BLAUGUSTINE

Augustine's Luxor Photo Journal - January 5-12, 2005
photos and text ©copyright Natalie d'Arbeloff 2005

HOW I HAPPENED TO BRING HOME THE PAPYRUS

Akhenaten papyrus.

I can't read the hieroglyphs but the figures are Akhenaten with his wife Nefertiti and three of their daughters. Of course it's not the real thing but a nicely painted copy on real papyrus by A. Faraq, whoever he or she is, may Allah's blessings be upon them. I did not intend to own this or any of the other Ancient Egypt artefictions produced by the millions for the tourist industry. I was on a tight budget and the only souvenirs I bought were a couple of ancient Egyptian fridge magnets, one small plaster cast and some postcards. And a few stones I picked up on the ground of Hatshepsut and the other temples I visited, in case they would whisper ancient secrets to me when I hold them (not a peep so far but you never know). Anyway, about this papyrus.

I was strolling along the back streets of Luxor - an adventure fraught with interruptions, not just from the chaotic traffic but from people wanting to sell you things. In their eyes you are a walking talking cash-point. No matter how skint you may really be, relative to them there's no denying that you are rich. The mere fact that you are there at all proves it: the amount you paid for your cut-price rock-bottom-flight-and-hotel-package could probably feed them for a year. Therefore the smile on my face when I repeatedly murmured "No thanks" was always apologetic. For a brief instant my eyes lingered on one of the street stalls selling something or other. In a flash, a boy of about fifteen was at my side, urging me to examine the display at leisure. When I moved on he gave up. A few minutes later he was walking next to me, brandishing a scrap of paper torn from an envelope. On the scrap, an address in France was handwritten in capital letters. "Can you help me?" the boy said, "I can write only in Arabic and I want to send a card to this girl. Can you write the address for me on a postcard?" Of course I said yes and suddenly I was seated at another stall where the boy cleared a space, gave me a pen and a postcard and watched as I copied the French address. "She understands Arabic so I can write the message myself", he said. I felt virtuous and his gratitude was touching. "Because you are so kind, I want to give you a present, a bookmark on real papyrus with your name on it. What is your name?" Preferring to use my alias, I said "Natalie". "Very nice name. My friend will paint your name". I was beginning to get the drift but thought I'd play along as it was all so cheerful. "How long will it take? I'm in a hurry". "Only two minutes. Come with me".

I followed the boy down the street, around a corner and into a sort of garage which had been cleaned up and turned into a gallery, displaying a couple of hundred of the ubiquitous Ancient Egyptian reproductions. A man sat alone at a desk, brush in hand, narrow strips of blank papyrus at the ready. Obviously I was not the only kindly foreigner to have fallen for this ingenious scam but I didn't mind. While the 'artist' laboriously painted a blobby hieroglyph of "Natalie" on six inches of papyrus (they held it up to the light to prove it's real), the boy sales manager led me around the gallery, offering 40% discount on anything I wanted. My insistence that I didn't want anything simply didn't register in his optimistic consciousness and in the end, he was right. I did want something: the small (9x7 inches/23x19cm) papyrus I took home. It cost me 20 Egyptian Pounds (£2 or about $3.85) and everyone was happy. And I gave the blobby bookmark to Natalie.

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