2.19.2017

luxor: east bank sites: museums and souq

Our last day in Luxor was busy and fun. If you ever travel to Egypt without a tour group, I highly recommend securing the services of a driver. We have saved ourselves untold time, aggravation, and probably heat stroke, and we were able to pay generously while getting a great deal for ourselves.

Would you believe Allan wanted to get an earlier start than me? I can tell you without exaggeration that in 30 years of our domestic partnership, this was a first.

We went over to the east bank, and started at the Mummification Museum. It was small but excellent, explaining how the ancient Egyptians prepared bodies for mummification, with examples of all the instruments and ingredients.

After that, we went to the Luxor Museum, which is everything the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is not. Everything is labelled in three languages (Arabic, English, and French), with excellent background information to add context to the exhibits. There is also a lot of information about how objects were found and restored, with photos of various stages.

Most of the objects in the museum were found in the tombs we have visited. There are many beautiful statues of gods, goddesses, and pharaohs, not just religious icons but works of art. Most exciting to me were the glimpses into the creation of the great monuments. On a flat piece of alabaster, there was a floor plan; another stone was etched with a graph, clearly a blueprint. We saw a t-square, a level, and other tools of architecture and engineering. There were also very delicate tools used for jewelry-making, mummification, etching, and other activities. Imagine that someone had to create those tools as well! And they had to do that without examples -- they had to imagine what they needed and then make it. The Luxor Museum is a gem.

After the museums, we returned to the large fast-food place we enjoyed so much. The owner greeted us with, “Canada! Welcome!” Allan wants me to clarify that this is not fast-food in the North American sense. The food is freshly made to order, not processed, and the menu is quite large. It’s somewhere between fast-food and a formal restaurant. We had more koshari, shawarma, and basterma and egg.

After lunch, we walked through the souq (market) and had the experience we should have had in Cairo. It was clearly a souq for local people, not tourists. Women shoppers were dressed in special galabeyas, and many were “discussing prices” with the stall owners. Along with the fruits and vegetables, there was something we hadn’t seen before: poultry and butchers. Chickens and ducks were in cages, waiting to become someone’s dinner. It’s not fun to see, but I’m sure they have a better life than most chickens in North America. At a butcher stall, a cow head was hanging for display. I thought it was fake until I saw the neck. Not fake.

We saw fish of all sizes on display, with no ice or cooling equipment in sight. One stall operator periodically spritzed his fish with water, another burned incense at both ends of the fish table. We were pretty sure that some of the sellers caught the fish themselves in the Nile.

There were women selling pigeons, a sad sight. These women obviously have very low status in the market. They don’t have stalls; they sit on the ground between stalls with two boxes -- one with pigeons and one with eggs. In this culture, women rarely work outside the home, and if they do, they don’t work in public. I had the impression that selling pigeons is a job of last resort, maybe one step up from begging.

We had an interesting encounter with a spice seller! I was admiring the containers of beautiful herbs and spices, and he pounced on the opportunity. He would take a pinch of something, put it in my hand, and ask, “What’s this?” And then another, “What’s this?” I identified cumin, coriander, mint, anise, maybe a few others. Allan took a photo and we tried to give him 5 LEs, which would be a typical or slightly generous tip. Spice Guy waved us off. “You my sister! You my brother! This is not for money! This is my gift to you!”

I refused to buy, trying to explain that we are staying in a hotel and will not be cooking. Finally I gave in to a small amount of dried hibiscus, which I’ve been drinking both cold and hot; it’s called karkadee. Spice Guy weighed an amount, showing me he was giving me 120 grams for the price of 100 grams. “This is my gift to you!”

A few local women came by, asking about spices. They spoke to me, but it was well beyond my Arabic vocabulary. Then one woman was suddenly offended by something the shop owner said, made a disgusted face, and they all left.

Meanwhile, Spice Guy used a technique we have seen throughout: he put the hopeful purchase in a plastic bag and tied the handles. And all of a sudden, his gift to me that was supposed to cost 1 LE per gram became 100 LEs for the little bag of 120 grams. We said no, of course not, that was ridiculous, and he started yelling at us. He should have taken the 5 LEs for the photo. Allan said he doubts this guy makes 100 LEs in a whole day.

I did buy two cotton rag rugs -- runners. I had no idea I was going to buy them, but the colours were beautiful and the price quickly plummeted as we walked away. The confident walking-away is an excellent haggling technique. (I still hate haggling.)

The souq was interesting and fun, but it was also very long, with an uneven dirt-and-stone floor, and there’s no way out except at the other end. By the time we reached it, I was beat, and then somehow we ended up walking in the blazing sun, with the usual men calling to us and trying to “help”. Finally we called B’lal, and Allan found -- what else? -- an English-language bookstore he’s been reading about. I didn’t go in, which is just as well, as there were many beautiful books about pyramids and tombs and Egypt, and we don’t need to schlep them back with us.

B’lal and the other drivers repeatedly tried to arrange a felucca ride for us. Feluccas are traditional sailboats that are now primarily used for tourists, although some people still use them for fishing. One of our many drivers is also a felucca “captain”, and he’s in on the deal with B’lal, B’lal’s father, OG, and whoever else. So we surprised B’lal by finally saying yes to the felucca, since we had planned to do it that day.

Unfortunately for us, the air was very still, and we hardly went anywhere. Captain Felucca was assisted by a younger guy, who climbed up and down the mast, barefoot, and at times was forced to row a bit with a wood plank. He even made us the obligatory “welcome drink” on a tiny propane stove. It was very calm and peaceful on the water, but not much of a ride.

CF doesn’t speak much English, but for some reason he wanted to talk politics with me. “You know Mubarak? The people love Mubarak. He was strong for business.” The world over, people think dictators are strong for business. I said nothing. (Apparently the way to stop me from talking politics is to use a different language.)

After a time, CF made a phone call, and one of the motor boats towed them in, then gave us a ride to the west bank. (There are dozens of these boats, available for hire as ferries or for fun.) Allan went to pay the ferry guy a small tip, and he refused, saying B’lal had already paid him. Honest Ferry Guy was a welcome counter-balance to Spice Guy.

After resting at the hotel for a while, we went back to Restaurant Mohamed. (I’ve been spelling his name wrong, now corrected.) The food was even better this time. We had roast chicken and the usual 10 plates of food. This also gives me an opportunity to share another note about Mohamed: he gave us jewelry. Not junk either, necklaces of tiny stone beads that are authentic to the area. He has a huge number of them hanging up, and gives several strands to every guest. This night, he insisted on giving us more necklaces, plus two scarabs. We told him we would send him a postcard from Canada, inshalla.

Photos from Luxor Museum are here.

Photos of the Luxor souq are here.

1 comment:

allan said...

The world over, people think dictators are strong for business.

But the businesses are huge multi-national oil companies or banks - not some 22-year-old guy's one-boat "business". Laura tells me that she has heard the same silliness from her nail salon in Mississauga. When businesses get together with the government to carve up the pie, I'm pretty sure Tina's Nails isn't getting a seat at the table.

“You my sister! You my brother! This is not for money! This is my gift to you!”

And the second we turned away after not buying anything, I'm sure we were called the equivalent of "asshole". He obviously didn't care one whit about us. It was all part of his sales pitch, to lure us in. We had a similar (and even "better") experience with this type of tout today in Edfu (full post from Laura to come).

Allan found -- what else? -- an English-language bookstore

I bought only two books:

The Thief And The Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz (one of Egypt's most famous writers)
&
Revolution Is My Name: An Egyptian Woman’s Diary From Eighteen Days In Tahrir by Mona Prince