Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

Filtering by Tag: Egypt

Alabaster

Egyptians shopkeepers are very incessant sales people. They’ll lure in tourists with outrageously low prices then jack them up when someone shows interest. They’ll deliberately leave off the currency when negotiating to deceive the shopper into thinking they’re talking Egyptian pounds when really they’re talking about dollars or Euros. Everyone’s got a “special price.” Or asks you to “just look, it’s free.” Then corner you in the shop trying to make a sale.

Since the 2011 uprising as a part of the Arab Spring, tourism is down more than 50% in Egypt. The lack of tourist plus massive inflation has put a lot of people in the tourism sector in a tough position. The irony of signs saying “hassle free shop” combined with touts outside following tourists for half a block asking them if they want to buy water, a tour, a boat ride, a taxi and souvenirs really doesn’t feel “hassle free” to me. Our guide Motaz said that he didn’t work for 5 years after the Arab spring and taught English in his down time until the tourists came back.

Upon meeting, the standard questions are “What’s your name?” and “Where’re you from?” Several people have asked us why more Americans don’t come to Egypt. We give a variation of “a lot of people are still scared it’s violent” and “for a long time our government said not to come because it’s dangerous.”

I understand the hounding when the tourists (who are seen as people with money and potential customers) are in such short supply. I’m annoyed and at the same time feel guilty that I’m annoyed with kids begging and men harassing me for my business when they clearly see me as their best option as a potential customer.

One common stop for tourists in addition to papyrus workshops and perfume workshops is the alabaster workshop. Craftsmen work to turn chunks of rock into beautiful vases and sculptures.

Alabaster is a soft mineral found used for carving decorative pieces. The calcite type was used in Ancient Egypt to make containers for oils, perfumes, canopic jars to hold the organs of the deceased and even whole sarcophagi.

Alabaster is a soft mineral found used for carving decorative pieces. The calcite type was used in Ancient Egypt to make containers for oils, perfumes, canopic jars to hold the organs of the deceased and even whole sarcophagi.

True alabaster is translucent. It comes in colors ranging from white to pink to green, but it’s always translucent.

True alabaster is translucent. It comes in colors ranging from white to pink to green, but it’s always translucent.

This is the raw form of alabaster once it’s mined but before it’s processed.

This is the raw form of alabaster once it’s mined but before it’s processed.

This stone is also alabaster but the green variety, which will show through more once it’s carved.

This stone is also alabaster but the green variety, which will show through more once it’s carved.

Machine made alabaster is shiny and polished and much lighter weight than hand-made alabaster products.

Machine made alabaster is shiny and polished and much lighter weight than hand-made alabaster products.

The small statues in the front are carved from basalt but the vases are alabaster and all but the narrow shiny one have been carved by hand. The alabaster carving business has been passed down through generations for centuries in Egypt.

The small statues in the front are carved from basalt but the vases are alabaster and all but the narrow shiny one have been carved by hand. The alabaster carving business has been passed down through generations for centuries in Egypt.

Once the alabaster has been dug from the earth and roughly cut into the size of the vase it’s wrapped in plaster to protect it while the inside is drilled out.

Once the alabaster has been dug from the earth and roughly cut into the size of the vase it’s wrapped in plaster to protect it while the inside is drilled out.

The plaster-coated alabaster is buried in sand to absorb the shock as the inside is drilled out by hand.

The plaster-coated alabaster is buried in sand to absorb the shock as the inside is drilled out by hand.

Once the inside has been drilled out, the vessel is unburied and shaped by hand with files to make it smoother.

Once the inside has been drilled out, the vessel is unburied and shaped by hand with files to make it smoother.

The final products are oiled to give them a matte luster.

The final products are oiled to give them a matte luster.

Papyrus

Papyrus scrolls have told historians much about the history of ancient Egypt. Today painting on the traditional Egyptian paper are a popular souvenir all over Egypt.

Papyrus scrolls are sold on the street and in artisan workshops all over Egypt. Egypt speaking salesmen give presentations about how the plant is processed to tourists. Our welcome drink was Hibiscus tea.

Papyrus scrolls are sold on the street and in artisan workshops all over Egypt. Egypt speaking salesmen give presentations about how the plant is processed to tourists. Our welcome drink was Hibiscus tea.

