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Life and Death on the Nile

Life and Death on the Nile

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Published by Pete Willows
This ran in the Egyptian Gazette, summer of 2009.
This ran in the Egyptian Gazette, summer of 2009.

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Published by: Pete Willows on Oct 11, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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Life and Death on the Nile
Revised: July 25, 2009.Word count: about 1200. Not far south of Cairo, along the banks of the Nile, families of fishermen moor their small wooden boats in the protective shade of bridges and palm trees to escape the scorchingmid-day sun. These families spend almost their whole lives on the brightly-painted boats²some boats barely large enough for one man to sleep on²others, larger, somehow accommodate entirefamilies. Toddlers, wearing the traditional peasant gowns, called
 galabeyyas
 
in the local dialect, play on the bow while their mothers wash clothes and cook meals in the stern.The boats are powered manually by using long, slender oars to propel them across theglittering water. Men, women and children share in this laborious task of rowing through thedeceptive currents of the Nile, a river which, lumbers across Egypt and the Sudan at anelephantine pace from its confluence in Khartoum. Sometimes the boats are equipped withoutboard motor, the motors often reluctant to fire when trying to start them by rip-chord.All the boat fishing I saw was done by net. The boat is generally operated by one brother or sister, while another places the nets in their designated spot of the river, and usually in acircular position. When the net is in place, the boat is piloted over the area while the net-thrower  bangs on the gunwales with an oar to produce a sound, putatively, that will frighten the fish intothe nets. After, the net is promptly pulled back up into the boat. The fish yields I saw appearedfrustratingly small in both numbers and size.Everything the fishing families own is kept on the boats. I once even saw a smalloperational television screen flickering at night, though rare, and likely powered by battery.Some members of these families, who have fished the river for generations, only leave the boatsa few hours each day, to sell their river perch in the bustling fish markets of Giza. Occasionally,
 
they return to their ancestral villages for weddings and funerals, but the rest of their days andnights are spent afloat the Nile. Childbirth and ultimately death, frequently take place on the boats.One such family I spoke with, is from the Manoufiya district in the Nile Delta, which isthe birthplace of president Hosni Mubarak, and the late Anwar Sadat. The family members wereinitially reluctant to speak with me, a western foreigner, as I stood above them on a small foottraffic bridge they had moored their boats to. I have been told local conscripted police sometimeshassle the mostly uneducated and frequently illiterate fishing families by asking for licenses,identity cards and birth certificates²ideas which, many of these people simply do notunderstand.But the father of one fishing family, perhaps forty years-old, patiently and somewhatabsently answered my questions. The man, appearing healthy, robust and rugged from hislifetime of outdoor work, told me he had no time to educate his children in schools, himself illiterate. He smoked tobacco from a decidedly non-ornate sheesha²the bubbling water pipe popular in the Levant²by inhaling smoke through a bamboo stick instead of the traditional hose.School room education was an abstraction or luxury that served no purpose in the fishinglifestyle his children and grandchildren would continue.When I asked if he was concerned about the increasing levels of pollution in the Nile,while pointing at scores of discarded floating plastic water bottles, he shrugged his shouldersdismissively²there was nothing he could do about people who throw garbage into the river,anymore than he could stop factories and hospitals from dumping in the Nile. A sort of river disease, billharzia, caused by parasites in the shimmering waters of the Nile meant nothing to
 
him, either, as he sees no reason to fear the water that is his life. He frequently punctuated hissentences with, ³
al-ham-doo-Allah
,´ meaning µpraise God¶.The intense mid-day heat of Cairo in late July is made tolerable by a steady breeze that blows along the Nile, filling the tall triangular sails of drifting feluccas, and flapping theimpossibly clean white robes of the captains. The tourists, mostly Gulf Arabs this time of year,float past in the imposing silent feluccas, studying us with their mysterious stares. A double-decker river taxi, over-stuffed with locals, motors across the Nile. Speedboats, piloted by thecarefree children of the nouveau riche, zoom across the glittering water and leave a wake thatsends the fishing boats listing.I thanked the man for his time, and left him and his floating family.Farther along the bank of the Nile, I climbed down into a sort of nursery, where neatlyarranged hand-made earthen pots held small plants, trees and cacti. The shrubbery¶s flowers,conspicuous with magnificent pink petals, bright red hibiscus flowers, and small white blossoms, perfumed the air: the perpetually blooming flora of Cairo was one of the first unexpected pleasures I discovered when I moved here in 2003 to study and write.On the muddy shore, I sat on an orange crate and drank hot sugary tea in the shade withan elderly fisherman who was fixing his nets. This man, perhaps seventy years-old, had thedistinctive weathered face common to the fellaheen, or the Bedouin, and a sinuous build, hishands large and strong. He moors his boats and family on the other side of a nearby uninhabitedisland²the island lush with riparian grasses, scrub and palm trees²along with a smallcommunity of other fishing families.Perhaps the intense heat had enervated me, or perhaps the old man¶s comfortable andeasy demeanour issued the permission I sought, to ask him the more direct and possibly insulting

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