The first of many surreal moments that filled my two-day work visit to Aswan happened when I looked out of the felucca, a small sailboat that I was delighted to know was the only way to get to my hotel situated on an island in the Nile.
As I was stretching my gaze into the horizon to take in the beautiful scenery, my view was obstructed by the face of a young Nubian boy seemingly floating on the water alongside the boat. He was looking straight at me, and then he started singing the French lullaby “Frère Jacques”.
I was staring at him dumbstruck throughout the song, thinking whether it was possible that Aswan’s scorching sun had gotten to my brain so fast, especially since the other passengers on the boat did not seem to react to his seemingly supernatural presence.
After a couple more lullabies that he patiently sang to me as I smiled at him and struggled to make sense of the encounter, he flipped and spelled it out to me “give me something.” This was a way of making money, much like street children in Cairo ask for money at traffic lights.
I gave him a few pounds; he immediately let go of the boat and started paddling on his little board into the middle of the Nile, waiting for the next felucca to come by.
There is something mystical about Aswan, the touristic city situated in the depth of Upper Egypt, and its neighboring villages. The sparkle of its radiant sun on the wide Nile, the pharaonic monuments, but mostly its large percentage of Nubian inhabitants, who remain strongly connected to the simple life on the riverbanks as if transported against their will from a different time.
I wanted to get to Kom Ombo, a desert area 40 km north of Aswan City, which became home for most Nubians who were forced to leave their homes in 1963 when construction of the high dam began.
Public transportation in Aswan, like in many other parts of the country, consists of pickup trucks fitted with benches. I took three of those to get from Aswan to Kom Ombo. Between commutes, I had the pleasure of walking through local markets where the scent of mangos was particularly irresistible.
Among the kind locals who pointed me to the bus stops was one who attempted the classic let-me-hold-your-hand-to-protect-you-from-this-speeding-car-200-meters-away as well as the less popular, but also surprisingly common, casual marriage proposal.
As I was enjoying my last ride, a problem arose.
I realized that between the bumpy roads and the time it took me between commutes to find the next ride and escape random suitors, the trip had taken three hours. It was almost midnight and there were no trucks to take me back to my hotel in Aswan city after that.
I remembered that a colleague had told me about a friend of his of Nubian origins and whose family resided in Kom Ombo. I explained the situation to him and asked him to check if his friend’s family could take me in.
Something about being in the back of a pickup truck in the pitch dark in the heart of Aswan’s desert area with no place to spend the night exhilarated me.
As she was getting off the truck, an old woman who I hadn’t realized was listening to my phone call, insisted on taking me in. Only after she was completely reassured that I had a plan, she gave me a motherly hug and left.
My colleague got back to me with the phone number of his friend’s cousin who lives in a village in Kom Ombo with her grandmother.
The only problem is that, after I got off in the last stop, I was 15 kilometers away from their village and the public transportation had already stopped for the night. I would have to pay for a truck to take me on my own.
After spending a little time talking to locals relaxing in quiet coffee shops, I had developed an instant trust. I was then less scared to get in a truck alone with one of them to drive me 15 kilometers along an unpaved road with not one light and no other human being in sight.
Still, I was a little scared so I thought communicating my trust to him would help avert any idea of doing me harm. I failed to make my statement and the motivation behind it subtle.
“You know, the people here are so good, this may have been scary in another place, but I really feel like I’m riding with my brother,” I abruptly said. It came out exactly as awkward and out-of-the-blue as it sounds, but I felt completely safe after I had said it.
At my hosts’ place, Aya, a friendly student in her early 20s, welcomed me in with a big smile. Walking into the house felt like walking into another outdoor area. It was vast with a very high ceiling and minimal wooden furniture.
Aya’s grandmother was lying on a wooden bench and greeted me in Nubian, the only language she spoke. Every time Aya passed in front of her, the grandmother asked her to bring me more food.
The grandmother spent the night sleeping on the bench in the huge living area of the house. Aya said that she never sleeps inside the rooms.
Having spent most of her life on the banks of the Nile before the relocation she seemed to be trying to hold on to some resemblance to her old life.
Aya’s grandmother was not the only one missing her old home. In the morning, some of the older locals told me about their lives before the relocation.
They seemed to be describing an out-of-this-world Utopia. They called their now-flooded previous home a paradise.
As they sat in the dusty streets, surrounded by steel rods sticking out of ugly, unfinished red brick houses, they described living off the goods of the land, catching fish with scarves and sitting in the shade of palm trees eating dates all day. They said that no one got sick back in these days. The memories were alive in their eyes and the nostalgia visibly painful.
I returned to the comfort of my Aswan city hotel later that afternoon, haunted by the pictures of a paradise forever gone.