to tourists.

Nubians have strong social solidarity which is why you will never see a Nubian beggar. Ana Kato is trying to do the same; with hotel profits, Wagdi has built a mosque and a school teaching the extinct Nubian language as well as a normal school syllabus of English, Arabic and mathematics. Those who graduate are immediately employed at one of the three Ana Katos. They also own several projects in Gharb Soheil and Soheil Island.

Wagdi tells the people of Gharb Soheil that he is not doing anything unusual. "Nubians are like tea, and tourists are like sugar," he says. "All I'm doing is playing the role of a spoon."

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