Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Why did I chose Egypt? Well, that’s obvious. How could anyone resist the mysterious allure of glittering pharaohs, camel caravans in the desert anti-gravitational curling beards and mummy doctors who pull brains out of your noses. Why Aswan? Bloggers promised Aswan would be relaxing, felucca-filled (feluccas are Egyptian sailboats) city on the Nile and claimed it housed the majority of the Nubian population. Egypt would be my first trip to Africa and I thought these beautiful, dark people in flowing robes could give me more of an African experience than I would find in Cairo or Alexandria. When a Nubian couch surfer invited me to stay in his village on Elephantine Island, I couldn’t be more excited.

Arrival in Aswan
I arrived in Aswan slightly before midnight and the first person I met as I exited the airport was my Nubian taxi driver, Mohammad (who told me that every man in this country will be named Mohammad, Ahmed or Sherif). He hoisted my bags with a surprising amount of agility for a guy in a man-dress then warmly welcomed me to his beloved home of Aswan. After our preliminary introductions, he took it upon himself to teach me some Arabic and Nubian.  I promptly forgot both but Nubian is exclusively a spoken language and apparently not well-documented online so those words are lost forever.  The Internet helped me recovered some Arabic.  Firstly, I learned: “Welcome” (ahlan wa sahlan, which everyone says ALL THE TIME) and, secondly, “I love you” (ana b’hebbek). I didn’t know it at the time but this interaction uncovered the first grand truth of traveling in Egypt: if proclamation of love or marriage doesn’t come up within five minutes (usually less) of talking to a man, he’s not from around here. I’ve been called Madame and Shakira, had dozens of kisses blown my way and received over two dozen marriage proposals within 48 hours.
Anyway, back to the taxi drive: Mohammad took me on an animated tour of Aswan, pointing out the new football stadium, an old-looking cemetery and a line of papyrus and perfume shops. Since I visited during Ramadan, the city really came alive at night. Blinking Christmas lights illuminated the mosques, shiny streamers decorated homes and everyone was outside: eating snacks, kicking around balls in the middle of street and smoking hookah in make-shift cafes. He dropped me at a dark ferry station where the teen fee-collector gorged himself on a plastic-bag full of pita bread. Sure enough, it was the wrong ferry station but Gasser, my host, sorted out the mix-up with a phone call to the attendant (once the boy stopped chewing) and came to my rescue.

View of Aswan and its strange cemeteries from the Nubian museum, Aswan, Egypt

View of Aswan and its strange cemeteries from the Nubian museum, Aswan, Egypt

Brief History of the Nubian People
Gasser is a 100% Nubian and proud of it. He had worked as a masseuse on cruise ships in Aswan but after the Egyptian Revolution, as with many working in tourism, he lost his job but now works in Sudan for a few months at a time. When the ferry dropped us off and we shuffled through dark, sandy streets to the house, Gasser shared the story of his people. Nubians used to rule the Pharaohs of Egypt in their kingdom between Egypt and Sudan but when the Pharaohs grew in strength they kicked Nubians out of Egypt. Although they lost their kingdom, Nubians slowly began to re-integrate themselves into Egyptian society but in 1960, when the Egyptian president decided to build the Aswan high dam, they lost their lands. Half returned to Northern Sudan and the remainder stayed in Southern Egypt. Gasser, like many of the Nubians who grew up on the banks of the Nile, was educated in Egyptian schools, learned Arabic and now Nubians peacefully co-exist with the Egyptian people.
Gasser’s family lives on Elephantine Island, a small simple place without any cars. Gasser’s sister owns an incredible two-bedroom villa on the side of the Nile, which Gasser uses to host lucky couch surfers when no tourists occupy it. Nubians (and Egyptians in general) love Bob Marley (and Jamaicans claim to have Nubian roots) so he left me in paradise, with “Buffalo Soldier” playing softly.

View of the Nile River from my Elephantine Island Villa, Aswan, Egypt

View of the Nile River from my Elephantine Island Villa, Aswan, Egypt

Essential Aswan: An Afternoon of Sightseeing
Waking up to river breezes and the sounds of goats bleating, the next morning was incredible. I made myself instant coffee and watched Nubian boys fish from the shore with sticks and string and a felucca boat slowly sail by. Even though it was hard to tear myself away from this peaceful place, I packed my stuff, wandered through the Nubian village then took the ferry to the big city, which was basically deserted during Ramadan. I found a dusty gift shop hidden away on a small street and the owner arranged a driver to take me to the top three Aswan attractions before my 3:00 train. The driver, Allah, a 26-year-old Egyptian, pulled up in his pimped out ride: his front windshield boldly announced “Crazy Car”, blue flames danced around the exterior of his vehicle and the inside was covered in football flags and silly stickers include “Cowboy up”, an Egyptian singer and Bert from Sesame Street. His slightly older Nubian friend rode co-pilot and both of them couldn’t wait to take me on a tour of their city. After about three sentences, the driver transformed into a love sick teenager. “I love you. If we finish early, will you come to my house to meet my family and drink tea?”. I light-heartedly replied, “let’s first try to finish on time then we’ll see about tea”.
I began at the Nubian museum but the boys insisted on feeding first. Since I had unsuccessfully scoured the streets earlier for an open shop that sold better snacks than chips and blocks of cheese in an unelectrified refrigerator, I eagerly chomped down the falafel they found for me in the secret street that isn’t completely closed during Ramadan. The boys dropped me off, helped me get my ticket and said, “see you in 5-10 minutes?” and I agreed, expecting a closet-sized museum of Granny’s-hand-me-downs. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case when I entered an enormous two-story museum of chronologically organized artifacts, dioramas and a giant lawn of Nubian gardens and life-sized traditional houses. Fortunately, growing up with my family where vacations were action-packed marathons of museums, I was used to absorbing information on-the-run and picked up a few interesting facts. It was even harder to keep moving when I got outside and the grounds keepers wanted to talk to me about America, Obama and invite me to their family home during my next trip to Aswan.  When I arrived outside, the driver was still on the hunt for change (second grand truth of traveling in Egypt: everyone wants exact change in small bills for buses, ferries, tourist tickets, etc. but no one has change and the ATM gives you uselessly large bills.  Even my local friends didn’t have a good tip for avoiding this incessantly frustrating and inconvenient issue) so his Nubian friend took me across the street to a coffee shop owned by his brother.  We sat in the shade, sipping black tea which he doused with crumbled, dried mint until our ride returned. While we sat, we met several his family members and I learned the third grand truth of traveling in Egypt: everyone is related and if you’re nice, this works out to your benefit- we got free tea!

