Early in the morning on the second day of the felucca sail to Edfu, a cooling breeze blew across the Nile. It was a pleasant break from the hundred-plus temperatures of the past few days. The air smelled fresh and clean. Two Kiwi women, Kara and Frankie, and a good-looking South African, David, all in their late twenties, joined Captain Niya, his first mate Ashrif, and me in the felucca. To relax and do nothing but sleep, play dice, read, eat three meals a day, and listen to the smoky-blue water of the Nile lapping against the side of the boat was sheer luxury. There was absolutely no reason to suspect what the gods had cooked up.
Of ancient design, our felucca was about forty feet long with a twenty-five-foot mast near the bow. The distinguishing feature of the felucca was its single huge sail, more particularly the immense spar (technically called the yard) attached to the sail. It was as long as the boat and similar to a tree in design, thick at the bottom and narrow at the top. A chain connected the yard to an eye-link at the foot of the mast, allowing it to swing outward at a twenty-degree angle and cross the mast twenty feet up, such that the sail curved towards the stern. On our boat, where the yard crossed the mast it was fastened by a single cable and lots of frayed, old rope. The cable didn’t look like much, but it apparently stood the test of time. Just above the deck, a removable canvas canopy shielded passengers and crew from the fierce sun. The middle section of the deck was wide abeam and covered with mats and sheets for lounging and sleeping. Ashrif stored backpacks underneath the floorboards, along with plenty of bottled water and food for the journey. Sometimes both sides of the Nile were so rich in crops and palm trees that it looked like an emerald fairyland. At other times, one bank bathed in green while the other burned the golden color of untamed desert. Children played, swam, and squealed in the Nile, while men worked the fields. The women pounded clothes against rocks at the riverbank and gathered water in jugs to transport back on their heads. Men and women in Egypt appeared to share manual labor more equally than in other areas of Africa I’d seen—an advancement in civilization according to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. By offering equal opportunity, the industrial West had gone a giant step further. I appreciated nature, always moving forward, always experimenting, always the curious traveler. Yet why had nature driven so fast for sexual equality in recent years?
Captain Niya and Ashrif were both Nubians. Nubia was once a separate region, between Egypt and Sudan, whose kings ruled Egypt in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Ancient Egyptian paintings showed sensuous Nubian maidens, wearing long, brown wigs and see-through dresses. It was ironic that much of Egypt’s history (or at least the depictions of it) was characterized by a scarcity of clothing, yet the current population covered up. Between AD 250 and 500, Nubia was ruled by a mysterious culture labeled the X-Group by archaeologists. Little is known of them but their royal mound-tombs were filled with horses and attendants, slaughtered to accompany wealthy corpses. Nubia then converted to Christianity until, under Arab domination, it became Muslim in the sixteenth century.
Today’s Nubians are still a remarkably good-looking group of people. Captain Niya, for instance, had swarthy features, thick, curly hair, large, serious, honey-colored eyes that complemented the shade of his skin, and a handsome, narrow face punctuated with high cheekbones. A simple, baby blue, cotton tunic covered his tall body from neck to bare feet. He told me that he was forty, yet his forehead was wrinkle-free.
For two hours that morning, we sailed north in a dream, on the calm, celebrated river. Surprisingly, for such a famous route of commerce, the Nile was not more than a half-a-mile across at its widest. Along the river’s edge the wind had sculptured individual miniature pyramids in the dunes, exact replicas of what I had seen in Giza. Should wind and not humans—or alien visitors—get the architectural plaudits for the pyramids? Suddenly—literally within seconds—the wind’s mood shifted to anger. It churned the water. Small ripples became three-foot waves. The sun shone brightly, but the smell of the air was electric. We struggled against the elements for forty minutes as the billowing sail strained and thumped before the now pounding wind. I became more and more conscious of the size and weight of the yard.