Papyrus is a triangular-shaped wetland sedge that grows in the Nile river. (Sedges have edges, thank you Tim Smith and Jack Mountain Bushcraft School for teaching me that.) Because of it’s pyramid-shaped cross section it was considered a holy plant honoring Amun-Re.

Papyrus is a triangular-shaped wetland sedge that grows in the Nile river. (Sedges have edges, thank you Tim Smith and Jack Mountain Bushcraft School for teaching me that.) Because of it’s pyramid-shaped cross section it was considered a holy plant honoring Amun-Re.

Papyrus grows 3-4 meters high and is the symbol of lower (or Northern) Egypt. The lotus (another wetland plant is the symbol of upper Egypt. The first step in making papyrus paper is removing the outer green part with a knife. This part can be used to make baskets, boats and other woven things.

Papyrus grows 3-4 meters high and is the symbol of lower (or Northern) Egypt. The lotus (another wetland plant is the symbol of upper Egypt. The first step in making papyrus paper is removing the outer green part with a knife. This part can be used to make baskets, boats and other woven things.

The inner white part is very fragile. The next step is to use a mallet and a rolling pin to remove the excess water making the papyrus stronger and more flexible.

The inner white part is very fragile. The next step is to use a mallet and a rolling pin to remove the excess water making the papyrus stronger and more flexible.

Once the water is removed, the papyrus sits in water for 6 days to remove the sugar. The water is changed every day.

Once the water is removed, the papyrus sits in water for 6 days to remove the sugar. The water is changed every day.

The salesman demonstrated using a wooden mallet to hammer out the papyrus. The Greeks introduces the paper we use today to the Egyptians.

The salesman demonstrated using a wooden mallet to hammer out the papyrus. The Greeks introduces the paper we use today to the Egyptians.

This wooden rolling pin made the papyrus strips thin and wrung out the moisture.

This wooden rolling pin made the papyrus strips thin and wrung out the moisture.

Once the strips have been soaking for 6 days (or 12 days to make brown papyrus) they are arranged vertically and horizontally to make a 2-layer sheet of interwoven strips.

Once the strips have been soaking for 6 days (or 12 days to make brown papyrus) they are arranged vertically and horizontally to make a 2-layer sheet of interwoven strips.

The papyrus mat is put between two pieces of felt for 6 days to dry. Ancient Egyptians woudl use linen and heavy stones for this portion.

The papyrus mat is put between two pieces of felt for 6 days to dry. Ancient Egyptians woudl use linen and heavy stones for this portion.

Today, a giant press is used instead of heavy stones to dry the papyrus and ensure it’s flat and smooth.

Today, a giant press is used instead of heavy stones to dry the papyrus and ensure it’s flat and smooth.

A lot of sellers will peddle weak, brittle paper made from banana leaves or sugar cane. Real papyrus is strong and flexible and can be rolled.

A lot of sellers will peddle weak, brittle paper made from banana leaves or sugar cane. Real papyrus is strong and flexible and can be rolled.

When you hold real papyrus up to the light you should be able to see the horizontal and vertical stripes.

When you hold real papyrus up to the light you should be able to see the horizontal and vertical stripes.

This famous scene, like most of the artwork in this workshop was painted by the Faculty of Fine Arts at South Valley University. It depicts the final judgement of a soul. 14 judges preside over the ruling at the top of the image. Anubis looks at the scales of judgement to weigh the heart of the deceased agains the feather of truth. . If the heart doesn’t pass the test, the crocodile headed hippo animal eats the heart and the soul doesn’t get eternal life in the afterworld.

This famous scene, like most of the artwork in this workshop was painted by the Faculty of Fine Arts at South Valley University. It depicts the final judgement of a soul. 14 judges preside over the ruling at the top of the image. Anubis looks at the scales of judgement to weigh the heart of the deceased agains the feather of truth. . If the heart doesn’t pass the test, the crocodile headed hippo animal eats the heart and the soul doesn’t get eternal life in the afterworld.

Nubian Village

The motorboats ferry people from the east bank to the west bank of the Nile River in Aswan. The boats line up two and three deep next to the cruise ships and men in long, grey on-piece galabias drive them around Elephantine Island around the first cataract and to the Garb Sheila Nubian Village. 

Camels trek along the dunes on the west bank of the Nile near Aswan.

