Sarah Coles

Luxor Town – January 2014

We are driven through the dusty town peopled only by men, all the women having been killed, imprisoned, driven away, to the Nile Palace, where all receptionists, cleaners, boutique owners, waiters and cooks are men.  The sense of loneliness, being a woman visitor in a Muslim country.   On the Nile terrace we drink, while the dusty mauve air turns dark Prussian blue.  My ears are deaf from the plane and my tumour, my eyes are sore and ache, I feel I am receding from everything around me as life becomes fainter, less palpable.  I slowly die, disintegrate back into dust.


The Nubian restaurant is help yourself and the place is packed – the hotel is hosting a conference of Egyptian paediatricians.  The massive women waddle slowly in djellabas and chadors, the little girls are pretty, many boys with legs like cylinders are obese.  The buffet is rush hour at the pig trough, none of this After you Cyril, no, After you Claude.  A little boy swipes four chicken breasts and a solitary wing is left on the serving dish.  Breakfast, and ten men jostle for fried eggs.


Luxor has few tourists so the hotel gets by with conferences.  There’s a beautiful  swimming pool but hell! I am not going to be the only woman in a swim suit splashing among women in wet swirling scarves, chadors and acres of cloth, and men in trunks.


We go into town, to the ferry.  Along the road are wall panels with black angel graffiti.  Where you go my friend call the caleche drivers.  The tourists, the hippies, the coaches have gone, frightened by Cairo riots.  Where you go my friend non-stop – suddenly it comes to Bob: he shouts Impshi.  Boys scram.


A caleche back, dangling with silver bells and amulets, Fatima’s hand, a star, a cabochon, and a bronze polished sphinx.  The horse is in good nick.  His name is Johnnie, says driver flicking the whip, he is my Ferrari.  The horse has a pile of lucerne, which is alfalfa.  I look after horse, and God looks after me says driver. 

Bob goes off on his own to buy a toothbrush and tells me his caleche driver says invitingly, would you like to be my friend?


The finale of the conference.  All day waiters place round tables and purple tablecloths and chair smocks on the terrace.  Noisy banging muzak, and then the entertainment which is gas flares shooting up intermittently and noisily. After the  muzak comes tinned applause and desultory clapping from the delegates.


Next conference opens.  The Upper Egypt Diabetes Association.  In the lift, I ask man, are you here for the conference?  Yes, I am a doctor.  Of diabetes?  Yes, do you have diabetes?  No, I say.  Well done!  he says.  Do many have diabetes in Egypt?  25% he says.  We come to our floor.  25%!!!   


We eat in the Italian restaurant which is opened sided on the inner courtyard where the stage dancers are twirling like dervishes, or belly dancing, and past us stream the delegates and their long straggles of family, a spry man is followed by at least eight children and a limping mass of a woman in black.


The diabetic doctors are under way and their myriad children swirl round on chairs as we sit down, they’re not a nuisance, just children.  Is this a crèche asks Bob as the manager walks past, who says happily, oh yes, we love children – as indeed they do, you can see how proud these fathers are of their vast broods, eight, ten or more. 


I change £50 at the hotel’s Bank of Egypt.  I look at what the cashier gives me, it is simple even for an innumerate like me, because nearly £1 Egyptian = 10p sterling.  It’s £250 Egyptian pounds.  I stare.  The suave cashier looks at me.  But … I stutter, thinking I have understood wrongly.  But, it’s only half!  Slowly, he draws some notes and hands them over.  He smiles, just kiddin’!


I buy a sunhat from the boutique.  Where is it made?  Egypt, says the man.  No, let me see, I reach for the label he has just torn off.  Made in China.  Then he says, look I have these, the bank will only change notes, and he shows me 15 £1 sterling coins, can you change them for me?  I say no, only because I am still mentally confused by money.  Later, when a man shows me a £1 sterling coin I do, and Bob says, it’s a fake, the edge is all smooth.  Then, three times we are stopped by young men wanting to have Egyptian money for these coins ‘because banks accept only notes’.  Some may be genuine, because what can they do with tips of sterling coins?


