April 15-August 2, 2014
I’d always wondered what it would be like to live in a hotel, but the Noorhan was not exactly the type of hotel I had in mind. With a private bathroom, a fairly large room and pleasant enough staff, the Noorhan became our home for the three and a half months we spent in Aswan.
Scott has always been fastidious and I thought he would freak out when we saw a cockroach climbing up our wall the first night we slept there. He just grabbed my sandal and smacked it as hard as he could. In the first few weeks, we killed over twenty roaches, from tiny, tiny ones to some that were a few inches long. After that, we didn’t see any more roaches.
Of course, this was probably helped by Scott’s daily mopping of the room and bathroom floor. If we were going to be staying for a while, we would at least keep it clean. The first time the cleaning ladies saw Scott grabbing the mop, they were shocked. In Egypt, men don’t do any housework.
The summer approached and temperatures started to rise. We had one of the only rooms in the place with both a fan and an air conditionning unit. Just a few days into our stay, the fan broke. Instead of giving up our private bathroom and the wifi signal that just reached us from reception, we waited until the fan could be fixed.
One morning a friendly, older gentleman knocked on the door–here to repair the fan. He tried standing on the bed or a chair, but he just couldn’t reach to remove the fan from the ceiling, so he decided to combine both methods. He balanced the chair on the bed and tottered precariously. Scott held onto the chair legs as best he could, hoping that Fathi wouldn’t fall. The fan came off, it was quickly repaired and we were soon able to enjoy cool air again.
Fathi seemed to be the resident repairman of the hotel. Most days he would sit at the entrance, smoking his shisha and watching the foot traffic. At the end of the day, he would load up all his groceries on his motorbike and ride home. If anything needed fixing though, he was the guy to do it.
Our fan was not the only electronics to need attention. One evening at around 10.30, just as we were getting ready for bed, there was a loud knock at the door. We opened it and the night receptionist was there with three other guys. He kept saying something about the air conditioning and we kept asking if they could come back in the morning.
Apparently not, since we eventually had to let the three strange men into our room. They proceeded to move the beds and pile the mattresses one on top of the other until they had easy access to the air conditioning unit. The unscrewed it and with a lot of effort, pulled it out of the wall and brought it into the hallway where they had a high pressure hose.
Now it dawned on us, they were cleaning the air conditioning. Of course, this is a totally normal thing to do at 10.30 at night. They rinsed down the unit, spraying dirt all into the hall. When the airconditioning was clean, they put it back in our wall, moved our beds a little and left, not thinking anything of it at all. We just sort of shrugged our shoulders. When in Rome…
A hotel that catered mostly to an Egyptian clientele, there was always a strange mix of characters around. We weren’t the only permanent guests. Maadi, an older Nubian man, lived in the room down the hall from us. He didn’t speak enough English and we didn’t speak enough Arabic, but it seemed like he’d been there for a long time. Maadi rarely left the hotel, most days he was sitting in one of the chairs in the lobby, smoking cigarettes and watching the tv.
Maadi could be found in the afternoon in the eating areas, taking place in lively discussions with what I dubbed, “The Aswan Men’s Drinking Club”. It seemed that drinking alcohol was still frowned upon in Aswan public life. Every afternoon, anywhere from three to fifteen men would gather in the cafeteria area of the Noorhan. Beers were served in abundance, hookahs were brought out and almost every man had a cigarette between his teeth. Discussions got so heated that we often thought fights were about to break out.
The next morning the empty bottles would be carted out, always covered with a plastic bag so the labels weren’t visible to the public. Every afternoon the drinking would begin again. Of course, this had to stop during Ramadan and we were curious why it didn’t start up again after Ramadan ended.
At first, we were hesitant to use the kitchen or to feel more at home, but as time passed we lost all of these reservations. We started sticking our water bottles in the refrigerator to chill them and preparing our fruit in the kitchen. That gradually changed to cooking full-on dinners and storing our vegetables with the sodas. It wasn’t busy, no one seemed to mind.
We slowly made friends with the receptionists. Adam had shown Scott the room on the first day. Scott suspected that he liked us because we waited until he was done praying before asking about the room. Every day we’d see him lay out his prayer mat at the appointed hours and silently mouth his prayers. He was shy, but always had a smile for us in the mornings and helped us learn a lot of new Arabic words.
Abdullah was originally from Lebanon and he was Christian. His only job seemed to be to make tea when the owners wanted it. When there aren’t many jobs to be found, it’s better to have something to do. We never learned the names of the night receptionists, but the longer we stayed, the nicer they became. It started with rare smiles and ended with offering us food for Ramadan.
Traditionally, we’d always followed the Tour de France during the month of July. We hadn’t expected to be in Egypt at that time, but when we found ourselves still there, we set up camp in the lobby. We’d come downstairs and watch a live stream of the race on our tablet. People are mostly interested in football, but the guys at the Noorhan slowly became interested in cycling. They’d sit so they could see the tablet and would always comment on the winners the next day, having looked up the results at home.
There were a few foreigners who stayed in the Noorhan too and we were always happy to have new companions, even if only for a day or two. When Fabien and Sabrina moved in next door, we had no idea that they’d spend a few weeks there though. A brother and sister from Germany, they were riding a motorbike from Uganda back to Germany. When their bike broke down in Sudan, they had it towed to the ferry, but were now stuck in Aswan until the replacement parts arrived. We felt bad for their plight, but couldn’t help but enjoy the company.
Even more infrequently, there were female Egyptian guests. I met two sisters on the stairs one day.. One wore a hijab and the other a niquab (full face covering). They invited me back to their room, where the covers came off and we could easily chat with each other. I even got to try on a niquab. It was hot and stuffy and I was so glad not to wear one. I could enter the parts of society that Scott never could, the female ones. As a foreigner, I was also accepted (if grudgingly) into traditionally all male spots.
Towards the end of our stay, we had a new neighbor and her young son. Her story wasn’t exactly clear, but she wasn’t Christian and didn’t wear a hijab. And even more taboo, she smoked. Marwan, her son, and I became fast friends. He enjoyed playing with our camera to take pictures of us and himself. We’d often return in the evening after dinner to find Marwan alone in the hotel.
His mother worked in a night club overnight; sometimes we’d see her dressing up and putting her makep to go to work. While his mother was working, Marwan was left on his own. The receptionists all seemed to take him under their wing a little, but it was sad to see such a little boy, alone, staying up all night until his mother came home. I felt bad that we never really got to say goodbye.