Camels trek along the dunes on the west bank of the Nile near Aswan.

Crocodile bodies bring protection to Nubian homes.

Crocodile bodies bring protection to Nubian homes.

Camels wearing brightly colored saddles carry tourists around the dunes that rise up from the river bank unlike anywhere else on the river we’ve seen. The Sahara Desert was created by the hot breath of Sekmet, whose unrequited love for Set (he loved Nephthys,) angered the lion-headed goddess to no end. Or so one story goes. 

The dunes contain the tomes of nobles, cemeteries of modern Egyptians and the ornate mausoleum of Agha Khan, the Shi’a leader with over 4 million followers. While the majority of Egyptians are Sunni muslim, Agha Khan came for the healing properties of the Aswan sand. He suffered from a chronic illness and found so much relief in burying his legs in the dunes that he told his family to bury his body in Aswan when he died. Agha Khan had many wives including a young French woman who until her death 5 years ago came to Aswan every year to place a red rose on his grave on the West Bank of the Nile. 

Nubian houses are painted brightly with animal and domestic motifs. These murals greeted us at the ferry dock.

Nubian houses are painted brightly with animal and domestic motifs. These murals greeted us at the ferry dock.

Past the cemetery are small islands full of birds and surrounded by river grasses. Red headed ducks, Ibises and herons hunt for food as our boat narrowly misses partially submerged rocks. The water in the cataract swirls and changes directions. We are heading upstream toward the old dam, built by the English during imperial times. The Nubian houses come into view. They are distinct with their colorful domed brick roofs. 

Textiles are woven from Egyptian cotton by men on big horizontal looms.

Textiles are woven from Egyptian cotton by men on big horizontal looms.

Clay jugs keep water cool under the hot Egyptian sun.

Clay jugs keep water cool under the hot Egyptian sun.

It rarely every rains in Egypt but when it does, the Nubian villages are in trouble. Their mud brick homes can disintegrate with too much rain. Over 100,000 Nubians were relocated out of the valley that is now Lake Nassar. The reservoir for the High Aswan Dam was filled in 1970 covering thousands of acres of farmland, villages and ancient temples with Nile River water. UNESCO moved some of the most important temples to islands that wouldn’t be flooded including Philae Temple, home of the last known written hieroglyphics. 

The Nubians are the self-proclaimed first people of Africa. They are black, not Arab and when we visit, we notice the strange custom of attaching a taxidermied crocodile above the doors for protection. I’ve wanted to badly to see a Nile crocodile and was crushed when I learned that they only live south of the High Dam and we probably wouldn’t see them. However, the Nubains visit Lake Nassar, kidnap the baby crocodiles and keep them in pens until they’re grown. 

Taxidermied crocodiles were everywhere in the village.

Taxidermied crocodiles were everywhere in the village.

Two Nubain girls followed us around and took us to the school. They were selling keychains made of dowels painted like women. They were cute but relentless. One was named Mano. They waited for us to finish our school visit, where Mr. Omar (who usually teaches adult women won never went to school) taught us to count in Nubian and Arabic and helped us write our name in Arabic script. 

A brightly colored Nubian home with traditional arches.

A brightly colored Nubian home with traditional arches.

This government funded school is for young children birth to age 6 and women who did not receive an education as children.

This government funded school is for young children birth to age 6 and women who did not receive an education as children.

The Nubian language is an oral tradition although sometimes it’s written in the Latin alphabet, but it doesn’t have a written form. The girls stood up and talked to Motaz, our guide in Arabic, again making their sales pitch. They switched to Nubian to discuss the finer points of their business dealing. We ended up buying one wooden keychain woman in a yellow dress. The girls had seemed to be working together until one made the sale and the other didn’t. The other was indignant and wanted us to buy a second key chain. We had to let her down. 

I imagined what the Nubian village was like before the tourists. Before the camel rides and henna, and sand artists. Before the basket weavers and cotton weavers were trying to sell their wares to visitors. Before the zebra masks for sale were on display next to the obelisks in cafes serving sesame, molasses and cheese on crusty bread with mint tea and hibiscus juice. I imagined a quiet, sandy place with domed house and fewer murals, fewer boats with Bob Marly flags, and fewer girls selling keychains.  

Mr. Omar taught us the Arabic alphabet and how to count in Nubian and Arabic.

