Welcome to Alaska said the bleary-eyed Egyptian man sitting at the next table, my tired smirk of a reply was enough of an invitation for him to slide his seat over and join me.
It was still early, the chocolaty coffee was not strong enough and had yet to work its magic, I wasn’t feeling particularly friendly, the Egyptian rearranged my table, drank my water, and introduced himself as Ahmed, he insisted on calling me George and I couldn’t be bothered to correct him.
I was still recovering from the 500 km overnight bus ride across the Sinai, it had been dreadfully uncomfortable, freezing cold, and suicidally dangerous, but to be fair, was exceptionally good value.
I was now in the Nile side city of Luxor; a grim touristy place that successfully combines the immense wealth of Egyptian historical heritage with the struggle of penury. The packages of mass tourists are ushered off the planes and cruise boats and whisked around the dun-colored palaces and tombs with a trail of street vendors in their wake, yelling snappy ironic catch-phrases such as “welcome to Alaska” the amusement of which soon fades, I had been here quite a few times before and almost every conversation I had ended in me parting with cash in return for nothing that I had actually wanted, not this time I had promised myself, now armed with the aged wisdom of the jaded traveler I wouldn’t get fleeced again.
Ahmed lit another Cleopatra cigarette, and the smoke lingered in the yellow morning light, all around life was beginning to stir, and the inevitable losing battle with the dust commenced, a fruit seller was scattering water in front of his stall from a green plastic jug, his neighbor was flicking a filthy cloth over a rack of faded postcards, over the road a freshly washed white tour bus was parked, the driver sitting on the step smoking, beside him a donkey and cart, the donkey content with his morning fodder.
I was ignoring Ahmed, he was wittering on about the state of the hotel I had foolishly told him I had checked into, he hadn’t actually tried to sell me anything but I felt it was only a matter of time so I decided it was time to leave, I said goodbye and really didn’t expect to see him again.
I gazed up at his naked torso, the light emphasizing his biceps with hieroglyphs tattooed on his shoulder, black feminine eyes, and softly curved lips, I was momentarily transfixed, king of kings, Ramses the greatest of pharaohs whose legacy stretches from Nubia to the Mediterranean. But it wasn’t the majesty of the past that brought me to Luxor it was the struggle of the present, I departed the temple via an avenue of sphinxes.
While most of Luxor is given over to the tourism business around 60% of the Egyptian population are agricultural workers, working a fragile fertile strip of land on either side of the vein-like Nile, the river sustains a country of over 104 million people, and with 95 percent living beside the river. Feeding an ever-increasing population is the thankless task of the Fellaheen, and it is they who I have come to meet and hopefully make some portraits.
Having been momentarily seduced by the opulent splendor of Egypt’s Pharaonic grandeur I was now contemplating the changing colors of a setting sun, the feluccas were drifting in the breeze, and on the western bank of the Nile, the Valley of the Kings was falling into shadow.
I would like to give the impression of quiet solitude but that would stretch things somewhat, pausing to admire the view is a clear provocation to the tourist touts; caleche, caleche, caleche, a sales pitch inspired by CIA rendition teams, the driver of a horse-drawn carriage had been parked behind me and shouting insistently, my patience snapped and the driver, clearly startled at my use of Arabic expletives moved on.
Felucca, you wanna felluca mister? While I had been fending off the caleche guy the felucca guy had sidled up beside me. No, I didn’t I explained, what do you want then? he asked, nothing, I said, I want to admire the view, no you don’t he argued, I really do I said, you can admire the view from a felucca, a good wind today he continued in a casual manner of an old friend and then offered me a cigarette, everyone wants something he said smiling at me.
Sex tourism in Luxor is prevalent, older European women specifically although now I was beginning to realize that older European men are just as likely clients. My new friend was happy to explain the machinations of an illicit trade as old as a pharaoh’s grandmother.
The tourist agrees to felucca ride on the Nile, and very soon the charming captain works his magic, a flirtatious evening blossoms into a romance, hotels are generally out of the question so an apartment will need to be rented, a bottle of plonk and some After Eights, the costs add up, not a huge amount of money but the tourist will be paying well over the odds and the captain pocketing the profit. Easy money I quipped, you must be kidding he said indignantly, I have to use Viagra, the German women especially, he shuddered to emphasize his point.
The longer you hang around Luxor the sadder the place becomes, despite the massive tourist industry there seems little evidence of the trickle-down effect and an obvious increase in prostitution and drug use, and the touts are forced to use the hard sell. A third of Egyptians live below the poverty line.
