I was in Cairo to give lectures on Harlem Renaissance artists and when finished I took a detour to Aswan, happy to leave the congested streets of Cairo where crossing streets was a free for all. It seemed no one had the right of way. At the train station when the attendant called out “Aswan,” everyone surged onto the train and I followed the crowd, becoming engulfed in swirling black fabrics. I finally arrived in the city of Aswan, Nubian territory, and boarded one of the waiting taxis. I remember seeing a lot of parched beige-ness in this crossroads of ancient caravan routes, but I was happy to come to this place where the pace was S-L-O-W.
My taxi pulled into the gated circular yard, its walkways lined with towering date palms. I could almost taste the dates, as the fan-like leaves rustled in the aromatic breeze that smelled of spices and the red roses planted in geometric shaped beds interspersed among the otherwise grassy lawn. Something felt faintly familiar as the taxi pulled up to the end of the blonde gravel driveway. The taxi door handle clicked as the hotel doorman’s hand opened my door. I extended my leg, foot touching the red-carpeted walkway. I took his hand. He assisted me out of the car as another man greeted me wearing a long white shirt with slits at the sides, white straight-legged pants, and on his head a little cylinder-shaped red hat with a tassel. Once on two feet, I stood there breathing in the lilting hot air, beads of sweat form on my upper lip. As the doorman retrieved my bags, another one opened the entry door as I walked into the Old Cataract Hotel at this ancient crossroads of northern and southern Egypt.
Yet another man with one of those little red tarboosh hats nodded a greeting and offered me hibiscus tea in a small glass painted with colorful floral designs. The tea quenched my parched throat, as I stood at the front desk, checking into my room.
There was something familiar about this place of arched hallways leading to sitting rooms with wicker furniture stuffed with colorful pillows of Middle Eastern designs. In the expansive ballroom I imagined attending grand parties with ladies in evening gowns wearing long satin gloves that reached up to just below their elbows, fastened at the inside of their wrists with little pearl buttons. I imagined the men donning tuxedos with tails and black bowties and vests and cummerbunds at their waists, but the ballroom was empty now except for the two musicians playing—one lightly striking a drum and another playing a lute of some sort. They both wore long caftans that flowed from their bodies fully engulfing the chairs where they sat, making them look much larger than they actually were. The bellman directed me toward the elevator, which was only large enough for two people. Its intricately welded iron designs of flowers and peacocks and other birds reminded me of my late Victorian era art historical studies: such ironwork had been in vogue then. My suite was on the fourth floor and as the elevator door opened we walked along a light yellow wall-papered hallway with high ceilings and long teardrop lights suspended from about ten feet up. We turned a corner to get to the other side of the hallway and in the middle; I looked over the balcony and saw the ballroom below. I turned as the bellman unlocked my white door that had an outer molding repeating a pattern over and over, each time getting smaller as it made its way to the center of the door. As he opened the door, light led me into a spacious room with floor to ceiling windows with long diaphanous curtains; as the bellman lifted the sashes, a mild breeze caused the curtains to billow as fresh air rushed through them and into the room. I walked to the French windows and pulled them back as I looked down past a veranda lined with flowering red and pink hibiscus plants and lawn chairs and umbrellas stationed and awaiting weary visitors. I wondered if I had been here before. My eyes followed a path to a row of docked feluccas, most with sails down, but others open. the narrow triangular shapes of their sails were ready to catch the breath of the same breeze that had rustled through the palms and caused my curtains to float. I gazed down at the blue strip of the Nile flowing in front of the rocky crest of the beige rock formations of Elephantine Island and was reminded of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ poem, I’ve Known Rivers “I’ve washed myself in the Nile,” Hughes wrote.
Was he writing about this part of the Nile where most of the Nubians who I saw had skin as dark as me? But it wasn’t Hughes’ poem or these dark skinned people that aroused the familiarity I felt.
Taking the elevator back down to the lobby, I was offered another decorative glass of cool hibiscus tea, which I graciously accepted, and as I carried it with me onto the veranda I had seen earlier from my window, I realized that the intense floral smells of my tea were the same sweet-smells of the flowers I stood viewing from my room. The Nile sparkled as the golden sunrays touched its waters and seemed to pull me its way: ancient blue waters beckoning me like soft caressing fingers. The closer I ventured the more I smelled the tan sand and aqua water where white felucca boats with red bottoms rocked gently with the swish of the river. I turned back and looked at the 1899 British colonial era hotel, a haven for British visitors, with its white trimmed wooden sash windows and its brick multi-arched edifice, rising out of the landscape in stately elegance, resembling no other structures nearby.
I lingered at the shore of the Nile, facing the granite rocks of Elephantine Island on its outer banks, taking in its ancient histories like I was a part of them. A felucca pulled up.
Capitan Ahmed helped me aboard, and as I sat there, cradled by the Nile, the dramatic musical theme from Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile seemed to cast a spell on me—I remembered the flurry of merchants loading and unloading their wares on boats docked at the water’s edge as well-dressed passengers in their white- and cream-colored linen clothing boarded the S. S. Karnak paddle steamer in Aswan for a cruise upriver to Luxor, unaware of the mystery that awaited them. I then realized my “familiar.” I was in the footsteps of that fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.
Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins hails from Los Angeles, California but has been residing in the San Francisco Bay Area for over twenty years. As a published art historian and independent curator, she specialized in modern and present-day art. She began writing creative non-fiction in 2007 and fiction and poetry in 2012.