Finally, tired of fighting nature, Niya scurried barefoot up the mast to trim the sail, but left it slack and blowing in the wind, with the mighty yard pulling out and slamming inward against its meager shackles. Ashrif killed his cigarette and scampered up behind the captain. Together they gathered in and tied down the flapping sail, while David guided the boat towards the approaching shore.
The boat beached on the golden sands where the wind was less severe. On the desolate horizon, three young Arabs riding donkeys appeared. Out of the quivering heat haze, they headed our way. About a half mile up the shoreline, another troop was approaching. Where did they come from? I remembered Baghel’s departing warning on the train, “You must be careful … The further south that you travel, the more suspicious the people are towards Westerners.”
I had a premonition these guys would be trouble. Thinking that on land I could better assess any danger, I slipped on my Tevas and jumped to the shore. Before long, five men in their mid-twenties and three young teenagers surrounded me. They were barefoot and dressed in an assortment of tangerine and skyblue, ankle-length garments, baggy pants, and palm-leaf hats. Two of the men carried curved knives.
The group was nice enough at first, with the usual assault of personal questions. Then the gang caught sight of the deck of the boat and began gawking. I shook my head in disbelief. Kara was stretching her shapely body in tight shorts and a black bikini top. She quickly covered up, though, when one of the men pointed at the donkeys with a grin: “Come! You take ride! Come!” Their exhortations didn’t pass the smell test. Even the donkeys cannot have been that keen as the Kiwis mounted them for a short stroll. The girls scraped their feet on the ground, looking like adults on a merry-go-round. As I’d feared the rides warmed the titillation meters of the other men, and they dug in on the shore as we returned to the felucca to wait out the wind. Sitting, arms-crossed on the sand, not more than four feet from the boat, they continued to stare at the women. The older voyeurs chattered in Arabic, flinging hand gestures and glaring sullenly at us, while we stretched out on the boat ignoring them. Hoping to get a feel for the mood, I occasionally looked up from my book. Each time my eyes leveled on a rather handsome, but rugged-looking guy, who seemed to be the leader. With a look of intimidation that could wilt the lovely jasmine, he slowly and methodically raised his clenched fists, thumbs pointed towards the solid blue sky. The hands then flipped, double thumbs down towards the sand. What was happening in his mind? I wanted to talk to him, find out his thoughts. Instead, I was thwarted by the barriers of culture and language. The mood was tense and ugly.
After a second thumbs down, David, for some inexplicable reason, felt the urge to playfully caress Kara’s shoulders and face. Then he laid his body between her legs, using her abdomen as a pillow for his head. As if that wasn’t enough, he began to tickle Frankie. People do the damnedest things in a crisis. It forced me to break my vow to abstain from giving advice for the second time on this journey. “David,” I grumbled softly, “what the fuck are you doing?”
He looked up startled and holstered his hands. The gawking went on for the better part of an hour. They stared and taunted with their eyes, and removed their shirts and swam around the boat in an intimidating fashion. All the while, Captain Niya and Ashrif were cool. They slept under the bow waiting for the wind to die down. “If they’re not worried, why should we be?” I thought. Then again, they were a Muslim crew!
In the end, the leader sauntered back along the beach in the direction he came from. The other men followed, but not before a shouting match erupted between our aloof captain and a rather mean-looking dude, who kicked the boat before departing. I got the sense that it wasn’t the insult to the boat that the captain was angry about, but the accumulated degree to which the guys had been assholes. Niya decided it was time to leave while the getting was good, and to my complete surprise the teenagers stayed behind and cheerfully pushed the boat into the Nile as if nothing had happened—like you’d help a stranger change a tire.
Nothing was to go right this fateful day. Felucca adrift, the yard ripped furiously at its chain tether at the foot of the mast. In violent protest against the force of the wind, this huge wooden beast finally reached the limit of its patience, and with a savage thrust ripped free. The loose end swung upward and floated ominously above the felucca. The sole protection against that naked tree hurtling down and crushing the boat was the thin cable and tattered ropes at the joint of the mast. If the cable snapped, we’d all plunge to watery graves.
