michael hughes’s blog

The making of… the camels of Giza

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on January 14, 2010

The camel narrative battle

The camel narrative battle

Lawrence Durrell, Lawrence of Arabia, so many Lawrences which have formed my image of the desert and Egypt. The needle on the embankment near the Houses of Parliament in London, The curse of the mummy, Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Nile”, the mask of Tutankhamun, all tenuous connections to a mystery realm stretching back thousands of years to the beginnings of civilisation, beyond even the Romans and the Greeks of my education. A state based on the flood plains of the Nile, existing in the middle of the desert, stretched along those banks, secure in that aqueous flow producing miracles of engineering; the pyramids. Next to the river, in those times, was the plateau of Giza where the pyramids were built overlooking the ancient city of Memphis. Now they are on the outskirts, but slowly being eaten up by, the Moloch Cairo. A city of chaos and humour, weighted down by the oppressive heat and the smog of its buses and cars, packed bumper to bumper and door to door, flowing viscously along three-tiered motorways through the middle of the city, there are meetings full of wit and circumstantial acquaintance as the accidental neighbour takes sudden garrulous interest in your country of origin. Beneath it all there is the hum of a deeply engrained dirt so intense that it teeters on the brink of smell and taste, much like parts of London or New York, but more overwhelming while borne up on the fierce heat.

A friend, Hassan, who owns a restaurant in my home town, Berlin had agreed to reschedule one of his annual trips home and accompany me to work the magic that is “Souvenirs” in the country on the river. We first flew down to Luxor. The Temple of Karnak and Luxor, situated in and adjacent to the town, remain in my memory as cleanly swept complexes where my anticipation of the awe which I supposed would envelop me failed to materialise. A night visit to Karnak where a dismal light show accompanied by a theatrical commentary elicited more amusement that wonder and the avaricious guides who pandered to my conceit by spiriting me through the tourist masses to the best view points and ducking me under tape barriers, wanted, naturally, not to selflessly serve art but expected generous remuneration despite the best efforts of my Egyptian companion and his pithy vernacular to dismay them.

It was the next day when our hired minibus took us over the Nile and towards the Valley of the Queens, past the Ramasseum, to Gurna and then on to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut that I began to get a taste of the country. Stopping to buy tickets for our onward trip, I left the minibus to walk across a huge triangular area of waste land towards a village which was clustered onto the side of the mountain. I was fascinated by its lack of services in this merciless heat, the water tanks on wheels parked around the place, the donkeys, a dog and one human who had ventured out of the shade. Most particularly I was struck by the cubist impression the village made, its houses painted in sundry shades of yellow, ochre and blues. I learned immediately afterwards in Spain that house are painted with blue walls as a deterrent to insects. The picture I made of the village with my trusty Plaubel Makina 6×7 camera hangs on our living room wall. Hassan and the driver drove around the triangle to pick me up, fearing that a lone tourist might be a target for inhospitable Egyptians, a species I never came to meet.

Cubist desert village

Cubist desert village

We stopped at the Ramasseum and then drove to the Temple of Sethi. By this time I was pretty hot and despite copious amounts of water, the enterprise was beginning to pale as there was no apparent chance of doing any Souvenirs; the choice was limited to entrance tickets this far away from the tourist centre of Luxor. We stopped at the Temple of Sethi 1st. looking more for a rest than yet another tour of baking hot ruins. We were greeted at the entrance by the guardian, an older man who, when asked, emphatically affirmed his knowledge of English. Hassan was getting tired of translating and expected this government-paid custodian to give us a detailed tour of the temple. It soon became clear that his English was limited to saying “Sethi” in an English accent but one of those strange and wonderful things had happened which one can never predict; somehow he and I took a shine to each other. I think we shared a sense of humour because I read the way he was talking to Hassan and the way he then looked at me with an impish expression. Hassan was a little irritated but I felt like being showed around by this man so we did the tour, saw the paintings on the walls and learned a little about Sethi. Our guide, on the way back to the gate, asked whether we would take tea with him and I, because I liked him and did not want to insult him, agreed. We were invited into his gate house which turned out to be his dwelling, there was a bank at the side of the room where a few blankets were laid out where two young men were sitting cradling their Kalaschnikovs. Assuming the two to be friendly, we smiled at them and watched our guide make his preparations for tea. An amphora, half buried in the ground, was filled with water and from this he transferred, cup by cup, the water into a high-sided aluminium pan out of which a red painted wooden handle protruded. Carved into a piece of sandstone, were fitted the filaments of a cannibalised electric kettle. Two nails sticking out of the wall were connected to the mains by way of wires. He took the two thick copper wires from the kettle elements which were each formed into a hook and hung them over the live nails. The elements began to glow and he placed the pan on top of them. A bundle of fresh mint was taken and the appropriate amount put into each glass which he had rinsed in the amphora.

