Nibbling On The Nile

July 28, 1991|By Danny Lanka | Danny Lanka,Knight-Ridder News Service

Near ASWAN, Egypt -- The shifting sail momentarily broke the spell of the river, as the triangle of heavy canvas snapped full with a dry-crisp desert gust before falling slack again.

"My God, where the wind . . . where he go?!?!" cried the boat captain, Bibi Bana.

"Well, we could stop and have lunch," I say, roused from my slumbering contemplations.

"Yes, is good . . . some food, some shi [tea] and some sheesha [tobacco water pipe], yes, very good," agreed my host, adding, "maybe the wind, he come back later; when he is not hungry."

Bibi busies himself edging the narrow felucca towards the west bank of the Nile, nosing the little craft into a golden sand dune skirting the granite outcrops of Saheil Island, just south of Aswan.

Lunch in Egypt is usually a fairly big meal, eaten any time between noon and 5 p.m. Many workers knock off for the day at 1 p.m. to eat, and then rest until 5 or 6 p.m. before heading off to their second, evening job.

The second job may require a worker's presence until midnight and the dinner -- usually leftovers from lunch -- is taken much later than most Westerners are used to.

Eating lunch on a felucca -- roughly equivalent to a floating chaise longue -- presents the cook with some difficulties in preparation and storage of perishables. But after 40 years plying the Nile, Bibi has learned much about fully enjoying his noontime repast.

Seemingly, location is most important to my Nubian host.

Twice he has allowed the current to push the felucca into the shore, surveyed the views, both shore and riverside.

Twice, he has muttered in Arabic "Mis-kway-is," or "not good."

Easing back into the current, the search continues as Bibi's eagle-sharp, brown-black eyes scan the river bank.

The perfect spot must have some protection from the stronger currents, but the water must not be still, as it will be used to make tea. The spot must have sun, but must also partially shade the boat. There must be enough breeze to deter flies from swarming around our heads, but not enough to blow sand into the food.

It sounds fussy and time consuming, but it actually took only 15 minutes to accomplish. In any case, I'm content to dangle my feet in the water, patiently waiting for the perfect luncheon location.

The spot appears, as if presented by some ancient magical powers who have heard and answered a call.

A massive dune spills down into the water, the bank protected by a sand bar, 10 meters from shore, home to a dozen blue herons.

The bow pushes aside the overhanging branches of a henna bush.

The shrubbery also provokes a botany lesson from Bibi, who believes in education before snacking; feed the mind, then the tummy.

"Is henna . . . you know? . . . color for hair and skin," says Bibi, rubbing his hands together, miming a quick shampoo.

"It makes women very beautiful . . . is old, from Pharonic times," adds the boat captain turned teacher.

The whole time Bibi has been explaining, his hands have been nimbly gliding from tiller to shrouds to rigging, totally immersed in the handling of the boat. At times he stands, using his feet to maneuver the tiller, while his hands are occupied elsewhere. All this is done with supreme grace, an economy of movement and a gravity-defying balance usually found in ballet dancers and gymnasts.

Bibi's strength and flexibility are a product of a physical life. Not only from his life on the river; as I was to find later, he is a renowned traditional Nubian dancer.

Nubian dancers are popular with Egyptians, who will passionately describe their favorites for hours; they are also exclusively male.

All this education transpires in about an hour, or a typical "Egyptian minute," before Bibi exclaims:

"Ah . . . lunch," and adds, "El humdiallah!" or "Allah be praised!"

Lunch starts with pita bread, fresh this morning from Bibi's mother, stuffed with white creamy goat's cheese and a choice of imported strawberry preserves, or home-grown "mish-mish."

Mish-mish is a sometimes rare desert treat, a thick jam made from apricots. The season for apricots is short and the crop is water-intensive. Because the fruit rots quickly in the desert sun, it is cooked into preserves or canned as quickly as possible.

There are places in Egypt where the knowledgeable can procure a bottle of homemade apricot brandy, something generally taboo in this Muslim country. However, this stuff is more akin to paint remover than a palatable aperitif.

The Muslim version of heaven has been described as a place of countless fresh, flowing water fountains and endless piles of succulent apricots just waiting for the deserving believer to consume.

There is also a saying, "Bukara, fee mish-mish" or "Tomorrow there will be apricots," which translates several ways depending on usage.

One is derogatory, noting the rarity of the fruit, and means something akin to "the check is in the mail." The other is more optimistic, a hopeful wish that tomorrow will bring more abundant blessings for you and your family.

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