Mr. Omar taught us the Arabic alphabet and how to count in Nubian and Arabic.

Saqqara

We were young and stupid when we paid $45 for a driver to Memphis and Saqqara for a day. These were in the days before we knew how easy, cheap and ubiquitous Uber was in Cairo. We went with the same driver who picked us up at the Cairo airport. He spoke a few words of English but not much more.

The temples at Saqqara were incredible with hieroglyphics and relief carvings of everyday life in Ancient Egypt.

The temples at Saqqara were incredible with hieroglyphics and relief carvings of everyday life in Ancient Egypt.

We drove through the sprawling city of Cairo. It’s mostly monochromatic in a dusty drab brown. The air is heavy with smog and sand. The people live in big apartment buildings made of red brick or brown brick or covered in cement. They are 15 or 20 stories tall with satellite dishes on the balconies. The balconies are my favorite thing about Cairo. Housing is expensive and most average people don’t have a lawn to garden or a house to paint but they have a balcony and they are not shy to express their creativity.

The burial chambers were empty for several reasons: either grave robbers had looted them or the remaining artifacts had been put into museums (including the very nicely put together Museum at Saqqara.) This tomb has tons of carvings but not much else.

The burial chambers were empty for several reasons: either grave robbers had looted them or the remaining artifacts had been put into museums (including the very nicely put together Museum at Saqqara.) This tomb has tons of carvings but not much else.

In Daniel Pinkwater children’s book The Big Orange Splot, Mr. Plumbean decides to paint his drab boring house on a perfectly identical block to suit his whims. His neighbors one by one go try to talk some sense into him so they have have their perfect “neat street” back but instead they are all swayed to paint their own homes in crazy, fanciful ways. Mr. Plumbean says, “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

The Pyramid of the Djoser is the first pyramid tomb and the precursor to the Pyramids at Giza.

The Pyramid of the Djoser is the first pyramid tomb and the precursor to the Pyramids at Giza.

There are bright green balconies and orange ones. Some have red stripes or polka dots or yellow and grey chevrons. Some have murals of a forest, of a street or cartoon characters. Some are plain. Honestly, more are plain than are painted but it’s the painted ones that stick out, the bright colors against a drab city of blocky tall buildings.

Some of the tombs were closed. It’s not clear if they were being restored or simply no one came to open them up on the day we visited. It’s hard to tell who’s a park employee and who’s an unofficial guide trying to earn a tip for sharing a bit of information.

Some of the tombs were closed. It’s not clear if they were being restored or simply no one came to open them up on the day we visited. It’s hard to tell who’s a park employee and who’s an unofficial guide trying to earn a tip for sharing a bit of information.

Saqqara is south of Cairo and has the honor of containing the first pyramid. The deified architect Imhotep oversaw the step pyramid that housed Djoser’s tomb and paved the way for the construction of the pyramids at Giza.

Under this overhand is a big shaft that leads down into a tomb.

Under this overhand is a big shaft that leads down into a tomb.

The step temple at Saqqara is not well marked. There’s an entrance to be sure with huge supported columns opening up into a courtyard that’s being restored. one of the sides of the pyramid is actively under restoration and I swore I read that you could go into the temple. There were two doors at the base of opposite sides both of which looked pretty sketchy. A steep slope with worn 2”x10”s and a pit of empty water bottles and chip wrappers lead into an open door. The inside of the pyramid had intermittent illuminated light bulbs and a dead end. So we climbed out and headed back to the front which seemed like our best option.

Some of the hieroglyphics are in high relief and stick out away from the wall. These are in low relief and sink down into the wall.

Some of the hieroglyphics are in high relief and stick out away from the wall. These are in low relief and sink down into the wall.

There was no sign that explicitly said we could not enter the pyramid. There were no guards or barriers. The lights were on, the door was unlocked and we walked down a wooden walkway to the center of the temple where a giant scaffolding was erected to (we supposed) take visitors down to the tombs. We walked down at least 5 stories. Chris didn’t like the feel of the shake metal and opted to head back up but Megan and I persevered until we were faced with a dilemma. A metal ladder was tied to the scaffolding to take people the last 20 feet to the ground but there was no good way to get from where the steps ended to the ladder.

Memphis is a town 3km away from Saqqara and has an open air museum with antiquities including several giant statues of Ramses II.

