The donkeys, dwarfed by the Colossi of Memnon, gave an occasional shake of the head and waited patiently. The cart, a simple affair, was ready in no time. A matress, covered with an old blanket, was thrown on the back and a bolster cushion snatched from 'Dreams of Memnon' the small cafe where we'd met Abdul and Ali. Ali twitched the reins and we were off. Traversing narrow dirt roads, bordered by shoulder-high sugar cane and vivid green fields of wheat. A day in the country, a break from the monuments. A day in twenty-first century, not ancient Egypt.
We followed small canals, which ran in straight lines through the fields and off into the distance. Mudbrick houses - were they half-built or falling down? - were surrounded by livestock; tethered cows, sheep imprisoned in palm wood cages, bleating goats and braying donkeys, their front legs tied together with fraying rope. Only the dogs and the ducks ranged free. Women in heavily embroidered kaftans, sequins sparkling, hung dripping washing to dry in the sun. Men sat outside their front doors, on chunky wooden benches watching the day go by. It was like moving through a Van Gogh painting - thick,
dancing, swirling colours - all motion and light and life. And the stillness of it all was a joy, nothing to do, nowhere to be, it was just the clip-clop of the donkeys hooves, the rattle of the cart and the countryside.
Until we hit a village. The kids went berserk. First one, then another, then another, until Pied-Piper-like we had a whole gaggle running behind us, shouting 'hello very much' and 'welcome'. The bigger, braver ones jumped on the back and performed a whole pantomime. Utterly charming, they fluttered their eye-lashes, put their hands on their hearts and rubbed finger and thumb together in that age-old money gesture. Just in case we weren't getting it, they leaned forwards and whispered conspiratorily so Ali couldn't hear - 'baksheesh'. 'They don't know what they're saying, they play', Ali shrugged. He pulled the donkeys to a halt, and went to buy oranges. We watched a woman, shrouded in black, balance a huge cooking pot on her head while she touched and prodded the fruit. The children, no longer so courageous now we'd stopped, hung back, but once we moved on, so did they and the clamour started again. Little ones not
large enough to climb on the cart, were held back by kicks and lunges of the older boys. Girls, holding hands, smiled shyly and waved. Then we reached their school and they all peeled off. Peace reigned once more.
'Did we want to see an old temple', asked Ali? The donkeys were unhitched, and allowed to munch fresh grass and roll. We went through a gate to nowhere - just rough land, rubble and dirt, but it was an ancient site nevertheless. A small part of a three thousand year old temple remained. 'No-one is allowed inside', the guardian told us. Instead we followed him to his government-provided shelter. Mustafa was a youngish man with a toothless grin and a spotless white scarf wrapped around his head. The flowing skirt of his galabiyya skimmed over puddles of water on the bare earthen floor as he moved to twist two bare wires together and set a little pot to boil on a naked element. He brewed us an extremely strong muddy cup of tea. The hut contained three reed couches for each of the three guardians but the other two were away working second jobs to supplement their meagre incomes.
I asked if it wasn't a lonely life with almost nothing to do and no-one to see. 'You do what you have to do', Mustafa murmered. Through gestures - small, bigger, biggest - he told us he had three children and proudly showed us a photograph of his youngest daughter. He flashed that grin again. The government pays him EGP 400 a month (£40) - not enough to feed a family of five.
Back on the cart, we clip-clopped along, not quite so carefree as earlier. Ali asked if we'd like lunch. 'We go to my friend - but he is my best friend'. At the house we chatted to a young man with a brilliant grin, mocha-coloured skin, a ragged jumper and trousers with a large angular rip in one knee. He told us that he was one of seven brothers - 'very little money, very little'. Bare earthen floors, mud-brick walls, very little furniture, even less space. But it was clean and homely. A couple of wooden benches, an old fridge, and a steel cupboard. Posters of holy men and Nasser, and a photo of the oldest brother in army uniform decorated the walls. Thin curtains shielded
the entrances to two, much smaller, rooms. 'Bedrooms'? I asked, and Ali shrugged 'there are no fixed rooms, everyone sleeps everywhere, anywhere they can'. A tiny kitchen contained little more than a stove, and another curtained-off area hid a squat toilet and a bucket for washing. 'Nine people live here', Ali said, 'imagine'. I tried to imagine - no privacy, no own space, perhaps, no own belongings. Only the father and the oldest son worked. The father, a civil servant, employed in a function attempting to control prices charged by shop-keepers. 'He could be a wealthy man, could take many bribes, but he will not live this way', Ali told us. The whole family were extraordinary - laughing, smiling, very hospitable. We ate lunch with the head of the family and his youngest son, sitting on a plastic mat and cushions; a large circular tray balanced on cushions in front of us. Tomatoes, tuna, a chipped potato, Egyptian cheese and bean paste. 'Poor man's food', said our host, 'we eat this every day'.
We made one more stop at Ali's own house. Covered from head to toe in black, only her face, hands, and feet visible, his wife sat on a couch watching TV. Suffering from a painful knee, she got to her feet, cleared a small table and made us a glass of fresh juice. The TV was tuned to a shopping channel, the 'must-have' of the moment - 'lift and hold' underwear, and miracle patches to remove body toxins. What a strange world.
Our donkey-cart ride was a window on a different world; no step-back to the past, but an abrupt reminder of what for many is a harsh present.
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