Monday, 18 June 2007

Well since you asked...Camels..


Long ago, I lived in Egypt on an Island called Zamalek in the middle of the river, in a place with long wide balconies which hung over the sluggish waters of the Nile. It was an Island of grand houses built in the French style, and decaying colonial architecture , hedges of vivid bougainvillea , dust dirt noise heat and traffic everywhere, It was as they say a charmed life, I drank Hibiscus tea at the exclusive El Gezira Club and In the very early morning rode Arab horses past the pyramids and watched the camel corps on exercise plodding their stately way over across the modern flyovers towards Mena House and the Desert where, having hit the sands, they raced off with the speed of the silent wind disappearing in a cloud of shimmering dust of their own making.

In summer, when it became unbearable to ride in the glare of the sun we took out horses through the orange groves in the shade where we passed women in villages untouched by time, sitting outside mud brick houses beneath date palms ,wearing gold hawk faced masks to cover their faces from strangers eyes.


When time allowed we would escape Cairo very early in the morning and travel to the bitter lakes where the water was like thick warm pea soup and there was nothing to do but lie in it and watch the Bedouin girls, dressed in black with fuchsia sashes, languidly herding their flat tailed sheep through the sparse grass, foraging.


During Ramadan Cairo is mad with heat and hunger and the whole city simmers and rolls like a pot coming to the boil. So we would brace ourselves for a long days drive across the city and out into the sand dunes to wait an hour or so in a car park in the middle of nothing for enough vehicles to be gathered to form a convoy through the tunnel under the canal to the Sinai desert.


Once on the other side we would drive for hours along empty roads, passing vast Egyptian army camps with bunkers filled with tanks and aircraft hidden under camouflage netting. If you stopped to stretch you legs and watched carefully, in the seeming nothingness of the sands, a tiny movement would alert you to a soldier appearing like a rabbit from a manhole cover to see what you were up to. We would drive on until it got dark to camp on a beach by the water and to sleep lying on blankets by the land rovers with nothing but the stars above us and the moon rising red over the mountains. Lying there in the silence and nothingness listening to the desert breathe.

There was a place way beyond western eyes where hot springs bubbled out of the sand and rocks and the Bedouin came to bathe. We sat on the sand dunes and watched the women fully clothed in white tents bobbing in the pools like discarded laundry.


Sometimes, as we sat drinking and eating around our campfire, the camel trains would pass us in the night, a long line of camels roped together, travelling down the desert roads heading to Cairo to the market across the shifting sands, their dozing drivers swathed in cloaks , plodding on in silence, rocked to sleep by the swaying motion of their ships of the desert.

I have visited the camel market, very early on a Sunday morning. It was held inside a mud brick walled compound where great fat Pashas reclined on wooden benches against cushions ,drinking mint tea and smoking hookah pipes and men lent discreetly down to catch their words and whisper in their ears, and then rushed off to fetch whom ever or whatever it was that they had been dispatched to do. Hopeful traders paraded camels of all sizes in front of them, the baby camels knees bound in rags to keep their legs rigid so that they did not collapse into crumpled furry heaps in the dust, and the air bursting with the sound of Arabs calling out and camels bellowing and the smell of 'Eesh baladi’ bread and fool medames (egyptian bean stew).


It was long ago and I lived in another world then.

18 comments:

Suffolkmum said...

Wow this was wonderful. I feel like I've been there now. What amazing memories you have and how well you write! Magically evocative. Enjoyed your one below too - brought back lots of interminable dinners which I used to attend in France with my then- boyfriend's extended family, desparately trying to keeep up with the conversation.

bradan said...

You have taken us so well into your other world, wonderful memories and wonderful writing.

jackofall said...

Ahh, I remember it well...I think

Very revocative, if such a word exists, if it doesn't it should.

snailbeachshepherdess said...

Amazing Un Peu.. thank you so much... I am going to keep this one...I doubt if I shall ever be able to travel far but I have now seen the desert..and the camel market through your eyes..thank you

ChrisH said...

