Excerpt of Down the Nile by Rosemary Mahoney
(Page 1 of 9)
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The River That Flows the Wrong Way
ON THE DAY that I hoped to buy a rowboat in Luxor, Egypt,
I was awakened, as I had been every morning in Luxor, by
a Koranic antiphony drifting from the Islamic boys' school
next door to my hotel. With all the zeal of a Baptist preacher's,
a young boy's amplified voice shrieked repeatedly in Arabic,
"There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his witness!"
and a shrill chorus of his schoolmates howled the words back
at him. I got out of bed and went to the window - at 7:00 a.m.
the glass was already warm as an infant's forehead - and discovered
that during the night many colorful cloth banners
had been strung above the corniche, Luxor's Nilefront boulevard.
In hand-fashioned Arabic characters, the banners read,
"Welcome Mister President of the Government, Muhammad
Hosni Mubarak, the Leader of Our Victorious and Progressive
Destiny." Scores of teenage Egyptian soldiers in black uniforms,
woolen berets, and white plastic spats lined the avenue
in the ninety-eight-degree heat, more or less at attention, rifles
at their sides, evidently awaiting the president's arrival. Profiting
from a police barricade, the usually hectic street was, for
once, mercifully quiet. Across the glittering ribbon of the Nile,
the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings lay blanketed
in the pink morning light.
I dressed and went downstairs to the lobby, where the hotel
manager and two of his employees sat shoulder to shoulder on
a couch before a flickering television. All three men wore white
turbans and gray gallabiyas, the traditional Egyptian gown,
and, in one of the more baffling manifestations of traditional
Egyptian fashion, heavy woolen scarves wound around their
necks, as if against an arctic wind. No matter the time of day,
the lobby of this hotel was always exceptionally dark, and
through the gloom the three men looked like consumptives recuperating
in a sanatorium. They were watching an American
film in which jeering, sweaty-faced Confederate soldiers were
busy abusing a group of morose black slaves.
With an apology for interrupting their entertainment, I asked
the hotel manager why President Mubarak was coming to Luxor
that day. Without looking away from the television the manager
replied, "To open new hospital and sex tomb."
I studied his long brown nose, his luxurious black mustache.
Surely I had misheard him. "Sorry," I said, "to open a
"Hospital and sex tomb," he said dully, scratching his chin.
The hospital sounded likely enough, but the idea of a "sex"
anything being publicly celebrated by the Egyptian president
was preposterous. In this Islamic nation, sex, strictly forbidden
outside marriage, was not a subject for public discourse or civic
celebration. Human flesh, particularly women's, was to be concealed,
and though in Egypt the assumption of the veil at puberty was officially a matter of individual choice, many Egyptian
women wore the hijab, the veil that fully concealed the head
and neck, and a surprising number wore the more forbidding
niqab, a drape that covered mouth, nose, forehead, sometimes
even eyes. Chaste Egyptian women were reluctant to have their
photograph taken, because multiplying and displaying their
image in this way was considered unseemly. Before my first
trip to Egypt, I had been counseled to keep my arms and legs
covered, not to wear shorts, and never to touch a man in any
way except to shake hands. I had been endlessly informed by
people who had experience in the matter that purity, chastity,
and piety were Egypt's prevailing sentiments, and that foreign
women who came to Egypt and dressed in a provocative way
(there are, in fact, many who do) would be considered promiscuous,
unprincipled, fair game for harassment and disrespect.
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney