Journal: Thursday 9 March 2000
After spending our first two days here in Luxor on the East Bank, it was time to cross the river, a journey on the local ferry I never get tired of making. Traditionally and in my mind too, Luxor town represents the hustle and bustle of life lived to the full with the never-ending noise and fumes of traffic and the chaos of the suq where tradesmen and customers alike shout at each other constantly. Long ago I discovered that shouting in Egypt does not necessarily equate with aggression, it’s just the way Egyptian people are, their exuberant nature means that most conversations seem to include raised voices and wild gesticulations. The Arabic language can sound harsh to our Western ears when voices are raised, but when spoken softly it is like poetry. Even on our way to the ferry today Jenny and I were besieged by felucca owners along the Corniche, one after another trying to get us to take an afternoon sail, shouting after us as we went by telling them ‘La shukran’ (no thank you).
Crossing to the West Bank means leaving this frantic way of life behind, at least once we had navigated our way past the ferry dock to find transport. But the village of Gezira el-Bahrat is just as lively as Luxor and there are always a lot of people milling around the dock. I have stayed here a few times and have made many friends and acquaintances so it was not surprising that we were stopped by several people who welcomed me back as we got off the ferry. This familiarity always makes me feel like I’ve come home. The first couple of arabeyas waiting to take passengers to Qurna were too crowded so we walked up the road a little way and ran into Mandour, an old friend, who persuaded us to go to the coffee shop for a drink with him. It never takes much persuading for me to go to a coffee shop to sample the first delicious cup of strong Egyptian coffee of the day. I have known Mandour for several years so we sat outside the cafe and chatted for a while, asking about each others families and catching up on news while watching people coming and going on the street. Mandour told us that he had hired a mini-bus to take a French couple to Abydos on Saturday and invited Jenny and I to join them. As we hadn’t planned a trip to Abydos this time the invitation was a lovely surprise and we happily accepted. Arrangements were made to meet up on Saturday, then Mandour flagged down an arabeya to take us to the taftish. We climbed up into the back of the covered Peugeot pick-up and took our places on the bench seat next to an old lady dressed in the traditional black galabeya and veil. On the opposite seat were two small children, probably her grandchildren, who silently sat and stared at us with round wide eyes until I produced a bag of sweets. After asking ‘Granny’ if this was OK I handed out sweets all round and was rewarded with the biggest widest grins I’ve ever seen from the two children. This seemed to break the ice and it wasn’t long before a couple of male passengers began asking questions, wanting to know if we lived here, did we have an Egyptian husband, would we like an Egyptian husband, and why not, what’s wrong with Egyptian men? Replying that we both had husbands at home thank you very much, didn’t seem to deter them and they persisted with this line of friendly bantering until it was time for us to get off.
The West Bank, ‘Land of the Dead’, is largely a necropolis of the ancient Theban people and a sense of quiet peace always descends on me the further I get from the river. Even the enthusiastic gaggle of children who later followed us around the village, chanting ‘What’s your name?’ could not dispel the calm atmosphere of Qurna on a warm sleepy afternoon. We had met my friend Robin at the taftish and together we went to visit a number of tombs in Qurna and Asasif, first Ramose and Khaemhet followed by Menna and Nakht. The last two tombs, Kheruef and Ankh-hor belonged to stewards of the ‘God’s Wives of Amun’ the ‘Divine Adoratrix’ whose shrines I had looked at yesterday at Karnak. The tombs were interesting to contrast with each other, as Kheruef had lived during the reign of Amenhotep III in Dynasty XVIII and was the steward to the ‘Great Royal Wife’ Tiye, while Ankh-hor held office much later, being steward to the ‘God’ Wife’ Nitocris in Dynasty XXVI.
It was a long dusty afternoon in the tombs and when we had finished we went with Robin to the house on the West Bank where she was temporarily living. I fell in love with the house immediately. It belongs to a European woman and Robin was renting a room while she looked for a more permanent home here. The house is a design by Hassan Fathy, the award-winning Egyptian architect who, in the 1940s, had designed the village of New Qurna as an experiment in the traditional values of local architecture as a response to the European influenced concrete housing that was springing up all over Egypt at the time. New Qurna was one of Fathy’s most famous projects, commissioned by the Egyptian Antiquities Department as an answer to the problem of the relocation of families from the old village of Qurna, tomb-robbers by reputation, who were living on top of the ancient necropolis. Offering a viable low-cost traditional housing for the rural population, Fathy’s village at New Qurna was designed to satisfy the individual needs of each family in the community, each with cool and airy living spaces. Unfortunately the experiment and the new village was doomed to failure as the villagers resisted relocating to their new homes and made every effort to stay where they were. Also, at that time people wanted ‘modern’, which they equated with ‘western-designed’ homes and not the traditional architecture more appropriate to the Egyptian climate and building materials. Like the houses of New Qurna, Robin’s home was light and spacious, with high domed ceilings, decorative window grids and built-in stone bench seating and I thought its elegant simplicity was wonderful.
Later this evening Robin, Jenny and I had dinner together in the restaurant of Mahmoud’s Hotel opposite the taftish, a lovely traditional Egyptian meal of rice, lots of different vegetable dishes and Omm Ali to follow for dessert.