Augustine's Luxor Photo Journal - January 5-12, 2005
photos and text ©copyright Natalie d'Arbeloff 2005
NOT THE GRAND HOTEL
Our hotel had the advantage of being cheap and cheerful and the disadvantage of being run according to the management's idea of what a mainly British package tourist clientele wants. They may be right, since no one complained, but I was the odd one out. Piped music in the restaurant playing non-stop "old favourites" on a loop - if ever again I hear I Just Called To Say I Love You, I will release the screams I repressed for seven days, every breakfast and dinner-time.
One night we were offered a Typically Egyptian evening - it wasn't so much typical as typically packaged for tourists but it did have some highlights. A group of musicians in sombre robes, faces worn and weathered by desert sun, sang and played strange sounds on strange instruments - sounds that were more like howling desert winds than anything we recognise as music. I went upstairs to get my camera and when I came back they were gone.
Then came a snake charmer all in black, carrying a cloth-covered basket and a long stick. He prodded the basket as the snake-charming music played and out slid one of those big (it looks small here but was at least 3ft long) slithery creatures. Pets often look like their masters or vice-versa and this reptile had the same ingratiating, cunning expression as its boss. The snake did its "Am I Not Charming?" routine, pretending to be hypnotised. The basket was prodded again and out spilled another cobra who performed the same dance but in less professional manner. He was wound around the pole like a noodle on a chopstick and poured back into the basket. The charmer then picked up snake No.1 and began the commercial break: we diners were offered the opportunity to have our photos taken (enter photographer) with the slippery one draped around our necks. Amazingly, very few refused. I was among those few.
The same photo-opportunity and the same let-me-wrap-myself-around-you inducement was offered by the belly dancer. I must confess to the occasional yearning to be a belly dancer but I have only seen the real thing on film, never in the genuinely undulating flesh. This dancer was not the real thing. Her belly did not undulate properly. She didn't have the fire, the devil-may-care abandon, the training, the je ne sais quoi. Like the snake and his charmer, this was strictly business. The practised have a nice day smile was about as erotic as the lime green tablecloths or her secretary shoes. When it came time for the photo-shoot, she went overboard, crushing a startled ten year-old boy between her boobs and assuming pretend-sexy poses at every table. The photos were later for sale but they were flash-bleached. I preferred my own.
Two boys then came on and performed a pole dance. No, not that kind of pole dance but Saidi, a martial arts dance with sticks. This was beautiful. The colours of their robes made fantastic animated geometric patterns as the dancers swooped around the floor, twirling and lunging.
But my favourite was the whirling dervish. His costume was a miracle of skirt engineering - not only did it whirl in dazzling technicolour but it had layers that rose and fell independently of each other, even rising above the whirler's head. I knew that whirling is what whirling dervishes do but I didn't know that it involved such gravity-defying behaviour on the part of their garments. This is the Tanoura, an entertainment version of the traditional Sufi religious dance.
Below is the view from the roof top terrace of the hotel. I walked to the end of that long and busy road every day to get to the city centre and back. Stripes are painted along the edges of the pavement which for some reason is about a foot above ground level. So a long walk is not just walking but also stepping up and down up and down every few yards - good exercise for
On my last day, whiling away the time before going to the airport, I sat in the cafe up on the roof in the blazing sun and got into conversation with a charming and interesting Dutch woman. She told me, with great animation, her adventurous story which sounded like a more pragmatic Mills & Boon but was obviously true.
For reasons of privacy I won't go into detail but in a nutshell:
Retired academic of sixty five goes to Egypt on holiday, meets thirty-five year-old Egyptian stable owner, friendship at first sight then (in no particular order): Business partnership, cohabitation, marriage and (presumed) happiness ever after. The end.
That kind of thing is, apparently, an everyday occurence in Egypt.