I awoke before dawn. Looking at the other members of our group snuggled together for warmth made me feel twinges of guilt for packing my down sleeping bag. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out the cocoon like shapes spread out in a U shape on the deck of the felluca. Not wanting to wake anyone, I took extra care while sliding out of my sleeping bag. I slipped off the ledge of the deck and into the open galley.
The deep breathing and snores of the captain and his mate through the open door of the enclosed cabin added to the orchestra of sleeping backpackers on the four by three meter deck. I crept slowly in the dark to the bow. Being the time after moon set and before sunrise, the darkness was complete. I had difficulty finding my boots. Eleven passengers made twenty-two individual boots, and in the dark, they all seemed the same. Holding each shoe centimeters from my eyes was the only way I could determine shoe from shoe. Good night vision, probably more than the potpourri of musty boot stench, allowed me to identify my boots.
I slipped them on and stepped cautiously down the narrow plank to the shore. In the early morning desert cold, along side the Nile, I watched the stars disappear. Turning from black to dark blue, to dark red, the sky changed color and the sun warmed the earth and air around me. Still dark, but with every increasing light, the Niles’s east bank revealed itself. From a tree across the great river, flocks of egrets left their roost. In search of their daily meal, they streamed forth like dandelion seeds in the wind. African Kingfishers appeared along the bank – one at first, but then nearly 15 within eyesight. Stout and nearly 15-20 centimeters long, the kingfisher hovers steadily, over an area of water, like a hummingbird tasting flower nectar. Falling straight down, it attempts to pierce its underwater prey. The kingfishers dived again and again moving slightly downriver each time, rarely successful. These must have been the lesser African Kingfisher as opposed to the Great African Kingfisher.
“ALAHHHHHHHH.” Breaking the silence was an Iman’s call to the morning prayer ritual. Still unaccustomed to these daily broadcasts, I listened as the metallic and rhythmic chants brought up the sun. The ship’s captain stumbled off the boat in his sandals. With a rolled up bundle under one arm, he nodded a groggy good morning, and lumbered away from the boat. He unrolled his tiny carpet and proceeded with his morning prayers. Kneeling upright at first, he then fell to the ground touching his forehead to the carpet. After a short period he would rise and then again repeat the process. He spoke quietly to Allah. With the noise of Iman’s prayers in the distance and the increasing light, some of my shipments stirred to life. They crawled off the boat, shivering, and wandered into the field answering nature’s early morning call. My beloved disembarked as the captain headed back onto the boat. She was slightly miffed and jealous that I was already out enjoying the wonders of this experience without her. She wrapped the sleeping bag around us and we watched as life on the Nile awoke. Two four-story riverboats chugged upriver. As their noise faded into the dawn air, its wake hit the shore and our felucca. The gentle lapping and rocking woke the remainder of my shipmates. They emerged with their cameras, toothbrushes, and toilet paper and spread out in the large field. Just as the kingfishers dotted the skyline, the members of our boat dotted the shoreline starring into the sunrise. We warmed ourselves, listening to sounds unfamiliar, while marveling at the subtle color changes of the desert sands and palms. No sky scrapers, no houses, no hum of traffic or sirens, no flickering of neon lights or street lamps, no cacophony of birds and insects, only the soft lapping of water and the metallicized rhythmic chant of morning Islamic lessons. When interacting, we whispered. No one was sleeping, but we spoke in hushed tones anyway. The dark blue sky gave way to red-orange, and then yellow. All darkness dispersed, the sky became light blue. Another tour boat passed. On the top deck, many people were enjoying their personal Egyptian Nile sunrise. They waved and snapped pictures of us clutching our sleeping bags, toiletries, and cameras. The Nile was now open for business.
The sounds of pots clanking together along with faff and chatter from the boat broadcasted breakfast would soon be ready. Once up the plank, I removed my boots. I slipped passed the galley – squeezing by the captain who was already cooking. The galley was a three by one meter space that separated the deck from the cabin. While cooking, the first mate or the captain squatted on a stool over propane powered flame. To wash pots or dishes they reached over the side, and dunked the cookware in the river until all food bits were removed. No Detol or other disinfectant, just repeated dunks in the river and wiped dry with the same towel that had been used for the past few days.
