By: Jordan Scott Miller
Red land, black land. I watched the sun lay pink fingers over sugarcane fields and tomb- speckled cliffs as my hot-air balloon landed on the edge of Luxor. I had one foot on dark, fertile silt, and the other on parched, bone-dry sand. It was a strange sight, and one quite peculiar to Egypt. For all its variegated landscapes and politics, however, what I experienced in Egypt was not a divided land, but a whole that seemed to function with a unity both comfortable and precarious.
Two rows of armed tanks line the edges of Tahrir Square. Looming over the rosy terracotta façade of the Egyptian Museum is the massive, gutted shell of a government building, burnt out during the revolution. Most people seem to pretend it doesn’t exist. The square itself is a maze of fences and half-dug pits – here strewn with construction material rather than ancient relics. The country is still picking itself up after the revolution, and in the dusky quiet of this barricaded, sternly watched space, one feels an uncanny sense of peace, punctuated by strange moments of tension: soldiers and policemen flashing smiles and posing quickly for photos, then turning away even quicker; the prayer call sounding from a nearby mosque as we make our way past knots of barbed wire. Nowadays, the call is played through cleverly installed loudspeakers. Inside the museum, I stop to look at an early Ptolemaic sculpture, the Greek prince’s carefully coiffed curls peeking out from beneath an Egyptian headdress. The adhan, meanwhile, crackling with static, fades away in the halls.
Just three days earlier, we were at a Nubian village by the first cataract, close to the Sudanese border. Southern Egypt feels more relaxed than Cairo – life is more idyllic, and people still live exactly as they have for millennia, cultivating fields by the edge of the Nile. The High Dam and the emergence of swanky riverside hotels have permanently changed the rhythm of riparian life, but there is still an unmistakeable bucolic beat, ancient and enduring, that throbs in a steady murmur, unaltered and unrelenting, beneath the noise of construction and renewal. Here, south of Elephantine Island, motorboats rumble past Old Kingdom hieroglyphs etched into the rock, foamy wakes rushing into the notches of an ancient nilometer. A distinct African flavour permeates the air as well, from the stretched- skin drums touted by bazaar vendors to the sharp, elongated silhouettes of wooden sculptures, faceless but immediately recognisable.
Sipping mint tea from delicate bronze cups, we glanced furtively at the pet crocodiles kept by one of the village matriarchs as the familiar adhan rang out over the river. Over the rim of my cup, I spotted a small, forlorn pile of French books sitting quietly on a shadowed shelf, colonial dregs in Egypt’s melting pot. Beneath the coffee table, an ornately patterned Qur’an took pride of place. For all its exotic, sub-Saharan influence, this place – where deliverymen ply the roads by camel and children in scuffed shirts beg for money in Nubian, rather than Arabic – was not all that different from the streets of Cairo.
There are no lanes on Egyptian streets, no traffic lights and most certainly no visible regulation, yet they can be as evocative as any pruned and weeded archaeological site. Heading back to the airport on the last day, I drew the curtains of my mini-van to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Next to a garbage-filled canal, a dead horse lay in an unceremonious heap next to a pile of plastic bags and yellowing newspapers. Another trotted past, pulling a wagon laden with clover stems. A young man sat by the side of the road, hawking bread and bananas from a wooden cart; by now, it was obvious that leather jackets and tight jeans – a la John Travolta in Grease – were all the rage in Egypt. Barely twenty metres away, an old man in turban and galabiya shelved Cokes and Sprites in a fridge. They reminded me of Philae: a temple built by Egyptians, influenced by Greeks, expanded by Romans, inhabited by Christians, vandalised by Napoleon and finally dismantled and relocated by UNESCO.
These disjuncts and interactions – unusual, surprising and sometimes even disconcerting – are nothing less than characteristic of Egypt. They dilute the brew of exoticism peddled by the past and instead serve up a disillusioning image of reality: of an ancient land saddled with modern grievances; of a nation proud of its past, yet looking towards the future; of people fighting to carve a space for themselves in smoggy urban plots, where success means owning a mango plantation and a retirement ranch in the new suburban districts of “Beverly Hills” and “Miami Beach”.
From wading through a horde of street vendors, to travelling through the desert in the dead of night with a convoy of armed police cars, Egypt paints a picture all too familiar to us, but with a palette of extremes. Egypt reveals harmony – not as a perfect, sterile ideal, but in the struggles, conflicts and compromises that characterise any living, breathing society. She brings us to the fringes of humanity and at the same time to its heart. Perhaps the greatest lesson one can take away from Egypt is that which brought civilisation to her in the first place: that the beauty of wet, black clay can only be appreciated against, alongside and together with a backdrop of scorching, red stone.
*sema-tawy: “uniting the two lands” – a prevalent motif in ancient Egyptian art, grounded in the cultural memory of an ancient king bringing Upper and Lower Egypt together to form the first contiguous, centrally governed state in the Nile Valley.