Nubian friend in traditional garb by the High Dam, Aswan, Egypt

Nubian friend in traditional garb by the High Dam, Aswan, Egypt

When Allah returned, we drove to the High Dam that was responsible for re-locating so many of the Nubians. Whether or not I supported the government transplanting this ethnic minority group they wished, the engineering was an impressive accomplishment.

Philae Temple, Aswan, Egypt

Philae Temple, Aswan, Egypt

From there, we headed to Philae Temple, which, like the Nubian people, was moved as an UNESCO project during the dam construction. This temple to Isis always had its own island where no one but priests occupied because of its revered reputation as the burying place of Osiris. The whole place was run by Nubians so the Nubian co-pilot greeted everyone like a long-lost brother and found another Nubian to boat us across, who also wanted to marry me.  When I arrived at the massive facade at the front of the temple, I couldn’t believe they relocated such a massive structure (and it’s even more impressive to consider how it was built in the first place with ancient technology).  Throughout the complex, it was fun to hunt for evidence of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman (Christian) and even French occupation in the religious symbols and multi-lingual inscriptions throughout. the . As with the vast majority of temples that I visited, I was the only one on the whole island so a security guard rushed up in a robe and gave me what I thought was a free tour. Fourth grand truth of traveling in Egypt: most of the time, “friendly” security guards who tell you about a place, show you its secret spots and take pictures of you expect a tip. That’s the awkward/ annoying part of traveling alone… it’s hard to silently enjoy one of these historic sights without being bothered and usually the tours involve bad English and an endless pointing at random symbols (“jackal, lotus, serpent, Isis, Osiris, two-headed serpent”) without an explanation of what it all means. This particular security guard thought that Americans like the energy absorption places so he dragged me into random corners, had me place my hands in high-energy locations, hummed vigorously and often waved his hands over my hand, whispering frantically in Arabic. I knew the driver would be worrying about not having enough time to feed me tea, so I cut the tour short, buzzed around the rest of the complex and tried to laugh off marriage proposals as I returned to shore.

Philae Temple, Aswan, Egypt

The view of Philae Temple from the boat, Aswan, Egypt

After some tea and at Allah’s colorful and pillow-laden home, they escorted me to the train station like a legendary Egyptian queen.  They carried my baggage, had me wait in the shade as they secured a ticket for a window seat, made sure that I settled snuggly in my seat then they regretful departed.  Knowing that Luxor was my next destination, the Nubian recommended some of his Nubian friends who could house me for free.  Upon hearing I had a host, he still insisted that I expand my Nubian connections in Luxor and actually texted me later that night that he was in Luxor to see me and wanted to hang out again.  I didn’t have enough time to meet up with him but it just goes to show that Egyptians are… easily enamored?  Excessively helpful?  Insanely enthusiastic?  It’s a weird country…

Song of the Moment: Bob Marley- Is This Love? (Because Aswan is lovely!)

If YOU want to visit Aswan: To enter Egypt, Americans can get a visa on arrival for $25 and the exchange rate is awesome ($1 USD ~ 7 EGP- Egyptian pounds).  Tourist sights and taxis are relatively expensive (usually tickets to a tomb or temple cost around 60 EGP) but lodging (you can find well-ranked hostels in Cairo for $7 a night for a private room) and food is cheap, especially if you get out of the tourist restaurants (you can get a meal for 15-20 EGP).  Unfortunately, many of the ticket prices have gone up recently, after the number of tourists fell during the Egyptian Revolution.  Gas went up by 30% two days before I arrived so I paid slightly higher rates for taxis than you might have a couple weeks ago.

Aswan doesn’t have too many sights to see (in addition to what I saw, you can visit the unfinished obelisk, the tourist market and do a felucca cruise) but I’d highly recommend it as a cultural experience, the perfect place to relax and find some of the friendliest people in Egypt.  Flights to Aswan are frequent, short (less than 90 minutes) and cheap from Cairo. The train from Luxor is also a good option (3 hours, 31 EGP). As far as a place to stay, you can see if Gasser’s villa on Elephantine Island is available on AirBnb and you can reserve it for the bargain price of $30/ night . To get to Elephantine, there’s two ferries that regularly depart from the main land until 1:30 AM- one near KFC (which is the proper one to take you to Gasser’s villa) and another one about a 5-minute walk down the road.

Aswan attractions: The Nubian museum and the Philae Temple cost 60 Egyptian pounds each (but students save 50%) plus 70 EGP for the boat to take you there.  You can also take advantage of their light and sound show if you have the flexibility in your schedule to time your visit accordingly. Road access the High Dam costs around 20 pounds. For four hours of a private taxi and all these sights, I paid 190 EGP (and received a free meal, free drinks, new friends and lots of tea).

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