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Of course, like any good tourists trying to make the best out of their vacation time, when we got off the sleeper train in Aswan we were determined to see the serious attractions of the area: the ruins on the Elephantine island, the fabled temples of Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo and Edfu, the unfinished obelisk, and a couple of museums. After a visit to the tired, unimpressive ruins on the Elephantine island - where we got ripped off by some textile sellers and an overpriced henna tattoo "artist" who just wouldn't negotiate her price - as we were walking on the corniche (the promenade along the Nile) back to our hotel room, I decided I had had enough of Egypt. The constant hassle from all sorts of touts, the irritating attitude of people at the market who assume you are a stupid tourist who will pay their outrageous asking price, (sometimes many times higher than what you would pay in your own country), the heat, the mad traffic, the crushing crowds... I felt steadily pushed closer and closer to the edge. I was ready to leave, or else bury myself in a refrigerator, wearing earplugs.
A man pushing a bicycle talked to us as we passed him. Disgusted as I was, I ignored him (after a while you have no choice but to ignore the too many people who try to catch you attention). Angela, more polite, responded to his conversation. After a few minutes of walking along, it became clear that Ismael - as he had introduced himself - didn't want to sell us papyrus or a felucca ride or anything else. He, in fact, wanted to invite us to his house to have tea with him. Although he seemed genuine we didn't want to go right then, so he told us where we could find him later, should we decide to stop by. After dinner, not having anything better to do, we decided to give it a shot and look for him. We met him indeed, where he said he would be, and followed him to his house. There, in a shabby but clean and cool room with the walls painted half-way blue, tea and talk followed until the wee hours of the morning.
For the next few days we gradually forgot about the monuments and spent most of the time with Ismael and his extended family, who lived on the same narrow, unpaved street with old, half-crumbled houses. We went to wedding parties, drank more tea, played backgammon, talked, and had dinner with the family. We extended our stay in Aswan by one day. Angela got a henna tattoo from Ismael's niece, a real tattoo artist who routinely adorns brides' hands before their wedding parties. We took a mountain of pictures of their many hyperactive kids. We were exhausted.
Ismael is what could be called "a Muslim hippie". He is apparently retired, and has some income from business and land which allows him to spend most of the time strolling on the corniche with his bike and talking to tourists. He often invites people to his place and talks their ears off. He's anti-establishment, and a light-hearted Muslim who prays (but doesn't waste too much time on it) for the beauty of life and for friendship. He has refused to get drafted and to fight against Israel in his youth and was interned for a while in an isolated camp in the desert. He's been a dive master and a tour operator, owning his tour company. How much of this is true, I don't know, but what is true, are the many testimonials that people from all over the world have left in his "guestbooks" - in English, French, German, Spanish, even some in Romanian; most of those little notes sing the same tune - Ismael has given his guests a chance to know more than just what's in the books; to sit down and listen to an old man ramble about constellations and yoga and ruinous Egyptian mentalities, to play backgammon while drinking tea and eating guavas is more valuable than a history lesson told by some crumbled limestone blocks. The temples will wait, life will not. If you go to Aswan, you may run into an older Nubian man, wearing a galabiyya, riding on a bike. It's Ismael. Talk to him, you'll have a good time.Published from Cairo. Tomorrow we're flying to Greece.