The first mate removed the windbreak, a large woven cloth tapestry, from around the boat’s deck. We stored our sleeping bags and blankets below and laid out the table mat. Around the mat, sitting either cross legged or on our knees we eagerly awaited the morning bounty. A stack of Egyptian-style pancakes, bananas, fuul, marmalade, and a bucket of hot tea appeared one by one onto the table mat. Hungrily, we pounced on the food, devouring it in minutes. The marmalade container was wiped clean with the crumbs of fuul. The banana rinds were scrapped clean with fingers and teeth. It wasn’t filling, but it was enough.
While putting the table cloth away my attention wandered back to the field beyond the shore. On the open field, a donkey with three small boys appeared. I assumed them on their way to school or on their way back from lessons. They stopped and commenced picking up odds and ends off the ground. Continuing with my assumptions, I thought they might be curious boys finding trinkets or rocks to throw. I looked closer using the telephoto lens of my camera. They were gathering dung. “Why were they gathering dung?” I asked my shipmates aloud. They all looked. Some guessed for fuel other guessed fertilizer.
Several of us went to take their picture and stretch our legs before starting another day of drifting down river. We pointed to the camera and pointed to them. They got the gist and could not have been more delighted. They wrestled and wrangled with each other for position. They made goofy faces and pointed at us and laughed.
This situation reminded me of a history lesson I once learned. During the US depression in 1930’s, Dorthea Lange, a famous photographer set out to capture the condition and suffering endured by US citizens. Her work showing the down, out, and destitute played a role in influencing the policies implemented by Franklin Roosevelt. What we know now is that Lange often took two sets of pictures. The first pictures that she released to the policy makers and published were staged images, emphasizing the absolute depression of the people’s condition. These are the images people conjure when they think of the Great Depression. Few realized that she went through great lengths to pose and create these images. The second batch, published after her death, were self and group portraits requested by many of her subjects. This second batch revealed a much different image of the down-and-out in the US. They changed into their best clothes and beamed with pride and earnestness, while radiating kinship and hope. There are images we see and want to project. And there are images people want us to see.
Much like this second batch of pictures, the boys gave no appearance of being destitute or slighted in life. They focused on what they had, rather than on what they had not. They jockeyed for the pole position in the photo, struck poses with thumbs up and broad smiles. They did their best to project cool and suave. With glee they made more posses as some shipmates showed them the digital images. In all photographs they embraced as buddies – friends to the end.
After the photo shoot, the group returned to the boat. Gathering three pens, my beloved and I returned to the field and gave the boys gifts. They used the pens first for sword play, but then tucked them away. The middle one soon relieved the youngest of his pen. The oldest, soon after, relieved the middle child of both of his. I did not intercede and force sharing. Instead, I watched the spectacle. We boarded the boat and watched from afar. The two elder boys ran off leaving the youngest in charge of the donkey.
If you do something really wrong in this lifetime, you come back as a donkey in Egypt. These beasts of burden are whipped, hit, struck, overworked, and generally abused. People stack loads upon their back, triple the size of the donkey itself, then climb on top and ride the animal. They jerk frantically on its neck rope to alter direction, whip it to go faster, and beat it mercilessly to get it to stop. As an animal lover, this was hard for me to watch.
With the two older boys gone, the donkey knew it had the upper hand. It walked off, in search of better grazing. The young boy ran to it and tugged fruitlessly on the rope tied loosely around the donkey’s neck. The boy had as much impact as a fly. The donkey dragged him along. The boy frantically shouted and hit the donkey with a stick with no results. The loud shouts from the boy, which were most likely references to the donkey’s lineage and eternal future, made us laugh. We rooted for the animal. The shouting brought the other boys back. Together they beat the donkey into submission. We sighed. They ribbed the small boy, pointing, and laughing. They gesticulated to us and pushed the small boy forward as if we were to contribute to the hazing. The boys continued their laughing as the little boy pushed them back and kicked them in the shins. Their donkey-play finished, they dragged the donkey back up into the field.
The first mate shoved our boat into the river, and the captain raised the sail. The boys waived us off. We drifted down the Nile watching the boys fade into the distance. The backgammon games began, cameras were stashed, books and journals opened. When nearly out of sight, I picked up my binoculars to get one last glimpse of the boys. They had returned to their dung gathering, occasionally shoving or throwing dung at one another. They faded from view, but not from memory. Their picture is on my desk, helping me keep perspective every day.