Boiling water for tea

I am not a squeamish man but it was obvious that the hygienic possibilities open to my new friend did not in any way correspond to those I took for granted. Hassan, who had seen this situation coming long before me, looked at me sideways in the gloom of the hut. I ignored the clamour of injunctions my brain was firing at me, took the glass with the proffered tea and drank. Delicious and very refreshing and with no after effects.

Two days later we flew up to Cairo. I would have preferred to hire a car and drive up but we took heed of security warnings which would have required us to travel in convoy and took the safer and speedier alternative.

I had booked in at an hotel near the airport which was a few hundred metres from Hassan’s sister’s apartment. He stayed with her, her husband and the three children. First thing, the next day, Hassan turned up with a car he had borrowed from his uncle and we set off to the pyramids at Giza, on the other side of Cairo. I had bought a couple of things from the Hotel shop; the toy camel and a postcard but wanted to see what the local shops had on offer. We found one at the bottom of the incline where the Sphynx stands and which marks the extent of the spread of the city. Hassan told the owner what we were doing and he allowed us to take our pick. We put them into a bag and drank the cold coke which he offered us. His generosity extended beyond the coke; we were allowed to take the souvenirs and photograph them without payment, not even a deposit.

I photographed the Sphynx, both with the Plaubel and with two different Souvenirs, Hassan took the photo of me which is on Facebook. There is an incline up to the the Cheops pyramid. Walking in the heat with my fully laden camera bag, I began to feel funny and so ducked into the shadow of a ruin and waited half an hour to stabilise myself. Camel riders were waiting in front of the Great Pyramid, leaving Hassan with the plastic bag containing the rest of the loot, I strode up to them clasping the toy camel in my hand. Immediately sensing business, one of them started talking to me, it was interesting to see how he interpreted the toy camel I was holding. I was not sure what I wanted to do. It was clear fairly quickly that I could not do the classic Souvenirs shot with my camel replacing his, so I reverted to the Windmill picture idea in Holland, inserting an extra camel into the landscape. The narrative of the picture became my camel meeting his camel in front of the Great Pyramid. This narrative did not suit the erstwhile camel man who wanted to impose upon me his narrative for the photo; a camel rider (who would be paid for his part) holding my camel while sitting on his. Hassan had my back here; as the rider during our narrative wrestling became aware that his narrative would not get beyond the cutting room, began to get abusive Hassan gave him a blast of vernacular Egyptian. I know this sounds unfair, I used the man to get my photo, but what do you pay a man who holds your toy camel?

Back at the souvenir shop after our tour, almost fainting with heat stroke, we returned the Souvenirs, bought two as a recompense and received yet another can of coke.

A footnote

The day before I left I came out of my hotel to meet Hassan and was directed by a plain clothes policeman to go behind an informal barrier which had been set up in the side street next to the hotel. The main motorway which ran past from the centre through the residential district of Government Officials and out to the airport was completely empty. Obviously road blocks were in place, so I assumed that a VIP would be coming through. On the surface Egypt seems to be an easy-going place, but even the slightest scratch reveals an authoritarian society, stiffened by military and police, distanced from its people, revelling in its power and glory. A khaki minibus careened by on its way to the airport, its windows were open and forearms clutching AK 47s sticking upwards could be seen. For a long time there was silence, the people which had gradually accumulated around me and myself, moved slowly forward trying to catch a glimpse of what would come next. The policeman who was responsible for this crossing made no sign to wave us back. We had all resigned ourselves to waiting for what we assumed would be Mubarak’s convoy, when we could go about our business again. An SUV pulled up and a big man, wearing a sports jacket which would never in its most optimistic dreams meet its partner lapel over the bulging mass of the man’s belly, leapt out and started waving at us and screaming at the plain clothes policeman. It was obvious that we had been allowed too far forward and Mubarak’s security had been breached. The sheer violence of his verbal attack was untrammeled. The authority he wielded over this unfortunate man, absolute. The man made no effort to defend himself, explain or even retaliate. It was the perfect example of a society in which authoritarianism ruled absolute, a demeaning spectacle that knew no criticism, no boundaries. The big man left and we were ushered back to our places by the policeman. The most shocking thing about it was; that I was the only one who was shocked.

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