In the Son et Lumière show at the Temple of Philae, the actor playing the Nile River spoke with a British accent, and what a booming voice he had. I detected a note of erotic innuendo, too: “When I embraced your walls, your columns faltered,” the Nile told the goddess Isis. Still, they did not seem well suited for their parts as they went declaiming around Philae, lighting up the pillars, then the façade, then a hall. The great French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion came in now and then sounding like Hercule Poirot.
I was content to admire the view from my balcony at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan the next morning, and relieved that the Nile was sticking to gurgling noises. There is nothing wrong with seeing a ruin from a distance, I mused, sizing up the Aga Khan mausoleum, golden-dust–colored amid the arid dunes of southern Egypt. A turbaned old gentleman engraved on an intricately inlaid artwork right above my bed appeared to be pondering what he would sell me that afternoon in the souk. The French doors to my wood-enclosed balcony creaked suggestively as the wind pushed them open. At other luxury hotels, immense staffs of engineers make sure creaking is eliminated. But here, in deference perhaps to Agatha Christie, it’s permitted. Christie wrote parts of Death on the Nile at this hotel, then continued aboard the steamship Sudan, which I was to board the next afternoon to cruise the Nile for four days, from Aswan to Luxor.
The brocaded walls of my historic room in the hotel’s old wing were littered with representations of ladies on pink satin settees in wonderful sitting rooms enclosed by those ubiquitous accessories of Moorish architecture and pleasure in general, wooden moucharaby lattice screens. Arches opened onto lush gardens. I could have done with a little settee myself a few hours later at the souk in Aswan, while looking at scarves and capes and djellabas, my head swimming from the variety to which my relentlessly kind merchant subjected me. This is, of course, what is meant to happen. One is not there, as in a mall, merely to get what one needs. One is there to engage in a personal relation with a fellow human being. And once you engage in it, you cannot go off thinking the one next door is better. In a souk, destiny draws you to the merchant who has the slightly lesser shawl, or the slightly more expensive one. No matter: destiny draws you there and there you stay, settee or not, and usually, especially if you don’t find exactly what you require, you will emerge with several things you definitely did not need, and a vague sense of fatigue and disappointment and duty done that a cup of tea will set to rights. That is how a souk works. The next day you return to look for the scarf or tablecloth you didn’t see the first time around, but which the drawn-out shopping spree of the day before has washed your eyes to appreciate.
In the Moorish dining room of the Cataract, called 1902 for the year it was inaugurated, a waif in a white dress with a zigzag hem and bare legs sang “Strangers in the Night” to a backing track coming out of a karaoke machine, whose knobs she fiddled with between songs. Studying the menu, I didn’t know whether to have the fish just so I could have rice in a little pyramid with its top sliced off, or the lamb just so I could have the okra. Some childhood twinge made me yearn for a plate of rice and okra like my grandmother’s cooks so regularly produced in our house in Alexandria, where I was born. The menu listed a dish dedicated to Lord Mountbatten, tender veal cubes for Princess Diana, and a fish named after Princess Feryal.
Ahmed, the guide who came to escort me to the boat the next day, said I was the first person he’d ever met who didn’t think the light show at Philae the most thrilling thing ever. It made me feel jaded. But I had started traveling through Egypt while still in my mother’s belly, and my father had driven through the night on the desert road from Cairo to greet my arrival in Alexandria, so I felt I had some excuse.
We drove all the way down the corniche, past dozens of boats: the Nile Beauty, Nile Romance, Nile Odyssey, Nile Legend, Nile Ruby, and a number of King Tuts—I, II, and III. Finally we stopped at what seemed like the end of the more crowded docks before the biggest boat of them all, a vast hull with darkened windows. It became clear that we had to go through its belly—through a grandiose lobby with flowery silk damask on the walls and a few windows of glittery gold and diamond jewelry—to reach the Sudan. We passed through another boat, this one more modest. Beyond it, quietly pretty in the most moving way, was the Sudan. It was the perfect ship, the ship I’d dreamed of, on two tiers with 23 cabins and five suites, overlooking wide generous decks equipped with tables and wicker chairs from which to admire the slow-moving scenery. On the top deck one could recline on comfortable chaise longues. This yacht, whose engine is more than 100 years old, had belonged to King Fouad, and in my cabin, which had large curved windows gazing out on the Nile, a faded wedding portrait of King Farouk (who succeeded his father in the 1930’s) and his bride hung over the bed.
The dining room was wood-paneled, and its low ceilings reminded me of Harry’s Bar in Venice, with matching low tables and chairs. The tables were set with white Flanders-cotton tablecloths, and every day different arrangements of fresh flowers, such as pink gladiolus or yellow daisies, made their appearance. The meals consisted of simple and delicious Egyptian-Continental dishes: meatballs or shawarma kebabs with rice and baked cauliflower, for instance, or baby okra in tomato sauce, and homey desserts such as mahallabiyya pudding. The waiters wore stately maroon or navy djellabas with white arabesques down the middle, a wide sash at the waist, and a red tarboosh (as the fez is called in Egypt).