A Pedacito of Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt
Updated: Jun 19
My first introduction to Egypt was a baptism by fire union with its overwhelming capital, Cairo. A dynamic, noisy, and relentless labyrinthine metropolis of nearly 21 million people. I traveled here on assignment as both a journalist and adjunct professor with the American University.
I was relocated to the neighborhood of Maddi, a posh suburb full of western ex-pats that felt more like a fishbowl of over-exposed stale Westernism in the center of Egypt. A week later I receive a call from an old coworker named Tarik. He is an Egyptian of Nubian ancestry that lives both in Aswan (Southern Egypt) and London.
He asked me how the mother of the world (Cairo) is treating me. I very directly tell him that I am feeling suffocated, and the mother of the world is now an old lady, somewhat wrinkled and toothless with a tamed Nile River running through her dilapidated houses. We both burst out laughing before he invites me to Aswan to stay at his new bed and breakfast.
Two days later I take a 12-hour overnight train from Cairo to Aswan. I was able to doze off, but not really get into a deep sleep as the porter would keep opening the door and turning on the light in my compartment for no other apparent reason other than curiosity about an Afro-American traveler.
As the train moves further south, both the landscape and people transform into more of an African feel as opposed to the Arabized north. On exiting the train, I am overwhelmed by a warm gush of wind that takes my breath away. The doors slowly open, I have arrived in Aswan!
Aswan is Egypt’s third-largest city located in the far south of the country. It was known in the old days as Swenett, deriving from the old Egyptian name for the marketplace. It winds along the desert route and passes the bewitching Old Cataract Hotel, some of its illustrious guests included: Winston Churchill, Russian Tsar Nicholas 2, and of course Agatha Christie, whose classic novel, “Death on the Nile” helped to immortalize it.
Small enough to walk around and graced with the most beautiful sunsets, it is here that the Nile river reaches her zenith of elegance and splendor. Shortly after walking down the broad Corniche, I am greeted by my friend Tarik, we immediately embrace. He is a tall, dark-skinned man with dreadlocks and wearing a multi-colored Bob Marley shirt.
With a wide smile, a laid-back manner, and broken English, Tarik shouts:
“Welcome to Aswan, Welcome to Nubia, and welcome to my village. Aswan a city where throbs the heartbeat of Africa”.
He then quietly leans closer and asked me if I drink whiskey? I whisper back:
“I would prefer to try the local Nubian wine" (also known as Araki Bilah)
We both burst out laughing.
Tarik goes on to tell me that Nubian wine is a sort of Brandy that is distilled from dates called Araki. We stop by a local café that is a hidden hole in the wall and order a one-liter bottle of Araki Bilah. I cautiously sip from the glass and find this wine to be sweeter, milder, and smoother than the turpentine tasting drinks in Cairo.
We slowly head towards his new Bed and breakfast hotel which is located in a beautiful area on the east side of the Nile. In climbing up the stairs outside, I was overwhelmed by a curtain of sweet smoke smell coming from the locally grown cannabis, a rather weak and seed-filled weed from a sticky resin wood they call bhango. I politely decline a whiff. We finally make our way inside the traditionally Nubian-designed hotel.
There are seemingly disparate and random designs throughout, however as I would later learn each symbol has a very sacred meaning within the culture. With a decrease in the noise level, Tarik and I sit down in my room and really have an in-depth conversation. Tarik states,
“My home village is actually only 30 kilometers south on the border with lake Nasser. This lake, which is also named Lake Sudan, depending upon which shore your standing on, was created after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the ’60s.
Yes, the dam helps control the yearly flooding of the Nile, but it also forced the migration of thousands of Nubians from our traditional villages as well as destroying ancient historical sites. My family is one of the last to remain on our original ancestral land.“
The next day he invites me to visit a traditional marketplace on the edge of the city. As we enter the ancient souk (marketplace) I smell the scent of perfumes, see the diverse types of spices, scarves, Nubian skull caps, dates, and traditional baskets. The marketplace runs along the Corniche, which continues past the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt.
The museum is surrounded by well-maintained gardens and housed in an eye-catching Nubian-designed modern building, it preserves, lays out, and sheds light on Nubia’s ancient history and heritage dating back from 4500 BC to the present.
Some of its major displays include a fine quartzite statue of a 25th Dynasty Nubian priest, as well as ceramics and carvings reflecting the distinctive heritage of this part of Egypt.
Just west of the cemetery is the old Traditional Camel Market held on Mondays and Saturday mornings. There are hundreds of traders that bring the camels up from the south in Sudan, and many travels all the way up to Cairo in what is known as the Dabr-al Arba or Forty Days Road in English. This is one of the last surviving desert trading routes in East Africa.
That evening we stopped off at a local Nubian restaurant where I ordered a traditional dish of curried chicken and Nubian cooked rice. The waiter brings me a bowl of flatbread along with a plastic pitcher of local citrus juice held inside a clay cistern. These cisterns are semi-porous, and the leaking just evaporates as it runs down the sides, creating a natural cooling system.
We spend the rest of the evening on the balcony listening to traditional Nubian music, which differs in both rhythm and syntax from traditional Arab music. I am hypnotized while looking at the river Nile, sailboats etching the sky with their tall masts.
The dark water flowing through granite rocks and amber-colored sand, whirling around palm groves and emerald islands covered in tropical vegetation. The pace of life in Aswan is peaceful and relaxing, I have finally found a home in Egypt.
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