That was absolutely magical.

Fennie said...

Wow! Darling, you are sooo incredibly romantic! What a glorious upbringing - or was it later? This is all really beautiful and as Chrish says, magical.

Especially for one destined to be a lighthouse keeper, which - shy or no - if you will permit a slightly risqué slip into Freudian mode - one could say (with your three children etc) you have become.

I can relate to a lot, though sadly not the desert and sand bits the camels and the elephants (did you mention elephants?) in the sense that that is one T shirt to have passed me by.

I have only a map of North Africa printed in France in 1745 and full of wonderful legends like 'Desert des Lumptunes, habité par une nation superbe et brutale' located, I guess, somewhere which today would be in southern Libya.

Somewhere there - you must have passed quite close to it - is Croesus with his army and treasure, lost under the sands like King John in the Wash, awaiting rediscovery. And in that vast desert too - well perhaps not quite there - I can imagine the intrepid aviator meeting his 'Petit Prince.' Did you I wonder ever hear a little voice saying 'Dessine-moi un phare!' (Rather easier than a sheep!).

But I suspect all the same I should soon long for greenery and the salty butter from cows that live in fields too close to the sea (which is what children in the rest of France apparently think the reason to be for Brittany's salted butter).

Quite magic!

(Apropos of nothing at all I do get bombarded with email spam from a Moroccan travel agency which wants to take me on a camel tour of the Atlas mountains and the Sahara generally. I shall look at their missives more closely in the future.)


Fxx

UN PEU LOUFOQUE said...

Ah Fennie I have ridden elephants too and beleive me the camel is the preferrable as long as one remembers he spits!If I had world enough and time I would go on a camel tour of the Atlas mountains..Sieze the day woman sieze the day! I found all sorts of truc in teh desert sands, ancient egyptian burail beads, seashells, and very old tombs ..oh and an afternoon of stolen delights by the pyramid at Sycara (can not spell it but do not need to as I have been there already so will know my way back!)but never sadly King Croesus nor his army!!Alas!

Tut tut you must not let Freud lead you astray like that!

Crystal Jigsaw said...

It certainly sounds like another world. Far away from the one we live in. How fascinating and exciting for you to live in Cairo. I always wanted to ride camels (and elephants) but think I never will as I am now terrified at the thought of horseback!

Yes, you are a romantic. You're blogs are so interesting.
Crystal x

muddyboots said...

what a life. l have visited the sinai & that was amazing, then onto Petra.

Pondside said...

Oh my goodness - what a life!! Want to know more and more. Why were you there? When was this? Why did you leave?...oh yes, Jackofall!
I remember seeing the girls in the black dresses with fuschia sashes in the Sinai - you took me back!

Zoë said...

It was wonderful to see it through your eyes.

The Country Craft Angel said...

You are so lucky to have travelled as you have...but more to be able to write as you do. You are very clever. So interesting and magical too...

warm wishes
x

DevonLife said...

Wow, totally amazing. Am extremely jealous

annakarenin said...

You write so well and have experienced so much I was spell bound reading that.

Regards the rest I am glad you are also writing about your life again as Jackofall wasn't a reliable substitute on that score. It does mean however that it is going to take me even longer now to catch up with what UPL has been up to since I have been virtously offline.

ska said...

this was wonderful, so atmospheric. It makes me think of Morocco, one day I should write about my adventures there.

snailbeachshepherdess said...

have just been back for the zth time ...every time I find something different

Woozle1967 said...

Snail beach raved about this blog when we met up on Thursday, and she was right to do so.

So amazingly written - I really was there with the sounds, smells and sights you described so atmospherically.

Wonderful.......wonderful. Thank you.x

Withy Brook said...

That really was marvellously wonderful and magical - thank you for takeing us with you on that trip. I have been on a bog - standard (but magical) trip to Egypt and up the Nile. Afterwards we had 3 days at Sharm el Sheikh (Sp) and had a trip up to Mount Sinai, so I had a tiny bit of background to your tale.