Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Birds in the Land of Gold

Rania Khallaf writes on a bird-watching expedition to Nubia, the legendary Land of Gold

Al-Ahram Weekly

When I got an invitation to travel to Nubia to participate in a bird-watching workshop with Egyptian bird watcher and photographer Watter Al-Bahri, I thought it was a brilliant chance to experience this legendary land and understand more about it. I had read about Nubia and the drama of forced emigration in novels by Nubian writers such as Haggag Odoul and Idris Ali, and their stimulating stories and unique characters still haunt my memory.

However, when it came to bird watching, I gasped. I have an old antagonism towards birds, especially wild ones. I have never had the courage to even touch their feathers. To calm me down, Al-Bahri told me in an encouraging tone “you are in the right place. I am sure you will fall in love with birds.” Desperately I commented “let’s try”.

Our journey to Nubia started late at night on 25 November. We arrived at Aswan Airport at 12am, and it was completely silent. The lack of tourists was evident, casting a gloomy shadow on the place. We took a microbus to Al-Shallal Street in the Shasha Mountain area, where our hostel the Fekra Cultural Centre was located.

The two-floor building is primitive, but beautiful. Built in a mixture of stone, wood and iron, with its walls ornamented with simple Nubian motifs, it is very relaxing. It is located on the shores of the Philae Lake. When I woke up in the morning, it was fantastic and relaxing to see the beauty of the scene.

With the exception of one young man, Abanoub Sharobeem, it was an all-women group. Young, independent women from Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said are perhaps surprisingly interested in adventure and wildlife trips in Egypt. Ready with the required tools of cameras, rubber boots and torches, we woke up early on the first day to practice yoga and meditation with coach Al-Bahri.

The simple breakfast, served outdoors with locally baked shamsy bread, was a chance for socialisation and the exchange of funny comments. Afterwards, Al-Bahri gave a short lecture on bird and nature photography. “Wildlife photography requires knowledge of all photographic fields, including sports photography. This helps catch the right shot of the birds’ quick movements, whereas portrait photography helps you to take good pictures of an individual bird,” he said.

“Composition is what really matters in landscape photography, and it takes some time to make a good composition.”  

On the second day, I had a short interview with Dina Al-Banna, an energetic volunteer responsible for the trip’s logistics. Graduating in 2008, she studied marketing at the Arab Academy of Science, Technology and Maritime Studies. She then travelled to Italy to study fashion design for a year and worked as a stylist. She travelled to India and studied yoga and healing courses.

“I visited the Fekra Centre in 2010 for a yoga retreat. The experience was a turning point in my life. It was then that I decided I wanted to quit my job and just expose myself to new travel experiences,” she said.

“My job at Fekra is to manage retreat programmes including photography, yoga, and farming. I am learning more about traditional music and arts related to this specific place, such as henna drawing, crocheting, copper-making, wire handicrafts and so on in order to add more culture-related programmes.”

“After the 1997 terrorist attacks in Luxor, the tourism in Aswan and Luxor dramatically changed from cultural tourism to package tourism,” said Abdel-Khalek Al-Betiti, a tourism expert and the owner of the Fekra Centre.

“This is what made me think of establishing this untraditional project. I thought of making this private farm into an art centre. With the help of friends, we decided to establish this centre to attract people interested in all kinds of arts and activities,” he explained.

“The idea is to host cultural programmes or courses. We are not a motel for regular tourists, and this is not a commercial project. However, I believe we can make a marginal profit from hosting cultural activities.”

“All programmes offered at the centre end in May, when we celebrate the International Day for Migrating Birds, and start over again in October,” he added.

In Aswan and Luxor, photography has grown to become a popular cultural activity. Amateurs participate in local competitions and exhibitions at low cost. Mona Rageh, a photographer from Aswan and member of the Aswan Camera Club, joined the group on the second day. She said that the Aswan Club was lacking activities because of administrative problems.

However, Rageh, 34, a civil servant, supervises photography workshops and hopes that Fekra will play a more active role in the cultural scene in Aswan, especially as it is one of the few independent cultural organisations in Upper Egypt.

Our first destination was the Philae Temple. On our way by boat, we stopped several times for bird watching, photography and meditation. It was my first encounter with large flocks of birds. In the first few minutes I felt dreadful. However, when we came closer and watched ospreys peacefully flying over the isolated land, I started to feel I was part of the natural scene.

Watching wild ospreys, famous for their ability to dive into water to catch fish, was a joy and released my animus against wild birds.

The grey heron is another interesting species. A long-legged predatory wading bird, it was amusing to watch it moving over the surface of the water. With their grey, black and white feathers, they look fantastic as they stand with their necks stretched out looking for food. The birds stand one metre tall and have a wingspan of two metres. As they stretch their wings, they look as if they are inviting you to get involved in the beautiful nature around them.  

There were a few felucca boats floating on the waters carrying fishermen in bright white galabiyas to catch tilapia fish. It was a chance to meditate and inhale fresh air and a marvellous scene in its own right.

Towards Philae: As we headed towards the Philae Temple, huge blocks of stone of different shapes came into view, stimulating the imagination. We also watched water buffalos wandering peacefully on small islands, while black kites roamed high above our heads.
The colours of the rocks were amazing, with marvellous degrees of grey, white and brown. There was the blue sky, the colourful rocks and green bushes, and the blue waters: a splendid landscape scene.