Rising uncharacteristically early I had spent the morning in the sugarcane fields on the west bank of the Nile, the farmers were always polite and friendly but rarely willing to be photographed, I had to pick my moments, not interrupting the hard work but more often catching someone taking a break under the shade of a palm tree, it was slow progress but ultimately a rewarding experience.
Part of the reason the Egyptian civilization was so successful for so long was its ability to develop agricultural techniques, understand the annual inundation and manage irrigation. Life in the fertile plains of the Nile valley is little different today, except that Egypt is highly vulnerable to ever-increasing climate changes, and, to add insult to injury the building of hydroelectric dams further south in Ethiopia has pitted political wills to the limit, conflict an ever-present threat and without the Nile, there is no Egypt.
The only curious incident of note that day was an encounter with two boys and a donkey, on a quiet track behind a wall of sugarcane the lads blocked my path and demanded that I photographed them, I pretended to click the shutter and try and move on but they continued to pester me, then an old man appeared and chased them off waving his walking stick at them. As I tried to leave the old man grabbed my hand as if to shake it, and he then tickled my palm with his forefinger, I laughed as I walked away, it had never happened to me before but I was in no doubt what it meant, and it was the last place I expected to meet a Mason.
I clambered aboard the local ferry and settled into a quiet spot to stare out at the peanut butter-colored hills and its concealed Theban Necropolis, a desecrated labyrinth leading to the afterlife.
“Welcome to Alaska,” said the Egyptian man who had just sat down beside me, I turned and smiled; “hi Ahmed” I replied, “aha George, my friend, where have you been, I waited for you”
So, it seems we are now friends, we chatted on the ferry and there was little escape once we arrived at the dock, and by the time we had reached my hotel I had agreed to move in with him, at least, I agreed to look at his place first, he offered me a deal, the same price as the hotel but with food. I was dubious about my decision but would be glad to get away from the tedious tirade of the horse and carriage drivers and gigolo felucca captains, so the next day it was all settled.
Ahmed lived in a small village that strung out along an irrigation canal fed by the Nile, most of the other houses were mud brick, some seemed to be part house part stable, livestock and people seemingly sharing the same space, children bare arsed and barefooted bathed in plastic bowels, women cooked on gas stoves or open fires between the house and the canal, the pathway littered with domestic detritus. At the end of the village was Ahmed’s house, a half-built modern villa, piles of sand and breeze blocks still waiting for the next phase of construction, inside was devoid of decoration and only sparsely furnished, I slept on a mattress with a heavy wool blanket, the bathroom was a temperamental toilet and a cold shower, I wasn’t given a key, it was needed, there wasn’t a front door.
The next few days passed with a regular routine, Ahmed made me breakfast of thick black sweet tea, I went out to work and he would have dinner waiting for me when I returned, we ate while sitting on the trunk of an upended palm tree, the simple food was rather good and it took me a while to realize that it was cooked by a neighbor, Ahmed did not have any kitchen utensils let alone a kitchen. Our evenings consisted of him complaining about almost everything, no money, no work, and no wife, while I fed the fire with dead palm fronds.
It is not surprising that underpaid and over-exploited agricultural workers are leaving the fields for the cities, but the cities are struggling to cope, Egyptian nationals applying for asylum in the EU is at its highest level, failing economies and climate change are just as threatening to livelihoods as war.
As my departure time approached Ahmed began his pitch, an investment opportunity, it had been a long time coming, for an insignificant sum, say five hundred dollars, or four hundred, maybe, he could finish building the second floor of the house, in return for my investment, I would have a place to stay whenever I decided to visit Luxor, a timeshare if you like. I smiled at his savvy and said I would think about it, he said three hundred might just be enough.
The next day after stuffing my rucksack we both hopped on the back of a pickup that served as a taxi service and headed towards the ferry port, in the truck Ahmed was silent, I pressed two folded hundred dollar bills into his hand and thanked him for his hospitality, I was just about to say I will be back the first week of May but he had already leaped from the moving truck and disappeared in a cloud of sand and exhaust fumes.
I again stationed my ships in the heaven-fed stream of Egypt and offered hecatombs that were full and sufficient. When I had thus appeased heaven’s anger, I raised a tomb to the memory of Agamemnon that his kleos might be inextinguishable, after which I had a quick passage home, for the gods sent me a fair wind.
And I took a train to Cairo.
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