Across the road from dusty high-rise buildings and endless bumper-to-bumper lines of cars beeping impatient horns, we lay our eyes over the vastness of the Nile. The Nile has nursed Egypt since the birth of civilisation and our location, Egypt’s southern-most city of Aswan, has been an epicentre of trade and pharaoic rule.
The Nile’s custodians, the Nubians, have been the backbone of this thriving river community. Since settling in this region in the fourth century, these nomadic people have transported rich goods, including frankincense, up and down this papyrus-lined river. Their feluccas, work boats guided by a single windswept sail, have scattered themselves across the river’s waters in droves to become an iconic symbol of this aquatic lifeline. Hessian bags filled with frankincense are now replaced by adventure-prone tourists sprawled out on mattresses and it’s not hard to stumble across a Nubian felucca sailor pedalling the chance of a float trip for only a fist full of Egyptian pounds.
After tramping the pavement through Aswan’s sleepy side-streets in searing heat, we are warmly welcomed aboard our captain’s felucca as he coaxes us to lie across soft mattresses padding the vessel’s sturdy decks. A bleached sail stands casually at idle, waiting for its moment when our captain sets his felucca free from the eroding jetty. It’s not long before this unconscious sail captures its first breath of wind to send us floating on our way. Our destination is the Lower Nubia region, where a secluded Nubian village is located only a couple of hours downstream. Away from the hustle and bustle, we are transported to a time when tranquillity ruled this land without any sight or sound of motorised industrialisation. And this is the Nile’s personality, reflecting back at us from a crisp wake lapping at the felucca’s bow. Piercing rays from the sun are now tamed by a cool breeze that picks up to keep us on our course.
Our captain’s crew sprawls out a staple Egyptian lunch for our grumbling tummies. We sit cross-legged in a circle as bowls are filled with salads, grapes, falafel and foul (a bean paste) then placed in front of us. Dense flat breads wait for the moment when we crown them with whatever our appetites please. Our bellies are nourished quickly and substantially; lazing back afterwards makes us feel like we’re luxuriating pharaohs. We take in the Nile’s bank-hugging gems from the exotic scene of oasis-like gardens on Elephantine Island to the steadfast, haunting sight of Tombs of the Nobles towering from the sandy banks revealing ancient scripts on their walls. As the sun subdues, we dock briefly in clearer waters for the chance to dip our feet or bodies into the Nile’s precious water; a communion of sorts in Egyptian history.
Eventually, our felucca presses on to our next appointment and we dock at an abandoned bank. We step across rocks and sand then stroll through an alleyway that is shouldered by square mud-brick homes. Here is where Aswan’s Nubian community lives, away from the many prying eyes of the city’s touring masses. In an instant, we’re surrounded by local children, eager to hold our hands and please us with their broken English. Their genuine friendliness make us feel like we’re at home yet I’m taken aback by their unbridled sense of trust in strangers like us. We’re ushered into a modest home and we climb to its rooftop courtyard where we’re greeted by the family of the community’s mayor. We’re motioned to sit on spongy, hand-woven mats and prop ourselves with cushions before being showered yet again with Nubian hospitality – platters of spicy roast chickens, a stew of potatoes topped with crimson sauce, crispy salads and rounds of bread.
After gorging ourselves and conversing with our hosts, it’s time to make our way back to the felucca where we would be spending the night – out on its decks under a clear star-studded sky. The air is fresh and only my silk sheet is needed to keep me at bay from any unexpected chills. The sky blackens while our felucca’s crew converse in hushed Nubian voices over shared cigarettes. Insects creak in nearby reeds and the Nile’s waters lap below my dozing head. My body is cradled by the fluffy mattress. The Nile gently rocks me to sleep to the sound of my lullaby – the evening’s call to prayer from a nearby mosque.