Niya yelled, pointing at the mast, “Ashrif!” Again the second mate ditched a cigarette and scrambled up, followed closely by Captain Niya. They desperately raced against time to reel in the yard. David and I hustled to secure the chain tether, marveling at the skill of the crew thirty feet up. They held on to the mast with their ankles and thighs while they worked. During the entire episode, the ladies from New Zealand moved not an inch from their choice spots in the sun.
When the yard was secured all was quiet once again. I applied a miracle cure called muti, which I discovered in Zimbabwe, and Band-Aids to Ashrif ’s hand, which had been gored in the excitement. After patching up the first mate, I shuffled to the stern to see the captain. He sat puffing a cigarette, legs crossed, one hand on a rope controlling the yard and the other on the rudder. “Captain Niya, what was that all about … back there on the shore?”
He shook his head leisurely and inhaled smoke until the ash flared red. Then he removed the cigarette and motioned at Kara with a tilt of his head. He spoke softly in a serious tone meant for just the two of us. “This not New Zealand. Girls need be more careful. Arabs feel insult at bare female skin! “Some excited … but, also feel insult. When woman visit
another country she must respect culture.
“For me … okay. I take Western girls on my boat. But others … they are not so much in contact with white women. They are not animals!”
He had a point. I remembered watching an Arab man walking ahead of his spouse along Pier 39 in San Francisco. She wore black silk from head to toe with a veiled face. I was furious that this couple ignored the customs and freedom we valued in America. They exercised their freedom, but violated our culture. Same same with Western women in Egypt.
Sex was such an overwhelming issue to the Egyptian male. I was reading The Beggar by Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. He portrayed the sexual inhibitions and frustrations of men. The Muslim sealed up his natural hungers for reasons considered advanced fourteen hundred years ago. In contrast, the Western world leveled a media-blitz of sexual fantasy at males, while simultaneously denigrating the powerful animal inside. Men struggled with a double message: restraint and stimulation. Still waiting for a favorable wind, we chowed down on onions, rice, and vine leaves stuffed with cabbage. Food Ashrif had cooked using a small butane stove stored under the deck. It took two hours for the winds to die down. Then, up with the sail and off to the races, as we set a blistering pace in a contest with another felucca. Niya skillfully squeezed ahead of the competition, and we sailed fast and free for twenty minutes. All of us reveled in a challenge that, for the time being, changed the mood of the day. Without warning, the keel clipped something in the water and the boat bucked. Whatever was under the surface bent the keel and crippled us. As our rivals raced past, we floundered, sail loose and flapping in the wind. Niya shook his head. “But river deep here,” he muttered in disbelief.
The keel was designed to be retractable, so the felucca couldthe necessary repairs. be beached by the river’s edge at night. It retracted by yanking up a handle inside the boat that pulled the keel’s upper portion through a chute built into the stern. Our twisted keel wouldn’t retract, so Niya headed for the east bank to search for a deepwater refuge to do the necessary repairs.
He spotted a wooden dock and began to steer the rapidly moving boat toward it. Ashrif frantically prepared to rope us to the fast approaching dock, but the boat was so heavy and traveling at such a speed that if there was a collision, it would surely smash the landing place to splinters.
At the last second, Niya veered away. “Not good,” he yelled in explanation. “We must try to reach west bank. Hope for deep water.”
The captain struggled with the damaged boat, as he turned it towards the other side of the Nile and steered to avoid a small island down river between us and the west bank. But before we knew it, our crisis turned into real danger.
One of the monstrous cruise ships that navigate the Nile appeared to have miscalculated the position of the island. It had changed course to avoid running aground. And we were directly in its path.
