A Luxorian Celebration
By Jason Gaskell
“Your name is Oh-ma?” I asked, not quite catching the pronunciation.
“No, Omar, you know, like Omar Sharif?”
“Ah, Omar! You were great in Doctor Zhivago”
I had been told that humour goes a long way in Egypt. The horse and cart driver seemed to like my little joke.
“So, where do you want to go?” asked Omar. I directed him to Karnak temple, just a few minutes away from the centre of Luxor. Since I had already seen the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank and Luxor temple in the city centre, Karnak, once the heart of the great Theban Empire, was to be my last major sightseeing excursion.
As we plodded northwards to Karnak, Omar gave me a historical tour of the city. He showed me the broken remains of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, and told me that he had learned about them many years ago from his schoolteacher.
“My teacher did not teach me about that!” I said disappointedly. Omar’s moustache jiggled as he laughed. I began to warm to the middle aged Egyptian.
Once we arrived in Karnak, Omar refused to be paid and said he would wait for me to finish my sightseeing. I did not want to argue with him, so I reluctantly agreed to pay him later.
When I returned from the temple, as promised, Omar was still there, brushing his horse and smoking a Cleopatra cigarette. He saw me approaching the cart and waved me over.
“Okay?” he asked. It was getting dark, so I told him I would be going back to the hotel. Omar oblige
On the way back, Omar told me that his uncle would be getting married and so, later in the evening, his family was having a party to mark the occasion. After chatting more, Omar enthusiastically invited me to attend the gathering, promising me a traditional and authentic Egyptian celebration. My instincts told me that his kind nature was genuine; so off we went, to attend my first Egyptian wedding party.
Omar directed his horse down a matrix of sandy side streets until we finally stopped because a wagon trailer was blocking the road. We left the horse and cart and walked around the trailer to find that the road was a dead end anyway. But of course, Omar already knew this. This was to be the venue for the party.
It seemed that we were unfashionably early for the celebrations and everyone was busy preparing something. Some carried traditional mats and laid them on the floor for people to sit on; others were putting up banners and decorations. My self-appointed job was to entertain the children while the adults were busy. My digital camera kept them amused for a while at least.
“We will have music later,” said Omar, pointing towards the trailer. The trailer would later serve as a makeshift stage. There was already a microphone on it, which was plugged into a mobile mini-PA system, and four seats were set atop.
Apart from the children, I realised that there were no females outside. I asked Omar about this and he explained that all the women were inside the house having their own celebrations. It seemed that I was at the stag party and the women were having a hen night. I wanted to go inside and see for myself but Omar was not sure.
“It is no men allowed really,” he said. I got the feeling that I might be able to play the foreigner card later on.
The party really got going when the band started to play. A space in front of the trailer was used as a dance-floor and quickly became inhabited by an army of robed males. Some men danced by frantically shaking their bellies, others preferred to twirl around until they lost their balance.
Later, some women came outside to join in the dancing. Their faces and bodies were covered with a meliyya, a head-to-toe garment with slits for the eyes. Each woman took turns to belly dance and then promptly returned to their room once more.
I asked Omar if I could meet his wife. He went into the house where the women were and a few seconds later, he came out smiling.
“It’s okay to go inside,” he said. “Just for a little while”
When I cautiously entered the cramped room, the women went crazy and cheered. Their tongues moved frenetically from side to side and emitted a noise that was something like a siren. They no longer had their faces covered.
One woman was belly dancing in the middle of the room and she pulled me over and urged me to join in. What the hell, when in Rome. I tried my best to emulate the rapid gyrating movements of the enthusiastic Egyptian woman but, in all honesty, I must have looked more like Mr. Bean playing with an invisible hula-hoop.
Although the party was a lot of fun, I was aware of the harsh conditions that the people were living in. The woman’s room was damp and without luxury and the party outside was essentially held in a dusty back alley.
All this made me all the more grateful for the various drinks and foods that were continually thrust into my hands. An unidentified sticky cake was particularly tasty. I washed it down with some sweet, strong Egyptian tea, which the locals call shai. The air was thick with smoke from Sheesha pipes and cigarettes, the music hypnotic, lending an increasingly surreal quality to the occasion.
As the dancing began to wane and the party slowed down, I told Omar that I had to leave early in the morning and he agreed to drive me back to the hotel.
I remembered some of the magnificent sights I had seen in Egypt, the ancient pyramids in Giza, the museums, temples, and tombs. But I knew, even then, that my most treasured memory of Egypt would be that party in a back alley of Luxor. The kindness of the people who welcomed me to join their celebration, the traditional food, drink, music and dancing, all this was an experience that I had because of a few timely jokes. It is true; humour does go a long way in Egypt.
WHEN YOU GO
Transportation: You can travel to Luxor from Cairo either by domestic flight, train, or bus. The overnight sleeper train from Cairo is a popular choice (see sleepingtrains.com for more details), but reservations have to be made at least two days in advance. Some hotels will be happy to arrange this for you.
Hotels: There is a wide selection of hotels in Luxor that can be found in any good guidebook. The Mercure Inn is a good mid-range hotel, with an ideal location near Luxor temple in the city centre.
Sights: Once there, Luxor can be explored in two or three days, ideally leaving one day for a trip across the Nile to the West Bank to see the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the nearby temples. The mummification museum on the East Bank is worth a look and Luxor museum is large and well presented. Karnak temple runs a regular sound and light show at night and Luxor temple is also illuminated after dark and provides a mystical and enchanting atmosphere.
Useful Resources: www.touregypt.net is one of the most comprehensive online guides to travelling in Egypt.
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