Journal: Friday 13 March 1998
There was a partial lunar eclipse this morning and I had fully intended to get up to see it, but at 5.00am I sleepily decided that it was so partial it was not worth dragging myself out of bed so early. Robin and I had arranged with our English friend David to meet him in Luxor this morning and he would take us to his home village where he had lived for the past couple of years.
We met David and took an arabeya to his village which is near the road to Luxor airport. During the late 1940s, the Antiquities Department excavated an area to the north-east of Karnak Temple. Over the years a substantial settlement had grown up covering this site and it was necessary to move the entire village before work could begin on the excavations, where a temple built by Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) and dedicated to the Aten, was eventually discovered. The new village, el-Arabet, was built four kilometres away along the side of a small irrigation canal. Since then the small parcels of land given to the relocated families have been carved up by inheritances and today each family owns a piece of land measuring around 100 sq metres. As the families grew the houses began to extend upwards, though the government has banned houses more than five storeys high – the height of a large palm tree. Eventually mains water and electricity came to el-Arabet and the living standard of the village people was much improved.
We left the arabeya on the main road and began to walk down the dusty track through the main part of el-Arabet, a line of mostly two or three-storey houses built on either side of the canal, surrounded by fields laid out in a neat patchwork of vegetation. In the distance, vast stretches of sugar cane stood tall and spiky, while closer, there were orderly rows of sweetcorn, onions, cabbages and large patches of clover used for animal fodder. Just after the bridge by the main road was one of the village shops with a window, roughly a metre square, that opened onto the road. Standing by the door was the shopkeeper, a sharp-featured man in his mid forties, wearing a very ornately wound white turban, who nodded a greeting, ’Marhaban’ (welcome) and offered us shai (tea) which we politely declined. The interior of the tiny shop appeared to contain a bare minimum of basic provisions and looked dim and dusty, but I could see small packets of various washing powders, tea and sugar, shisha tobacco and cigarettes and a few stacked crates of Coca Cola. Next door another small shop contained fertilisers, seeds and corn and I could see lines of sacks stacked against the far wall, and huge outdated scales, gleaming with polish, that obviously had pride of place.
Somewhere nearby, a water pump with a loud petrol engine struggled to lift water from the canal into the small irrigation ditches that feed the crops. A little further along the track we came to the source of the noise, where three little naked children were playing in the water gushing out of a pump, while a buffalo stood nearby at the edge of the canal. An older girl, knee deep in the water was hanging on to the harness while her brother busily threw buckets of water over the great brown beast. David was well-known as the only foreigner living in the village and as a ‘celebrity’ had been given an Egyptian name, Abd el-Radi, by the family he lived with, so our progress down the track was hampered by many shouts of his name along with handshakes and hugs as though none of the villagers had seen him for months. He told us that he had endured the same effusive greetings only this morning on the way into Luxor! We climbed up an embankment onto a narrow train track, apparently used only when the sugar cane was harvested. On the other side of the narrow canal two young boys were casting a fishing net out of a rowing boat and grinning, they held up small fish they had caught for our inspection. Robin and I were the focus of much curiosity and many introductions had to be made as we made our way through the village, especially to the small gathering of children who walked with us demanding ‘What’s your name?’ every few seconds.
All along the road of el-Arabet, donkeys stood tethered outside most of the houses and flocks of wiry-haired goats or chickens, came charging unexpectedly from behind the buildings. Carts loaded with animal fodder trundled along, their drivers raising a hand in welcome or offering us a ride. Small children with tin lids attached to lengths of wire, pushed their vehicles through the dust and shouted ‘Abd el-Radi, Abd el-Radi’ or begged for baksheesh. Women dressed in black, emptied buckets and bowls into the street, the liquid soaking away instantly into the parched earth. Toothless old men perched on hard wooden benches drinking tea and smoking shisha, smiled and called ‘Salaam’. It must have been baking day as all along the road there were trays of dough shaped into round loaves rising in the sun, while young girls sat fanning away the flies with palm fronds.
After twenty minutes or so we crossed another bridge over the canal and arrived at David’s house where several thin yellow dogs lay panting in the dusty shade under the trees, too warm to be interested in us. We stopped to scratch the ears of a tethered donkey and her new foal and as David told us ‘to exchange gossip with her’. A wonderful smell of new-baked bread came from a little courtyard behind the building and Fatma, David’s neighbour, came hurrying out to bring him a warm loaf and some fresh eggs. Like most of the other houses in the village his home was a series of simple reinforced concrete boxes placed one upon the other with an internal concrete staircase linking the apartments. David had bought an apartment on the second floor of the structure, which in theory provided the money needed for the family to complete the rest of the building work, though this had not yet been done. The ground floor apartment was to be the main family home, almost completed though still empty, with another apartment on the third floor intended to be the home of the eldest son. David is very artistic and he had decorated his little apartment with simple furniture, upholstery and curtains made by himself on a very tight budget. One wall of the living area was shelved and completely covered by his book collection while the other walls displayed simple ‘treasures’ he had found in the local markets. The floor of the whole apartment was laid with cool ceramic tiles in the style of Egyptian homes, covered with a scattering of small rag rugs. The walls and woodwork were painted in shades of cool greens and blues and to the horror of the Egyptian builders he had insisted on a large window overlooking the fields. Egyptian houses have small shuttered windows to keep out the summer heat, making them dark and gloomy at all times of the year, but David’s apartment was light, airy and spacious, giving a wonderful impression of the countryside coming right into his living room. As I looked out of his window I could see the pylons of Karnak rising in the hazy distance. I loved what he had done and would have been happy to live here myself.
David prepared a lovely meal for us and Robin and I sat and chatted with him for several hours before it was time to walk back through the village to the main road to catch an arabeya back to Luxor. David walked back with us, which took just as long as it had when we arrived, but this time he also had to fend off the teasing shouts of ‘You lucky man, two English wives!’ But David was smiling as he imagined his reputation with the local men had increased.