For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the first Mesopotamian civilisations, the Sumerians (whose art, I think, has never been surpassed), Akkadians and Babylonians, but I didn’t have much of an interest in pharaonic Egypt before my recent visit. I’d seen the Pyramids five years ago, and they hadn’t done much for me – perhaps because Cairo has grown around them, or perhaps because I’d seen too many pictures.
But Luxor’s Temple of Karnak astounded me. Unlike the vast, inhuman pyramids, it gives you a sense of the scale and complexity of the people who worked and worshipped here three and a half to four thousand years ago. On the walls, ceilings, statues and obelisks there is plenty of realist depiction as well as the static, formulaic art I expected. In many of the buildings the roof, or at least the lower storey’s roof, is still on. Karnak is far older – and because of the truly ancient religion, it feels far older – than the equally intact Greek stuff I’ve seen in Turkey and Syria.
The architecture of Karnak’s Hypostyle hall must be among the most impressive in the world, and the impression of wandering through its forest of columns is entirely unphotographable. It feels fertile, like an organised swamp, and there are stars painted on the ceiling’s stone beams.
For the first time I saw a continuity between ancient Egyptian and Islamic architecture, the same focus on line, space and light.The arranged columns reminded me, for instance, of the Great Mosque in Fes, with its contradictory evocation of crowdedness and endless expanse. Like the great mosque complexes, Egyptian temple compounds functioned as schools, meeting halls, hospitals and libraries as well as places of worship. Karnak has a sacred lake, and its priests performed ritual ablutions before worship, as Muslims do.
As an Anglo-Arab, or a blue-eyed Arabic speaker, I had a double perspective on Upper Egypt. I don’t look like an Egyptian, but evidently I don’t look like a stereotypical foreigner either, and I was able to avoid most of the negative tourism interaction. My face and body language provoked only the occasional ‘hello, hello!’ When I replied in Arabic, I was asked where I was from. ‘British of Syrian origin,’ I said, and they said, with violent friendliness, ‘Nowurt al-makan! You’ve lit the place up!’
I spent two nights and a day and a half on a felucca staffed by two locals and enjoyed by foreigners. I inhabited both social worlds, local and foreign. Captain Fathi fed, warmed and sailed us. His English words were “Friend!” “Come!” and “Tea.” He grinned constantly. The marijuana on the boat didn’t bother him, he told me – in fact he could bring us some more – but the alcohol did a bit. There were Americans with a bottle of rum, a Scot, an Italian, a Norwegian. Two Americans were boy and girlfriend, publicly canoodling. In Upper Egyptian eyes, probably canoodling obscenely. Fathi avoided giving them direct looks, but grinned, and taught the word ‘habooba’, meaning ‘little darling.’ Fathi viewed the young foreigners with curious but detached sympathy, as strange, slightly damaged creatures. He certainly didn’t hold their foreignness against them. And generally the mix of people worked well. The only tense moment came when Fathi understood the American boyfriend calling him ‘dog’ – a heavy-duty insult in Arabic. Losing his smile Fathi waved at him: “What dog? Dog? Why dog?” Embarrassed and culture-shocked, the (white) American kept it up: “Yeah, dog! You don’t know gangsta rap, my dog? Yo! I’m a dog! You’re a dog! We’re all dogs!” Fathi got back to boiling the kettle.
The felucca took us from Aswan to Kom Ombo. A minibus took us to Luxor, via a couple of temples. From the window there was lots of sugarcane, a few fields of sunflowers, buffalo crossing the water. Villages are constructed with locally-made brown brick; many villages contain their own brick factories with distinctive tall, thin chimneys. Round-faced Saeedis go about their business in flare-bottomed gellabiyas and big turbans. There is a great deal of donkey transport. At one point a huge asthma-inducing cloud from an ammonia factory billows across the road and a section of village, reducing visibility. There is extreme poverty, and rubbish everywhere, but because they are built with traditional materials the villages are usually more beautiful than the richer breezeblock and plastic bag villages that make up much of Syria. There is also a laid-back, southern tone. Those buildings that are painted are coloured with similar pastel blues and ochres and pinks to the surviving paintwork at Karnak. A wealth of Sufi shrines line the irrigation channel and the road, silver or green domed, some hung with flags and fairy lights. Sufism used to be dominant here, and is still very strong. In contrast, Upper Egypt is also the home of the Gama’a al-Islamiya. A few years ago there were frequent gun battles in the cane fields. Now a tourist minibus is only permitted to travel in police convoy.
When I arrived in Luxor I was with the foreigners I’d met on the felucca. Walking with them in the streets was a different experience entirely. I think the obvious foreigners, who seem to walk only accompanied by a crowd, must suffer from the hassle in their judgment of the Egyptians. Tourists are seen as financial opportunities on legs by the thin section of society which is devoted to their milking. It’s a shame, because beyond this front the Upper Egyptians are warm, decent, simple people (I use the word ‘simple’ with all its positive force).
Contemporary Luxor is a strange place: not particularly large, rural, desperately poor, and now hosting the rich world’s package tourists. This is the reason for the hassle. Tourism is this poor country’s biggest business. There’s no use in pretending that it’s about cultural interaction or transnational brotherhood – it’s business plain and simple. And a lot of the hassle is totally genuine. In Arabic I heard several times: “Brother, my children are hungry. Can you help me?” Another refrain was: “Let me come and work where you are. I will do any work. I can clean, or build, or guard. I can work.”
And walking with the Westerners, I got a different kind of tourist hassle. It became: “Brother, my children are hungry. Tell those people to help me. They will listen to you.”
The felucca moored at night, and sometimes during the day too. I had a riverbank conversation with a local man who’d travelled and worked throughout the Arab world. “The Gulf Arabs,” he said, wrinkling his nose, “have forgotten how to live. They are full of arrogance and stupidity. They are ignorant like the Arabs before Islam. But the Syrians are true brothers, righteous people. And the Yemenis? Real Muslims! Muslim Muslims! They are like us. They’ll offer you their last piece of bread. They’ll take you into their homes.” These comments show what many poor Muslims understand by ‘Islam’, and the tremendous political force the word can exert on them. A ‘Muslim Muslim’ is someone who isn’t rich enough to be materialistic, who hasn’t yet been penetrated by late capitalist values, and who lives therefore according to traditional codes of cooperation, hospitality, mutual respect and brotherhood.
It’s hard not to read a fated and apocalyptic symbolism into the current state of Iraq and Egypt. Iraq where civilisation began, where agriculture and writing and cities and kings and armies first developed, now coated with depleted uranium and foreign mercenaries and blood and slogans. And Egypt, the first centralised state, the millenially unquenchable beacon of power and influence, now powerless, directionless, without influence or voice, utterly dependent. Egypt which in the fifties and sixties was the emblem of Arabism and the centre of cultural renaissance, now the clearest example of a client state. Egypt which arrests hundreds of moderate Islamists and liberal democrats every week, and is described as a ‘moderate Arab state’ by the official West. Egypt which last week violently suppressed the protests of striking textile workers and hungry masses complaining about rising food prices.
Egypt is lost, and the Arabs with it, but you feel, in the villages and towns of the south, not for ever. I don’t know if that feeling is illusory or not.