Memphis is a town 3km away from Saqqara and has an open air museum with antiquities including several giant statues of Ramses II.

A very flimsy 2”x10” seemed unsafe. We ducked under the stair rail. I was wearing a long flowing skirt, it wasn’t practical for the task at hand. I tied it up and shimmied along the scaffolding to the ladder. I ducked under to get on the ladder and told Megan to wait for me while I disappeared down the illuminated hall. I didn’t find much. There was a tomb with some blue stones stuck into the wall, but the ground was dirty, there were electrical cords and tools and buckets and it certainly didn’t feel like a place for visitors.

This impressive statue of Ramses II laid in a pond for 50 years after it was discovered because no one knew how to lift it up in the early 1800s.

This impressive statue of Ramses II laid in a pond for 50 years after it was discovered because no one knew how to lift it up in the early 1800s.

I told Megan there was nothing to see and started back up the ladder. I was a sweaty mess and nervous about falling to my death as I shimmied back across the scaffolding to the steps. We climbed back up dusty and dirty from our adventure. When we got to the top Chris was standing in the entry tunnel with two rather cross tomb guards who told us we weren’t supposed to go down there and wanted us to pay them money, which we didn’t. We said we were sorry and that there was no sign or barred door to indicate that we couldn’t enter. We scurried down the entry tunnel and on to the next tomb.

People love to graffiti on anything including on ancient tombs. Here you can see graffiti in both top corners of this image.

People love to graffiti on anything including on ancient tombs. Here you can see graffiti in both top corners of this image.

Night Train Cairo to Luxor

Steve Goodman’s 1971 song City of New Orleans has always been one of my favorites. I’m partial to the Arlo Guthrie cover myself.

Good morning America how are you?

Don't you know me I'm your native son

I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans

I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

The Cairo train station is fancy.

The Cairo train station is fancy.

Aside from municipal subways, I’ve really only ridden one train any distance in the US. The South Shore Line runs between Millennium Station in Chicago, Illinois and the South Bend Airport in Indiana. I took it once to visit my aunt and uncle who live in Elkhart. The ride was only a few hours and I stared out the window for most of the it. The rail line goes through the south side industrial lands then through neighborhoods, rural land and small town on the way out of the windy city into Indiana.

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Illinois Central Monday morning rail

Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders

Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail

I feel a strange nostalgia for rail travel in America. People still ride Amtrak cross country, but it’s often just as expensive as flying. I’m not sure when the golden age of the railroad was but I always think of the Pullman porters tending to the wealthy in the fancy cars leased to the rail companies. They were made on the far south side of Chicago in what was at the time the company town and is now the Pullman neighborhood. I adopted a kitten that was found in the neighborhood and I named her Morty for George Mortimer Pullman. I had to give her up when my traveling life meant I no longer had an apartment of my own but I thought of her fondly on my most recent rail journey.

All along the southbound odyssey

The train pulls out at Kankakee

Rolls along past houses, farms and fields

Passin' trains that have no names

Freight yards full of old black men

And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

This model of the Cairo rail station makes parking look orderly and easy to understandable. It’s not. Cairo traffic is a nightmare.

This model of the Cairo rail station makes parking look orderly and easy to understandable. It’s not. Cairo traffic is a nightmare.

There are a few ways to travel the 400 miles between Egypt’s capital city and Luxor (known to the ancient Greeks as Thebes.) We opted for the night train, first class, which was a splurgy option that included dinner, breakfast and a bunk for the night. Megan and Chris had one cabin and I had another to myself. There is an adjoining room, but it’s on the opposite side of Chris and Megan’s so I don’t open the door. It remains a mystery person’s cabin. I offer to take Megan’s bag, which lives with mine on the bottom bunk, which converts into three chairs like a row on an airplane.

Dealin' cards games with the old men in the club car

Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score

Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle

Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor

Our porter is an elderly gentleman wearing a navy porter outfit and a cap with some English skills. He comes to check my ticket and asks if I want to sleep on the bottom, I decline. I fish the heavy metal ladder out from under the lower bunk and attach it to the hook on the wall. The door to the bathroom sink fits behind it. The toilets are down the hall. The air conditioner is on full blast so I tuck myself into bed to read when I hear another persistent knock on the door. The porter knocks loudly and doesn’t stop until I climb down, fiddle with the lock and the very sticky handle that never opens the first time. This time it’s the porter with two other men who he calls ‘security check.’ I must have passed muster because as soon as they announce themselves, they move on to the next cabin.

