Monar: The Man Of The House

At the last minute, after arranging the details of our three-day felucca trip down the Nile, we impulsively asked our captain if we could stay one of the two nights with a Nubian family. We’d just learned that this could be an option and Aswan was Nubian territory, the northern frontier of an ancient kingdom that followed the Nile downward to the middle of Sudan. This was how we met Monar, a 15 year-old Nubian girl from the village of Ballana. Monar was undeniably one of the most mature, focused and self-possessed teenagers we’d ever met.

We set sail on a Wednesday morning and stretched back on the cushions of our 30-foot long felucca, enjoying the breezy sensation of heading downriver past minarets, palm trees and sand dunes. Our journey on the “Nile Crocodile” would be for three days and two nights and, with the exception of our stay with the Nubian family, we would eat, sleep and play solely on our felucca. The first day we tacked against the wind as we sailed down the Nile, stopping only for the tourist police to check over our papers and to have lunch. Every 20 minutes or so, a large boxy tourist boat would motor past us and a tourist in a skimpy bikini would snap a picture of us from the pool deck. Motez, our solemn captain, and Ahmed, his first (and only) mate effortlessly guided us 18 kilometers down the Nile to our first night's destination.

We arrived in Ballana around five o’clock and Motez took us to our Nubian family where we were introduced to Uhn-Ahmed, a widow and mother of three kids: Monar (15), Monar’s sister (whose name we forgot) (13) and Ahmed (11). Uhn-Ahmed welcomed us warmly and told us right away that her name in Nubian meant “Ahmed’s mother.” We thought this was a bit strange, given that she had two other, older children, but we smiled and sat down for tea. After black tea spiced with ginger and peppermint, Monar gave us a tour of the town, starting atop the hill overlooking Ballana and the Nile. We walked through the high, colorfully-painted walls and narrow dirt alleys of the town, seeing about 25 homes, 1 mosque, and no stores of any kind. While walking we got to know Monar who, in addition to her excellent English, spoke Arabic, Nubian, was currently learning French and about to start Hindi. For a 15 year old, she was incredibly self-possessed and spoke with a confidence and frankness that belied her years. We asked her what she’d like to do when she grew up and she looked us straight in the eyes and said, “I’m going to be a doctor. I want to attend Cairo University then come back to my village to work here.” We asked Monar if she’d ever been to Cairo and she said, “No, but I was once in Luxor on a field trip from school.”

We were astounded by this 15 year-old girl living in a mud hut village that only recently acquired running water and electricity. When most of the men from her village were drivers, laborers or felucca crewmen and the woman stayed at home with their heads covered, we found it amazing that a girl from this environment could have such lofty goals. Everywhere we went in Egypt, the men did everything. With the exception of a few women cleaning restaurants or hotel rooms, virtually every hotel, restaurant, market stall, taxi, and business establishment was run by men.

The family’s house was made of brick and recently-painted stucco and had a few other rooms, presumably for the occasional visitor from a felucca. During the course of the evening, it became clear that Monar and her family did not live in the house, but lived in her grandmother’s house. I later asked Monar why her family doesn’t live in the new house and she told me, “Because we cannot live here without a man. My father died 7 years ago and Ahmed is not yet old enough so we must live my grandmother. When Ahmed is big enough, we can move in.” I asked her how old Ahmed would have to be for that to happen and she said, “Old enough to protect us.” That night Monar suggested we all play cards and guided us through a fun evening of games until it was time to go to bed.

The next morning Monar’s mom gave my wife and daughter henna tattoos and we packed up and got ready to leave. Upon leaving, I mentioned to Monar that perhaps the next time we came back they’d have moved out of their grandmother’s house and into the new house. Monar said, “Yes, perhaps it will be soon because my mother, she is like a man…like a father as well as a mother. She is very strong.” I couldn’t help thinking that she was describing herself as well.

Read about more "Encounters" with interesting people while traveling; visit Camden's Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival (July 2010) at "The Brink Of Something Else"

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