New Year in a Quiet Frontier

The last days of a year are, in a way, its frontier. The very end of a journey, of a specific place in the time that’s one’s life. And Aswan is, in a way, an Egyptian frontier, where Arab Egypt meets Africa, where Arabness and “Saeediness” encounter Nubia, that proud distinctive culture that has always embraced Egyptianness and Africanness, and infused them with its own take on Islam.

In Aswan, people feel their place at the end of the country, at the intersection of cultures. They refer to Egypt as a here and there. ‘Here’ in their being part of it, ‘there’ in it being here only with a light touch, a colossal culture dominant across its many domains, and yet here, it leaves only subtle imprints.

Some of the Aswanis themselves came here from a further frontier. Tribes and communities that were evacuated from their ancestral homes, tens of kilometres south, during the building of the High Dam, and who remain, half a century later, foreigners in the town that had become their home. And so, amidst the closely knit society, they have opted to live on the margin, on the outskirts of the town, surrounded, on one side by lemon and olive trees, and on the other, by the Nile.

And that great river, the giver of life to Egypt, the god of the ancients, here, is always coming to us (Egyptians) from that frontier: Africa. There it gathers its waters, enriches itself with mud and minerals, and traverses the Continent’s eastern valleys and plains, with speed and rigour, fresh gallops of giant waves of water, until it reaches Nubia, where we (in the 1960s, with the building of the High Dam) had sapped it of its rigour, in a way, domesticated it, made the god of the ancients a mere waterway for us, their descendants. The gallops slow to tender steps. The Nile has come from the frontier, has arrived home.

As the glasses flash in the chandeliers’ lights, glimpses of the felukas glimmer as they swing over the Nile. It was almost midnight. Conversations were giving way to whispers, to closenesses, and slowly to caresses, while the music in the background was giving way to a countdown to the new year.

The terrace would have looked exactly the same, decades ago, when the Old Cataract was built. Then, it was a haven, for those with means, to enjoy Aswan’s glorious wintery sun, and bathe their worries in its warm rays. Then, they, like us today, chose from the intersection of cultures only the elements that fit their (and our) quest for relaxation and tranquility in this town of sparseness. They, like us, chose to come to this quiet frontier to unburden themselves (ourselves) from the trappings of wants, busyness, demands, and fast pace.

“President Mitterrand used to like his morning coffee here”, the terrance’s manager, distinguished in his black suit, from the waiters in their satin kaftans, reminded me, with a triumphant smile. Small glories that are soon swept away by the grinds of daily lives of those for whom this frontier is the full encapsulation of life.

That evening, the terrace was a frontier where one can indulge in an old decadence, where one can plunge into a time gone by, a frontier between a past revisited and a present paused.