My train cabin had a sink cupboard, window and metal ladder up to my bunk.

My train cabin had a sink cupboard, window and metal ladder up to my bunk.

And the sons of Pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep

Are rockin' to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

I climb up the ladder and tuck myself in again. The bed is much wider than the sleeping train I took in Danang, Vietnam where six beds stacked three high occupied the same amount of space as my single compartment. At 8:40 there’s another knock at the door. It’s dinner time and the porter “shows” me how to attach the TV tray to the wall, a job I most certainly could have done myself. I eat in silence alone as the train continues along the Nile river. There are some hangers hidden behind a curtained “closet” next to the sink. I don’t know if people actually unpack and change their clothes or what but I slept in day-old sweaty leggings and an Ohio University tee-shirt. There was a plug for a razor, but not one for a phone showing the age of the car.

My bunk had a metal bar and (thankfully) a blanket and sheet because the train was freezing!

My bunk had a metal bar and (thankfully) a blanket and sheet because the train was freezing!

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans

Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee

Half way home, we'll be there by morning

Through the Mississippi darkness

Rolling down to the sea

There’s another knock at the door and I think I’m going to go mad with the amount of “service” I’m receiving but this time it’s Chris with a report that the “fancy” dining car isn’t worth going down to. He hands me a Fanta and tells me it’s 6 cars down, past fancier sleeper cars that say they were made in “West Germany” for context of how old ours must be. The porter comes back and takes my tray and asks many times over if I would like to purchase a juice. I decline. It’s 9:45 and I’m exhausted. It’s a 5:15 wake up call to get off the train so I need to get to bed if I’m going to have any chance of a full night’s sleep.

But all the towns and people seem

To fade into a bad dream

And the steel rails still ain't heard the news

The conductor sings his songs again

The passengers will please refrain

This train's got the disappearing railroad blues

The Egyptian country side flew by outside the train window.

The Egyptian country side flew by outside the train window.

Laos has no train and neither does Senegal. The Chinese are building a railway through Laos and while Senegal has miles of tracks and cars, it owes money to the foreign investment company that’s making the rail line a reality. It’s doubtful the line will be completed by the original 2020 completion date. The Egyptian train experience was largely a good one. The train was on time, we had reserved beds that we bought online (a rarity in Egypt.) We made it to Luxor before 6 a.m. and walked to the Sofitel for a day of luxuriating in the gardens, pool and fluffy beds.

Good night, America, how are you?

Said don't you know me I'm your native son

I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans

I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Traditional Egyptian Music

The Makan Egyptian Center or Culture and Arts’ mission is to preserve traditional Egyptian music and support musicians financially and with recording opportunities. Every Wednesday in the small theater space the Mazaher Ensemble plays traditional Egyptian Zar music to a full house of about 75 spectators. Traditional Egyptian music is not taught in schools and most of the shows billing themselves as traditional music skew toward folkloric spectacle to match tourists expectations of limited types of performances such as Sufi dancing or belly dancing. Makan wants to preserve traditions faithfully and inspire a new generation of Egyptians to feel proud of their cultural heritage and perhaps learn to perform themselves. 

The dancing style included pacing, swinging and rhythmic turning to the ever increasing tempo of the rhythms.

The dancing style included pacing, swinging and rhythmic turning to the ever increasing tempo of the rhythms.

The Mazahar group consists of 4 men and 4 women play mostly percussion instruments: hand drums, tambourines, finger cymbals, bongos, the d’jambe, maracas, and a belt with hundreds of seashells sewn to it. The melody comes from call and response singers, a wooden flute and a string instrument which is part harp, part African Kora. 

The music is mesmerizing. Each song starts out slowly with lots of hand drums and tambourines added in. It progressively gets louder and more intense and more cacophonous as the voices merge, the drumming hastens and the dancing brings it all to a head before abruptly ending. 

Some of the performers, Um Hassan <Nour el Sabah and Um Sameh are among the last Zar musicians in Egypt.

Some of the performers, Um Hassan <Nour el Sabah and Um Sameh are among the last Zar musicians in Egypt.

