As I kicked back on a well-worn horse carriage at the end of the day, with a cool breeze coming at me off the Nile and colors rich with the setting sun, another jingle-jangle carriage passed me on the right. Just as it did, two rambunctious boys with filthy hands and feet, jalopy smiles, and shining eyes hopped onto the rear axle of the passing carriage–secretly hitching a ride and laughing so happily they brightened an already very sunny day.
That was one of the enduring images for me from my last visit to Luxor (in 1999). As a TV producer, the challenge of catching these fleeting moments on video is endlessly frustrating. But I’m determined to get this magic moment in our next show, even if I have to set it up.
To start our second Luxor day, our guide, Tarek, arranged for a horse-drawn carriage to clip-clop us out of Luxor, through the fields, and into a village. Sitting tall, riding shotgun next to our driver, I was baking in the sun and marveling at how the horses maneuver through the crazy car traffic–while hanging onto whatever I could so as not to tumble off. I was thinking, this may be romantic in some tourists’ books, but wouldn’t a taxi have been more practical? Then, we got into the fields and rutted dirt lanes of a village and it became clear: Horse carriage was the way to go.
For me, part of the allure of a place like Egypt is to go back in time by visiting a village. And I really need a good village experience to balance out the silent ancient stones and chaotic concrete urban scenes for the new TV shows. But in the last decade since I’ve visited Egypt, there’s been a big change: Modernity has sloshed inelegantly into even the remote villages. Rather than reeds, mud brick, and rough-hewn timbers, the villagescape now consists mostly of modern brick, concrete, and rebar structures…with no hint of any building code. Still, if you take your time and know where to look and give your wanderlust a little slack, you can fine vivid village life along the Nile, even in 2013.
Leaving the traffic and commotion of Luxor, our horse cut across a field. Suddenly the traffic was alfalfa-powered rather than gas-powered. Here we saw a stratum of society that was self-sufficient and close to nature. The lush fields of sugar cane, alfalfa, and wheat were well-watered, thanks to Egyptian irrigation cleverness that goes back to the days of the pharaohs.
Filling my notepad, I jot a reminder to film in the morning when there’s more action in the streets. I record random observations that might be good for the camera: balconies come with privacy curtains so women can enjoy the evening breeze in their casual, immodest domestic mode (still technically in private). Homes look unfinished with their rebar Mohawks, but that’s just an alternative to a bank account as villagers sink their extra cash into an upper story for their children. They build little by little as the cash becomes available. Equity in a bigger home is considered more stable than socking money away in a bank account. Rustic wooden cages hold fluffy ducklings for sale. A mosque is under construction with progress stalled until they can gather more donations. Butchers, bakers, and spicy falafel makers add to the commerce on the street. The finest building in any town is its government-built school. Built with a uniform design, they look the same in each village.
The door to a fence is decorated with hand prints, as you might see in a grade school art project–but with more meaning. The five fingers symbolize the five pillars of Islam (to profess there is only one God and Mohammad is his messenger, to pray five times a day, to take care of the poor, to fast 30 days through Ramadan, and (if you can afford it) to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca once in your lifetime. Those who have made the trip to Mecca, the Haj as it’s called, are sure to paint a proud declaration above their door–with a drawing of the Kaaba and ornate Arabic script describing the holy adventure. When you’ve made the trip people can refer to you with a kind-of “sir” title. If I was Muslim and went to Mecca on a pilgrimage, I’d be Haj Rick.
Hoping to get a peek into a house, we stopped at what looked like the home of a large, traditional family. When you’re a curious American on the street of an Egyptian village that sees no tourists, it’s easy to get invited in. The father of the clan proudly led us on a little tour as other members of the family emerged from barn-like quarters to see who had ventured into their world.
The ground was a blanket of hay. An older girl was waving flies from the bread dough rising on rounds of wood in the hot sun before being popped into the oven. Three camels were necking in the corner–villagers believe their milk has a medicinal value for frail people and produce it as charity for the poor. Exploring, we found cows for milk, birds for company, and the backyard defined by a mud-brick fence–fringed with decorative palm fronds as yards have been here along the Nile since 2700 B.C. We left just as the milkman dropped by. The mother brought jugs of fresh milk to pour into the bigger jugs hanging from his donkey–just another way to boost the family’s humble income.
As we clip-clopped out of the village, I noticed the main street was lined with tiny new trees, each fortified by a little 3-foot-tall mud-brick castle. Small trees would never grow in this rough-and-tumble environment without a little protection…just enough to let them get to a critical sturdiness when the bricks can be cleared out and a hardy tree–too big for a goat to nibble or a careening cart to topple–will bring shade and color to that hot and dusty village world. Jostling atop our carriage back into the chaos of modern Luxor city, I thought the little trees and their temporary brick fortresses were a metaphor for democracy in Egypt and the army. Egyptians want democracy but many are beginning to believe the army may be necessary to keep it from dying in its infancy.