One evening, I left office about an hour early and after dropping my stuff in the hotel, rushed down to the Corniche to take a sunset ride along the Nile in a felucca (tradition Egyptian wooden boat) …..This was highly recommended by most of the travel guides, and hence I couldn’t afford to miss it!
There were a large number of colourful, illuminated feluccas of various sizes docked in front of the Ramses Hilton hotel by the Corniche…..and an equal number of touts canvassing passers-by as well ! I opted for one of the larger boats – with an open deck on the top. For 5 Egyptian pounds ( and an extra 1 pound as tips), it seemed to be a great deal! I got on to the top deck and reserved myself a place……but it seemed like it would take a while for the boat to actually start, as the operators kept waiting for more passengers.
In the meanwhile, I observed that there were no other tourists at all in the boat….the felucca was filled with Egyptian families and young couples – trying to have a good time ! With the stunning view of the setting sun across the horizon, and being amidst the serene waters of the Nile, you just couldn’t ask for a more romantic setting !
Just when I was trying to settle in and get used to all the Arabic chit-chat happenning around me, something distinct caught my ears….. sort of sounded like French …..I turned around and saw that it was coming from an Arab man and a black guy speaking to each other…….and it definitely was French ! Having no other company and no other choice, I decided to put my meagre French skills (that I had acquired a couple of months earlier at the Alliance Francaise in Bangalore) to some practical test ! …… I went up to the them and mustering all my confidence, said “Bon soir, je m’appelle Akhil …Comment ca va ? “
The guys seemed quite pleased, and chose to give their reply in French too …………………..NON-STOP …………………..for the next 5 MINUTES !!!
I just stood there frantically blinking my eyes, not being able to make head or tail out of what they were saying, cursing myself for stamping myself on the foot !
Finally, when they were finished, I asked them, “By the way … do you speak any English ?”
[me and Mourad on top of the felucca]
Thankfully they did ! Phew, I sighed in relief ! However, the guys appreciated my efforts to speak French …stressing on the fact that one couldn’t possibly learn the language, unless he made a genuine attempt to speak it !
The Arab guy was actually an Algerian and the black from Senegal ….both erstwhile French colonies.
They were quite impressed by the fact that I was from India ! Day after day, I just kept realizing how much India was liked and respected in this part of the world ! It was amazing …and something you couldn’t even dare imagining to happen in the far West !
They told me they knew about Gandhi …and even Amitabh Bachchan !
Mourad, the Algerian asked me if I had heard about Algeria.
“Of course”, I replied, simultaneously trying to think of a famous Algerian … but Zidane was the only one I could think of, so mentioned his name …..I wasn’t really sure on how the Algerians felt about Zidane (who had migrated to France in his early days). I was reluctant at first, hoping that the guy wouldn’t head-butt me 🙂 [….I didn’t quite fancy the idea of being hurled into the Nile, u see ! ] Fortunately he didn’t …….he turned out to be a football fan himself !
Coincidentally, these guys were in the IT business too, and were employed by Huawei technologies. The North-African headquaters of Huawei happened to be in Cairo, and they were here to attend some meetings there.
We soon began chatting about our respective countries, our jobs and the IT industry in general. These guys had heard about India’s growing IT prowess and held us in great awe ! They clearly didn’t like their Chinese bosses and complained that they hardly even knew proper English !
About half an hour later, the boat finally started and slowly began gliding towards the North. The other two guys went downstairs to have take their seats, but I decided to stay back on the deck and enjoy the view !
By now, the sun had fully set and this was even more spectacular …….. with the tall, modern skyscrapers on the eastern banks being entirely lit-up, and their reflections streaking upon the dark waters of the river!
To add on to the effect, the speakers were now blaring out hit-Arabic pop numbers ! The songs seemed real catchy and melodious……and I instantly started to like them! The ambience on the boat was fantastic too ……there were girls dancing, kids playing around and the crowds cheering !
I stood there on the deck capturing the moments on my camcorder.
A while later, all of a sudden, somebody started shouting out to me in Arabic .I looked around and it was one of the boatmen. He was yelling at me something I just couldn’t comprehend ! I tried to ignore him, concentrating on my camcorder, but he just wudn’t stop …and now was frantically gesturing with his hands. Something told me he was asking me to get down …..
I looked around, and noticed that everyone else on the deck were now seated ! I happened to be the only person who was standing ! The music had stopped too, but I had been so engrossed in sights of the Cairo skyline that I had not even realized it. Still unconvinced, I decided to give in, and sat down….unable to understand the pointless protocols these guys followed !
As I turned around, something startling caught the corner of my eye ! Straight ahead, sort of camouflaged in the darkness, was a huge bridge that extended right across the Nile ! Holy Cow !!! The bridge was so alarmingly low, that with the boat speeding its way towards it, it seemed as if we would just barely scrape ourselves underneath it !
I immediately laid flat on my back on the deck floor ! The base of the bridge was just about a metre above my face as we passed below it ! I could even touch it if I wanted to !
Shortly later, the music started playing again and the festivities resumed. Downstairs too, a few girls were performing something that resembled the traditional Arabian belly-dance, albeit fully clothed !
The ride lasted about an hour, during which we had sailed past many beautiful buildings and under quite some bridges, but none as low as the first one. In all, it was worth every pound I had spent on it, and had presented some classic views of the city and the Nile!
Before getting off, I bid goodbye to the Huawei Technologies guys, and started walking back to my hotel …..still pondering about how much the locals here respected and loved Indians ! This had not been an isolated incident at all…..but over and over, I had come across so many people on the streets being so happy and excited at the prospect of meeting an Indian !!!
Earlier in the week, on one of my usual walks around the busy city streets at night, I had dropped into a small provisionary shop to pick up some olives, bread, butter and Yoghurt. As the cashier calculated the prices, he had looked at me with scorn and blurted out, “You Pakistani ?” ….I felt disgusted…..I didn’t answer…….
“Pakistani ???” , he asked again, this time a little louder.
“No”, I replied, “INDIAN ! “.
What happened next, I could’t possibly have imagined in the wildest of my dreams ……His face instantly brightened, and his entire demeanour changed . “Mabroook” …….he exclaimed, raising his hands, showing a thumps-up …….now the other men in the shop were cheering too ! I looked around at them…… They were all smiling and waving their hands in friendship !
I couldn’t really think of a cogent explanation to this remarkable effect ! Was it just ME ? or was it the fact that I was Indian ? ? ? ………this seemed to be quite an enigma and was worth being tackled …..I had a few theories myself, but I knew that I had to resort to expert opinion .
So the next day at office, I checked up with Aby – the tester who I worked with and my personal encylcopedia on a wide variety of matters ! He explained that it was a due to many factors …one of the primary ones being Bollywood !!! Lots of people here watch Hindi movies and they just love it ! Almost every Bollywood hit is available here (with Arabic sub-titles, of course!) …. hence the people could relate to Indian sentiments and Indian culture and they just loved it! Secondly, India and Egypt had historically possessed powerful ties…….trade links between the two countries had been quite strong…… Further, there were aspects from much recent history too, of Nehru being good friends with the then Egyptian President – Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser. It must be remembered, that it was the trio of Nehru, Gen.Nasser and President Tito of Yugoslavia who had started the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) ….. I had also heard from one of my uncles on how during one of our early wars with our great neighbours, the US (then a staunch Pakistani ally) had sent out a few Naval ships to aid Pakistan ….but our man Nasser, had done India a tremendous favour by blocking these battleships at the Suez Canal and not letting them pass !
As Indians, our memories are short ….Not too many of us would remember all this today, but to the Egyptians, India is still held in high esteem!