Sunday, October 14, 2007

Egypt: The Refraction of Invisible Light

Aswan is absolutely gorgeous. As I mentioned in talking about my cruise, the Nile in Upper Egypt is exactly as you picture it in your daydreams, with a thin band of fertile farmland set against a background of sand hills. At Aswan, there is the added element of the cataract, which is as much a boon to the nature lover as it is a bane to Nile rivermen. The stretch of deep blue water which flows past the city slips effortlessly past deep green, grassy islets, while the gray rock formations which rise throughout the channel serve as perches for dozens of white river birds who nest in the nearby palm groves. Even the ancient ruins in the city, most notably the cavelike Tombs of the Nobles on the West Bank, seem as if they were deliberately understated, a sort of mood music for the setting rather than the main attraction in and of themselves.

Aswan does, however, play host to other attractions which the curious traveller can find. On the south of the West Bank, there is no fertile land, and the ferry dock juts right up against the dry sand and rock of the desert shore. Few tourists come here, though I did see a tour group being led away on camels, apparently tricked into believing that riding a camel was a pleasant experience. Those who do often come to see a single small, rectangular building with an onion dome at one end. Built of the same brown material as the houses of the ancient Egyptians, it sits on the slopes of the highest bluff, looking out over the beauty of the cataract below. This is the Mausoleum of Aga Khan III, who for 72 years was the spiritual leader of the Nizari Isma'ili Shi'ites, along the way serving as President of both the All-India Muslim League and the League of Nations. When I got there it was closed, so I could only see from beyond the wall which rose with the hill in a steep arc above a small tentlike enclosure where two of the camel owners fried something in a small kettle.

Further up the hill, perhaps half a mile from the river, are two other buildings. Both are incomplete, but whereas one is in ruins, the other is being built as a rest house for those who flock to it. The ruined building is the Monastery of St. Simeon. I know nothing of its history, but its location speaks to something of the Coptic heritage of monasticism, set apart from the town as it was in a sea of rolling sand dunes where rains falls only once or twice in each decade, so close to the Tropic of Cancer that one of the islands in the Nile below was where Eratosthenes came to calculate the circumference of the earth during the Ptolemaic period. One can easily imagine the life of the monks here, and their relationship with the town nearby as holy men much like those in Wadi Natrun are to the Copts of Cairo and Alexandria. As the rising rest house indicates, the Coptic spirit is very much alive in Egypt, including in Aswan, where the past few years have seen the completion of the new Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. On the East Bank of the river opposite the mausoleum, the huge white church topped with Coptic crosses dominates the region of Aswan's skyline, while inside a friendly woman at the gift shop will rattle off information about its construction the most memorable of which was that the iconostatis had been made of an imported exotic North American wood called "oak."

From Luxor I took the train north to Cairo. As a foreigner, there were only certain trains I was allowed to ride, thanks to the regulations of the ever-present tourist police. I talked about them when I was in Cairo in 2005, but Middle and Upper Egypt are really where they exert control over movements, mainly because during the 1990's that was where anti-tourist terrorism was concentrated, and many regulations remain left over from that time. Sometimes, however, it leaves a state of affairs that is downright comic. Tourists must go from Aswan to Abu Simbel in one of two daily military convoys. Once we left Aswan, however, our convoy was just a plain convoy since there was no military presence, which they apparently only bother with if they have reason to believe there's a threat. One hopes they know what they're doing, as the net effect of all this is to gather half the day's tourists in the same places and predictable times.

As I mentioned earlier, I took a separate train from Aswan to Luxor. My seat there was across from a man dressed in a white galabiyya who spoke only Egyptian colloquial, and across the aisle from a young guy with a short beard rather loudly reciting from a Qur'an. When I first started travelling in the Middle East I would have found that a noteworthy cultural experience; now that I'm older and more jaded, I just found it rather annoying, especially as he kept glaring at everybody who wasn't keeping a strict Ramadan fast, apparently oblivious to the fact travelers are exempt. Eventually two well-dressed, perfectly groomed men came and started talking to me, asking me lots of questions about who I was and what I was doing, and seeming to want to be perfectly clear that I was really an American and not Israeli down for Sukkot. The guy in the white galabiyya joined in the conversation, and wound up muttering about unpronounceable foreign names, particularly "Craig." At one point the guy across the aisle angrily complained that we were disturbing his holy Qur'an recitation, at which point both one of the well-dressed men and white galabiyya guy said some stuff that presumably amounted to telling him what he could go do with himself. Based on the reactions of nearby passengers, I think some had been waiting for someone to have that confrontation.

The two guys eventually left, but came back about half an hour before we got to Luxor and said I had to go with them. I really didn't see why I should, particularly since in Egypt harmless friendly chatter can be the start of a set-up, but one flashed an ID badge and declared them tourist police, and I wound up following them three cars back where I was ultimately surrounded by six tourist cops, all of whom proclaimed that they just wanted to make sure I got off at the right stop. It was then I finally decided that while the tourist police might serve a useful purpose, Egypt simply had too many of them.

