Sunday, January 3, 2010


Aswan, Egypt in 1991 was a sleepy little village. Few of the streets were paved except the Corniche El Nile, where the festive hantour carriages clipped by, their brass decorations clanking merrily in time to the beat of the horse’s hooves. I looked on enviously as they carried tourists to the felucca sailboats docked on the banks of the Nile. It was the middle of the afternoon, about 115 degrees, and the baking heat was making shimmering mirages along the Cornniche. The feluccas looked breezy and cool with little tents for shade set up on their decks, but all I could do was stare at them.

I was on such a tight, limited travel budget that I could only afford spending money on the barest of necessities. For weeks, I had been existing on bottled water, tamiyya (falafel) and pita bread, saving my funds to visit tombs and antiquities. The one pair of jeans I had was caked with mud on the bottom because I had no extra money for laundry and did my own hand-washing. I had taken the overnight train from Cairo, and couldn’t even afford First Class, which in those days was only about ten bucks and merely meant a train car with regular seats that was air-conditioned. Even taking a short hantour trip for a few piasters wasn’t something I could splurge on.

Instead, I wandered on foot down the dusty road that lead towards Kom Ombo Temple, where there was a makeshift covered market. I figured that would be a fun-and free- sightseeing opportunity. Under woven canopies, Nubian natives and Bedouin nomads sold beaded handcrafts and embroidered cotton robes. Bored-looking camels were tethered nearby, their reins and wooden saddles festooned with colorful woolen tassels, coins and bells. I wended my way past gaily painted parked wooden carts heaped high with sugar cane and melons. The donkeys harnessed to them dozed with half-closed eyes, flicking flies away with impatient twitches of their tails.

Oblivious to the heat, flocks of ragged, barefoot children raced around, chasing each other and playing tag in the sand, shrieking and giggling happily. When they spotted me, an obvious tourist, they clustered around me like an urchin mob, begging for pens and candy, tugging at my clothes.

A little girl of about six insistently grabbed my hand.

Pushing her tangled hair out of her eyes, she said, in perfect English,

“Water for you, lady!”

In the intense heat, it was a great idea, and I let her pull me along down the wagon-rutted road to a small, windowless mud and brick building, it’s fa├žade painted a glaring turquoise, like a public swimming pool out-building. The entrance was decorated with crude, cartoon-like hieroglyphics, splashed on haphazardly in red house paint.

As we stepped through the doorway, it was so black inside that I couldn’t see a thing.

“Maya!” the little girl cried, using the Arabic word for water.

Seconds later, I felt the welcome cool of a plastic bottle make it’s way into my hand.

It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dark, but then I saw whitewashed plaster walls hung with crumbling, musty-looking papyrus paintings. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, as though nothing had been touched-or cleaned- in years. Makeshift wooden shelves held carved soapstone souvenir statuettes; the obligatory busts of Nefertiti and Tutankhamen, fat scarabs, tiny figures of Isis and Osirus.

“See anything you like, lady?” asked a man in a full Saidi galabiyya, a Western-style winter scarf wrapped around his head like a turban.

As I dug in my purse for change to pay for the water, my eyes fell upon a picture on the wall, near a door that lead to the back. It stuck out from the cheesy papyrus schlock, it looked shiny and spiny and wonderful. Even though it, like everything else in the shop, was completely covered in sand, it was a riot of color.

“I like that thing,” I said, pointing at the psychedelic wall hanging, “What is that?”

In broken English, the man explained that it was not for sale; his daughter had made it, years ago, when she was very small. He pointed at the child that had brought me into the shop, indicating that his daughter had been about that age when she made it.

He gestured towards her and said,


So, apparently, he was the little girl’s grandfather.

“Well, it’s the best thing here!” I declared, stepping nearer to examine it more closely.

The picture appeared to be a faded cardboard lobby card from a film. The two girls pictured, one a blonde, the other brunette, both had late Sixties or early Seventies style upswept hair and heavy eye make-up. The girls were staring off to one side, looking worried or concerned, but still fabulous. The photo was sewn onto a frame made of rolled-up, printed foil, which I immediately recognized as Arabic candy and ice cream wrappers.

“Movie star!” the man said,nodding at the picture,

“Women movie, very famous!”

Without thinking, I suddenly blurted out,

“I’ll buy that! How much is it?”

The man laughed incredulously, telling me again it wasn’t for sale. He tried to interest me in a tiny Horus figurine, but I waved it away as graciously as I could .

“Please tell your daughter she is an artist,” I said sincerely, getting ready to leave.

The man held up his hand in the international signal for “wait a minute”, and disappeared into the back of the building, coming back with his daughter, a middle-aged woman, her plump-cheeked pretty face framed by a purple beaded headscarf.

She smiled shyly and cast her eyes down but looked modestly pleased when I asked again to buy the picture.

When father and daughter realized I was serious, we began negotiating a price, but not in the determined way one would when haggling over a commercial souvenir. It was clear that though they thought I was crazy to want the item, they were flattered that I did… but also that they hadn’t even remotely considered it something of value, and hadn’t put a price on it-ever.

For my part, I knew that whatever I was going to pay for it meant foregoing food for a day or two, but I didn’t care. I had to have it!

We finally decided on a fee fair to both parties- equal to four American dollars, and I trembled inwardly with the thrill of possession. The man pried the picture off the wall, where it had been nailed down for years.

On a scrap of paper, the man wrote painstakingly in jumbled, block-lettered English:


I carried the picture back to my tiny, three star hotel room, and cleaned each point of the candy wrappers painstakingly, with a Q-tip. It took a long time.

During the cleaning process, I noticed that the needle, which was used to sew the photo onto the foil, was still embedded in it, stored there carefully. You can actually see it if you look closely on the left of the picture, at the level of the blonde girl’s ear. Also, barely visible at the bottom left corner of the photo, there is still a nail left attached, that had held the picture to the wall of the souvenir shop.

Before I departed from Upper Egypt back to Cairo, I carefully slid the picture into some cardboard I cut from the side of a Canada Dry soda box. Once I got home, I saved up to have it framed, spending far more than the amount I had actually paid for it!

For years I have tried to find out what film this still photo came from, as well the correct names of both actresses. I have Googled many spellings of the girl’s names, both as the man wrote them and in other variations. The closest match I can find is an Egyptian actress named Samara Ahmed, but when I see her picture on line, there isn't really a facial resemblance and I don’t think she is old enough to have been in whatever movie this picture was from.

But even if I never find out that information, I still enjoy this artifact every day. Along with a Bedouin hamsa that had a red plastic 1950’s gumball machine charm of a cowboy wired to it- purchased for virtually nothing on the same trip- this picture is my favorite Egyptian souvenir ever!


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  2. What a charming story! I can totally see myself living like that if I ever go. A very unique souvenir. =)

  3. Love it! I'm pretty sure the blonde is Najla Fathi. Could the brunette be Samira Ahmad?