Every now and then Al-Bahri would break the silence to explain some facts about the surrounding birds or to give directions on the right moment to take pictures. “The great cormorant eats double its own weight in food. It dives into the water to a depth of five metres in order to catch food and rise up again,” he explained, pointing to an approaching flock.

He pointed at a flock of ferruginous ducks and we started following them by boat. Al-Bahri described the composition of the ducks: the males at the head and the females in the middle. “Are you ready for the chase,” he shouted.

The flock flew away, and then landed in another area. The boatman manoeuvred while we hastened to take pictures from different angles.

I came to realise that as you spend more time surrounded by birds, they stimulate your instinctive yearning for hunting, making you feel like a child playing a hunting game. It was like finding a good companion and befriending nature.  

We watched different kinds of egrets, a long-legged bird that has a long neck and bill and white feathers. Then we found an Egyptian goose, one of the famous birds depicted on the walls of tombs by the ancient Egyptians.

It was amusing to distinguish the different noises the birds made, whether cheerful or warning tones.

Finally we reached the Philae Temple. Known as the Isis Temple as it was dedicated to the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, it was submerged after the building of the Aswan High Dam in the sixties. It was relocated by the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO to a nearby area as a result, and as we moved through the area by boat we could watch the high columns remaining from the relocation process which are the living proof of the original location.

Surprising enough, the columns are now used by birds as surveillance posts to watch other creatures coming, including us. It looked as if the birds standing on top of the columns were the witnesses to history.

Entering the temple, the gates leading to the main hall made me feel as if I was embarking on a journey into myself and discovering my unique identity. The temple witnessed the establishment of the very first church in Egypt during the period of the Roman persecution of the early Christians. The historical records tell us that Bishop Theodore built a church inside the temple, marking the triumph of Christianity over paganism in the sixth century CE.

The temple was also once used to house Napoleon’s army during the French Expedition to Egypt in 1799, and there are phrases written in French on one of the walls. Touring the temple was healing therapy in itself.

The construction of the temple is also fantastic, especially the columned shrine, which consists of ten columns, each adorned with a lotus flower, as Isis was infatuated with flowers. We stayed at the temple for two hours. The fact that it is located in the heart of the lake is mesmerising.

Afterwards we sailed by boat to another magnificent site near the Hayssa village. The place was perfectly silent. It was a warm afternoon — time for meditation. Lying down on the ground, the sight of huge rocks, with their marvellous colours and incredible shapes, and the reflection of the mountains on the surface of the Nile made me feel I was in an imaginary world.

On the second day we made our way to the Gharb Suheil village. This was another brilliant experience. Getting to deal with the Nubians was another source of joy. We had our lunch at a Nubian hotel overlooking a marvellous scene: a series of small yellow boats, linked together by ropes, floating peacefully on the water. The food was excellent and had an exotic Nubian flavour. After lunch we went on a tour of the village.

Unlike in some of the other villages, people here looked content. The children riding camels in the main road looked happy, and they hastened to wave to us in warm welcoming gestures as if we were foreigners. The main road was crowded with small shops on the ground floors of the houses. All sorts of herbs could be found, and there was a wide range of wonderful handicrafts on show: wooden Nubian dolls and other artistic shapes made of palms.

Aside from the shops, usually controlled by men, Nubian women chased after us to sell us their products. You bargained, and then they would stop for a while to consult each other and talk together in Nubian to make sure it was okay to reduce the price.

On the third day, we were exhausted, but still excited to see more of Nubia. After having our usual breakfast, we headed towards the Hayssa Village, the closest to our hostel. We stopped at one of the islands in the region between the High Dam and the Aswan Dam where the Nile is very wide.

The boat stopped a few metres away from the land, and those who had not brought rubber boots, like myself, had to take off our shoes. Most of us walked in the mud to look at wild plants such as akasha and the black kites feeding on them. With screams and laughter, we went on walking in the mud and took good shots of many aspects of the land, including the remains of deserted houses believed to be the ruins of submerged Nubian houses. It was gloomy and yet beautiful.

As the rest of the group were busy taking pictures, I opted for a short walk towards a distant rock. I did not realise that the mud in that direction was too wet. Dramatically, my legs got stuck in the mud. I thought I could easily get out of the mud and move forward. But I couldn’t. Minutes later, my legs up to my knees had also got stuck in the mud. I screamed for help. Al-Bahri hastened to help me, giving orders to two Nubian men to drag me out. It turned out to be tricky, and it took them half an hour to push me out without themselves getting stuck there.

It was a lifetime’s lesson on how to read the road and how to avoid muddy and rocky tracks.

After I had been saved, we went to the Hayssa Village to rest, wash and change our clothes, which were completely ruined by the mud. Then we had a delicious lunch at a Nubian house on the banks of the Nile: fresh grilled fish was good compensation for the day’s drama.

It was half an hour before sunset, so we hastened for a last tour of the village. Unlike Gharb Suheil, Hayssa looked sad, and the people seemed disappointed at the lack of tourists.

In the village, there was only one road, on which one car could move in one direction. With my roommate Doha, a student of Mass Communication and the youngest member of the group, we had an unforgettable tour of the village, going up and down the lanes, passing beautifully decorated houses, and chatting with amazing people.

We had a cold drink of hibiscus prepared for us by one nice household. Despite their sadness, they were trying to put faint smiles on their kind faces.

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