Americans Abroad No. 8
[Continued] With about two hours to go in the trip the realization hit me that being mummified by desiccation and covered by the drifting sands would be an almost romantic fate for foolish Americans who challenge Egypt’s desert. More than once I had thought that I should have heeded Jimmy’s admonition. For all I knew, he might even have put some sort of a curse on us. After all, he was a Nubian, and this was his desert.
I glanced back over my shoulder at Christine. The rest of the group was dozing, but she was awake, lost in her thoughts and staring out into the opacity of the desert, but I doubt that she wondered, or even cared, if Jimmy had cursed us. Not after her little contretemps with the Nubian the night before.
Jimmy, a Nubian guide, and I had chatted a couple of times on the deck of the Nile cruise ship. One of the pleasures of the Nile cruise is sitting on the upper deck of the ship, beneath the canopy, sipping a cool drink and engaging in conversation as the banks of the river and thefeluccas served as a changing exotic backdrop. With children swimming in the shallows, farmers plowing their fields and irrigating them with the ancient, levered shadufs , and the small villages of mean mud-bricked houses,it was a tableaux that seemed scarcely changed from the days of the pharaohs.
Jimmy could discourse on Egyptian history is English, French, and, of course, Arabic. He happened to be escorting a group of French tourists who shared our ship. He was ebony-skinned, with thick, close-cropped nappy hair, and had an engaging smile of bright, straight teeth. With his chiseled features, and tall stature set off by his gallabiyya , he was handsome and self-confident. I estimated him to be in his late thirties.
Jimmy led his French group around as though they were a royal entourage. In the evenings he liked to sit on the deck and provoke discussions. He was anything but timid in giving his opinions. He was, in fact, a bit full of himself for a guy who had never been more than a few miles from the Nile in his whole life. But more than one of the ladies on the ship found him extremely attractive, and he knew it.
I don’t know if Christine was much taken with Jimmy’s good looks and strong personality. She was, in nearly every way, his racial, gender and cultural opposite number. She was also about the same age. Christine was a corporate attorney from Baltimore, tall, blonde, and with TV-news-anchor-woman good looks. She, too, was possessed of the self-confidence that comes from being successful at one’s work. Divorced, she was traveling alone, and although she could be a little demanding it was usually from her genuine interest and curiosity about Egypt. With her expensive clothes, well-maintained figure and grooming she seemed self-indulgent, but she often asked the best questions and offered the most considered opinions.
It was before I reached the top of the stairs to the upper deck that I heard it. They probably heard it on shore.
“Fuck you, and the rest of you ignorant male chauvinists!”
Christine was just turning away from Jimmy, and as she strode past me I caught sight of Jimmy’s face. If a black man could be described as “ashen” he was clearly in a state of shock. Seated, somewhat slumped, his mouth hanging open, he was the legendary “deer caught in headlights.”
There were about six or eight others who had composed the circle that was discussing, as I learned later, “the changing women in the modern world.” Had I been there before the explosion, I would have made an effort to deflect the conversation toward another subject. I already had heard Jimmy on the subject of women. Like most Egyptian men I had met he regarded Western ideas about women as a serious threat to a way of life that was entirely male-constructed and managed. He saw no reason to, or necessity to defend his male-dominated, patriarchic society. In its most extreme, fundamentalist Muslim, manifestation this meant that women were considered about as valuable, if not quite as intelligent and worthy of the same rights, as goats. It was a point of view that owed much to the fact that the family was the most reliable social institution in those parts, and that made every husband-father a little pharaoh with near absolutist powers.
As I learned later, it was Jimmy’s glib discourse on the positive conjugal function of wife-beating that elicited Christine’s expletive. She had expressed the feelings of the other women in the circle as well, all of whom seemed to have decided that a “good guest” in a foreign country must sometime hold their tongue.
“Beautiful evening,” I said taking a seat next to Jimmy, reckoning that a complete non sequiturmight clear the deck for an alternative conversational gambit. But everybody else had suddenly decided they had some laundry or other task that required their departure from the scene.
Except Jimmy, who just sat there dumbstruck and, I concluded, with great loss of face at having been put down in that way in public, and by a woman. Christine had not only told him what he could do, but she had left her chair, hovered above him and jabbed her finger a few inches from his face while scolding him as if he were a naughty child.
Abu Simbel is in Nubia, Jimmy’s home territory in Upper Egypt. Earlier that day I had consulted Jimmy about helping to arrange our drive down to Abu Simbel and he had not been helpful, saying “why do you want to do that,” so I obtained the help of another Egyptian guide. When I sat down next to him in his state of shock I told him that the other guide had arranged things for me. He said nothing for almost half a minute and then asked if “that woman” was going on the excursion.
I said, “Yes, of course. She’s very interested in Nefertari.” He got up and left without even saying a word in any of his languages.
Reflecting on whether Jimmy had invoked some ancient Nubian curse on our desert drive to Abu Simbel I drifted off into sleep. When I awoke, the distant glow of our ‘caravansary,’ Aswan, was visible through the windshield. I looked behind me from the shotgun seat. The rest of the group had all dozed off in uncomfortable postures. Whether they had taken to sleep, like myself, to ward off the grim thought that, in plunging headlong into the Sahara, we might have subjected ourselves to the will of some member of the Egyptian pantheon I thought it better not to ask. It was about the hour that Jimmy, the Nubian tour guide, was probably giving his wife a “good beating.”
©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.13.2005)