On the west bank a man draws out of his djellaba a carving of a head, and a ushabti, that he found.  Ancient.  No no! we cry piously.  It is against the law to take antiquities out of the country!  We would flung in prison!  No, he counters, it is ok, I made them myself.  Words!  They are counters, to be played as seems best – their meaning changes each moment, irrelevant to a few minutes before.  Later, going back, we negotiate for a boat to the Nile Palace.  Once boarded, our boatman says, oh you said the Winter Palace – the Nile Palace costs more.  No western sense of precision.  Words are cloudy, vague tools of convenience.  In these countries they are so poor, and we are so different, it seems there is no possibility of even the briefest friendship.


On the east bank we walk south past acres of half built houses – the earth is turned inside out, stone above, vegetation buried, Piranesi flights of stairs to the sky – to the hotel Jolie Ville, on an island.  We’ve been there when it had its own ferry, and children, and good food, and was busy.  Now it has more guards than guests, and the main hall is vast, empty.  Half built abandoned accommodation..  A few fat glossy Egyptians are strewn on outdoor sofas, the women twisting ends of shiny lovely black hair, bulbous haunches straining at jeans, talking or examining their nails or mobiles while the menfolk talk business.  We must look emaciated to Egyptians.  A few Europeans beside pool.


In the garden of the Winter Palace the gardeners are tweaking the edges of the grass with tiny knives as though preparing for the Chelsea flower show.  Look at Gaddis store (established 1907), dusty, expensive clutter of postcards, old postcards (£10 Egyptian pounds each, pillow cases, scarabs in perspex, scorpions in ditto, and a pharaoh being suckled by a goddess.


At a Japanese restaurant Bob asks, any good? A woman coming out says, Very very good.  Will it break the bank?  It’s not going to break your bank.  She comes back with a note saying Elaine Edwards, Villa Elaina, Luxor Summer Palace, West Bank and telephone number.  Come to tea she says to Bob.  She is merry, plump, gap toothed, red lips, raddled skin, middle aged to elderly, and sports a feather duster of blonde hair.  She has eyes only for Bob.   She is with her mother aged 83 who has lived with her since Dad passed on.   Bob responds with his form of cheery brusque male coquetry.  


We visit Elaine at the Villa Elaina on the west bank for tea – she comes to meet us from the ferry, portly in black trousers and bold print shirt, hair held by gold butterfly clip.  Her three floor house is full ob builders, it is three floors, roomy, and overlooks the Nile.  She trained as a ballet dancer, was accepted for the Folies Bergeres aged 17 but Dad would not let her go.  Mum is silent, friendly and very tanned, and suddenly shouts Elaine is 60.  We are introduced to Saddan, aged 35?  40?  a professional dancer, the best in Egypt.  He is Egypt’s Nureyev she says, and they married last year.  She shows us him dancing at the wedding on her phone.  She comes from Nottingham, had businesses – changing cheques, 3 jewellery shops but after being mugged in one sold them, did a jewellery course, and now in this mess of an unfinished house she will have 3 rooms to let and a dance studio where Saddan will teach the tourists Egyptian dance.  We sit on the 3rd floor terrace overlooking the palest blue Nile, with on the other side Luxor temple and empty tourist cruisers.  We drink tea.  Elaine and Saddan smoke and grind the stubs on the floor.   Here, she opens her arms to the stub strewn terrace, will be the dance studio, and here will be the Jacuzzi!  The mirror is already cracked.  Down there – the refuse strewn ground – will be the herb garden, and a garden centre.   Can she really make a go of it?  Neighbours already are a problem.  She says she speaks Arabic.  Saddan is quiet, smiling, friendly.  He fetches gins and tonic.  She kisses us goodbye.  


The muezzin call like tenors practising their parts, cutting through each other, and  then a rough cracked baritone undermines them.  They call the hours, like a monastery.  From a distance it is gentle, like the hum of mouth organs.


On the Colossi of Memnon, workmen like tiny red ants climb in and out of cracks.


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