In any case, I suspect the real purpose of all this was to make sure I got off at Luxor rather than one of the cities of Middle Egypt such as Minya or Asyut, which is where I suspect the problems really lie. Last spring I met a backpacker who together with an American friend he met on the road got off at Asyut, and he said that everywhere they went they had eight bodyguards determined to get them out of town as quickly as possible. The guarding sounded pretty intense, as in when they went to an ahwa making sure they sat against the wall and then sitting in a semi-circle around them. However, the guy also told me he felt a lot of the people in Asyut looked at the two travelers with a definite hatred, and because this same person had spent Ashura in Mashhad and had a good time, I don't think he was the type to exaggerate or imagine that sort of thing.

I had exactly one full day in Cairo before my return trip to Jerusalem, a trip that was more annoying than it had to be because East Delta Bus Company got me into Sharm al-Shaykh two hours late after I discovered that the bus straight to Taba left half an hour before I thought it did. I really didn't do much during that day, in part because Cairo has a way of sapping my will to live, let along to see things, and in part because I was coming down with a cold that was going around Upper Egypt. In the morning, however, I did set out to see an important site I hadn't realized was there two years ago, the tomb of Imam Shafi'i, called the Father of Islamic Law for his role in systematizing its development. He was buried large mosque/mausoleum complex with its own gate at the end of Imam Shafi'i Street, a thoroughfare lined with other mausoleums and small grocery stores south of the Citadel below the Muqattam cliffs. As seemed appropriate for visiting a sacred site well off the itineraries of most tourists, I behaved with exaggerated respect, but none of the people where seemed to take my presence amiss as they went about their business.

Some of the people there were praying, while others sat quietly on benches and a few homeless slept in the back, temporarily out of the heat in a building of God. I wasn't sure where the actual mausoleum was so I asked someone, who pointed out a door in the wall opposite the main entrance which turned into a small corridor. At the other end of that corridor was another chamber, in which Imam Shafi'i lay buried in a sarcophagus covered with fabrics with calligraphy all over them, presumably relevant sections of the Qur'an. As is usual, the sarcophagus was enclosed in a wooden structure with windows tinted Islamic green. Around him were smaller tombs, presumably of later scholars of his school, or perhaps notables who had endowed the complex. Somehow people had also gotten money inside Imam Shafi'i's tomb, along with scribbled notes which are probably much like those stuck in the Western Wall by Jews. There were also several beggars around the room's walls, and a few people reciting the Qur'an quietly next to the tomb.

Having gotten a feel of the place, I left quietly, though I wasn't quite done with my travels yet. As I said in the beginning of my first note about this trip, I was told Egypt had the best Ramadan Iftar parties of anywhere in the Arab world. The holy month had been part of the background of my journey from the moment I crossed the Taba border, where one of the taxi drivers immediately gave us the price I had read would be good, saying he had given up charging high prices for Ramadan. (This stance did not seem to endear him to one of his colleagues.) All throughout the land, mosques and a few private dwellings were lit up with strings of lights, much as happens in the United States at Christmas, and as the sun set, people wherever they were dropped whatever they were doing to lay out communal meals, breaking together the fast they had kept together.

That night I hiked over to Bab Sharqiyya, where pictures of dissident politician Ayman Nour were still posted everywhere. However, I was only there because I had taken a wrong turn. I corrected my path, and soon found myself at Midan Hussein in front of the Sayyidna Hussein Mosque, the lesser claimant to have the head of the grandson of the Prophet who was killed at Karbala and is commemorated by Shi'ites, who believe him the third imam, on Ashura. There again, you saw huge tables with extended families feasting together: What people don't realize about Ramadan is that despite being a fasting month, it's also a time of celebration when Muslims have their biggest feasts. The whole square was lit up beautifully, with banners commemorating the season, and the tallest minarets of al-Azhar across the street made the perfect backdrop for the occasion.

If someone asked me what I gained from being there, I wouldn't really know what to tell them. You probably get a more direct experience of the season when you're on a bus or train at sunset at people who have brought celebratory foods to share with whomever's around make a point of including you as a non-Muslim foreigner. Still, sometimes you just need to sit and take in a scene, and let it become part of a montage of scenes through which we come to understand humanity's relationship with the sacred, a sacred we can find in the natural world around us, in churches and monasteries, in the sukkas I found back in Jerusalem, white cloth outdoor structures meant to recall the years of wandering in the wilderness, and at shrine to memories of a light which monotheists believe was once glimpsed in pure form at certain moments in history, but which through that invisible energy which is possessed by the sacred is refracted through ourselves in both our good and bad aspects, presented to the world only in the diverse forms of an imperfect, struggling humanity.



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