Technically we had the right of way, but you could feel that the captain of the behemoth had no intention of changing course again. Events happened fast, yet time slowed to a trance. Each second became a minute, each spray of water a wave, each sound
an echo. I had time to think: What the fuck is that guy doing? I measured the speed of our wounded felucca and the speed of the unstoppable, oncoming monster. I saw the frightened eyes of my companions. Captain Niya’s lips and forehead wrinkled in rage. I
heard him screaming at the approaching ship.
The cruise ship captain stared impassively into space atop the lofty bridge. I looked into those stern eyes below his blue cap with gold seaweed on it. He wasn’t going to change course. We were dead.
I calculated the risks of diving into the water. Who could survive under the block of steel and propellers that was heading straight for us? For what seemed like the hundredth time during this eternity, I measured the geometry and distance between the two vessels. Somehow the angle of escape had changed. We were going to make it—barely. The cruise ship nearly swamped us in its wake. As it edged past we were tossed and turned, while high on its upper deck three casually dressed, gray-haired tourists played shuffleboard. I don’t believe they ever saw us. We reached the west bank and deep water to attempt an African Queen style repair of the keel. Niya slowly peeled his blue tunic in preparation for diving. He was a modest and religious man. I felt his embarrassment as he stood in his underwear in view of the women. After numerous unsuccessful dives into the cold Nile attempting to straighten the steel keel, Niya decided to fix it on land. The keel was so large and bulky. How could it be removed and then fixed?
Within fifteen minutes of touching the sandy shore, the desert provided the answer. Several eager-to-help young men rustled down a ten-foot embankment, stripped off their clothes, and began to help Niya, who was diving to detach the awkward keel. The unfastened keel looked as if a herd of rampaging elephants had trampled it. Magically, the men produced a mallet to pound the keel back to its original shape. The process took three hours. By this time, the captain was shivering. He stood staring at the Nile, his brown skin covered with goose bumps. He contemplated the task of reinserting the keel underwater and fixing it with a steel bolt. It was like trying to thread a needle in a brisk wind with gloves on. He did manage to reinsert the keel into its track, but his cold hands dropped the bolt. It sank irretrievably to the river’s bottom.
Undaunted, our rescuers disappeared into the desert, then reappeared with several bolts. Close, but no banana. Just when it looked hopeless, a felucca returning to Aswan came to our rescue. Its captain, another handsome and muscular Nubian, flashed an engaging smile while suggesting that we tie the keel with a rope he held in his hand. Noticing Niya’s condition, and without a moment’s hesitation, he dove into the water with the rope to implement his own idea. It worked.
I suddenly felt very respectful of the resourcefulness and community spirit of Egyptians. Our problem was their problem. They seemed unconcerned with time.
Back in action, we sailed through an orange sunset into dusk, and farther into the star-studded darkness of night. Shooting stars and methodically moving satellites entertained us. Ashrif, using a pan for a drum, sang call-and-response songs that we all danced to, including Niya. People along the riverbanks called to us and sang along. Soon the wind died down and night matured. Captain Niya set the rudder. We drifted as we slept, no other boats, no other sounds to compromise the soothing gurgling of water. I woke throughout the night to the gentle light of a honeysuckle moon and dark images passing silently on the riverbank. Were they goblins in a fairytale forest surrounding Aladdin’s cave?
Dawn brought clarity. Palm and lemon trees in stepped, grassy layers merged with dense papyrus beds from which a heron rose to the beat of its heavy wings. Like slides in a noiseless projector, the topography changed to desert, then to brown hills, then finally to sand hills folding into green reeds.
The familiar sounds of roosters, nightingales, and donkeys mingled with the deep, authoritative melody of Islamic chants. A single white minaret, like a rocket at launch, heralded a small town of mud-brick homes built into the riverbank. A whisper of
wind brushed my features as I lay under thin covers watching the glassy-clear water mirror the sky and shoreline. They were like painted shadows on canvas. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Imagine, sailing down the Nile.