The women in the group all cover their heads but none of them cover their necks as is commonly  seen in Egypt. Two wear tight head covers then a loose, sheer veil over it and the others just cover their hair Senegalese style with a knot at the back of their heads. This is in start contrast to the audience, very few of whom cover their heads at all. 

The lead singer is a force to be reckoned with. She has red nail polish and gold rings with large jewels on nearly all her fingers. She’s wearing makeup and necklaces and silver slippers. She doesn’t use a microphone but she doesn’t have to. He gravelly voice carries throughout the theater. She sings in Arabil and speaks in Arabic to interact with the crowd, more than half of whom seem to understand. She starts the show with a blessing and lights incense which she carries around to each of the ensemble members. 

Mazar’s music is inspired by 3 different Zar styles: Upper Egyptian Zar, Abu Gheit Zar and the Sudanese or African Zar style.

Mazar’s music is inspired by 3 different Zar styles: Upper Egyptian Zar, Abu Gheit Zar and the Sudanese or African Zar style.

Black mint tea and hibiscus tea are free for the taking both before the show and during intermission, where the lead singers suggests that we might want to go out for a cigarette. Smoking is ubiquitous in Egypt: on the street, in cars, in buildings, our hotel, restaurants. Mostly it’s the men who smoke, but I’ve passed some shisha bars where women were partaking as well. 

Mazhar music features women in the lead role, which is not often the case in traditional Egyptian music. This style of poly-rhythmic music is dying out as practitioners pass on and new musicians don’t rise up to replace them. There was one younger woman in the ensemble, the other 7 appeared to be in their 60s, 70s or older. One woman who sat the entire performance didn’t walk very well. Makan found these practitioners and formed the group. They “Motivated them to go through lengthy session of rehearsing, remembering and recording.” 

The woman in red on the left is the youngest in the ensemble of aging artists sharing their music and dance with a multi-national artist every Wednesday night.

The woman in red on the left is the youngest in the ensemble of aging artists sharing their music and dance with a multi-national artist every Wednesday night.

I don’t know what the future of Mazhar music will be or if it would still exist without help from organizations like Makan, but I’m glad I paid my 80 Egyptian Pounds (around $5) to experience this music I’d never heard before in a space dedicated to promoting and preserving the arts. 

Itinerary: Egypt

14 days in Egypt

While Egypt is on a different coast and 2,300 miles away from Morroco, we couldn’t resist a
jaunt over to take in the Pyramids and history of the Nile. Egypt is not a Francophone country and the grant period will be over, meaning we’ll be free to relax and play. 

Day 1-2

Cairo is the capital of Egypt and with xx inhabitants it’s a big city with lots of restaurants, museums, parks and the Nile rive flowing through it. We’ll walk through Tahrir Square, check out the mummies at the Egyptian museum and check out the famous Mosques. 

Day 3

Giza is what most people think of when Egypt is mentioned as it’s home to the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids. Since it’s only on the other side of the Nile from Cairo, we’ll take a day trip there and return to Cairo at night for more food and fun. 

Day 4

Cairo is also full of Coptic history chronicling the early Egyptian Christians with old churches and a museum. The souq or bazaar in Cairo is said to be one of the most epic market experiences on the planet with vendors selling precious metals, spices, clothing, and coffee. 

Day 5-6

Saqqara lies 19 miles south of Cairo and was the site of the necropolis or cemetery of the ancient capital city of Memphis. We’ll see Djoser’s step pyramid, one of the earliest examples of Egyptian pyramid.

Day 7

Luxor has ancient ruins right in the city. The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens are just across the Nile on the West bank. It’s one of the sunniest, driest cities in the world with temperatures averaging above 100º F in the summer. It’s gonna be hot.  

Day 8-12

Nile, nile crocodile. Hopefully we’ll see some giant lizards and some hippos (from a distance) on our 5-day river cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. I’ve never been on a cruise but literally everyone I’ve talked to who has traveled to Egypt tells me I have to do it because it’s amazing. So I’m going. 

Day 13

Aswan is on the Nile and is home to archeological sites including the Philae Temple complex, the Temple of Isis and Ephantine Island which has the Temple of Khnum from the Third Dynasty. Aswan is home to Nubian people, who are indigenous to southern Egypt and Sudan.

Day 14

We end out time in Egypt where we start in Cairo before flying back through Portugal to the States.